I take real solace in that if in the post below I am unable to fully explain the American system compared to the UK system that it is primarily because no one else seems to completely understand it either. I have heard the process of applying for classes as ‘a bit like the Hunger Games’ more than once. Now, as an international Study Abroad student, a lot of this will not be applicable to you. But it is important to understand the people who will surround you every day. So why is your classmate taking a ‘level 200’ History class as a 6th year Senior? Let’s find out…
As I explain the most basic basics, it should be clear that despite its complexities, the US system offers more opportunities to study a varied range of subjects and modules than we’re used to in the UK. Whereas at home we are ‘Majors’ from day one of university, the American system offers scope for students to really test out what they’re good at, and what they enjoy, but also demands that students take classes which put them out of their comfort zone, to experience new and interesting challenges.
Students in America tend to pay for classes by the semester, unlike the annual payment of the UK system. They also (at least those I spoke to) have a less relaxed attitude to the loans that some of us in the UK take for granted (and I place myself firmly in this latter camp). It is possible (and common) for students to have extended breaks from study while they save enough money to pay for another semester. American university is based on a four-year system, but that does not necessarily mean that people graduate within four years. Most of the students I spoke to said the average is about five years, depending on whether you graduate in the Spring or Fall, or if you have missed out on a particular class or credit required to graduate. Also, courses at levels 100-199 tend to be the core requirements: so for instance, if you do not take English 112, you cannot move further towards any Major until you have passed it.
There are several ‘skeleton keys’ one must possess before moving forward, similar to the requirement of most UK universities that students require an English, Maths and Science GCSE (though at a higher level, obviously). This forces people who may be mathematically- or scientifically-minded to show some degree of ability in the English language, and vice versa.
So in your SCSU classroom, you’re likely to find students who are older or younger that you. However this doesn’t necessarily mean they have started university sooner, or later, or are retaking modules. The US system just does not require you to take each step year by year and the competitive nature of course application means students can have to wait around to finally take the module they want. Some people may have just run out of luck and missed the opportunity to take that module in their second, third or even fourth year, and are now taking a lower level requirement or elective in order to complete their course and graduate.
Freshman = First Year
Sophomore = Second Year
Junior = Third Year
Senior = Fourth Year (and subsequent 2nd year Senior, 3rd year Senior until they graduate).
Levels 100-400: Indicate the intended year of the class and in many ways the difficulty. 100-199 are usually core requirements needed to continue study at a higher level, or introductions to certain fields. People speak of 490 with dread. One can only imagine.
‘Major’ – Your Major is what we would call your subject or degree course. In the US the first year at least (and often 2) is spent taking various classes at level 100 which will help shape and decide your final choice of Major. You are required as a ‘Freshman’ to take a variety of subjects, including basic math, science, writing, humanities courses, etc. Usually by your third year you will have decided to Major in a particular subject. To graduate in your Major you must gain a certain amount of credits, ranging at undergraduate between level 100-level 400. The number of credits that you need to graduate can vary from Uni to Uni.
‘Minor’ – A set of (usually 5 or so) courses that a student takes in order to enhance the value of their Major. Not everyone will Minor in something, but if it compliments the final degree it can be the edge a student will need over other candidates when applying for jobs in their chosen field.
‘Elective’ – A course one takes at University because they are interested in it, not because it is a necessary requirement. As a Study Abroad student, you of course want to continue to pursue your subject. But if you are offered electives, you’ll have the chance to broaden your learning beyond this.
SCSU’s Liberal Education Program – Regardless of your Major (Humanities, Science etc) you must take a core requirement of modules based on the Liberal Education Program at SCSU. Chances are that if you’re there for a semester or a year, you will too and if you somehow escape requirement, you should choose one anyway for the authentic experience. In SCSU’s own words:
“With students’ needs in mind, the faculty at Southern Connecticut State University has developed a new curriculum that will prepare SCSU undergraduates for the 21st century. The Liberal Education Program, or LEP, will be required for all students entering the university in fall 2011. Building on what you’ve learned in school so far, the LEP will take you where you need to go to be successful as a college student and beyond.”
And if you think I’ve made this process more complicated than it is, check for yourself!