10 Ways Being a Student in the US is Different Than in Russia

Being a student in the U.S. is different in a lot of ways than what I experienced back in Russia.  Classes are taught differently, schools are run differently, and grades are doled out differently – some for the good and some for the bad.  Here are the top 10 things I’ve had to adjust to as a student in America.  Would they be as different for you?

1. Your grades are private

Report card:
Louis Shackleton bucks the trend and posts his first semester grades

While in the U.S. students’ grades are not revealed to the whole class, in Russia it is the opposite. It is common for a Russian professor to announce students’ grades publicly in the presence of the whole class. It is also common for Russian professors to put a list of students’ names and grades next to the names on their office door, so everyone at the university can see the students’ grades.

» Read more about why Americans don’t share their grades publicly

2. Your parents are not involved in your academics

Another policy in line with the previous point is the habit of colleges in Russia to call or write letters to students’ parents if students do not do well academically. This is what American students would probably take as a violation of their privacy.

3. Notetaking is optional

Students in a seminar-style class, not taking notes (Photo: Marcos Ojeda)

Many Russian professors require that students take notes during the lecture or seminar. They often tell students what exactly to write down, and if they see someone is not taking notes they may ask the student to leave the classroom. In an American classroom it’s usually your choice what you want to write down or not.

4. No exam determines your whole grade

Exams in Russia are certainly more stressful than in the U.S., because in many cases a final exam is worth 90 or 100 per cent of the grade. The exam format is similar for all majors and class years. During the exam, a student receives a few random questions based on the content of the entire course, and often has to answer the questions orally in a one-to-one conversation with the professor.

» Read more about how exams and grading are different in the U.S.

5. Classes can contain students from different years, and different majors

Unlike in the U.S., in Russia, you will never see students of different class years in the same class. All students, after they have been admitted to a college, are assigned to groups according to their major and class year. Students then attend classes with the same group until they graduate.

6. Your academic decision-making requires, and receives, help

In the U.S., academic advisors play a crucial role in helping students make all kinds of academic decisions. In Russian universities, there are no academic advisors, simply because there is no need for them. Russian students cannot choose what courses to take. Colleges together with the government develop a program of study for each major compulsory for all students pursuing that major.

» Find out the top ways academics are different in the U.S.

7. Textbooks are EXPENSIVE

Lots of books (Creative Commons photo by Flickr user sleepyneko)
Photo: Eunice (ejchang on Flickr)

Although Russian students experience some lack of freedom in shaping their college education, they are better off than American students when it comes to textbooks. Russian universities provide all students regardless of whether they receive financial aid or not with free books through universities’ libraries.

8. Financial aid can be given based on your need, not just your qualifications

Speaking about financial aid, Russian universities do not normally offer need-based financial aid. Only orphans are awarded a tuition waiver. Unlike in the schools across the U.S., all financial aid in Russian schools is merit-based.

» How do American universities determine financial aid awards?

9. You take significantly fewer classes

About half of the courses that Russian students take in universities are evaluated on pass or fail scale. Students take such courses in addition to four or five graded courses, so the average number of courses students take each semester is about twice as big as the normal course load in American colleges.

10. There’s less … ummm … “collaboration”

There is something about the Russian culture that is responsible for students’ tendency to collaborate in many situations in which American students don’t, for example, during exams. As students progress from their first year to their last, they develop more and more creative ways of “helping” each other without being caught by professors.

Do you agree with my top ten? What has been or would be most different for you?


  1. Anna,

    You nailed it, I completely agree with you and yes, I was attending Moscow State University and spent 10 years attending American colleges and university — your 10 reasons you listed is just perfect.

    Thank you for sharing 🙂

  2. As I was working on another post on U.S./Russia education system differences, I realized that in this post I talked to a non-Russian audience, and that got some Russians disagree. I now see why. When I say things like “there is no choice in Russia’s education system,” what I mean is that there is some choice, but it is really negligible compared to the choice students have in the U.S., and so I dismiss it entirely for simplicity. Yes, there are schools in Russia where students can choose, say, 3 subjects out of 40 and for each of those 3 subjects, they have a choice of 2 or 3 courses. This leaves us with choice, as some would argue, but that wouldn’t be considered a real choice for many American students who choose from hundreds of courses their colleges have to offer.

  3. You are right, there are some electives but in 6 years I have been studying (Tomsk) we had only 2 options to choose from. So not a lot of diversity here. Also, those options are not far-fetched. In US you can take dance while studying mathematics which is not happening in Russia (for the good or for the worse).

  4. Ivanovo. Teach English at Ivanovo State Uni. The state-approved curriculum requires a number of subjects to be up to students to choose. Apparently, some colleges do not observe that…It’s risky though…

  5. I am sure this is an exception rather than rule and it concerns a small number of courses. What city are you from?

    1. In fact no! you can see this optional courses mostly when you are studying a Master degree.
      But in fact is all around russia.

  6. Hi Anna, thanks for sharing. One thing you are not quite right about – students do have the right to choose certain (optionals) subjects: these are even called “subjects for students to choose from” (дисциплины по выбору студента)

    1. Interesting that you have transferred to Mt. Holyoke, which is just a few miles from where I live. Why did you choose that particular college? Further, why did you transfer to the U.S. rather than remain in Russia? As the comments seem to suggest, not all colleges in Russia are the same. The same holds true for the U.S.. In fact, colleges vary greatly in terms of student body, class requirements, cost, financial aid, etc. In fact, you live close enough to Hampshire College (just to the north of you) to travel up there some day and see a really different learning environment. At Hampshire, there is NO core curriculum and students are free to design their education any way they like. So if you really want to see academic freedom, go visit Hampshire. It is also one of the most expensive colleges in the country. While your up that way, you can visit Smith College as well, which is an all girls school and also very expensive. It is very different as well in terms of requirements, etc.

      1. Dear LJ,

        I wrote about how I arrived at a decision to transfer to the US in another post //blogs.voanews.com/student-union/2011/10/10/how-i-made-myself-a-good-candidate-for-us-admissions-and-other-advice-from-a-successful-applicant/

        Nowhere do I claim that all schools in Russia or the US are the same, I believe that was your misunderstanding. VOA authors talk about things from their own perspectives and do not impose any particular visions. Still, sometimes we do make generalizations, which are true generalizations but they will obviously not work for every single case. As you understand, there are thousands of schools in the US, just like in Russia, and every one of them is different in one way or another, yet it’s possible to see the big picture if we look at them broadly. I was able to do that because of the uniqueness of my experience – I went to a university in Russia and two colleges in the US.

        I’m well aware of the Hampshire college learning environment but very clearly it is an exception rather than the rule, and a school with structured requirements like Mount Holyoke is closer to most other schools than Hampshire college is. And how does the price of the school matter for my topic?

  7. Hi, I’m MOLY. I live in Mongolia. I think that Russian universities program is same as Mongolian education. Can you tell where and why do you study in America and of course what major?

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