Shorelight helps international students attend top universities in the U.S.
Shorelight helps international students attend top universities in the U.S.

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US v Australian Universities: A Guide for International Students | Study in USA

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Explore the difference between Australian and American education to compare universities in both countries and find the one that is right for you.

An Australian flag sits next to a US flag side by side on a desk

For international students who want to compare universities in the US and Australia, the differences might be hard to see at first. Both Australian universities and US universities offer a wide range of courses, speak English in the classroom, and encourage students to participate in class. But look more closely, and you can see the difference between Australian and American education systems. 

Read on for an in-depth guide to choosing between the US and Australia for undergraduate studies. Pay attention to differences in admission requirements, cost, student life, and program availability. Each factor can have a big impact on your decision about where to study. 

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September 2020 update

Many universities and colleges in the US and Australia have been impacted by the COVID-19 health crisis. While monitoring the changing situation, most universities in both countries decided to temporarily close their campuses or switch to remote online learning and hybrid learning (a combination of in-person classes and online learning). 

Because each university has different COVID-19 policies, please visit the website of the university that interests you to see their specific coronavirus updates.

Changes to visa regulations 2020

In the US, there have been multiple updates to the Student Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP). You can refer to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) for the most up-to-date information and answers to frequently asked questions. Depending on your home country, there may be travel restrictions and visa processing delays. Visit the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and Study in the States for more information.

In Australia, strict border controls are in place to control the spread of COVID-19, allowing only essential travel. While travel is still restricted, the government is granting student visas in all locations outside of Australia—this means when borders reopen, you can easily make necessary travel arrangements. For real-time COVID-19 updates, download the Australian government’s Coronavirus Australia app. You can also check the Australian government’s website and Study in Australia for more information. 

If you have any questions or need assistance when applying to a US university during the pandemic, please reach out to a Shorelight representative.

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Australia vs USA for international students

University vs college—what’s the difference? 

The word college can be a confusing one because it means different things in different places. In the United States, students use the word “college” to talk about any degree-granting institution. They may talk about going to college, even if they are really attending a university. In the US, a university is a group of schools or colleges all operating together. Both colleges and universities can issue bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees.

However, in Australia, there is a big difference between colleges and universities. There are forty-three universities in Australia that award bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees. Each one has met strict requirements to become self-accrediting through the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (TEQSA) in Australia. 

Meanwhile, Australian colleges are smaller institutions focused on technical or continuing education. They issue certificates and diplomas for vocational studies instead of degrees. Colleges may operate independently or as a part of a university. Courses are typically hands-on and focused on workplace skills. 

Application and admissions processes

Applications to Australian universities are usually due no later than December, although most universities open their application periods much earlier. Students are admitted on a rolling basis. So the earlier you apply, the earlier you will learn whether you have been accepted. 

Here is the university application process for international students in Australia: 

  1. Decide on a subject area or course of study.

  2. Select the university that you would like to attend.

  3. Research your chosen institution to learn whether you should apply directly with the university or send all or part of your application to a third-party education agency.

  4. Send your application, along with the results of your English language test and your academic transcripts.  

  5. Get an offer of acceptance and decide whether to attend. 

To apply to an Australian college, you must know what course or major you would like to study. In the United States, most colleges allow students to apply without declaring a major. Students apply to between four and eight colleges on average, according to U.S. News & World Report

Admissions decisions at US colleges are based on more than just grades. The college may consider extracurricular activities like clubs and sports, awards, and job experience when deciding whether to admit a student. Many require an application essay or other supplemental information.  

Here is the application process for international students at US universities:

  1. Decide which colleges you would like to attend.

  2. Submit a unique application for each school on your list, including an essay, results, and any other required information.

  3. Apply to as many colleges as you want.

  4. Hear back from each school. 

  5. Accept an offer from one college and begin the visa application process.

When choosing your college or institution, make sure that it is eligible to accept international students. In Australia, international students on student visas must study with an institution and in a course that is registered on the Commonwealth Register of Institutions and Courses for Overseas Students (CRICOS). CRICOS registration guarantees that the course and the institution at which you study meet national standards. 

In the US, colleges must be certified by the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) to enroll F-1 visa holders. The Department of Homeland Security publishes a list of certified schools you can check before applying. 

How are colleges and universities structured differently in the US and Australia? 

Both the US and Australia have public universities funded by the government and private universities funded by other sources. There are forty-three universities in Australia, compared to the more than 4,000 degree-granting institutions in the United States. 

Australian universities tend to be large. Most serve more than 20,000 students. The largest university in Australia enrolls more than 64,000 students, including more than 22,000 international students, while the smallest has just 6,000, including 2,300 international students. 

With more colleges in the United States, you are more likely to find one that fits your preferences. You can choose from dozens of large universities, or pick one of the 1,300 universities with fewer than 2,000 students. 

In Australia, a standard degree program takes three years. However, most students take double or combined degrees which can take longer. The academic year is split into two semesters: March through June and July through October. Students are usually limited to no more than four classes per semester. 

Students in Australia can also choose to take an honours year, which requires a thesis to complete. In the US, university honors programs are usually based on grade point average (GPA). They may be awarded based on your GPA or you may be eligible for special courses based on your performance in high school. 

A standard undergraduate program in the United States takes four years to complete. Most colleges and universities in the USA also run on a semester schedule. About 85% of undergraduate calendars follow the standard semester academic year, according to The American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers (AACRAO). This schedule typically runs from the end of August to mid-May, with a two or three-week winter break between semesters. However, some colleges divide their school year into quarters or trimesters, although the months where classes are in session are typically the same as a semester calendar. 

Australian education system vs American

Classes in Australia are structured differently from classes in the US. In Australia, most classes include one lecture and one tutorial each week. Tutorials are discussion-based sessions designed to help students understand and learn more about lecture topics. They can include as few as eight students, compared to lecture sessions that can have as many as 200. Both lectures and tutorials are structured around preparing students for one major test or paper. There is little coursework aside from this grade-determining test. 

By contrast, classes in the US usually meet two or three times per week for the same amount of time each session. Classes are either lecture, lab, or small-group gatherings. Some science classes may combine lecture and lab sessions. Grades are based on a mixture of tests, quizzes, papers, in-class work, attendance, and participation. 

In Australia, classes focus on your area of study with few, if any, unrelated courses. Many students take a dual major so they can study more than one area of interest at a time. Students at US colleges take a wider range of courses. Most universities have general education requirements that require students to take introductory-level courses outside their major. Switching majors is easier, and might not even delay graduation if done early enough. 

Grades in the US and Australia

In Australia, 50% is a passing grade—grades tend to be based on one or two large tests or essays. In the US, grades look at a variety of factors: homework, quizzes, tests, group projects, and class participation. The grading system in Australia can seem complicated to international students.

In Australia, a D is the second-highest grade a student can earn. In the US, a D is just above failing.

US grades range from F to A+ with F representing a failing score and A+ the highest grade possible. You might also see letter grades, pass-fail grades, or point-scale grades on individual assignments. At most colleges, grade point averages are assessed on a 4.0 scale. Under this system, a 4.0 is an A, 3.0 is a B, and so on. 

Again, the Australian grading system is a little more complicated. Grades are assessed on a 7-point scale with 0 to 3.99 representing a failing grade and 7 representing High Distinction. 

Campus life: the biggest difference between Australian and American education

College life is an important part of the US college experience. Campus is not just a center for learning, it is also the basis of social life and college activities. Clubs, intramural sports, and group activities give students opportunities to gather with others who share their interests. Students often live in dorms, eat in a communal dining hall, and spend their leisure hours in the library, at campus coffee shops, or in other common areas. 

By contrast, most Australian students live off campus with their parents or in their own apartments. Except when they are attending a class, Australian students spend little time on campus. Their social life and leisure time is centered on the community where they live. 

Making friends can be more challenging in Australia because students are more spread out and spend less time on campus. Australian students, who often attend the university closest to where they grew up, may already have a close-knit group of friends. 

Australia is a nation that loves the outdoors. Beaches, national parks, hiking, and biking are all common student activities. There are fewer clubs and organized campus activities on Australian campuses. Students mostly make their own entertainment. 

“School pride” is not a concept embraced in Australia. Only students who are on sports teams wear university-themed gear. By contrast, students in the US often wear clothes and accessories with university logos. 

The rules about working as an international student are different, too. Student visa holders in Australia are allowed to work about twenty hours per week anywhere they can find a job. In the US, student visa holders may work only on campus unless they can prove hardship or are using CPT or OPT

Australian college tuition vs American

Undergraduate international students in Australia will likely pay between $20,000 AUD and $45,000 AUD ($12,748 USD and $28,684 USD) per year. Graduate students will pay slightly more. This cost does not include housing, food, or other expenses. The cost of a one-bedroom apartment in Australia ranges from $1,298 AUD to $1,718 AUD ($830 USD to $1,096 USD) per month. 

In the United States, the average cost of tuition for a public university is $26,820 per year. Students may pay more to attend a private college. Most students live on campus and the average room and board cost for the school year is $12,990.

In Australia, you pay for individual classes and services. Scholarships are available for international students from Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and the Pacific Islands who want to study in Australia. 

In the US, you pay per credit hour and those credits are usually bundled with campus services including gyms, access to clubs and sports, dining plans, and other amenities. 

US or Australia—which is better for education?

Whether you decide to study in the US or Australia depends on your career goals, personal values, and the style of education you are seeking. Do you want to live and work independently with only a single test to determine your grade? If so, you might like to study in Australia. Would you prefer a more structured learning environment with many opportunities to make friends and socialize? In that case, studying in the US might be right for you.  

Students looking for smaller colleges or a wider breadth of options might be more comfortable in the United States, while students who want to attend a big school might find a good fit in Australia. Think about what you would like to learn as well. Students in Australia focus on one or two subject areas, while college students in the US study more topics and often explore concepts outside their major. 

If university rankings are important to you, the United States might be a better choice. US colleges account for twenty-nine of the top fifty universities ranked globally. Meanwhile, only eight Australian universities are in the top 100. The University of Melbourne and the University of Sydney are the highest-ranking schools at twenty-six and twenty-seven, respectively. With more schools in the United States, you have a higher chance of finding the one that is right for you. 

Before you choose a university, reach out to current students to learn about their experience on and off campus. School websites and Facebook groups are great places to find students. Your Shorelight advisor can help, too. They are experienced in helping students decide between US schools and others around the world. 

Glossary: Australia vs USA for international students

US terms

  • Accredited college—an institution that has met educational standards set by an independent accrediting body in the US.

  • Campus—the buildings and grounds that make up a college. Many students in the US spend most of their time on campus.

  • College—any degree-granting institution in the US may be called a college. Most students do not differentiate between colleges and universities. 

  • Dorm—communal living arrangements provided for students by colleges. Most students at US colleges live in dorms. 

  • Honors—an academic distinction awarded to students, usually based on GPA and in-class accomplishments. 

  • University—a more formal name for a large, degree-granting institution. 

Australian terms 

  • College—institutions that teach technical or continuing education through hands-on learning. They issue certificates and diplomas rather than degrees and may operate independently or as part of a university. 

  • Honours—a fourth year of study in Australia that requires a thesis to complete. 

  • Self-accrediting university—an institution recognized by the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (TEQSA) in Australia as meeting certain quality guidelines.

  • Technical and Further Education (TAFE)—the public vocational system in Australia, funded by the government of the state or territory. 

  • Tutorial—a small-group session held once per week to discuss topics mentioned during the lecture as part of an Australian university course. 

Talk to a Shorelight advisor about academic support for international students >