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Helping International Students Study In The States

UNESCO statistics reveal that the US attracts 21% of all students studying abroad. Furthermore, the US saw a 49% increase in foreign students in the decade 2000 to 2010. “The United States is the global hub of higher education,” concludes senior policy analyst Neil Ruiz of the non-profit think tank Brookings Institution.

The problem is, the US education system is very different from many other countries’ systems, meaning that the entire application process can be utterly exhausting and overwhelming for international applicants. The jargon is different, – What the heck are “transcripts”? What’s a “GPA”?, and the academic requirements (SATs, ACTs and APs) aren’t what many students have.

And how about those fees?Well, despite the fact that annual fees range from an eye watering $20,000-$60,000 (USD), university in the US really is an option. As in many countries, there are thousands of American high schoolers who simply can’t afford the fees; so what do they do? US colleges have never been fully government-funded, so have always had to undertake a certain amount of fund-raising. As a result, many have large endowment funds and can offer financial assistance to successful applicants. Some universities automatically grant scholarships to applicants with grades above a certain level; my daughter received a very nice amount, thank you very much, and we didn’t even apply for anything! In addition to what colleges can do to assist financially, there are countless organizations that make one-off grants and scholarships too. Students interested in studying in the USA shouldn’t immediately dismiss the idea for lack of funds.

Because the US education system is so different, applying to colleges there takes extra time and effort. Experts advise international students to give themselves 18-24 months of research and application time working back from the date they want to start college.

There are over four thousand colleges and universities in the USA and no over-arching application system like UCAS in the UK. Each college has its own web site, and often, the requirements (both academic and personal) are different from one college to the next. To further complicate matters, requirements for international students are different again and, of course, not the same for every college. Some colleges will ask for ACT/SAT standardized test scores but a few will not; some will require applicants to use Credential Evaluation Services to transcribe academic credentials into the US equivalent; some will waive English-language testing if the student has attended an American high school, while others will require the test score anyway. Not only does it take time to figure out what each college is asking for, it takes even more time to fulfill the requirements. Standardized tests such as ACT/SAT or English proficiency tests usually have to be booked months in advance, and scores are reported directly to the colleges, which again, can take weeks. Applicants must understand the timelines involved if they want to avoid major stress!

Because of the amount of input required from teachers and other school staff, I also strongly suggest that students with “sketchy” relationships start mending some fences, pronto! US application forms usually require at least two recommendations from teachers and they aren’t just asking for test scores. The teachers chosen to write these recommendations should know the applicant very well, and more importantly, like him or her enough to sell them to the college in question.

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Applicants are also required to write at least one personal essay, and usually more. These essays are the student’s chance to stand out from the crowd as well as to convince the college in question that s/he is a good “fit”. In short, the essays require students to “dig deep” and write about more than just their academic and sporting experiences. Many international students aren’t used to blowing their own trumpets or writing in such a personal way, so practice is advised. Fortunately there are many web sites out there where would-be applicants can download sample essay questions or read up on how to write a stellar essay.

Oh yes, it’s all a bit of a nightmare. Never fear! To help international applicants (and their parents) manage the US application process (including deciding whether it’s even feasible in the first place), I have written “The Stress-Free Guide to Studying in the States; A Step-by-Step Plan for International Students”, which also has a Facebook page for questions and further information.

Help is here, – and you don’t have to pay the big consulting bucks either.

Toni Summers Hargis has a new book – “The Stress-Free Guide to Studying In the States; A Step-by-Step Plan for International Students”. (Summertime). She is also the author of “Rules, Britannia; An Insider’s Guide to Life in the United Kingdom” (St. Martin’s Press) and blogs as Expat Mum.

Read Toni's other Expat Focus articles here.

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