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  • Writer's pictureCortney Dowdle

8 Tips for the School Search Process to Study in the USA

Updated: Jan 18, 2022

UPDATED 2.21.20

Can you believe there are over 4,000 higher education institutions in the USA?

It can be overwhelming to wade through the options and find the best one for you.

On top of that, here in the USA we have many different types of higher education institutions. We’re going to dive into those first. After that, we’ll look at the main types of degrees you can earn while studying at any of the different types of schools. Finally, I’ll throw some *Aha! tips your way to help you start the search process. I hope that if you’re finding the process of understanding education systems difficult, this will help you navigate the process for yourself or for students that you are assisting. The important thing to remember is that you are the biggest factor in the decision-making process.

If you're short on time:

  1. Prioritize finding the school that best fits your needs, not what you perceive as prestigious or the "best" school.

  2. Decide what you're looking for in terms of climate, location, and school size.

  3. Choose what type of school and which type of degree you would like to pursue.

University building
Learn how to find the best fit university in the USA.

When I was going through the school selection process, I was completely overwhelmed by the amount of options. I visited big schools and. small schools, schools close to home and schools farther away. I ended up settling on the University of Mount Union, where I spent four of the best years of my life (not a plug for the school, it's just the truth). I knew myself well enough to. know that I wouldn't thrive at a huge school or in a classroom with hundreds of students. I was given the opportunity to learn, grow, and explore at Mount Union, and between getting a great education, I got to do service work, internships, and study abroad, all of which helped lead me down the path towards international education. Higher education and study abroad are truly transformational experiences for students!

So what are the choices?

Types of Schools:

Two Year Colleges (can also be called Community Colleges, State Colleges, or Access Institutions)

  • Two year colleges often offer Associates Degrees, or two-year programs for students to study a variety of fields. Two year colleges also tend to be affordable in comparison to four year universities.

Public Universities

  • Public universities tend to be very large in size and population. They tend to offer the widest range of degree seeking programs, and many will offer multiple degree levels (see below for degree level types). Public universities receive most of their funding from the government, and this often helps keep the cost of attendance lower (à blog on understanding cost of attendance coming soon and I will link it here once it’s live).

Private Universities

  • Private universities tend to be smaller, but will still offer Bachelor of Science and Bachelor of Arts degrees. Many will offer limited Master’s or PhD programs as well. Private universities receive most of their funding through private donors or endowments.

Specialized Universities

  • Specialized universities are going to have a focus, whether it’s fine arts, hospitality, technology, or medically related. Specialized or Technical schools also tend to offer certificate programs in addition to the traditional degree levels. Certificate programs can take a few months up to a year to obtain.

Types of Degrees:

  • Certificate Programs – Certificates are offered in a wide variety of areas. Certificates can enhance a degree that has already been obtained by adding skills sets in a certain area, or they can also be pursued as a stand-alone certificate for employment purposes. Examples include computer science, fashion, medical related fields (for example, an X-ray technician), or other fields like electrical work.

  • Associate’s Degree – These degree programs typically take 2-3 years to complete and are often offered at the community college level.

  • Bachelor’s Degree – These degree programs typically take 4-5 years to complete and are offered at both private and public colleges and universities.

  • Master’s Degree – These degree programs typically take 1-2 years to complete after the completion of bachelor’s degree and are offered at both private and public colleges and universities.

Graphic with microphone
Tips to find the right university in the USA.

Okay. So those are the main types of schools and degrees. Now, here are a few things to consider as you go through the search process for the right type of school:


  1. Take a career test – tests like this one by the Princeton Review are short and can give you an idea of what programs might be the best fit for you! Another good online test is It’s free to take and will give you options of careers that might be a good fit.

  2. Take a personality test – this links with the one above, but trust me. I wish someone had given me this advice before I started the school search process. I knew so little about my inherent personality and things I might be good at just because of the way I viewed the world and people around me. One of my favorite online tests is the 16 personalities test - It not only gives you insights into your soul (for real though), but it gives you some careers that you might be good at as well!

  3. Think about your favorite subjects to study or learn about in school so far. Write them down, then search for “jobs using _____” for example, “jobs using math” or “jobs using science”.

  4. Determine the type of school that offers programs that would lead to the careers above.

  5. Determine if you need language courses before starting your degree or certificate program. *Tip, language requirements can be found on any school website under their admissions requirements for international students.

  6. Evaluate any post-secondary work you have done in your home country to see if you can transfer it.

  7. Determine if you prefer a religiously affiliated school.

  8. Determine if you prefer a co-educational or single-gender school.

I know that’s a lot of information, but I think you’ll find these tips super helpful if you go through each step and look at the information together. This will give you a great start to the school search.

I hope you’re following us on Instagram for updates on The Savvy International and what else is going on outside of the blog. If you want to learn even more about studying in the USA and finding the right school, check out The Ultimate International Student Guide.

The first webinar is, you guessed it, all about Choosing a School!

Additional resources:

U.S. News and World Report - the ultimate guide on schools in the USA

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