Studying in the U.S.

How your experience at Columbia University may differ from higher education in your home country.



Your experience at Columbia may differ from attending university in your home country. Even if our terminology is different, there is much you will find familiar.

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Educational Degrees in the U.S.

In the U.S., there are three main types of degrees, which are obtained in the following order:

Traditionally, students between the ages of 17 and 22 who have just graduated from high school pursue a B.A. (bachelor of arts), a B.S. (bachelor of science), or a B.F.A. (bachelor of fine arts) degree. Usually a bachelor’s degree focuses on the liberal arts or applied sciences and takes a minimum of four years to complete. Unlike many other parts of the world, U.S. institutions do not administer a bachelor’s degree in law.

Master’s degrees are for students who have already completed their bachelor’s. Master’s degrees require mastery of a specific field of study and usually take from one to three years, depending on the coursework and requirements for research and writing.

Doctoral degrees usually require one to two years of coursework beyond the master’s degree, and two to five more years for research and a dissertation in the field of study.

  1. Bachelor’s or Undergraduate Degree
  2. Master’s or Graduate Degree
  3. Ph.D. or Doctoral Degree

What Columbia Offers

Columbia offers bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees. It also offers non-degree programs and study of English as a second language through the American Language Program (ALP). We have four undergraduate schools offering bachelor’s degrees and 16 schools offering a combination of master’s and doctoral degrees.

The youngest school at Columbia, the School of Professional Studies was established in 2002 to focus on emerging professions. It is one of Columbia’s 16 schools accredited under the Arts and Sciences and resides on the historic Morningside Heights campus. Unlike other schools of continuing education in the United States, we offer a combination of degrees as well as individual courses, all of which graded and credit bearing.

We offer three main areas of study:

We offer admission into 12 master’s degree programs, most of which are appropriate for international students.

These are short-term, non-degree study opportunities for currently enrolled undergraduate and graduate students as well as adults who have earned a bachelor’s degree or graduate degree and are preparing to change careers or pursue an advanced degree in a new discipline.

The ALP is for students and professionals who want to improve their spoken and written English.

  1. Master’s degree programs
  2. Postbaccalaureate programs
    • Visiting Students Program. This is ideal for current undergraduate or graduate students who would like to study at Columbia for a 6- or 12-week summer session, one semester, or one full academic year. As a visiting student, you may choose from among thousands of undergraduate- and graduate-level University courses in more than 100 subject areas.
    • Certificates and certifications of professional achievement (CPAs). Certificates offer a focused form of advanced study that can be as intensive as a degree program. They are appropriate for graduate school preparation and career advancement. Advanced certificates can lead to gainful employment without the need to complete a full degree program. Offering introductory study that is less intensive than a certificate, CPAs can be an ideal entry point to pursuing a subject of interest or for career development or advancement.
    • Graduate School Preparation. Our Graduate Foundations program lets you build your own course of study to prepare for a master’s degree or a Ph.D.
  3. English as a Second Language



The School of Professional Studies offers programs throughout the calendar year. We divide our academic year into semesters and sessions.

Semester/Session Months
Fall Semester September–December
Spring Semester January–May
Summer Session 1 (D) May–June
Summer Session 2 (Q) July–August

A semester or summer session will be comprised of many assignments. Generally you will have midterm and final exams. A midterm, which is an important exam taken halfway through the semester, is often worth a large percentage of the grade for the course. You will most likely also have a final exam or project as well as class assignments and homework. All courses are graded and credit bearing. You will be taking courses with Columbia undergraduate and graduate students.

Courses generally meet any time of day from 8:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m., generally two days a week following a Monday/Wednesday or Tuesday/Thursday schedule. Undergraduate courses are required to have 45 contact hours with an expectation of two hours of coursework (some combination of homework, independent study, and assignments) for every hour of instruction.

Graduate-level courses generally meet one day a week and meet for 28 contact hours with an expectation of two hours of homework, independent study, and assignments for every one hour of instruction.

All professors set aside weekly office hours to meet and work with students who have questions or need additional help. Many courses also have a Teaching Assistant who will also assist students with coursework.

Courses generally fall into one of two formats: seminar and lecture. Seminars typically have fewer than 20 students while lecture style courses can have as many as 150 students.

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The Point System


Columbia awards academic credit on a point system. Most courses equal three points or credits. You are considered a full-time student — a status you need to qualify for a student visa — if you are registered for at least 12 points or about 4 courses per semester. You must complete a minimum of 36 points (about 12 courses) to earn a master’s degree and a minimum of 12 points (about 4 courses) to earn a certificate or a certification of professional achievement. (The precise point totals required to complete a master’s degree, certificate, or certification of professional achievement vary by program.) Generally students take 12 points per term. Taking more than 12 points should only be done in consultation with an academic advisor. 18 points is the maximum allowed per term. Note that at the School of Professional Studies, tuition is based on the number of points taken.


Class Participation

Many professors include class participation as part of your final grade. The smaller the class, the more important your participation will be. In the U.S., questioning or challenging the professor is viewed as a healthy sign of interest, attention, and independent thinking – as long as it is done within a context of mutual respect and academic discourse. If you are uncomfortable speaking in class, you might write down your thoughts or questions about the assigned readings and bring them with you to class so you have prepared statements to share. Some classes require participation in online discussions in addition to the in-class conversations. (This text has been adapted from the ISSO’s Coming to Columbia.)

Attendance and Grading

Professors state their attendance and grading policy when the course begins. Class attendance is generally required. Typically, you are graded on every assignment, including homework and unscheduled quizzes. You may also be graded on class participation. You must keep up with the reading and assignments listed in the syllabus throughout the semester and maintain a minimum C (2.0) Grade Point Average (GPA). Your GPA is computed on the following scale:

Excellent Good Fair Poor (But Passing) Failure
A+ = 4.33 B+ = 3.33 C+ = 2.33 D = 1.00 F = 0.00
A = 4.00 B = 3.00 C = 2.00    
A- = 3.67 B- = 2.67 C- = 1.65    

If you are transferring credits to your home institution, please consult with your university about requirements for credit transfer.

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Academic Integrity

Columbia takes academic integrity very seriously. Violations of academic integrity standards can result in expulsion from the University. One common infraction is plagiarism (representing another person’s work as your own) and cheating on exams or homework.

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