Choosing a course in the USA
The courses on offer in the USA differ from those in Europe. And it’s not that you can’t study biology, art, mathematics or International Relations, but the way you choose what to specialise in and the timescales are not the same.
Choosing a course in the USA is different that what is known at European universities. You have much more time to think and don’t need to decide right away.
When do you need to choose a course?
The whole application process does not mention courses…SO when do you have to decide what you want to study? The answer is quite surprising – after your first year at university.
The timeline for choosing a course:
1. You choose a number of modules so that you can try out various subjects and fulfil the university first year requirements.
2. In the autumn term of your second year, you have to declare which subjects you will study.
What can you study? Everything!
You can decide to take subjects which are apparently totally incompatible. This allows you to satisfy your curiosity , and also to determine whether a particular subject is something you want to study further, or not. Maybe you have been longing to try a particular course for ages, but did not have the courage to choose it?
There is a solution: the universities in the USA offer an ideal solution to this kind of dilemma. Since you study a wide range of subjects in the first year ( and it’s entirely up to you what you choose) you have both the time and the opportunity to check out whether this subject is actually something which you want to focus on. If you decide that you are not interested in pursuing it, then all you have to do is give notice that you want to drop it and not include it in your course.
The other advantage to this approach is the large number of subjects which are offered by the biggest universities. If you are interested in a wide selection of topics, you will easily be able to integrate them into your study schedule.
You don’t know what you want to study?
Feeling undecided could actually turn out to be useful, when it comes to attending an American university. If you start your studies with an open mind and are happy to consider various possibilities offered by the universities, you will have an opportunity to become interested in a field you have never thought about studying before.
We all have a friend who went to university and, after just one term, couldn’t believe that they had chosen to do that subject.
One of Elab’s mentors was totally convinced that his future lay in studying economics, right up to the point where he sat his matura. He went off to one of the most prestigious universities in the USA and , after the first term, gave up any idea of studying economics. Then, he decided, instead, to focus on bioengineering, since he found the American approach to teaching biology, chemistry and engineering compelling and fascinating. Now, he is finishing his course along with his peers, who began of term before him, and has not had to catch up on modules or reapply to change courses.
Are courses important when it comes to applying to universities in the USA?
The most important thing you have to remember when deciding to spend your student years studying in the USA, is that you are choosing a university and not simply a course.
What is the first year at university in the USA like, in practice?
You do not have to know what you are going to study straight away. There is the whole of the first year to decide exactly what you want to do for the next few years. You may well need this kind of break, in order to make decisions, after working so hard in high school in order to get into university.
This approach to higher education has a lot of benefits and suits individuals who are certain of the career path they have already decided to take, as well as anyone who has absolutely no idea what they want to study at university.
Case Study: Harvard University
Familiarise yourself with the terminology used in American higher education – for example, at Harvard University.
Concentrations: the course which will be named on your bachelor’s degree.
Course: subject or module
Credits: the equivalent of ECTs in Europe
Make sure you bear in mind that universities offer different courses and have their own names for different parts of the courses (thus, Concentration could have a different meaning at another university).
Table: Harvard has 50 courses
|Social science courses||Humanities courses||Science courses|
|African and African American StudiesHistory and ScienceAnthropologyEconomicsPsychologySocial StudiesGovernmentSociologySouth Asian StudiesHistoryWomen, Gender, and Sexuality, Study ofHistory and Literature||ClassicsEnglishComparative LiteratureFolklore and MythologyComparative Study of ReligionLinguisticsPhilosophyGermanic Languages and LiteraturesRomance Languages and LiteraturesSlavic Languages and LiteraturesNear Eastern Languages and Civilisations||Applied MathematicsMathematicsStatisticsBiologyHuman Evolutionary BiologyHuman Developmental and Regenerative BiologyMolecular and Cellular BiologyIntegrative BiologyChemistryAstrophysicsChemical and Physical Chemistry and PhysicsEarth and Planetary SciencesEnvironmental Science and Public PolicyComputer ScienceNeuroscience|
|Your planned course||Artistic course||Science courses with engineering|
|Special Concentrations||History of Art and ArchitectureArt, Film, and Visual StudiesMusicTheatre, Dance and Media||Biomedical EngineeringEnvironmental Science and EngineeringElectrical EngineeringMechanical EngineeringEngineering Sciences|
What can you do with them?
You have a number of options. You can choose:
Regular concentrations: one course
Joint concentrations: two courses
Concentration plus secondary research projects: one course and a small research project
Special concentrations program: a course of your devising, which has been approved by the academic board
Oh how easy is that ! Are there any requirements?
One third of your modules have to meet Harvard’s requirements.
General Education – one module from each of four categories (for students starting in 2019 or later):
- aesthetics and culture
- histories, societies, individuals
- science and technology in society
- ethics and civics
Distribution – one module from each department: Arts and Humanities; Science and Engineering and Social Sciences
Quantitative Reasoning with Data – one module from numerical/mathematical thinking, with data
Expository Writing – one module in academic writing taken in the first year
Language – a module in a language other than English
What are the advantages of “experimenting” according to Harvard?
Openness to new experiences.
Time to consider who you are and who you want to become.
The opportunity to take part in tasks which will introduce you to subjects and ideas outside your course, which will help you to develop a new way of thinking.
The chance to take part in tasks which you have never tried before.
Contact with people who have different interests to you, different talents, ideas and values.
And what if I am sure about choosing a course?
If you have declared which course you are interested in, you have a better chance of getting in to study those subjects when you registering for next semester’s courses. You also have time to plan and organise a second faculty for yourself.
You will also get a head start on your peers in finding a placement. The earlier you know what you want to do, the sooner you can start applying for work in the holidays and undertaking the placement hours you need to get under your belt during the academic year.