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4 Academic Surprises for New International College Students

4 Academic Surprises for New International College Students

Get familiar with your school’s online system to help manage homework and course material.


It is not easy for international students to make a smooth transition to college life in America.

International students have to spend time adjusting to a new environment and a new lifestyle, and students will inevitably encounter some situations that they don’t know how to deal with. Here are some of the experiences that surprised me when I first entered college that new international students should expect – and prepare for.

1. Most academic information is accessible online: Back in my home country, class work and assignments were all distributed on paper. However, in the U.S., most institutions use their own online system for all kinds of academic purposes. Before school starts, new international students should take a glimpse of the system and look around the features it has.

Generally speaking, students can do everything related to academics within the system. For example, I could download lecture notes from professors, check out homework grades and exam scores, turn in homework and so on. These systems also serve as platforms for students and instructors to communicate. Instructors often make announcements by using the online system.

The feature I liked the most was the chat room, where students can discuss both logistical and academic questions. I remember one time I forgot there was a midterm the next day. Luckily, I saw people asking questions about the midterm in the chat room and immediately sent an email to the professor via the online system to confirm the date of the exam. This saved my grade.

2. Attending the first class of the semester is important: It is understandable that some international students have to travel during school breaks and may not be able to attend the first class of the semester for that reason. Although instructors usually do not cover a lot of material in the very first class, it is still very important for students to go.

In the first class, the instructor typically briefly talks about course policy, the course schedule and what students can learn from the course. Therefore, students can find out the outline of the whole course and decide whether to continue taking the course at the beginning of the semester.

Students should try to switch courses at the beginning of the semester, rather than learning something they are not interested in. Instructors may also use the first class to have a poll on when to hold weekly office hours or when to have the midterm exam. If the original scheduled time conflicts with your course schedule, the first class is the perfect time for you to propose another time.

Even if you are on the waitlist for the class, you really have to go to the first class for further instruction about the course.

3. Group projects are common: It is quite common that group projects will be part of your course grade. When I first took a course that contained a group project, I felt very uncomfortable with it, since I was used to just taking exams and writing assignments. Group projects test the material you learn from a course as well as your ability to work as a team.

The format of group projects can vary between courses and instructors. Basically, you will form a group with your classmates and do the assignment given by your instructor. The assignment can be to research a certain topic, and it is usually lengthy. After the group is formed, teammates generally will gather together and assign work to each member.

The core of the group project is the final result, which could be an in-class presentation that requires each member to participate, a video presentation that requires each member to talk the same amount of time or a written report or document.

To be successful in a group project, try to choose the part you are good at when the group is splitting up tasks. If you have trouble with your part, go to your professor’s office hours for help or ask your teammates. Students should try to start early, and meet with group members several times before the end of the project to give others.

4. There is no such thing as a standard class: When I first came to college, my parents asked me what my “class” was. This was because in Asia, students are often divided into different classes and each class has a teacher who is in charge of everything within the class. This class stays unchanged until students graduate.

However, I found it surprising that there is no single class at U.S. colleges. The way it works in America is that students sign up for different courses, and students who take the same course remain there for only one semester. However, if someone is in the same major with you, you might see him or her again in following semesters.

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