School Life in the U.S

CIEE High School USA gives you the live-changing opportunity to attend high school in the U.S. To help you make the most of this opportunity, we hope you will read the guide provided below; it covers topics such as school spirit, dress codes, studying, graduation, and more. Understanding this information is key to having a successful and rewarding experience.

Activities, Sports, and Clubs
Many different activities, sports, and clubs are available at most high schools in the U.S. What is available at your specific school (and whether you are eligible to participate) will vary, but typical activities can be found below.


  • American football
  • Soccer
  • Basketball
  • Tennis
  • Volleyball
  • Baseball and/or softball
  • Field hockey
  • Wrestling
  • Cross country
  • Track and Field
  • Swimming
  • Cheerleading

Activities and Clubs

  • Speech and debate
  • School newspaper
  • Yearbook club
  • Foreign language club
  • International Club
  • Student government
  • Chess club
  • Math club
  • Drama and/or theater club
  • National Honors Society

Please note: Some activities may require a fee to participate. See the section on school fees for more information.

Communication and Language Expectations
For the exception of language-specific courses such as Spanish, French, German, etc., classes in U.S. high schools are taught in English. Understanding your teachers can be hard at first; they may speak quickly and use vocabulary that you are not familiar with. Due to regional accents, where you live may also play a role in your ability to understand what teachers are saying.

A few tips that will make it easier to succeed at school:

  • Pay careful attention during class to what your teacher is saying.
  • Most teachers want their students, including exchange students, to raise their hands during class to ask questions. Feel free to ask a question if you don’t understand!
  • If you are not yet comfortable speaking in class, then stay after class to speak with your teacher. Note that your teacher may have little time to prepare for the next class, so they may ask you to come back at the end of the school day or before the next day starts.
  • If you do not understand a homework assignment, ask the teacher or another classmate to explain it to you before it is due.
  • If you are at home and do not understand a homework assignment, ask a host family member to help explain it.
  • Schedule activities to allow enough time (usually two hours) to complete your schoolwork each day.
  • Do not wait until right before you go to bed to start your homework. You will already be exhausted, making it harder to understand and finish your work.

Dress Codes
While high schools in the U.S. have a wide variety of expectations regarding dress code – some private or religious schools require uniforms while most public schools do not – all schools will pay attention to what their students wear.

The general expectation is that all students dress respectfully and tastefully without showing too much of their bodies. Schools reserve the right to tell students to return home to change outfits if their clothing violates the school’s expectations or creates a disturbance in the classroom.

Remember that most Americans, especially those in smaller towns or rural environments, are very modest and that you will be expected to dress accordingly.

In the U.S., you will usually be graded on a 100-point scale or with letters: A, B, C, D, and F. Letter grades will often include either a plus or minus. As a CIEE student, you must maintain a grade average of C+ or higher. Your school might have higher requirements, especially if you want to receive a diploma. Your final grade (in each course) is typically the average of all assignments and exams. Teachers may also add points for participation.

Be sure to keep your Local Coordinator updated on how you are doing in school and what your current grades are. Some schools have online portals to check your grades. If your school offers such an online portal, share access with your Local Coordinator. Local Coordinators must report on how you are doing in school every month to CIEE, your international representative, and your natural parents, so be sure to keep them informed.

Guidance Counselors
As a student in an American high school, you will have access to a guidance counselor. In some cases, your guidance counselor will be the person who helps you register for your classes. Guidance counselors are a valuable resource; they can provide information about such things as school policies, school life, and the activities, clubs, and sports that are be available to you.

Your guidance counselor will also monitor your academic progress and speak with you and your teachers if any academic or social problems arise. This will help you understand any problems and will also help you solve them.

It is important to remember that you can ask your guidance counselor for help any time you are at school. (You may also want to contact your Local Coordinator for assistance.)

Homework is an important part of the American school system. Most students receive homework assignments in almost every class almost every day. Students typically spend about two hours or more on homework each night. You must complete all homework assignments and return them to the appropriate teacher on the due date to receive credit for your work. Your overall grade will be lowered if you do not complete your homework assignments (or turn them in late). In addition, your ability to learn the subject will be greatly reduced.

Assignments and evaluation will vary for each course and might differ greatly from what you are used to back home. Some examples of homework assignments include:

  • Completing a few dozen math problems
  • Writing an essay on a book you read
  • Studying for a multiple-choice or short-answer exam
  • Preparing a presentation that you will give to the class

It’s common for students to study or work on projects together, meeting up at the library, a coffee shop, or a student’s home. This is a great way for exchange students to make friends and succeed in class at the same time!

School Fees
Many high schools in the U.S. have fees that students are expected to pay. While the fees will vary from school to school, you will find a list of typical fees below:

  • School lunches (should you choose to buy one)
  • Locker fee
  • Library overdue fee (for books returned late)
  • School yearbook (should you choose to order one)
  • Uniform fees (for some sports, marching band, etc.)
  • Transportation fees

Additional note about club, activity, and sports fees
Many clubs, activities, and sport teams require participants to pay additional fees. The amount varies from activity to activity and from school to school. For more information, please contact your school.

School Traditions and Dances: Spirit Week, Prom, Homecoming, and More!
One big difference between American schools and most schools abroad is that U.S. schools have dances and school-wide activities at certain points throughout the year. For example, students will dress up in formal wear – dresses and suits – for the homecoming dance in the fall semester and again for prom in the spring.

Many schools will also hold what is called Spirit Week – a time when students participate in activities such as obstacle courses or dressing up for “pajama day.” While it is not mandatory to attend dances or participate in most school-wide activities, these can be a lot of fun and help you make memories that last a lifetime.