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Undergraduate Study

Types of Institutions

There are approximately 3,200 accredited degree-granting institutions in the United States. College is a generic term for any form of post-secondary education. The word never applies to secondary level education. There are several types of colleges:

  • Two-year community colleges / junior colleges – award associate degrees at the completion of two years of full-time study. Many students transfer to a four-year college or university to complete a bachelor’s degree in an additional 2 years.
  • Four-year colleges – award bachelors degrees upon completion of four years of full-time study. There are over 1,800 colleges in the States, about one third of which are private institutions. Colleges tend to focus on undergraduate education rather than research.
  • Liberal arts colleges – most are private institutions and focus on undergraduate studies in the humanities, social sciences and sciences. There are over 900 liberal arts colleges in the States.
  • Universities – generally offer a broad range of both undergraduate and graduate degree programs, and has an emphasis on research. Universities can vary considerably in size and the diversity of the programs they offer. There are more than 700 universities in the States.

There are both public and private universities and colleges in the United States. There is no distinction in quality between the two types. Private institutions usually charge higher tuition fees. The same fee normally applies whether the applicant is an in-state resident, an out-of-state resident, or an international student. Public institutions have two levels of tuition rates, one for residents of the state and the other for all other students.

In 2002-2003 there were about 586,000 international students enrolled in U.S. higher education programs. Fijian students in the U.S. number around 212, about 89% of whom are undergraduates.

Most bachelors’ degrees in the United States are earned through a broad program of study. It is often possible to complete up to two years of study before having to choose a major, the area in which more concentrated studies are done in the final two years. It normally takes four years to obtain a U.S. bachelor’s degree. The Australian system of three years to obtain an ordinary degree does not exist in the United States.

The U.S. academic year runs from approximately 1 September to May or June, with a summer break between June – August.

Admission Requirements

Admission requirements vary significantly from one college to another. Some institutions are very selective, while others accept most applicants. In general, the following components of your application will all be taken into account in the admissions process:

  • Your academic record (the most important factor)
  • Your application essay
  • Your scores on standardized tests such as the SAT I, SAT II or the TOEFL
  • Letters of recommendation, if required

As a general rule, American universities and colleges expect international applicants’ records to reflect at least 12 years of primary and secondary schooling, and to meet the entrance requirements of the tertiary institutions in their home country. Pacific Island students have the advantage of adding geographical diversity to the composition of the student body, which many admissions officers find highly desirable.

A Planning Timetable for Organizing Admission

It takes a considerable amount of time to research the possibilities of studying in the United States and then to apply for admission. You should start planning your US education twelve to eighteen months before you intend to commence your studies, especially if you are seeking financial aid.

The U.S. academic year runs from approximately 1 September to May or June, with a summer break between June – August.

Between April and August of the year before you hope to commence your studies, you should:

  • Begin the process of choosing 10 to 20 colleges, which you think, may be suitable for you. To find out which institutions offer your field of study or major/ program, consult general directories such as Peterson’s Guide to Four-Year Colleges or The College Handbook. These guides give you basic information about costs, admission requirements, programs offered, campus accommodation, student/staff ratio, athletic/sports programs, etc. More detailed information about a particular college or university can be found on its web site.
  • If you want to consider a two-year institution, consult Peterson’s Two-Year Colleges guide for information. Community (two-year) colleges generally have lower fees and less rigorous admission requirements. They offer vocational and technical programs as well as a general academic program for those who intend to transfer to a four-year college or university to complete a bachelor’s degree.
  • Students with access to the Internet will find a wealth of information on American higher education is readily available. List of useful Internet sites.
  • Request an application packet and information about international student admissions from the Undergraduate Admissions Office of each college you are considering applying to. E-mail addresses can be obtained from the institution’s website or from various reference books held at the U.S. Educational Advising Center. Request that materials to be sent to you by airmail.
  • Register to take the SAT test and the TOEFL if your first language is not English). TOFEL Bulletins, are available from the U.S. Educational Advising Centers.
  • Begin to investigate possible sources of non-institutional financial assistance. The U.S. Educational Advising Center has some information on scholarships and grants available to international students, and some useful financial aid websites are listed in the Financial Aid section. Applying for financial assistance from outside sources can take several months, and as you may have to apply as much as a year before you need the money, don’t put off this important step.

Between September and December of the year BEFORE you plan to commence your studies, you should:

  • Submit a formal application to each of the institutions you wish to apply to. Apply for financial assistance when you apply for admission – a separate application form may be required.
  • Sit for the SAT I test (and the SAT II if required). When you register to sit the test, you may nominate up to four colleges to receive your score report. This service is included as part of the US$45.50 test registration fee. If you do not do this, you will have to request additional score reports at a later date and pay a fee of approximately US$6.50 for each report. Remember that colleges do not accept score reports directly from students, but only from the organization, which administered the test.
  • Obtain copies of your school records and references.
  • Make sure that you can meet the college application deadlines. These vary from institution to institution, so note the dates carefully. Some schools have a rolling admissions policy, which means that they assess and make decisions on admissions on an ongoing basis. When filling out the application forms, make an effort to write a good application essay if one is required. Most institutions consider this a very important part of the application.

Early decision. Some colleges have an early decision policy. If that particular college is definitely your first choice, then it is worthwhile to apply for early decision. Students should understand that they are signing a contract with serious consequences if they renege. If you do not have final school results by the application deadline, send everything else along with a note to say that these results will be forwarded as soon as they become available.

Between April and June of the year in which you wish to commence your studies in the U.S.

Many universities and colleges will send out their admission offers in March or April. May 1 is the usual date by which students must accept or reject an offer of admission and pay a deposit. When the deposit has been received, students are often sent a Roommate Questionnaire. Freshmen (first years) are often required to live on-campus. The college will also send you a Certificate of Eligibility, after which you may apply for a visa. A Certificate of Eligibility is valid only for study at the institution issuing it – and only for the starting date specified. There are several types of student visas, for more information please visit our Non-Immigrant Visa site. Another good source of information about U.S. Visas is the Consular Affairs Travel.State website.

Admission Tests

American colleges commonly require a score on either the SAT or ACT. Many will accept scores on either test, but some request the SAT only or the ACT only. Be sure to check college websites and/or the application materials themselves to determine each college’s requirements. There is no “pass” mark for these admission tests. Your test scores are just one part of the whole application.

The SAT is the test most commonly held worldwide, and over 1 million students take it annually. The SAT is held 6 times a year between October and June, at various sites throughout Australia. Special requests can be made for alternative centers or for accommodations appropriate to disabilities. In 2003-04 the cost of the test is US$45.50. If you miss the registration deadline, it may be possible to sit the test on a standby basis. (Note the standby fee is an additional US$30). The SAT Registration Bulletin contains information about test dates, special requests, registration information and deadlines, test centers, fees, what the tests involve, sample questions and test taking tips.

Some colleges may request scores on some SAT II Subject Tests which test knowledge in particular areas of study, e.g., English, History, Maths, etc. The SAT I: Reasoning Test and the SAT II: Subject Tests cannot be taken on the same test date.

The SAT I and II test preparation materials are available from the advising center.

English Language Tests: If English is not your first language OR if the majority of your studies have been completed in a language other than English, you will probably be required to take the TOEFL Test. Registration Bulletins are available from all U.S. Educational Advising Centers. Test preparation materials are available from the advising center.

The ACT is designed to access students’ general development and their ability to complete university level work. The test covers four “skill areas”, English, maths, reading and science reasoning. The basic fee for the test is US$42.

To register: Students must register DIRECTLY with the test center they wish to sit the test NOT with the ACT or via the web. The deadline for contacting the test center is the Friday 2 weeks prior to the scheduled test date. There is NO standby test provision.

The PSAT measures critical reading, math problem solving, and writing skills that are developed over time. The test, which is usually taken in Year 11, is an excellent practice test opportunity for the SAT. It also gives American citizens the opportunity to qualify for scholarship and recognition programs.

AP (Advanced Placement) Exams are available as 35 exams in 19 subject areas. These exams allow students to receive advanced placement and/or credit at many U.S. undergraduate institutions, for university level knowledge and work completed prior to starting tertiary level studies.


More difficult than gaining admission, is finding the funds required to pay for tuition and living costs. Higher education in the United States is very expensive. Careful financial planning is essential. Universities and colleges will not accept foreign students without evidence of guaranteed means of support, and visas cannot be obtained without that evidence. The national average tuition fee at four-year U.S. colleges and universities in 2003-04, is US$13,976 at public institutions, and US$21,455 at private ones. The 2003-04 national average tuition fee at two year US colleges, is US$5,028 for public institutions, and US$12,510 for private ones. The average cost of on-campus room and board at any type of institution is US$8,501 per academic year. Tuition costs increase around 5% per year.

There is very little financial assistance for international students, from either Australian or American sources, for undergraduate or first degree study in the USA. For links that may provide assistance in the search for financial assistance, please refer to the list of useful Internet sites (study links below).

If you don’t have funds to pay for your own education, you should narrow your search to those colleges which make financial aid available to international students. Most International Students studying in the States for bachelor’s degrees, support themselves by way of personal or family funds. Statistics indicate that at the undergraduate level, about 78.4% of international students finance their own education. The International Student Handbook of U.S. Colleges, published annually by The College Board, lists those colleges which offer financial assistance to international undergraduates.

If you are applying for need-based financial assistance for international students, you will be asked to complete a detailed financial aid application which will require you to list your own and your parents’ income and assets. All these questions should be answered honestly.