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Costa Rica
| Education


You are responsible for knowing any courses that might be required by your home university while you are abroad. Bring a copy of your current college catalog, an updated copy of your transcript, and contact information for your academic and study abroad advisors at your Home Institution in case a course change has to be made. Academic flexibility and patience are requirements for studying in Latin America. Also take into consideration that, even if the course you want is available, your level of Spanish along with your GPA will increase or decrease the possibilities to register the course.

As an ISEP participant, you are required to register at your host university for a full academic course load, which is comprised of five courses (15 credit hours) at UNA, and to follow their regulations for regular students. Be sure to arrive with a list of back up courses in case your first selections are not available. During Orientation week, the ISEP Resident Director, along with the academic assistant from UNA’s Programa Intercambio Estudiantil (PIE), will help you find alternate courses in case your first choices are not available.

Note: The Escuela de Literatura may limit enrollment in literature courses to those students who have a very good command of the language and high grades in previous Spanish courses. The language placement test that is taken during orientation is factored into the decision to allow students to enroll in literature courses

UNA Academic Load and Course Accreditation Information:

  • UNA requires exchange students to register for a minimum of 15 credits or five classes
  • Courses are worth 2 to 4 credits depending on the type of class (theoretical, applied, seminar, workshop); in-class contact hours plus out-of-class workload expectations; and other factors from each Department.
  • Note that the UNA academic system does not use contact hours as a way of determining how many credits are assigned to a course, as many U.S. institutions do.
  • At UNA, classes that meet for fewer hours may have higher expectations about the amount of time students put into their studies outside of class (For instance, the Humanities or “Estudios Generales” classes are three-credit courses requiring three weekly contact hours per class plus approximately seven hours of work outside of class.)

General Course Organization at UNA:

  • Classes may meet in one solid block of time once a week as opposed to one hour three times a week.
  • Some courses are only offered in the afternoons or evenings to accommodate their professor’s day jobs.
  • Because many professors have other jobs, you will need to chase down your professors before or after class or stop them in the hallways to set a time to talk to them about the class.
  • In some social and biological programs students have to do fieldwork outside of class, either by themselves or with the professors on fieldtrips. This fieldwork requires extra work in preparing the instruments to collect the information and in writing reports afterwards. Nevertheless, the possibility of visiting distant places and geting to know more of the biological and social biodiversity of the country is a unique experience that, according to many past students, well compensates for the extra work.
  • At UNA, in most cases, students study in groups. They share the load and see themselves as competing against the system, not against each other. They may not attend class frequently, asking their friends to take notes instead.
  • Texts are very expensive, so most classes do not use them. Instead, many classes use photocopy readings. Joining a study group is an ideal way to meet people, but hard to organize.
  • In most state run universities, students have to present two term papers or exams along with quizzes and a final oral and written presentation of the results of a research topic or, a specific assignment. This research paper can be substituted by a final comprehensive exam.
  • Most of the time, research papers are done in groups, which requires good cultural sensitivity on the part of the international student in order to fit in. This is a challenge that most students find very rewarding after completing their exchange period.

You are classified as a "full fee-paying, non-degree or visiting student" and are entitled to enroll in any course for which you are qualified and in which space is available. You are subject to the standard regulations of UNA and have the same rights, privileges, and obligations as regular degree students. You must abide by all the rules and regulations of your host institution. Your teachers will make no distinction between American and Costa Rican students, and you will be held to the same standard as degree-seeking students.


Costa Rica has five public universities located in the major cities and regional campuses throughout the country. With very few exceptions, State universities in Latin America, including Costa Rica, operate on the European, or Continental, system. Students in Costa Rica go directly from their undergraduate degree to a professional career. Students can enroll in law school, medical school, and courses for every other career as undergraduates. Depending upon the field of study, generally students may take from four to seven years to complete their studies. After four years of study, students are awarded the Grado de Bachiller, equivalent to a Bachelor’s degree in the United States. Students can complete one more year of study and write a formal thesis to be awareded the Licenciatura. Finally, studying two more years will earn them a Master’s degree (Grado Académico de Maestría). In some faculties, however, students can go from the bachelor’s to a Master’s degree. Finally, students may study up to three and a half more years (after the Bachiller or Licenciatura) to obtain a Doctorate (Doctorado Académico).

When you enroll in a Latin American university, you will encounter the following differences:

  • You will find it difficult to take courses in different academic fields at the same time as there will most probably be scheduling conflicts across fields. Local students take all of their classes in one Facultad and receive a degree in one field. In comparison, the U.S. system is more like a smorgasbord, where students take a little of everything and do not specialize until the end.
  • Latin American universities operate on the carrera system. Under this system, students in Costa Rica studying the same subject take all of their classes together for the full four years until they graduate with a degree from their Facultad. As a result, students are grouped together in a cohort within a given carrera and see each other almost exclusively throughout the academic day. Some ISEP students have found that a good way to get to know local students is to take a least two classes with the same group (e.g. Two second-year classes in the Department of Sociology).
  • Because of the carrera and bachillerato system, ISEP students usually find that they cannot manage third- or fourth-year classes at a Latin American university. Unless the classes you take are called "Introduction to… ." professors will assume some knowledge of the subject, and in many cases, much more knowledge than you have. Do not forget that you will be taking these classes along with regular degree-seeking students in Spanish. The professors may give you an extra break, but they rarely slow down.
  • Latin American universities prepare their students for professional careers; Universities in Costa Rica are more career-focused than US universities, offering more structured programs and little opportunity to take classes of interest outside of one's specific program. Unlike many US institutions, there is little emphasis on have a generall “Core Curriculum” shared by all students graduating from the university Latin American universities place much less emphasis on student services. If a student has a problem, it is generally up to the student to find a solution, perhaps with the help of his or her family. Most professors and other academics are not expected to spend time advising students through regular office hours. You will need to chase down your professors before or after class or stop them in the hallways to set a time to talk to them about the class.
  • Finally, being directly enrolled in a Latin American university is an incredible, but wonderful challenge. It is the best way to fully learn about the differences in our societies and to meet a wide range of people.


In Costa Rica primary and secondary education is free and compulsory since 1917. The country has one of the world's highest literacy rates, estimated at 95 percent. Primary education is compulsory up to ninth grade. Access to higher education is based on the bachillerato or high school certificate, which is awarded after 12 years of primary and secondary education.