What should students expect from college

Lectures in the USA

About you with the professor? What seems unthinkable at many universities in Germany is common practice in the USA. Are students from all over the world fascinated by the study atmosphere at US universities and colleges. In addition to the unique campus life, it is also the courses in the USA that leave a lasting impression on international students.

At first glance, there seems to be little difference between courses at American and German universities, as there are lectures and seminars in both countries. However, anyone who has studied in the USA knows: the courses are structured differently, the workload differs and the atmosphere is fundamentally different.

Many impressions of everyday student life are also conveyed by the numerous testimonials from former College Contact customers about studying or a semester abroad in the USA. The students often give in it Tips on course selection and exam preparationthat can be useful for planning your own studies.

Types of courses in the US

© Daniel M.

The seminars are one of the classic courses in the USA. They often take place in small seminar rooms, like here at UC Berkeley.

Similar to Germany, there are different types of courses in the USA. Which forms of teaching predominate depends on the type of study and subject.


What in Germany lectures are are in the US Lectures. However, lectures at American universities are general designed more for interaction than in this country.

Lots Lectures have an introductory character and introduce students to a topic. Often there is no script, instead the courses are based on a textbook that the professor works through over the course of the semester.

Discussion classes

Lectures in the US are often given by so-called Discussion classes respectively Discussion sections added. It is a matter of Lecture-accompanying tutorialsin which academic assistants (Teaching assistants) repeat the material from the lecture and sometimes also discuss homework.


Seminars gives up in the US Undergraduate-Level, but they are especially in the advanced stage of studies and in the graduate area spread. In seminars at the master’s level, subject-specific issues are mainly discussed.

The structure of a seminar differs from department to department. Sometimes the events are more reminiscent of a lecture. In linguistics and cultural studies in particular, however, there is usually one lively discussion culture. The lecturer discusses current research results with the students or exchanges information with them on technical issues.


In the natural and engineering sciences are Laboratories common. As in Germany, the students visit Laboratory courses or do an internship in the laboratory. The laboratories at American universities are often excellently equipped, so that students find excellent study conditions here.

Studio classes

Practical work traditionally plays a major role in subjects such as art, design, photography or music. In so-called Studios it is therefore about the artistic expression and creative work. For example, students often attend a drawing course, which is divided into a theoretical part, such as a lecture, and a practical part, a Studio Course, subdivided.


In addition to the Laboratories is there Fieldwork courses, Clinical Courses and Practica at American universities. What all these forms of teaching have in common is that they are not tied to seminar rooms or lecture halls. Often it is Excursion events.

Independent Study Courses

In addition to the above-mentioned forms of teaching, so-called Independent Study Courses to lead. They are not part of the regular course offer, but only come about when a student agrees with a professor individual study program communicated.

In one Independent Study Course For example, students can do research in a certain area under the guidance of a professor or devote themselves to a scientific problem. As in these courses a high degree of independence and structured work are in demand, they are usually only open to students from the higher semesters.

Course types

In the USA, not only different types of courses, but also different types of courses can be distinguished:

  • Core courses: Compulsory courses that are an integral part of a degree program.
  • Major courses: Courses that have a major (major) are to be assigned. As part of the bachelor's degree, students can usually specialize in the third year of study and take one or two main subjects. The courses in the main subject usually make up 25-50 percent of all courses in a degree program.
  • Minor courses: Minor subjects in addition to a major can be occupied. Students take about half as many courses in their minor as in their major.
  • Elective courses: Elective courses that are not a compulsory part of a degree program and that may come from other subject areas. They often serve to deepen or supplement a course of study.

Course catalogs at American universities

© University of Chicago

Courses in the USA are not exclusively held in seminar and lecture rooms. Laboratories are particularly widespread in the natural and engineering sciences.

You can find out which courses students can take from the course catalog. A Overview of the courses to be taken The colleges and universities usually charge for everyone term on their website high. A course catalog provides information on the content of a course, the type of event and the necessary prior knowledge.

Each course has a fixed course number, on the basis of which an event can be clearly assigned. Course numbers usually consist of a sequence of letters and a combination of numbers. Based on the sequence of letters, conclusions can be drawn about the associated specialist area. ANTH often stands for Anthropology, ECON for Economics or PSY for Psychology.

The Sequence of numbers in turn informs about that Level of the course in the USA. Many universities use a three- or four-digit system.

Undergraduate courses

Course numbers from 100 to 499 or 1000 to 4999 usually mark Undergraduate-Courses. Courses with low course numbers (100/1000 to 299/2999) are mostly aimed at students in the first and second year of study. These are so-called Lower Division Courses. They are often introductory and require very little prior knowledge. The courses tend to be less specialized than that Upper Division Courses (300-499). The latter are usually only open to students at the advanced stage of their bachelor's degree.

There are also colleges and universities in the United States that provide advanced bachelor courses with course numbers from 500 to 600. Still other universities use one for all bachelor courses Course Number up to a maximum of 199. The Allocation of course numbers follows in the USA no uniform pattern.

Graduate courses

Many US universities are taking up Course numbers from 500 to 699 or 5000 to 6999 back to Graduate-Courses to be marked. Courses for participants of Professional Master's programs Some of them have lower numbers than research-oriented master’s courses. Some universities highlight doctoral courses separately by choosing higher course numbers, for example from 800 to 9xx / 8000 to 9xxx.

Similar to Undergraduate-Courses also have different regulations in the graduate area at some universities. Students can find more detailed information about the course system on the website of the relevant US university.

Types of examinations and grading in the USA

In the USA, that arises Final grade from a series of individual grades. The students accumulate a large part of this during the semester. The basis for grading is on the one hand homework, which is sometimes more, sometimes less extensive. Depending on the study program, it can be the following Task types act:

  • Essays
  • (Group) Presentations
  • Short papers
  • Journals
  • Research Assignments
  • (Final) Projects

In some courses, not all grades are included in the final grade, so students can decide which one Assignment remains ungraded. Those who get good grades at the beginning of the semester often have the advantage of having the last one Assignment or not having to take the last test down.

As a rule, attendance at courses in the USA is compulsory. Do the students not participate in the LecturesAs the professor has in mind, it happens that this one unannounced test writes. A so-called Pop quiz is a short written test with multiple choice questions. Most of the time, the result has a minor impact on the final grade.

Apart from the rather short ones Pop quizzesthat take place over the entire semester are more extensive Partial exams in the middle of the semester common. The so-called Midterm exams, short Midterms, are used to query the subject matter covered so far. Accordingly, they are weighted more heavily than individual homework.

At the end of the semester there are the Final exams respectively Finals at. Here is the one entire material of the semester relevant to the exam. However, there are also faculty who have an emphasis on tests and Assignments during the semester, assess the oral participation and do without a final exam. This is another reason why students should take their homework seriously during the semester.

Even if the workload at American universities is higher during the semester than in Germany, the more school-based study system has some advantages. Many students report about one higher learning effect, which they attribute to the fact that they consistently deal with the course content.

In addition, the exams, especially the Finals, usually less comprehensivethan students from their home university know about it. Preparations for the exams are usually less extensive. This is especially true in comparison to the exam phase in Germany at the end of the semester, in which many students study all night long in order to memorize the exam-relevant content in good time.

In addition, it should not be underestimated that the final exam is usually less important in the USA than in Germany. Thus can bad grades in the Finals easier to balance than in this country.

Workload at universities in the USA

For an F1 or J1 visa, international students must have at least 12 Units on bachelor or average eight to nine Units at master level occupy.

Depending on whether it is a university with a semester or trimester system, a course usually corresponds to three or four Units. As a result, one visits Bachelor student in the US on average three or four courses.

However, the number of credits does not provide any information about the actual workload for courses in the USA. U.S. Credits In contrast to ECTS, relate primarily to the teaching hours (Contact Hours), but not on the total workload for the students.

In fact, the American system of studies requires students to have their Prepare and follow up courses and actively participate in the lectures and seminars. Often it is not only important to do homework, but also to read specialist literature in preparation for the next event.

Atmosphere in the courses in the USA

© California State University Fullerton

International students are welcome at American universities and are often enthusiastic about the personal atmosphere in the seminars and lectures.

For students from Germany this is relaxed atmosphere in the Lectures and Seminars often a highlight of your semester abroad.

The smaller the course sizes, the more familiar it is usually. In the US, it's not uncommon to have one Professor to the students that you offer. Especially in Postgraduate-Area, professors and doctoral students meet more and more often like equal partners on an equal footing.

American lecturers are generally considered to be helpful. Many professors take time to answer questions from their course participants - not only during, but also outside of their office hours (Office Hours). When grading international students, they often pay less attention to the correctness of the language than of the correctness of the content. In addition, non-native speakers often receive support with presentations.

Basically, courses in the USA are more interactive than at German universities. Group discussions and presentations are an important part of the lesson. Exchange between professors and students is also welcome. Compared to Germany, the Teaching more practice-oriented and geared towards being able to apply what has been learned in practice. The exact structure of the courses depends on the university and the respective lecturer.

Supervision situation at American universities

When it comes to the supervisory ratio, American universities and colleges are ahead. In particular, the group sizes of Seminars are often very small and offer ideal conditions for studying. Not infrequently it lies Number of participants from ten to 20 people.

The care of students is very important in the USA. For example, those doing a bachelor's degree in the USA have a contact person for all questions on academic matters right from the start. Semester students also often receive support from employees of the International Office. At some universities there are International Student Adviserswho serve as contact persons for international students during their stay in the USA. They help, for example, with questions about specific prior knowledge or the choice of course.

American courses and differences to Germany

The big culture shock is not to be expected during a degree or semester abroad in the USA. Nevertheless, it has been shown that Lectures at American universities differ in several respects from lectures in Germany. The country-specific characteristics of courses in the USA at a glance:

  • Preparation and follow-up of events and active participation required in the courses
  • More performance assessments during the semester
  • Greater workload during the semester, but less extensive exam preparation at the end of the semester
  • Long-term learning effect by distributing the exams over the entire semester
  • Greater interactivity in the courses
  • Often more practical relevance in the courses
  • Often excellently equipped rooms
  • Personal contact with professors and often a more informal study atmosphere
  • Good supervisory relationship: small group sizes, especially for seminars
  • Multiple individualized support for Bachelor students