Expat Focus talks to Toni Summers Hargis about her latest book, “The Stress-Free Guide to Studying In the States; A Step-by-Step Plan for International Students”, which covers the entire process from thinking about, applying to and finally arriving at, an American university.
Toni, please tell us a little bit about yourself?
I’m a Brit who came to the States (via marriage) 23 years ago. I have three kids and a dog, (and the same husband) and we’re in Chicago, Illinois. I was raised in the north east of England, went to university in Bristol and lived and worked in London before I moved here. I have now lived in Chicago longer than I have lived anywhere in my life, which is very weird. These days I spend my time writing books (see below) and posts for Expat Focus and the BBC’s “Mind the Gap” web site.You recently published “The Stress-Free Guide to Studying In the States; A Step-by-Step Plan for International Students” -, what is the book about?
Quite literally it takes readers through the entire process of thinking about, applying to and finally arriving at, an American university. Readers (international students) will learn how to widen their field of consideration then narrow it back down again, complete and submit an application form, apply for and take the requisite tests for admission, obtain a student visa, arrange their travel to campus, and organize themselves once they get here. The book is plainly written and very user friendly, the aim being to take the stress out of the whole process as well as helping college applicants submit a complete application to the colleges of their choice.
Did you self-publish or follow a more traditional publishing route?
Because the audience is very specific, I approached Summertime Publishing, an independent global publisher with over 80 expat genre books in the market place and 50 authors in the stable. Summertime offers Partner Publisher packages, where everything is done jointly. It’s fast, and professional yet not as daunting as self-publishing and not as restrictive as the traditional route.
What inspired you to write “The Stress-Free Guide to Studying In the States; A Step-by-Step Plan for International Students”?
As with my previous book “Rules, Britannia; An Insider’s Guide to Life in the United Kingdom” the book was in answer to questions I was receiving. As my oldest neared college age, I began to get questions from friends in the UK about US colleges. When one particular friend quipped “This is your next book” I began thinking seriously that perhaps there was a market. The information needed to research and apply to US colleges is all out there on the Internet, but it’s all over the place. Panic tends to set in when people realise how much work is required, then they worry about perhaps missing something vital, and many are almost forced to hire an expensive consultant to manage the process. With The Stress-Free Guide..” applicants can do everything themselves – as long as they leave enough time.
What were the challenges (research, literary, psychological, and logistical) you experienced in writing your book?
I’ll admit, the book was far more work than I anticipated. This is not my usual light-hearted or snarky writing; it’s fact, fact, fact with insight from professionals in the field. My personnel challenge was to limit my own opinion and give readers solid, reliable information. I also had to double fact check every single sentence I wrote, which for someone like me (who hates dotting i’s and crossing t’s) that was tedious but absolutely essential. There are a lot of URLs in the book too, which had to be verified over and over. Fortunately I worked with a fantastic professional editor who had ten times the tenacity and didn’t miss a trick.
The challenge now that the book is out, is to get the word out. So far I have sent over 1200 personal e-mails to high schools around the world, and the reception has been terrific. I’ve also been interviewed on radio and in UK national press about the whole area of studying in the USA. As many authors know, the real work begins when the book goes to print.
What was the hardest part of writing your book?
As I mentioned, I’m not a fan of double-checking things, so probably just making sure that everything I wrote was solid fact and not just opinion. It’s one thing to write about culture clashes or travel experiences, but when people are paying for your “advice” on a really serious issue, it has to be correct. Going forward, I have to keep my eye on the ball as laws, guidelines and practices change constantly. Within one month of the book’s release a change had to be made to reflect the new I-94 data keeping system in the States.
What type of audience do you feel your book would appeal to?
My book has a very specific audience – international high school students (and their families) who are thinking of attending a US college. In addition however, high school college advisors are also purchasing it, as well as international student offices in US colleges.
Where can people buy your book?
What do you do when you are not writing?
Well, apart from the duties that come with three children and a dog, I founded a charity in 2009 which helps support a school in Ghana. It’s called Caring Kid Connections and our aim is to get our very lucky 1st world children involved in helping their peers on the other side of the world.
One of our board members travels to the school twice a year to help with curriculum support, and to verify to our donors that the money is being spent ethically and responsibly, and I made a trip out there myself a few years ago. I also volunteer at my own children’s school once a week, collecting donations for the world’s biggest garage/jumble sale that is held each year in May. This raises money for the school’s scholarship program and is a sight to behold. We fill two gymnasiums and a cafeteria with “stuff”!
Do you have any advice to give to aspiring expat writers?
The expat writing scene is fairly crowded these days so you have to bring something new to the table. If you’re writing a novel or memoir, it has to be exceptionally well-written to stand out from the crowd, as well as having a great tale to tell. If it’s non-fiction, make sure there is a market for it. There are tons of travel and how-to books out there, so your new book has to offer something different. With “The Stress-Free Guide to Studying in the States” for example, most of the information is already out there on government and college web sites, but it’s all over the place and very confusing. The book offers readers a one-stop shop, where they can see the whole application process at a glance, and then read about the requirements in further detail.
If you have an idea, research what’s already on the shelves and try to differentiate yours. If you can’t, don’t despair; go back to the drawing board and see if you can give it a new angle. Be brutally honest with yourself (and get input from others) because writing and publishing a book is a lot of work and can cost you money depending on which publishing route you take. You have to be sure it will sell.
What are your plans for the future?
Not to get too serious, but events in my life have taught me not to plan too far ahead as it’s often not under your control. In the immediate future I am working hard to spread the word about my book. It has a very specific market so my targets are high schools all over the world, as well as expat groups and magazines. I foresee doing this till the end of the year in some form, and probably longer. I would definitely like to write another book so I will take the million and one ideas that are floating around my head and see which one is most viable.