USA vs Mexico: Education

Readers are always asking me to write more about the day-to-day aspects of living in Mexico, and my first 4 years in Cancun were spent at college. My college experience in Cancun included so many ups and downs, mainly because the educational system in Mexico is so vastly different from schools in the USA.

My Cancun university had a hands-on approach with zero textbooks. I was interning at large beach resorts and giving presentations on luxury travel destinations while my friends back in the States were writing papers and doing homework. But did I graduate with more knowledge than my USA counterparts? I don’t know.

Me and some classmates at an event we organized for a college course

To sort out my ideas, I’m going to go through different areas of study to give my thoughts on which of the two countries has the upper hand in each specific area. Please keep in mind that this is from my experience (kindergarten through one semester of college in Virginia, then 4 years of Tourism Administration and 3 years working in Cancun), and it won’t apply to all areas of the USA or to all areas of Mexico. I’m drawing these conclusions based on the people in my circles of friends and my family, and it’s all highly subjective. You’ll see lots of generalizations here.

Geography and Current Events

The United States is so bad at this that they don’t even realize it. I always prided myself on excellent geography skills… until I moved to Mexico. My college classmates in Cancun knew so much about politics, conflicts and geography that I was dumbfounded. I realized that in the USA, we know a lot about our own politics and geography, but surprisingly little about other countries.

To give you an example, one day at work we found out that me and the other American girl at my office had no idea what the capital of Canada was. However, every single Mexican in the office knew the answer without hesitation. (I later tested my Facebook friends from back in the States, and only 1 of them knew the answer.) Humiliating.


I will give this one to the United States, but with caution. In my experience, my USA classmates were great at math while my Mexican classmates hated it with a passion. However, I was in advanced level math courses throughout high school, while the tourism majors of Cancun aren’t exactly known for their math skills.

My husband Jorge’s great at math and majored in engineering. We should have a math contest sometime. šŸ™‚

The Arts

USA wins this one by a landslide. American schools are very focused on creating “well-rounded” students, and in Virginia we were always required to take some form of art or music class. Here in Cancun, when they incorporated an art history class into my school, my classmates petitioned to have it taken away because it “wasn’t useful”. I’ve also never heard of a choir class, art class or band class here in Cancun, although I do know lots of musicians and singers!

That being said, Mexicans will always be better dancers. Sorry America. We’re not sexy.

On a class trip with my classmates to Xcaret


Mexico wins. By a lot.

Remember how USA schools love well-rounded students? Well, that has a downside. We spent so much time in Virginia high school building all kinds of knowledge in different subjects that we never learned how to actually do anything. My first semester of university in Cancun, many class conversations went way over my head because my Mexican classmates had been taking business-related courses since they were 15.

I also see tons of people my age in Cancun starting up their own businesses. The USA also has many talented entrepreneurs, but not nearly as many as I’ve seen in Mexico.


Mexico wins here, but let’s remember that I live in Cancun, where almost everybody has to speak some level of English. English language classes in Mexico (at least up until high school) are atrociously bad… many Mexican friends have taken 5+ years of English and can barely hold a conversation. However, once they’re thrown into the working world, they pick up the language impressively fast. Back in Virginia, most students didn’t seem to want to learn more than a conversational level of any language, even though the classes were great, but that might be from lack of necessity.

Spelling and Grammar

I’ll be honest, I used to think Mexican schools in general must have horrible spelling and grammar programs. My Cancun college classmates often asked me (the gringa) how to spell words in Spanish, and it’s common practice here to replace periods with commas. I also have many Mexican friends who misspell everyday words on a regular basis. My mind changed when I began working as a copywriter in an office with many Mexican copywriters, all with flawless spelling and grammar, not to mention great writing skills.

The invention of Facebook also made me realize that Americans don’t spell very well, either!

All that being said, I still have to give the win to the USA in this category.

On a class trip with my college buddies to the state of Chiapas

It looks like the two countries are pretty even in the score (3 – 3), and I received a great education in the USA and Mexico. I feel the USA focuses more on “book learnin” while Mexico has a more “real world” approach. I feel truly blessed to have experienced the strengths of both educational systems.

The main point of this post isn’t so much to enforce my own views (which are constantly changing), but to create a dialogue and hear the school experiences of Americans and Mexicans alike. How do you think your education holds up to other countries? What did you like? What would you change?



11 thoughts on “USA vs Mexico: Education

  1. Hi Laura,

    Very interesting post. How do you think your university education would translate in other countries? For example, could you obtain the same position in tourism in the US or say an island of the Caribbean? A lot of people here in Canada who were educated abroad must go back to school if they want a decent job in the Canadian market. I know a few teachers, bankers, business and communication specialists who have excellent English levels, but their foreign education was not recognized here. But I’m guessing the nature of your industry allows you to work pretty much wherever there is a tourist market.

    P.S: Canada’s capital is the Ottawa. Lol!

    • Hey Charlotte! I’ve often wondered that myself, and I might never know the answer. I know a Mexican degree won’t hold up in certain industries in other countries, but after 3 years working in tourism plus all my internships, I feel like my language skills and tourism experience would make the Mexican degree issue irrelevant if I wanted to work in the travel industry in the US or Canada.

      Or at least let’s hope so šŸ™‚

      P.S. Congrats on knowing the capital city of Canada… you’re more knowledgable than 95% of my American friends! haha

  2. Very interesting topic, indeed! You are so right about Geography! I pride myself on knowing more or less where every place is located, but when it comes to capitals, there are so many I don’t know. But my lawyer brother-in-law…knows EVERY single one, and he knows the names of the presidents, prime ministers, and/or kings & queens!

    Reading is one big difference I see in the education my kiddies are getting here in Mexico vs. the one I had in the States. When I was in school, we kids were always being encouraged to read, and for many classes had a required reading list to get through every school year. But not so here in Mexico. The emphasis seems to be mostly on speed and a little on comprehension. My eldest has read some of the classics I read in junior high, like the Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Little Women, only because I’ve bought the books for her to read.

    And just so you know, until I read this post, I had NO idea what the capital of Canada was! šŸ™‚

    • Hi Leslie!

      I haven’t done elementary, middle or high school here so I can’t speak from experience, but I’ve never heard of students being required to read a book. Although I do remember on class in college where we had to read copies of chapters from a textbook for homework, and my Cancun classmates went on and on about how ridiculous it was that they had to learn from a text. Most of them did not pass the test on that material :S

      Now, I have many Mexican friends who read for fun, but not to the extent of my American friends.

  3. I didn’t know what the capital of Canada was (sorry Canadian friends). When I was in college (I have BA from a Big Ten school) I remember thinking that I needed to study world geography because I was lacking in that area. I signed up for a class and it ended up being a class about physical geography and I hated it with a passion!

    Anyway, I am always looking for information about the Mexican education system since my son will be educated here. Thanks for the info and interesting insights amiga.

    • I do ok in geography (except Canada, apparently), but I am HORRIBLE with politics. Your son will get a great education here, just very different from the US. If you ever feel a certain area is lacking, there are always tons of tutors/private classes/extracurricular activities for kids to fill in those gaps. (Or teach him some things yourself!) šŸ™‚ I like Leslie’s idea in the comment above to give her kids books to read. That’s definitely a big thing for me.

  4. Laura – What a great post!! I always love hearing about someone else’s experience, or opinion based on experience!!

    I know Gill impressed me with his knowledge on Canada, US, Europe, etc…Now I see it is with most of his friends, and family. I have to admit that I used to be SO surprised with my American family and friends and their little knowledge on Canada, Europe, etc… (Not meant to sound harsh!!). However, it’s just what you were taught in school!!!

    In Canada, French was mandatory for me. 11 years, and I speak like a 5 year old. It’s embarassing to be honest. Hahaha. I am always impressed how so many Americans speak Spanish. Maybe not perfectly, but they speak it. Maybe that’s just the people I meet? I don’t know… I remember you said your Spanish was pretty good when you moved here, now look at you – little Mexicana šŸ™‚

    Anyways, again. Love this post…. My baby will go to school here and it is VERY important to me, like most parents.

  5. Mexican here! It is required to read classics books in middle/high school, and to do an essay about them… at least in the schools that I attended. Of course there will be some classmates that decided it would be better to be partying at the Hotel Zone lol.

  6. Very interesting comparison!
    Where I live here in Mexico we learn a lot of world’s history(We are even studying the arab spring!) and I used to have business class in one semester of high school. We end up the semester with our own business and have to make money of it. I used to hated this class but now I think It was really useful.
    About the arts… in my high school we have an art class but it’s so-so. And in the afternoon we can join the drama/hip hop/latin dances/painting club…
    At least in my school, most of the students can speak english very good but some of us are kind of ashamed to speak it. (because we’re not used to it)
    I must admit that I hate math class and a lot of my classmates does. We really have a hard time with it haha.

  7. Hi Laura!
    I love your website — thanks for taking the time to share your experiences!
    Your comparison of education systems is very interesting to me, especially the business part since I run my own business — I definitely have to agree with your assessment that the USA system does us no favors in that particular area, though maybe it benefits entrepreneurs indirectly.

    Tangentially-related “education” question, since you are the Cancun Expat Expert: we’re US citizens planning to expatriate to Cancun this summer; do you know anybody or any resource that can tell us which daycares and primary schools are good ones, or give us some details about their experiences with them? Our children only speak english right now and my wife is worried about whether we can find daycares somewhat similar to the ones we use in the USA… I infer from your blog that you _might_ not have direct experience with this subject (maybe??) but even if not perhaps you could point us to someone you know or some resource that could give us the “word on the street”? If so, PM or email is ok. Either way, thanks again for such an interesting and informative blog!

  8. I am looking for a college or university in the Cancun area to finish my college degree.
    Can you tell me if there is a school that teaches in the english language. I don’t speak
    spanish. My parents moved to Playa del Carmen three years ago. I would like to finish
    my education in Mexico
    Thanks for any advise or information

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