Shorelight Students Share Advice About Studying in the USA

advice for students
University of Illinois at Chicago
Florida International University
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By Selene Angier
Last updated on August 8, 2023

Will I make friends? Are people welcoming? How much do rankings matter? What’s it really like to study in America? Two international students share their experience and advice about attending university in the USA.

Huy, an international student from Vietnam, stands in front of a brick building and streetlamp on the UIC campus

Applying to university makes many international students feel anxious: Do I have good enough grades? Did I take the right classes? Am I choosing the best major for me? How will I afford it? What are the professors like? Do rankings matter that much? When you are looking to study in the USA, and going to school thousands of miles away in a new country, all those questions (and emotions) are magnified. Will I make friends? Is the university diverse? Will I have anything in common with my roommate? Can I get a job?

The international students we spoke with want you to know two things — all of your questions and feelings are valid and normal, and it is all worth it. 

International Students Discuss What It’s Really Like to Study in the USA

Aruzhan — a senior pursing a bachelor degree in hospitality and tourism management — chose to study at Florida International University (FIU) because of its high ranking and Miami location. 

“Since childhood I [have] always wanted to become an event planner, to bring people happiness and positivity,” Aruzhan says. The Kazakhstan native researched and applied to top business and hospitality schools around the world including several in Spain, Switzerland, Canada, and Australia. 

“I was looking for hospitality schools [so I could] learn from the best leaders of the industry, and I decided to choose the best city for hospitality: Miami,” continues Aruzhan. “Miami is a paradise for hotels, restaurants, bars, nightclubs, festivals, and events.”

How to apply to college in the USA >> 

Vietnamese student Huy also started his research by looking at university rankings and accreditations. “My parents told me that I should go on a scholarship hunt [for] universities abroad, to get a feel of what it is like to independently search for opportunities in the real world,” the junior engineering major says. 

An education counselor suggested the University of Illinois Chicago (UIC) to Huy. UIC made the top of his list because of the school’s diversity, research opportunities, engineering rank, and affordable tuition. “By the end of that interview and a couple of assessment tests later, I had gotten myself the ‘golden ticket’ to the front gates of UIC,” he says.

Everyone’s golden-ticket school is different — because we are all looking to get different things out of our university experience. Here, Aruzhan and Huy look back on their journey to study in the USA.

Tell us about your first year. What do you want students to know about studying in the USA — be it classes, exams, professors, or your new everyday life in America?

Aruzhan: “I didn’t expect everyone — professors, students, advisors, strangers — to be so nice and friendly, to be honest. I was surprised they were so helpful. I was excited, and I am still excited every day when I go to my classes because I think it was my favorite four years of life.”

Huy: “Having been brought up in Vietnam, and [lived] among the same group of people for 18 years, my first year at UIC was truly magical. I got to meet people from such a diverse range of disciplinary, social-cultural, and personal backgrounds. I have learned so many different things that I could never have [learned] otherwise. My personal, academic, and social lives are now more colorful and dynamic than ever.”

When you first arrived on campus, what were your initial impressions? 

Huy: “When I first arrived on [the] UIC campus, I was impressed by the number of trees and buildings, and the amount of land that the university owns. Compared to universities in Vietnam, UIC looked like ‘Eden’ and its status still holds up [to] this day. In respect to fellow peers, there is a noticeable element of diversity. Throughout my journey at UIC, I have made friends from many different backgrounds and ethnicities — Indonesian, Malaysian, Indian, Chinese, Korean, Nigerian, Mongolian, Albanian, etc.”

Aruzhan: “I was shocked that the only available food was junk food. It was easier to find pizza or a burger than a fresh salad or baked chicken. In my country, it is the opposite — it is hard to find junk food, but easier to find some homemade food. Right now, since I live off campus, it is easier for me to cook at home and use organic ingredients.”

How does what you originally thought studying in the USA would be like compare to how it turned out

Aruzhan: “I thought that a high GPA, American degree, or a diploma [would be] enough to find a job or an internship. I was wrong. High scores are not enough, and I had to do a lot of volunteer experiences, internships, leadership classes, [and] certificates to achieve what I wanted, career-wise.”

Huy: “My expectation was that universities in the US are innovative and have great values and services. After being a mathematics teaching aide, peer mentor, resident assistant, and computer science undergraduate teaching assistant, my passion for UIC is stronger than ever. I am truly very lucky to have obtained these opportunities to work with a wide range of staff teams on campus.” 

What is your top advice for international students who are looking to study in the USA and are not sure if a certain school is right for them?

Huy: “In my opinion, a school’s ranking or prestige should only be a very small fraction in a student’s decision because the values and experiences are solely generated by the learner. If you find yourself having lots of free time in a US university, it is not that the curriculum is easy — it is because you are not truly ‘participating’ in school. There is so much more to a university than just grades and classes. There are the cultures, values, research experiences, and vibrant social/professional lives that develop within.”

Aruzhan: “Check out videos, articles, and rankings about the school you are applying to. The more information you find, the [clearer] your vision of the school will be. Connect on LinkedIn with students from your dream university and don’t be shy about asking them questions. They will not bite you, and almost all of the students and alumni are super nice, friendly, and willing to help if they have time.” 

Go beyond the rankings—what else to look for in a US university >>

Any other advice or tips for international students?

Huy: “Please don’t ever be late or skip classes — you are missing out [on] a lot more than you think! Imagine if you were to come to class or even be early on that day, you could have met amazing peers who would have walked with you and supported you on your long academic and career journey. Or you could have caught [the attention of] your professor, who would have been the one who guided you to find out who you are and show you how to reach for your success.”

Aruzhan: “What I really learned is 1) Don’t forget to rest. Remember that it is OK not to be OK. 2) You are here to learn, not to know everything already, so take it easy. 3) You will do great—just be present and enjoy! 4) Time flies.”

Are you an international student looking to study in the USA? Talk to a Shorelight advisor today >