Research Your Options

The first step to studying in the United States is to consider what kind of school you’d like to attend, and to understand some of the basic terminology you may encounter during your search and resources to begin your search.

University vs. College
In the United States, the two terms are used on a roughly interchangeable basis. Unlike in Canada, “college” does not refer to strictly a two-year transfer or technical degree granting institution. Besides two-year institutions, a U.S. college can be part of a larger university system—Harvard College is the undergraduate school at Harvard University, for instance. A college can be an independent institution that grants undergraduate degrees with few, if any, graduate programs.  The word “college” can also refer to secondary degree-granting institutions in general (As in, “Dude, I can’t wait to go to college!).
Public vs. Private
Public universities are government-subsidized, like most universities in Canada, while private universities rely on tuition fees, endowments, and private donations to cover operating costs.

There is not necessarily a difference between the two models academically (most embrace liberal arts education), but private universities typically have lower enrollment and smaller class sizes. Public universities often have lower tuition fees overall, although they charge more for students who do not reside in the states in which they are located (with highest tuition rates for international students). Private universities have no residency-based differential. Because private schools tend to have fewer students, they can offer more financial aid for international applicants.

We encourage you to look beyond the simple “public versus private” distinction: you can receive top-notch educations at both. You should focus more on the particulars of each college—financial aid, school size, intended major, and campus culture.

Liberal Arts
In Canada, you can major in Liberal Arts in almost every university; however, majoring in the Liberal Arts and attending a liberal arts university is quite different. Liberal arts universities (most U.S. universities) cultivate broad knowledge through the liberal arts philosophy of taking a wide variety of courses in the natural and social sciences. It is typical for students at a liberal arts university to not declare a major until their third year of study.

The liberal arts system differs from the Canadian post-secondary model in that Canadian students apply for a particular field of study. Liberal arts schools allow students to explore a variety of disciplines and earn a degree roughly equivalent to the Canadian four-year Bachelor of Arts (general) degree. In the United States, students graduate from liberal arts schools with either a Bachelor of Arts (B.A.) or Bachelor of Science (B.Sc) degree in their chosen major.

If you’re interested in a career in science but wouldn’t mind studying Shakespeare and Aristotle along with Mendel, you will feel at home at a liberal arts university.

Ivy League
“Ivy League”: two words that evoke prestige and low acceptance rates, but what do they really refer to?

The term actually refers to a sports conference of eight private institutions in the northeastern area of the country: Brown University, Columbia University, Dartmouth College, Harvard University, Princeton University, University of Pennsylvania, and Yale University. Today, the term has become synonymous with academic prestige and selectivity (Harvard admits just below 6 percent of its undergraduate applicants each year), but not all highly selective or rigorous schools belong to the Ivy League. For example, MIT and Stanford University, which currently admits an even smaller percentage of applicants than Harvard does, are both prestigious and selective, but neither belongs to the Ivy League.

“Public Ivies” are considered top-tier public state universities. They don’t have anything to do with the Ivy League; the term simply refers to their academic prestige. Public Ivies include the University of California-Berkeley, University of Virginia, the University of Vermont, and the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor.

Virtual Resources to begin Narrowing your Search
A list of our favorite websites to help you begin narrowing your search from the 4,700 universities and colleges available to the one that is right for you.

Print Resources
With those terms cleared up, start your search by browsing university websites, magazines, and resources. Below are some common guides students use when beginning their college search:

As you look through these guides and do some exploring of your own, it’s important to keep your interests and priorities in mind. Ask yourself questions about where you envision spending your four years of undergraduate education. What kind of community would you like to live in? How important to you is campus life? Would you like to be in a rigorous, competitive academic environment, or would you prefer to balance academics, extracurricular activities, and your social life?

As you narrow your search, create a plan to pay for your education.

Go to STEP 2 : Funding your Studies, for more information.

As always, if you have questions, email us at or schedule a 1:1 advising appointment with your EducationUSA Canada advisor.