Courses in the USA

Courses in the US
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You with the professor? What seems inconceivable at many universities in Germany is common practice in the USA. Students from all over the world are fascinated by the study atmosphere at US-American 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, courses at American and German universities seem to be hardly different, as there are lectures and seminars in both countries. However, those who have studied in the USA know that the courses are structured differently, the workload is different and the atmosphere is fundamentally different.

Many impressions of everyday life at College Contact are also conveyed by the numerous reports about a study or semester abroad in the USA from former customers of College Contact. Students often give tips on the choice of courses and exam preparation, which can be useful for their own study planning.

Types of courses in the USA

Similar to Germany, there are different types of courses in the USA. The predominant forms of teaching depend on the type of study and subject studied.


What are lectures in Germany are lectures in the USA. However, lectures at American universities are generally more interactive than in Germany.

Many lectures are introductory and introduce students to a topic. Often there is no script, instead the courses are based on a textbook that the professor works through during the semester.

Discussion Classes

Lectures in the USA are often supplemented by so-called discussion classes or discussion sections. These are tutorials that accompany the lectures, in which teaching assistants repeat the subject matter of the lecture and sometimes discuss their homework.


Seminars are available at undergraduate level in the USA, but they are particularly common at the advanced stage of studies and in the graduate sector. Seminars at master level mainly focus on subject-specific issues.

The structure of a seminar varies from department to department. Some of the lectures are more reminiscent of a lecture. Especially in linguistics and cultural studies, however, there is usually a lively culture of discussion. The lecturer discusses with the students about current research results or discusses technical questions with them.


Laboratories are common in the natural sciences and engineering sciences. Similar to Germany, students attend laboratory courses or complete 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 has traditionally played a major role in subjects such as art, design, photography and music. So-called studios are therefore all about artistic expression and creative work. Students often attend a drawing course, for example, which is divided into a theoretical part, such as a lecture, and a practical part, a studio course.


In addition to the Laboratories, there are Fieldwork Courses, Clinical Courses and Practica at American universities. All these forms of teaching have in common that they are not bound to seminar rooms or lecture halls. These are often excursion events.

Independent Study Courses

In addition to the above-mentioned forms of teaching, so-called independent study courses can be mentioned. They are not part of the regular course offerings, but only come about when a student and a professor agree on an individual study program.

In an independent study course, for example, students can conduct research in a specific field under the supervision of a professor or devote themselves to a scientific problem. Since these courses require a high degree of independence and structured work, they are usually only open to students from the higher semesters.

Course types

In the USA, it is not only possible to distinguish between different types of courses, but also different types of courses:

  • Core Courses: Compulsory courses that are an integral part of a course of study.
  • Major Courses: Courses that belong to a major field of study. As part of the Bachelor’s programme, students can generally specialise from the third year onwards and take one or two major subjects. Courses in the main subject usually account for 25 to 50 percent of all courses in a degree programme.
  • Minor Courses: Secondary subjects that can be taken in addition to a major. In their minor subject, students take about half as many courses as in the main subject.
  • Elective Courses: Optional courses that are not a mandatory part of a course of study and may come from other disciplines. They often serve to deepen or supplement a course of study.

Course catalogues at American universities

You can find out which courses students can take from the course catalogue. Colleges and universities usually upload an overview of the courses to be taken for each term on their website. A course catalogue provides information on the contents of a course, the type of event and the required previous knowledge.

Each course has a fixed course number, which can be used to uniquely assign a course. Course numbers usually consist of a sequence of letters and a combination of numbers. The sequence of letters can be used to draw conclusions about the relevant department. ANTH often stands for Anthropology, ECON for Economics or PSY for Psychology.

The series of figures, in turn, provides information on the level of the course in the USA. Many universities work with a three-digit or four-digit system.

Undergraduate courses

Course numbers from 100 to 499 or 1000 to 4999 usually indicate undergraduate courses. Courses with low course numbers (100/1000 to 299/2999) are mostly aimed at students of the first and second academic year. These are so-called lower division courses. They are often introductory in character and hardly require any previous knowledge. Courses are generally less specialised than the Upper Division Courses (300-499). The latter are normally only open to students at an advanced stage of the Bachelor’s degree programme.

There are also colleges and universities in the USA that provide advanced bachelor courses with course numbers from 500 to 600. Other universities use a Course Number of up to 199 for all Bachelor courses, which means that the allocation of course numbers does not follow a uniform pattern in the USA.

Graduate courses

Many US universities use course numbers from 500 to 699 and 5000 to 6999 to mark graduate courses. Courses for participants of the Professional Master’s Program sometimes have lower numbers than research-oriented Master’s courses. Some universities highlight doctoral courses by selecting higher course numbers, such as 800 to 9xx / 8000 to 9xxx.

Similar to undergraduate courses, there are different regulations at some universities in the graduate sector. More detailed information on the course system can be found on the website of the corresponding US university.

Examination forms and grading in the USA

In the USA, the final grade results from a series of individual grades. A large part of this amount is accumulated during the semester. The grades are based on the homework, which is sometimes more or less extensive. Depending on the study programme, these can be the following types of tasks:

  • essays
  • (Group) Presentation
  • short papers
  • journals
  • Research Assignments
  • (Final) Projects

In some courses, not all grades are included in the final grade, so that students can decide which assignment is not graded. Those who achieve good marks at the beginning of the semester often have the advantage of not having to write the last assignment or test.

As a rule, attendance is compulsory for courses in the USA. If students do not take part in the lectures as the professor would like, it may happen that he or she writes an unannounced test. A so-called pop quiz is a short written test with multiple-choice tasks. In most cases, the result is only slightly included in the final grade.

Apart from the relatively short pop quizzes, which take place throughout the entire semester, more extensive partial examinations are usual in the middle of the semester. The so-called Midterm Exams, or Midterms for short, are used to query the subject matter of the lessons dealt with so far. Accordingly, they are given a higher weighting than individual homework assignments.

At the end of the semester the final exams or finals are scheduled. Here, the entire subject matter of the semester is relevant to examinations. However, there are also lecturers who focus on tests and assignments during the semester, assess oral participation and do not take 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 a higher learning effect, which is attributed to the fact that they deal with the content of their studies.

In addition, the exams, especially the finals, are usually less comprehensive than students at their home institution. Preparations for the examinations are also usually less extensive. This is especially true in comparison to the examination phase in Germany at the end of the semester, when many students spend nights studying in order to memorize the examination-relevant contents in good time.

In addition, it should not be underestimated that the final exam is usually less important in the USA than in Germany. This makes it easier to compensate for bad grades in the finals than in Germany.

Labor input at universities in the USA

For an F1 or J1 visa, international students must complete at least 12 units per term at Bachelor’s level or an average of eight to nine units at Master’s level.

Depending on whether it is a university with a semester or a trimester system, a course usually corresponds to three or four units. Accordingly, a bachelor’s degree student in the USA attends an average of three or four courses.

However, the number of credits does not indicate the actual workload for courses in the USA. In contrast to ECTS, U. S. Credits mainly refer to the teaching hours (Contact Hours), but not to the total load of the students.

In fact, the American system of study provides for students to prepare and follow up their courses and actively participate in lectures and seminars. Often it is not only necessary to do homework, but also to read specialist literature as preparation for the next event.

Atmosphere in the courses in the USA

For students from Germany, the relaxed atmosphere in the lectures and seminars is often a highlight of their semester abroad.

The smaller the course sizes, the more familiar it is as a rule. Especially in the postgraduate sector, professors and doctoral students are meeting more and more frequently as equal partners at eye level.

American lecturers are generally considered helpful. Many professors take time to answer the questions of their students – not only during and outside office hours. In addition, they often pay less attention to linguistic correctness than to content accuracy in the grading of international students. In addition, non-native speakers often receive support during presentations.

In principle, courses in the USA are more interactive than at German universities. Group discussions and presentations are an important part of the lessons. Exchange between professors and students is also welcome. In comparison to Germany, the teaching is more practice-oriented and geared towards applying what has been learnt in practice. The exact structure of the courses, however, depends on the university and the lecturer.

Support situation at American universities

The American universities and colleges are ahead in terms of childcare. In particular, the group sizes of seminars are often very small and offer optimal conditions for studying. The number of participants is often between ten and 20.

The support of students is very important in the USA. Those who complete a Bachelor’s degree in the USA, for example, have a contact person for all questions in academic matters from the outset. However, semester students also receive support from employees of the International Office. At some universities there are International Student Advisers who serve as contact persons for international students during their stay in the USA. For example, they will help you with questions about special previous knowledge or the choice of course.

American Courses and Differences to Germany

The great cultural shock is not to be expected during a course of study or semester abroad in the USA. Nevertheless, it has been shown that lectures at American universities differ from lectures in Germany in many respects. An overview of the country-specific peculiarities of courses in the USA:

  • Required preparation and follow-up of events and active participation in the courses
  • More performance checks during the semester
  • Higher workload during the semester, but less extensive exam preparation at the end of the semester
  • Long-term learning effect through distribution of examinations over the entire semester
  • Increased interactivity in the courses
  • Often more practical experience in the courses
  • Often very well equipped rooms
  • Personal contact with professors and often more informal study atmosphere
  • Good support ratio: small group sizes, especially for seminars
  • Multiple individualized supervision of bachelor students