Expect that it will take months to adjust to academic culture in America even if your English is perfect and you were the top student in your country. We hope these tips will help you adjust a little faster.
Classes May Be Informal - Each professor or TA (teaching assistant) has their own way of running their class. Some may ask you to call them by their first name. In some situations it's ok to respectfully disagree with your teacher, if you explain your reasoning.
Learn How Each Course is Graded - In America, every course may be graded differently. By the end of your first class session you should know how much each part (like attendance, pop quizzes, exams, papers, projects, homework) counts toward your grade. If not, ask.
Be Ready to Interact - Class participation may be part of your grade. Even if it's not, you are usually expected to ask questions and discuss what's being taught in most small classes and even in some larger lectures. If possible, read up on the discussion topic before class and prepare some questions and comments in advance.
Ask Questions if You Don't Understand - In US academic culture there is no shame in asking questions. It is expected. Asking questions is important for understanding expectations and rules, class materials, research and project assignments, which courses and instructors to choose, and American culture.
Cultural Rules and Expectations - A big challenge is that most cultural norms are not written down. You need to learn them by observation, asking questions, and researching them online.
Laugh at Your Mistakes - You will make mistakes. Learn from them, but don't punish yourself or hide. If classmates laughed at your question, don't stop participating. Perhaps, joke about your misunderstanding next time you speak up in class. Being able to laugh at yourself helps you succeed when crossing cultures.
Explore - Join a student organization, find others with a common interest (like in Meetup groups), visit tourist attractions, or share your culture with American and international friends. Everyone needs to take breaks from studying (even grad students and post-docs). Take advantage of the many opportunities to learn and grow outside of classes and research.
Be Ready to Choose - In the US, individual rights, personal responsibility, and freedom of choice are valued. So, the many decisions you will need to make and the large number of options that are possible for each decision can feel overwhelming.
Ask Questions if You Don't Understand - That freedom means you should not expect people or authorities to prevent you from making poor choices. You'll need to take initiative and ask people if you want advice or help understanding your options before making decisions.
Be Original - Memorization alone usually doesn't lead to US academic success. Professors want to see if you can apply what you learned to solve new problems or create something original. They want to know which ideas are yours and which came from others, which brings us to the next point.
But Cite Your Sources - Especially when you write papers, anything you copy and paste into your work needs to list the original source. If you don't cite where your information came from, it's often considered plagiarism, a serious offense that can get you expelled from school, even for a first offense.
Ask Questions if You Don't Understand - Did we mention this is helpful?
Form a Study Group - Create or join a group of other students in your class so you can study together and help each other understand the material. Most professors or TAs don't arrange these for you, so you'll want to take the initiative and get to know some of your classmates early in the term.
Go to Office Hours - Quick questions can be asked during class or right before/after class. If you are lost and need more explanation, meet your instructor during office hours (you may need to make an appointment). Don't wait until right before the exam; arrange to meet soon so you won't get further behind. These can be one-on-one meetings or you could go with a classmate or two (perhaps from your study group).
You're Not Alone; Ask for Help - You may experience problems, but US universities and communities have many people and resources to help. However, you do need to ask. American friends, the international student office, and academic advisors can be good contacts. Perhaps asking "who is the best person for me to contact about this issue?" is a good way to start. International InterVarsity wants you to have a great experience in the US, so contact us if we can connect you with local community or help you deal with problems that came up.