US College workload and course-work from an international perspective (Day 2 of NaBloPoMo)

2 Nov

I know this shows that i posted twice 2 today, but it’s just because i changed the time zone of my blog. I’m still going through the challenge of posting every day this month.

This is probably one of the most approached topics when being questioned about my experience at UCLA as an international student. How difficult is the school work? Is language a problem?

And, as vague or as cliché this may sound, what I have learned over the past 3 months in the US is that college is indeed what you make of it.

To begin with, in a short answer that I know many are looking for: No. College coursework is not this incredibly difficult, unachievable task. And I’m not even talking about barely passing; I am talking about getting good grades. On the other hand, it is definitely not an easy endeavour and you can always chose how hard or easy you want it to be, which is probably the appeal of a us college in which there is no fix curricula.

What do I mean by this possibility of making it as difficult or as easy as you want?

There are several aspects to it.

Firstly, and probably the most striking difference to the university system back in Europe, is the fact that you can and sometimes even must take courses from across different fields. Some of you may not know, but European universities are specialised, meaning you apply directly after highschool to medschool, to law school, to architecture school, to engineering school, to political science university, to psychology university, etc. You usually have an exam related to the subject and the coursework you will have to do in order to graduate is fixed. Should you decide to switch your career after a year you usually have to start all over at a different university compared to simply switching a major in the US. This liberty that the US college system gives you is empowering and liberating as you can explore different fields without pressure to pursue them and even get a minor in a secondary passion of yours. On the other hand it is definitely tempting and easy to choose only the easy classes, especially for the General Education requirements most colleges have. This is the first aspect in which college education is what you make of it. Challenge yourself and choose your classes based on your interests and passions or go with the flow, and choose the ones that are known to have indulgent teachers, nice TA’s and easy finals.

Secondly, homework and readings. While it is true that the amount of reading you have to do, especially as a north campus major (here at UCLA, this means a major in the humanities/social sciences area), is probably higher than any high-schooler is used to and perhaps even at universities back in Europe, it is important to remember that it is not mandatory and that there is every opportunity for you to enforce or acquire the material in a different manner. 5 of the 6 classes I have already taken here have had ridiculous amounts of pages to be read every week. However, the lectures consisted in highlighting the main points presented in the textbooks, sometimes even going through them in a detailed manner. Moreover, discussions/sections, meaning separate hours in which smaller groups of 20 people meet with a TA, do not have any other purpose than go through the material. Lastly, office hours, which is something not that common back in Europe, are again at your disposal to clarify or go in more depth in the information in the book. Thus, whether you actually do that enormous amount of reading is entirely up to you, depending on the grade you want and a lot of the times there are simply other methods that can get you through the exams even without the reading done. It all comes down to whether you want to learn something or simply survive the exam.

Thirdly, grading/exams/syllabuses. Oh the marvellous invention of the syllabus. Were I to have any power, I would propose a law to make it mandatory to have syllabuses in all courses in all universities. At least from what I was able to observe in my short time here, too few people actually realise what a blessing the syllabus is and an extremely small number actually takes full advantage of it. There is something so comforting about knowing all your deadlines, the value of exams/finals, the grading method, as well as the outline of the course (including the dreaded readings, separated into weeks). Not only can you plan ahead your work, you have no uncertainty about grading and you don’t even have to do your own planning of the readings/studying. It’s amazing. Plus, another difference compared to universities back home and in Europe in general is the fact that the grade is earned throughout the quarter and not based on a single final or perhaps if you’re lucky a midterm or a project. Again, there is something comforting knowing that your dreaded midterm is only worth 20% of your grade or that the simple fact of doing a weekly reading or quiz can earn you in many cases even more than that percentage. Pressure is definitely lower here and making up for a bad day/a sickness/ or even a laziness you might experience at one point during the quarter is definitely easier.

Lastly, balancing social and academic life. While it is true that college is and should be outside the classroom as well and that there are simply too many choices of what extra-curricular activities you can get involved in, including the night life (and especially considering frat parties), I could also underline that there is the same amount of incentive and opportunity to focus on your studies. Sometime last week I was talking to someone about how amazing tennis camps and academies are for progress and training as they provide and create the environment you need to focus on your sport. It instantly hit me that universities are in fact a long camp intended for study. You pay for room and board and are provided all the facilities and the environment of like-minded people with the purpose being study. Living on campus means being in an artificially created habitat with education as a goal. So in a way, I do believe that living in a campus creates a better opportunity and incentive to actually focus on your studying, especially when (excuse my stereotyping) there is always the Asian population to make you feel like you are not spending enough time in those libraries and labs that you already paid for with your tuition.

All in all, I believe college studying is as hard as you make it be. Depending on your expectations and desires concerning grades, the actual material you go through and what you plan to remain with after these years, in my opinion, the us higher education system is easier but also more effective at providing you with what you need and with what you can make use of.


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