american education system

The American education system offers a wide array of choices for students.  Here is everything you need to know to formulate your education plan.

The American education system may seem complex to students. But it offers a wide array of choices and fields once you understand how it works. There are a variety of schools, locations, and programs to choose from. And it can be overwhelming to navigate at first.

Whether you’re just beginning your school search. Or trying to familiarize yourself with how the American education system works. This guide will answer all of your questions.

Here, we will give you the tools you need to narrow down the plethora of choices. And develop your personal education plan.

American Educational Structure

In the American educational system, schooling is broken down into three parts. Primary school, secondary school, and higher education.

Before any student can apply for higher education. They must first complete primary and secondary schooling. Beginning around age six, children start attending school for a total of 12 years.  In the U.S., these years are commonly called the first through twelfth grades.

The first five years are also referred to as “elementary school.” And serve as the primary school education.  Secondary schooling is typically broken into two programs. “Middle school” or “junior high school,” and then “high school.”

After a student has completed all twelve years. They graduate 12th grade and earn their diploma.  At this time, they may then apply for admittance into a college, university, or technical program.

How Does the U.S. Grading System Work?

The grading system in America may be confusing, especially for international students.

Marks are given that are reflected on your academic transcripts during your schooling. And these will be used when you apply for higher education.  These marks come in two formats. Both your grades which are in a letter format and your grade point average (GPA) which is a number.

American School Year

The academic year in the U.S. for primary education traditionally begins in either August or September. And concludes in May or June.  This will vary based on the location within the country where you elect to attend school.

In college and university programs. New students can begin during any semester throughout the year. And summer courses are available.  However, most students choose to start their college experience in a fall semester. And may also take summer off from classes to maintain a similar structure to that of primary education.

Higher Education Degree Levels

Once you graduate high school. You have the opportunity to pursue a higher degree in the American education system.  There are three levels you may attain.


If you have been accepted into a university or college. And are currently taking classes. But have not yet earned your bachelor’s degree, you are an undergraduate.   Students in this category can expect it to take four years to receive their bachelor’s degree. And may attend a community college or university to obtain their education.

In your first two years. You’ll take courses that pertain to your core curriculum. And meet prerequisite requirements for your degree.  These may include things like history, literature, science, art, or social sciences. And will give you a strong foundation and general knowledge base. Before you delve into courses specific to your degree.

It’s possible to attend a community college during your first two years of schooling. To get your core classes completed. And earn your Associate of Arts (AA) degree.  Many students choose to do this. And then transfer to a larger college or university to earn their four-year degree in the major of their choice.

When you pick a major. You are selecting a specific field where your degree and expertise will be focused.

Students are typically required to choose a major at the beginning of their third year of college. But can change it at any time.  However, switching majors may result in the need to take additional courses. And could extend the amount of time needed to complete the bachelor’s degree.

Graduate Studying for Master’s

After obtaining your four-year degree. Then you have an option to extend your schooling to pursue a Master’s Degree. To further specialize in your field of study.

If you want to have a career with a high-level position in healthcare, education, science, or engineering, for example. You may need a Master’s Degree to be competitive.  Also, a Master’s Degree could be a step. Towards an ultimate goal of achieving a Doctorate in a specific field.

Graduate programs are traditionally a division of a college or university. And you will need to apply and take a graduate record examination (GRE) to be accepted.  If you want to attain certain types of master’s degrees. Like one in law or medicine, you may also need to take specialized tests like the LSAT or MCAT.

Master’s programs are designed to take between one and two years to complete. And you will need to submit a research paper called your master’s thesis to pass.

Graduate Studying for a Doctorate

If you have attained your master’s degree. This may have been one step towards completing your education at a doctorate (Ph.D.) level.

Although students who wish to enter the medical field as doctors will need to attain a doctorate. This degree isn’t limited only to aspiring surgeons.  Doctoral programs are available in a variety of areas. And those who achieve their Ph.D. are considered experts. For reaching the highest level of education and expertise in their arena.

These programs can take between three and six years to complete dependent on a variety of factors.

For most, the first two years are classroom based. Where you take courses that give you a foundation of knowledge for what’s to come.  Next, students will write a thesis or dissertation.  This can take up to a year as it involves in-depth research. So that you can create and publish a paper on a topic that hasn’t previously been covered.

Common Characteristics of the American Education System

Although every school and university have their own unique feel and charm. There are a few characteristics that you can expect to see at every level of the American Education System.

Classroom Environment

In the U.S., class sizes range from large lecture halls that house hundreds of students at major universities. Then down to smaller classes and breakout groups with as few as a dozen participants at private schools.  Regardless of size, expect that the atmosphere will be dynamic. And encourage participation and feedback from the students.

Teachers and professors are the leaders in the classroom. And will give lectures, assign readings and homework each week.  Students are expected to complete all of their coursework and stay up-to-date on homework and reading assignments. So that you can actively participate in class discussions and activities.

Depending on your degree. You may also need to complete lab work and be hands-on in the classroom environment.


Grades are calculated based on several factors, but in a college or university setting testing is the most common way.  Common criteria include:

  • Class Attendance and Participation:  This is usually outlined by the teacher or professor at the beginning of each semester. And may vary depending on the course and class size.
  • Mid-Term Exam:  This is a test administered halfway through the semester. To check that you are learning and retaining the material covered thus far.
  • Research or Term Paper:  Some courses require you to write one or more paper on an assigned topic. To show understanding and mastery of the subject.  Students are graded on both their knowledge and their writing ability.
  • Periodic Tests and Quizzes:   Also called a “pop quiz.” Some teachers like to give unannounced tests. To check that you’ve been doing assigned reading and homework. That will have a small factor into your overall grade.
  • Final Exam:  At the conclusion of the course, you will take a final test. That covers all of the material learned in the semester.

Higher Education Options

If you want to pursue a bachelor’s, masters, or doctorate degree following high school. Or want to obtain specialized technical training in a field. There are four different higher education options to choose from.

State Schools

A state college or university is a school that’s run and supported by the state it resides in.  Every one of the 50 U.S. states has at least one university, and some also operate several state colleges.

Although these are considered public schools, many are still very competitive. And only admit a fraction of the students who apply each year.  You can often identify a state school. Because they will use the name of the area or the word state in their title. Like “Florida State University” or the University of Missouri.

Private Schools

As their name suggests, private schools are not run by the government but are instead funded by independent entities.  They often have a smaller student body and significantly higher tuitions than a state school.

Any university with a religious affiliation is a private school. And despite their roots, almost all welcome students of all religions.  That said, some prefer student’s whose beliefs align more closely with their own. And will have questions on their applications and during interviews to ensure they find a good match.

Community College

Community colleges offer two types of two-year Associate Degree programs.

There is an academic transfer option. Whereby you can take the courses necessary to earn an associate of arts or sciences. And then transfer those course credits to a four-year university. Where you will select your major and finish your degree.  It’s important that you take transferable courses if you intend to use them at a state or private school.

You can also go to community college. And follow a degree track designed to get you into the workforce after completion.  These courses are sometimes non-transferable. But the goal of the program is to help you secure employment with job-specific skills upon graduation.

Technical School

If you want to go into a field that requires hands-on training. Like becoming a hair stylist or auto mechanic. You’ll need to attend a technical school.  These programs vary in length. But when you complete them, you will be qualified to test and get licensed in your desired profession.

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