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  • Writer's pictureCortney Dowdle

Learn About Secondary Education in the USA

Updated: Apr 6, 2020

If you’re a parent trying to learn more about secondary education in the USA so you can best help your student be successful in university, this article is for you. I often get questions from parents concerning whether it’s beneficial for their student to earn an American diploma and then apply to university, or whether they should stay in their home country and then apply directly to undergraduate programs from there. The answer is, it depends. Read on for more...

If you’re short on time, here are three big takeaways:

  • In the USA, graduation requirements for secondary school vary by school and state.

  • Transcript evaluations can show you how your child’s secondary school diploma compares to the American diploma.

  • There are definitely benefits to having your child complete secondary education in the USA and then apply to university, but it is not essential for their success.

We grow up in the USA thinking about how best to prepare for university. At least a lot of us. We strategically take courses in secondary school (some are required, but usually we can choose the level of difficulty). For parents and students living around the world, if the USA is an option for university, it’s difficult to know what classes are best to take compared to the USA.

I’m going to break down the secondary school system for the USA, and then we can dive into some best practices if you’re a parent wanting to set your child up for success in higher education. Some parents even consider sending their students to the USA to complete secondary school. I think there are a lot of beliefs surround how this is best for students, so stay with me.

Let’s dive in…

Education by state - In the USA, graduation requirements vary by state. States can require that students complete a certain number of total credits in addition to required courses in certain subjects in order to receive an American high school diploma. Once you have this diploma, you can apply to university in any state!

For the state of Florida, for example, students must complete the following:

  • 4 science courses

  • 4 English courses

  • 4 math courses

  • 4 social studies courses

  • 2 foreign language courses

  • 2 fine arts courses

  • 1 technology

  • 1 physical education

  • 4 electives - these can be a combination of fine arts, technology, or physical education courses

  • Total = 26 credits/classes

Secondary school in the USA takes four years to complete as a standard. Other countries may have secondary school that is three or five years, or they may even have elementary and secondary school together, and they have to complete 11 years total, for example. Some countries have set exams students must pass in order to receive their secondary school certificate. No matter what system, they can all be converted with a transcript evaluation. The frustrating part can be deciding if/when you need an evaluation.

Many secondary schools do not require an official evaluation, while many universities have different systems. Some universities can do transcript evaluations in-house, and some universities will require an official evaluation to process a student’s application materials.

I’ll list a few recommendations at the end if you are interested in learning more about those official evaluations. The evaluation can go course by course, or it can just summarize the student’s foreign education and say that they have, “the equivalent of a US high school diploma”. *Please note here (totally my opinion), but these evaluation companies often can’t account for the rigor of your international secondary school. This means that your child might be enrolled in the most rigorous private school in the biggest city in your home country that only half of students even graduate from - these companies will likely not be able to account for that, but they will be able to say generally that your student has completed similar criteria. I’ll get into this more in a couple of paragraphs.

So what are the benefits of completing secondary school in America? I think there are many, but this is not always a necessary step for students. For example, some benefits could be:

  1. Getting used to the American classroom style and teaching techniques

  2. Improving a second language before starting university

  3. Getting experience with courses that students may not have abroad, but would likely encounter in an undergraduate program

  4. Getting exposure to clubs/sports/organizations that may not be available in secondary school in the student’s home country

  5. Being able to apply to university with both foreign transcripts and the American diploma (if schools cannot assess the rigor of the high school abroad, they may still be able see that the student graduated from a higher rigor school in the USA, which can lead to higher merit or academic based scholarships)

That being said, tons of universities are more than happy to take students’ applications directly from their home country into the USA. I have counselled families that one of the benefits of students going to a boarding school or highly ranked or rigorous private school in the USA is that universities often are aware of the reputation and rigor of American high schools. When it comes to international schools, there is less information or statistics available on those countries and which are the most rigorous schools in the biggest or most educated cities.

Do you see what I mean here? In my experience, a student who graduated from a secondary school in America that is ranked at a 95 percentile school for rigor in a large city is going to be given preference over a student with the same grades at a 40 percentile school in a small more remote town. In the same respect, a school ranked at a 95 percentile in the USA may be more highly noted in the admissions process than an international private school that the university is not familiar with, even if that private school is one of the best in a large metropolitan city abroad.

So in this one example, it benefits a student to graduate from a prestigious secondary school in the USA. Many times, this can be quite expensive, with many boarding schools in America ranging from $40,000 USD - $75,000 USD for one year of secondary education. Often, boarding school can be more expensive than a full cost year of university study! Many boarding schools will heavily discount international student tuition and costs, making it more affordable and giving the school in America added diversity. It's worth looking into if it is a financial possibility for your family.

It really is an amazing opportunity to study in the USA and go through the exciting graduation ceremonies!

Graduate hugging mom
Help your child thrive in America!

All that being said, it’s great for students if they have the opportunity to do an exchange semester or year, or even graduate from high school in the USA, but it is not essential for their success in undergraduate school. Parents can learn more about secondary education by going to TABS and learning more about their boarding school fairs. Many agencies all over the world also represent top boarding school programs in the USA and can be found locally.

Here are a few well known and reputable transcript evaluation companies in the USA:

I hope this article gave you some insight into secondary education in the USA. Don’t hesitate to comment or email me at with questions!

Until next time!

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