Academic Life

These suggestions and explanations are designed to help students and scholars become accustomed to the U.S. academic environment. Do not hesitate to ask questions of fellow students, academic advisors, teaching assistants, professors, or HIO staff members.

Tips for Academic Success

Have reasonable expectations

  • Tasks may take longer to do at first. A period of adjustment is needed when studying in a new academic system.
  • The first term may not be the time to take extra or particularly difficult courses.

Choose your courses wisely

  • Choose a combination of more and less demanding courses. Look to see how many papers and exams are required. Have a clear understanding about the role of the reading assignments in a course. In some courses, the reading is central; read the texts closely and know the material for exams. In other courses, readings may be supplementary or optional. Most students can't thoroughly read everything that is assigned. Prioritization is helpful: read the most important material first and carefully; then skim the less important assignments (See Preparation below).
  • Taking too many courses may result in feelings of discouragement and poor academic performance.

Avoid procrastination

  • Study hard from the start and keep up with reading assignments. If you fall behind in the beginning you will spend the rest of the semester trying to catch up.
  • Plan your time; make a schedule and keep it.
  • Learn to prioritize and always set some time aside to socialize.

Talk with instructors

  • Asking for clarification or help early in the semester from the professor.
  • There is no shame in not understanding!
  • Making an appointment to see a professor might be a better way to address your concerns.
  • Asking questions immediately following a lecture is best for questions related to the lecture just given.
  • When a student is not doing well, it is expected that the student will contact the professor.
  • Organizing or being part of a study group can be very helpful when dealing with a large volume of work.

Understanding the academic system in the United States

  • Memorizing large quantities of material is not usually very important.
  • Keep an open mind; be receptive to other ways of thinking during class discussions.
  • The emphasis in the United States is on thinking for oneself.
  • Use information from many sources.

Resources for Academic Success

The Academic Resource Center (ARC) offers workshops, peer-tutoring, academic coaching, and study spaces. Harvard College, GSAS, GSE, and KSG students can access this resource. If students don't qualify to use the ARC they can inquire with their respective schools to see if similar services are offered.

The Barker Center offers free services to students to help them improve their writing skills and is staffed by undergraduate peer tutors. Some staff members are trained specifically to assist those for whom English is a second language. Note: the Center does not offer proofreading services. This service is available to undergraduates and GSAS students.

The Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning seeks to create transformational learning experiences for faculty, graduate students, and undergraduates in Harvard's Faculty of Arts and Sciences. The Bok Center's Professional Communication Program for International Teachers and Scholars offers international graduate students, TFs and scholars in FAS the opportunity to develop their speaking, teaching and cultural skills for the Harvard environment.

The Derek Bok Center also offers the online program Professional Communication for International Scholars as a resource to all Harvard ID holders. It provides an overview of academic culture and communication at Harvard and covers English language skills (speaking, listening, writing, and reading) and cross-cultural communication skills. Students and scholars can engage with materials in different areas of communication, complete a variety of tasks to become aware of their strengths and weaknesses as communicators, and find additional resources through this online program.


What to Expect in a U.S. Classroom?

Active participation by students

  • Being silent in class can be interpreted as lack of interest or being unprepared for class.
  • Some courses will have sections devoted to discussion. Sections are smaller group meetings often taught by teaching fellows which focus on discussions of the materials already covered in the bigger lecture.

Taking responsibility and being self-motivated

  • Attendance is not always taken; it depends on the course and the teacher.
  • Topics covered in the lecture but not in the reading may be on exams.
  • In some courses students will do most of the work with the professor as a guide.


  • Sometimes relationships between students and professors will seem casual.
  • Only address a professor by their first name if you have been invited to do so.
  • Although the behavior with the professor is relaxed it does not mean you are equals in the academic setting.
  • Behavior of U.S. students may seem disrespectful. It is not uncommon for students to eat or drink while a class is in session.
  • Students may be late for class or leave early (discreetly).

Diverse teaching styles

  • Some professors will be formal; others informal.
  • Some will require more participation from students; others less
  • Students need to be ready to defend their views.

Organization of the Academic System

There are thirteen professional schools plus the College at Harvard University. Each school has its own registrar's office that produces a course catalog and an on-line version. Hard copies of the course catalog are available at registration and for undergraduate students the catalog is delivered to their dorms or houses. The catalog has course information as well as graduation requirements, information pertaining to credits, grades, deadlines, etc. The on-line version is always more up to date. Cross-registration with other schools may also be possible.

Academic year

The fall term (semester) of September through January, and the spring term of February through early June generally constitute the academic year.

Course credits

The course credits are a system schools create to keep track of the courses students have taken and need to complete a degree. The registrar's office in each school is a good source for this information.


Tests are given mid-way through or at the end of the term. They may call for specific, short replies or for longer responses in the form of essays. Often examinations are a combination of both forms.

  • Objective questions have only one right answer and include true or false, sentence completion ("fill in the blanks"), multiple-choices, and matching. They cover a broad range of material and demand a particular type of study.
  • Many exams include one or two questions requiring essays of several pages, or several questions requiring only a paragraph or two. Essay questions generally specify how to approach the material. Terms often used in essay questions are analyze, compare and contrast, criticize, define, describe, discuss, evaluate, explain, illustrate, interpret, justify, outline, prove, review, summarize, and trace. Professors or academic advisors can provide clarification on these terms.
  • The exam room is monitored by proctors who enforce instructions given by the professor; such instructions may not allow the use of books or other resources.
  • Talking during examinations, bringing written notes into exams (unless the professor has specified otherwise), copying from another student's paper, or having someone else do your work is considered cheating. Please be aware that something as simple as asking to borrow a pencil or using another student's calculator during an examination may be misunderstood. Penalties for cheating can result in expulsion from the University.

Full-time program

As an international student you are required to maintain full-time registered student status each semester. Consult with your Registrar's Office for definition of full-time status at your school.


Each school at Harvard has a different system for grading its students. It is imperative you understand the system in your school. For clarification contact your academic advisor or staff in the registrar's office.


The most common method of instruction in the United States is lectures supplemented by classroom discussion (small classes called sections), by reading assignments in textbooks, journals, or library books, and by periodic written assignments.

Office Hours

Teachers often set aside time for talking to their students. If there isn't time or opportunity to raise questions in class, students may see their professors privately during their office hours or by making an appointment for another convenient time. Professors usually announce their office hours at the first meeting of class.


Preparation will take about two to three hours per one hour of classroom time. This time would be devoted to reviewing class notes and texts, writing down questions for discussion, reading in advance the assigned material, and writing homework assignments, including term papers.


A seminar is a small class on specialized topics at the advanced undergraduate or graduate level. It is likely to be devoted entirely to discussion. Students are often required to prepare presentations based on their independent reading and research.


A syllabus is a list describing the course objectives, materials to be covered, due dates for assignments, schedule of exams and reference reading. It may also describe the professor's office location and office hours. It is imperative that students read the syllabus.

Take-home examination

Questions to be answered in the form of written essays outside of class hours, using resource materials. It must be taken alone, not in collaboration with fellow students.

Term papers

A comprehensive paper based on study or research that has been done in the library or laboratory. Professors will usually assign such a paper in the early part of the course. Students are expected to work on it throughout the term and submit it near the end of the term. The grade received on the paper may be very important in determining the course grade. Booklets available in bookstores and libraries explain the format for footnotes and bibliographies. Questions about a particular term paper assignment should be discussed with your professor.


The transcript is the official record of the courses students have registered for and the grades received in them. It is maintained in the registrar's office of the respective school. Students should receive a copy once a year. Official copies may also be ordered for a fee.

Academic Honesty & Plagiarism


Any violation of trust can have serious consequences.

  • It could mean failure of an exam, paper, or course.
  • It could be part of a student's record.
  • It could mean suspension or expulsion.


  • Using others' words and/or ideas as your own.
  • When using someone else's words and/or ideas, you must cite the source.
  • Cite the source correctly.
  • Even if you don't use the exact words, using someone's ideas without giving them credit is plagiarism.


  • Having someone else write your paper
  • Having another person do your take-home exam
  • Getting answers from someone else during an exam
  • Although students may, and sometimes are, encouraged to work together in study groups, each student should do their own homework.

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