Undergraduate Study

American education offers a rich field of choices for the international student. There are over 4000 institutions of higher education in the United States. Over 20 million U.S. students are enrolled in higher education in the United States (source). The number of international students attending universities and colleges in the United States increased to approximately 900,000 according to the Institute of International Education (IIE) (source). The most popular fields of study for international students in the U.S. are business and management, engineering, mathematics and computer sciences.

Structure of Undergraduate Education

Structure of Undergraduate Education

After finishing high school (twelfth grade), U.S. students may go on to college or university. College or university study is known as “higher education”. Study at a college or university leading to the Bachelor’s degree is known as “undergraduate” education. Study beyond the Bachelor’s degree is known as “graduate” school or “postgraduate” education. Advanced or graduate degrees include law, medicine, the M.B.A., and Ph.D. (doctorate).

The undergraduate Bachelor’s degree typically takes four years to complete. At most institutions those years are known as the freshman, sophomore, junior, and senior years of undergraduate study. Many students complete their first two years at a junior or community college, earning an Associate’s degree, and then transfer to a four-year college or university to complete two more years for a bachelor’s degree.

The curriculum of many undergraduate programs is based on a “liberal arts philosophy” that requires students to take courses from a range of subjects to form a broad educational foundation. During the first two years, students have the opportunity to explore various fields of study such as social sciences, humanities, and natural or physical sciences. These courses are often called a “core curriculum” or “distribution requirements”. By the end of the second year, students at many institutions are asked to choose a specific field of study – known as the major – on which they focus for the remainder of the undergraduate program. Students then spend the next two years taking more courses directly related to their major.

Students who major in such fields as business, engineering, or science find that the curriculum is more tightly structured than it is in the humanities or social sciences. Business, science, and engineering majors may have to take more courses related to their major field of study and have fewer “elective”, or optional, courses.

Types of Institutions

Types of Institutions

Institutions of higher education include two-year colleges (known as community or junior colleges), four-year colleges, universities, institutes of technology, vocational and technical schools, and professional schools such as law and medical schools.

Two-Year Colleges

A two-year college admits high school graduates and awards an Associate’s Degree. Two-year college graduates usually transfer to four-year colleges or universities, where they complete the Bachelor’s Degree in two or more additional years.

Some two-year colleges are state-supported, or public; others are private. There are 1132 two-year community colleges in the United States (115 of them are private, and 986 are public) (source). About 7.0 million U.S. students attend 2-year institutions and 13.2 million attend 4-year institutions (source).

Less common are junior colleges (often private). The community college is the most common two-year institution of higher education. At community colleges, students may complete two-year occupational programs in fields such as nursing or complete the first two years of professional studies in preparation for fields such as business or law. Community colleges serve a local community, usually a city or county. Fees are minimal to local residents and residence halls are rare because the institutions primary serve commuting populations. Often, community colleges welcome international students. Many of these schools offer special services to international students such as free tutoring. Some community colleges provide housing and advising services that an international student might need.

Four-Year Liberal Arts Colleges

There are around 600 liberal arts colleges in the Unites States. Some are very prestigious and selective. Most are private, but they can and do offer generous scholarships to excellent international students with financial need.

Liberal arts colleges are small, four-year institutions dedicated to teaching undergraduates mainly in the areas of humanities, language arts, social studies, and physical and natural sciences, as well as up to four years of pre-professional studies. Liberal arts colleges offer courses leading to four-year or occasionally five-year bachelor’s degrees only and are almost always non-public or independent. Many students enroll at liberal arts colleges to complete preparatory courses for graduate and professional schools. Class size is usually small at a liberal arts college and there are excellent student/faculty relations. Students get to know each other well and the chances to participate in campus activities are excellent.


Universities are generally defined as institutions that offer both undergraduate education (higher education leading to the bachelor’s degree) and graduate and professional education (post-bachelor’s degree education). Such institutions usually offer the bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees. They may also offer professional programs such as medicine, law, and engineering. Students may complete all or part of their pre-professional training at the undergraduate level at the university, or at other institutions.

Many of the most prestigious institutions in the Unites States are private universities, but the mere fact that they are private does not ensure quality. Private universities may vary a great deal in size and type, but most offer a full range of departments and majors at all levels. Attending a private university at the undergraduate level does not automatically mean admission to its graduate programs, however. Most graduate departments seek out students from a variety of backgrounds, including liberal arts colleges. However, students who graduate from private universities usually do have a wide range of opportunities available to them for employment or further study. Private universities can be very expensive, but most are able to offer a variety of financial aid packages and usually will fund a limited number of foreign students at the undergraduate level and a larger number at the graduate level. Some private universities, such as the universities of the Ivy Group (Harvard University, Princeton University, Yale University, University of Pennsylvania, Columbia University, Cornell University, Dartmouth College and Brown University) are very selective, only admitting the very best students.

Institutes of Technology

These are schools which offer at least four years of study in science and technology. Some institutes of technology have graduate programs. Others are similar to community or junior colleges and offer shorter courses in less advanced specialties.

Undergraduate Degrees

Undergraduate Degrees

In the U.S., the terms “college”’ and “university” are synonymous and refer to institutions that award undergraduate degrees. U.S. undergraduate degrees have a Liberal Arts philosophy, which requires students to take a wide variety of courses in the arts and sciences before concentrating in one academic area, creating a “well-rounded education”.

Associate’s Degrees: There are two different types of associate’s degrees. The college transfer associate’s degree is a two-year degree designed to meet the requirements of the first two years of a bachelor’s degree. The terminal associate’s degree is also usually a two-year degree designed to provide a vocational qualification.

Bachelor’s Degrees: These degrees consist of 1) general education courses in a wide range of subjects; 2) a major, which is the concentrated field of study and 3) electives which are a student’s free choice. Bachelor’s degrees are usually completed in 4 years; however, there is no fixed time scale. Rather, a specified number of credits, units or semester hours are required and the degree is awarded upon their completion. Each class you take will be given a credit value. Continuous assessment is a prominent feature and each course (class) is graded and the grade is then converted into a numeric equivalent on a scale of 0 – 4.0. Each score is averaged to create a Grade Point Average (GPA), which is used as an indicator of performance.

Application Process

Application Process

If you are planning to study for your associate or bachelor’s degree in the U.S., then your first step is to read this Time Schedule for Applying to American Universities, which provides introductory information on admission requirements, how and when to apply, admissions tests, costs, financial aid and visas.

Time Schedule for Applying to American Universities
(for prospective undergraduates)

The recommended time scale assumes that your U.S. university term starts in late August or early September. If you are planning to start in January, the process can be significantly shortened, as application deadlines are much closer to enrolment dates. Even for an autumn start, you may be able to complete the process in less time.

13 - 18 months prior to enrolment (February - August)

Qualifications: What you need to be admitted

If you are considering pursuing an undergraduate degree at a U.S. institution, one of the first considerations is whether you have the minimum entry qualifications. Bulgarian-educated students are expected to hold at least five or above (on a 6.00 scale) in academic subjects.

Choosing a U.S. degree program

Once you know you have the basic qualifications to be accepted at a U.S. institution, you should consider whether a U.S. degree is right for you. U.S. undergraduate degrees have a Liberal Arts philosophy, which requires students to take a wide variety of courses in the arts and sciences before concentrating in one academic area, creating a “well-rounded education”.

Choosing an institution
The wealth of options available in choosing a U.S. institution presents both extraordinary opportunities and some challenges. You and your family should compile a list of factors that are important to you. This will narrow your pool of universities for in-depth investigation to a manageable number. Below are some criteria you may want to consider when choosing the right institution for your academic goals and your personality.

Cost is often a major consideration in choosing a U.S. university. International students must prove they have sufficient funding to cover all costs for at least the first year in order to receive a student visa.

Financial aid may be available from colleges for international students. However, students in the U.S. are expected to get assistance from their families to cover the high education costs. Please read our Scholarships page for further information. Be certain to determine what scholarships are available to international students and their eligibility criteria.

Accreditation: Check that any university you are considering is regionally accredited, otherwise you may have difficulty having the degree recognized by other universities and employers. The Bulgarian Fulbright Commission can confirm for you whether a university is regionally accredited.

The admission difficulty of institutions varies greatly in the U.S. There are institutions that accept less than 15% of applicants and others that accept all applicants who meet their basic entrance requirements. Most institutions look at more than academic performance when making admissions decisions. Even if you are a top student, we recommend that you apply to a range of institutions to ensure yourself a place.

Your field of study will obviously be a consideration in your choice of institution.  You may be relieved to know, however, that because of the liberal arts curriculum, you are not required to declare your field of study on your application.

The environment can vary greatly from college to college and many issues can impact the personality of a college. The location of the institution-large city or small town, East Coast or Midwest-as well as the weather will have an impact. The enrolment at institutions can range from 500 to 50,000 students, which will offer different opportunities and academic climates for students.

Campus life will also have an impact on the personality of a college. Consider the types and variety of social activities on campus. Are there activities that suit your personality? Can you join extracurricular activities such as sports teams, academic clubs, university newspapers, theatre productions, etc.? Some universities, while accepting students of any race, creed or color, were established with specific missions, such as religious affiliations, women-only campuses, or a particular ethnic majority on campus.

12 - 16 months prior to enrolment (May - September)

The Admissions Process

Standardised Tests:
This is the time you will need to be preparing for and taking any required admissions tests. The universities’ application materials and web sites or various university directories will indicate the standardized tests that are required. Most students will be required to sit the SAT. For the most competitive institutions, you may also need to sit the SAT Subject Tests.

If so, scores for two or three subject tests are usually requested. Contact the institutions directly to find out which subject tests they prefer for your intended area of study. If you plan to apply to universities with deadlines before 1 December that require the SAT and the SAT Subject Tests, plan to take one of the examinations in May or June. You must register 6 weeks before the test. Please read our Testing information. Some universities may allow you to take a test after their application deadline, but you must confirm this with them.

As Bulgaria does not have English as its only official language, you will also need to take the TOEFL iBT (Test of English as a Foreign Language) to prove your English is sufficient. If you have studied in the American University in Bulgaria for a major qualification, you may contact each university to request a “waiver” from the TOEFL iBT. If each institution grants one, you will not need to sit the test.

The Bulgarian Fulbright Commission offers consultations on registration details and content information for these tests. We also organize preparatory courses.

9 - 12 months prior to enrolment (September - December)

The Application

Once you have selected the colleges, you are ready to begin the application process. Each institution has its own application, deadlines and procedures, so you should contact each one directly for the forms. Many institutions offer on-line applications, but it is usually necessary to send some information by post. Deadlines may be as early as November or as late as May or June, but most fall in January and February. You should use a calendar to map the application deadlines to be certain you allow plenty of time to complete all steps of the process.

U.S. applications will usually require some or all of the following:

  • The completed application form;
  • School transcripts – a document created by schools detailing subjects taken and grades received;
  • Proof of funding – a form is usually provided by the university and must be accompanied by bank statements as directed;
  • SAT and TOEFL scores, which must be sent directly from the test administrators to the universities;
  • Essays or personal statements;
  • Letters of recommendation;
  • Application fee – usually must be in U.S. dollars, ranging from $30 to $100 per university. You can apply for an application fee waiver, if granted.

The key to submitting your most competitive application is to allow plenty of time to complete all steps of the process, especially to write your essays.

2-4 months prior to enrolment (April - June)

Acceptances and rejections

Once you have decided which institution you will attend, notify them of your decision and return any official documents. Also, send letters of regret to any institutions you reject.


Most international students enter the U.S. on a non-immigrant student visa. Once you accept an offer from a U.S. university, the university will require proof of funds for the first year before sending you an I-20 or an IAP-66 government document. You can then apply for your visa – either an F-1 or a J-1, respectively. See bg.usembassy.gov/embassy for visa details.

0 - 4 months before enrolment (May - August)

Prepare to go!



Transferring Between Colleges

Most U.S. colleges and universities base their degree programs on a similar credit system. This makes it possible for students to transfer to a different college or university whilst studying towards a degree. In doing so the student receives credit for some or all of the coursework they have already completed. It should be noted that every university and/or department will have  their own subjective method of determining how much credit they will grant for previous coursework.

Most universities will prefer that students have completed at least one year of study before transferring, though many will consider applications from first year students. In addition, most universities have a two-year residency requirement, meaning that students must spend at least two years as a student with that university to graduate with a degree from that institution.

When transferring, the student will be asked to submit details of the courses s/he has completed. Some institutions will send the student a printout of the courses for which they will grant credit before the student enrolls at the university, while others may hold transfer credit decisions until enrolment. Students must be aware that not all work transfers automatically, and in most cases some work is “lost”, especially when trying to transfer courses not offered by the new university. Therefore transfer students often need extra time to graduate, or must take summer school combined with a heavier workload. In addition, most colleges have a maximum number of courses that a student may transfer. For example, a college that requires 34 credits at graduation may specify that the highest number of these credits that may be taken at another college is 17, thereby keeping their two year residency requirement. In such a case, a student may have to “sacrifice” some courses that could ordinarily be given transfer credit, but which exceed the maximum number of transfer courses.

Applying as a Transfer Student

The transfer application process may differ slightly from that for freshman applicants. Transfer students usually fill out a separate application form, and write a personal statement in addition to an essay outlining their reasons for wishing to transfer. This essay should not be a negative statement of complaint about why you are unhappy at your current institution, but instead a statement of why this new university will better suit your academic needs. Transcripts, or detailed score reports, from all institutions of higher education previously attended will need to be produced along with records of any financial assistance given. In addition to having the basic college entrance requirements (e.g. transfer students may need to take the SAT, transfer applicants are expected to have performed well at their current college, and to have proven themselves in higher education. It is important to note that transferring is not an easy way into the more selective universities; in fact, many of the more competitive colleges have even more demanding admissions standards at the transfer level than at the freshman level.

To apply for admission as a transfer student you must contact directly the college or university in which you are interested, with a brief explanation of your circumstances and a request for the application materials for a transfer student. The timeframe for transfer applications will most likely be later than for freshman applications, and some schools may have no deadline, but rather “priority dates” for which you should aim. Naturally, these details will vary with each institution. If you have not already taken the SAT, you will need to confirm whether it will be required by the university and obtain the information and registration materials accordingly.



Cost of Undergraduate Education

Rich in resources, technology, and diversity, higher education in the United States is the envy of the world. Unfortunately, U.S. colleges and universities are among the most expensive in the world. Tuition, room and board, books and supplies, and personal expenses cost well over $20,000 per year at the more expensive private institutions. Every school sets its own fees, therefore they vary widely. Tuition fees may run anywhere from $5,000 to $45,000/year. Students will also be required to purchase their books and other supplies, sometimes adding as much as $800/year to costs. Living expenses also vary and are highest in big cities. They may range from $9,000-$19,000 per academic year (10 months), which is in addition to tuition costs. You will also need to include transportation between the U.S. and Bulgaria, health insurance and personal expenses. Even public institutions, those supported by state or local governments, often cost more than $20,000 per year. Some institutions may offer aid only under special circumstances or after the student has completed (and paid for) the first year of study. Public (state) and two-year institutions rarely award financial aid to international students. But approximately 900,000 international students are currently enrolled in U.S. universities and colleges; with careful planning, you could join them.

Sources of Funding

Family Funds

Colleges and universities assume that students, both U.S. and international, will finance the majority of their educational expenses. Your family will also be expected to contribute as much as they can afford towards the cost of your education.

College and University Funds

After family resources, U.S. colleges are the primary source of funding for international undergraduate students. Colleges that follow the “need – blind” admissions policy make admissions decisions without regard for the financial circumstances of the candidate which means that once you are admitted, the college will provide all funds that you need to attend.

More funding is usually available from private than state institutions. Some institutions also offer athletic scholarships or performing arts scholarships. Be certain to determine what scholarships are available to international students and their eligibility criteria.

The undergraduate international student financial aid scene has gradually changed in recent years. As more colleges and universities have begun or recommitted themselves to recruiting international students, more have developed financial aid programs which may incorporate both need- and merit-based financial aid. These institutions, however, still number less than one-half of the colleges and universities in the U.S., and the financial aid available to undergraduates is still more limited than to graduate students.

Funding from independent funding bodies

Funding from independent funding bodies is less common, but still available. Finding such funding usually requires time and dedication to sift through listings in directories and on the Internet. Funding from Local Education Authorities in Bulgaria will generally not be available for study in the USA.

Need-Based Financial Aid

Full scholarships that cover total expenses are very rare. Funding is usually based on academic merit, though some colleges may give funding based on need. Need-based financial aid refers to awards made by a college or university to an undergraduate degree seeker, based on demonstrated need. A need-based financial aid package may include any of the following components:

  • merit-based scholarships (separately awarded)
  • grants (“free money”)
  • tuition remission
  • loans (usually with quite favorable repayment conditions)
  • on-campus employment

Merit-Based Scholarships

Merit-based scholarships are grants based on special academic, personal, or extra-curricular talent, with no regard to financial need. Such scholarships are becoming a popular means for colleges and universities to attract students who would otherwise consider another institution. This kind of funding, however, is limited.

Athletic Scholarships

These are partial or full grants made by the college or university to enroll students who have distinguished themselves in a particular sport. These students compete on the college’s team, providing a sought-after service to the college or university in exchange for an education. Both men and women are eligible. International students must meet strict academic requirements established  by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), which also sets the maximum number of athletic scholarships an institution can award in each sport.


Many colleges and universities expand their financial aid capacity by granting loans to international students as part of a financial aid package. Some loan schemes require a U.S. citizen/resident co-signer. Interest begins to accrue and the repayment schedule is established after graduation. Students will have to prove that loan repayment will not force them to work illegally in the U.S.


The Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) permits international students on an F-1 visa to work only part-time (maximum 20 hours per week) and only on campus. Students can normally expect to work 10-15 hours a week during the academic year, and full-time during vacation periods. Realistically, these earnings may be enough to pay out-of-pocket costs such as books, clothing, and personal expenses, but they will not pay any college bills. An on-campus job CANNOT be listed as a source of income for any official financial statements for a visa application.

For More Information

As part of your search for undergraduate financial aid, please browse through the following books for more scholarship opportunities.