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Applying to College Abroad? Here’s What You Need to Know

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Studying abroad is one of those stereotypical college experiences that you often see on TV or in movies, but it’s also a real part of college life for many students. Currently, it’s more popular than ever, and it’s getting more so every year.


However, maybe you want an even more immersive and long-term international experience. If so, there’s another option: pursuing your entire bachelor’s degree at a college outside the US. Applying to colleges in other countries can be complicated, but if you can make it work, attending college abroad can be an enriching and even life-changing experience.


Are you considering attending college abroad? You’ll definitely need to do a lot of specific research—every country and every college is different. However, here are some topics you’ll definitely need to address as you prepare for application season.



Why Attend College Abroad?

Most students study abroad for only one academic term or year. They’re still enrolled at their home university in the US during this time, and that home university often helps them manage the logistics of academic planning, housing, and support before, during, and after their time abroad.


Attending college abroad is a longer-term commitment that allows students to more deeply immerse themselves in the culture and lifestyle of wherever they’re studying. It’s not an educational trip; it’s actually living and working in a new place for four years.


There are a wide range of reasons why a student might attend college abroad. You might be looking for an adventure, or you might want to access the resources of a particular school that happens to be outside the US. You might have family or friends in your country of choice, or you might want to pursue a career in which international experience is valuable. Whatever your reasons, you’re not alone in your interest; a UNESCO study in 2014 found over 60,000 students from the US temporarily living in other countries and attending school there.


Given the number of interested students, procedures and resources exist to help make attending college abroad possible. Even with these guidelines, there’s a lot to think over and prepare for, and there are many logistical and personal hurdles you’ll encounter along the way. Next, we’ll go over some of the specific topics you’ll need to consider when making your plans.


Things to Think About Before You Apply Abroad

Language Skills

If you travel internationally, you’ll find that many people worldwide speak English, which can make your travels go much more smoothly. Obviously, however, English isn’t the dominant or official language everywhere, nor is it the language of instruction at every university. Taking a college course in an unfamiliar language is very different from finding your way around town while you’re on vacation.


In order for you to get an education, you’ll need to understand and discuss sophisticated concepts, both verbally and in writing. While you’ll inevitably pick up some language knowledge, your academic performance will suffer if you’re not actually comfortable in the language of instruction.


Some colleges abroad may require you to demonstrate your language ability through testing during the application process. In the United States, many international students are required to take the TOEFL to assess their English skills; your intended college may have similar testing requirements for their language of instruction.


During the planning process, be honest with yourself about whether you speak the language well enough to operate in a college-level academic environment. If you’re struggling, you might consider a language course or tutoring to boost your abilities.


If you decide that you’re more comfortable attending a college where English is the language of instruction, you still have some options. There are a variety of English-speaking countries that are home to interesting universities. Even in countries where English isn’t the official language, like Denmark, some college courses may be taught in English. Some countries are even home to American-based universities that operate entirely abroad.



Differences in Educational Systems

Most US residents are accustomed to a K-12 educational system where, except at magnet schools or other special programs, students don’t choose a focus area until college. This system isn’t the norm everywhere. Not every country has 12 grades, some countries require students to choose a track or focus earlier in the process, and many put more emphasis on major exams (similar to AP tests) than schools in the US.


These are only a few of the differences you might encounter when applying to a school in a different country, and that can make the application process more complicated for you. As an applicant from a different educational system, you may not have completed that country’s typical college requirements and expectations.


There are several different ways to deal with this mismatch. Some schools in other countries will accept your US credentials, or specific credentials like an International Baccalaureate diploma. You might be asked to take additional standardized tests that aren’t usually given in the US. (This can take time and money to arrange.)


You might be accepted to a college abroad on the condition that you take certain courses when you get there in order to get up to speed with your classmates. On the other hand, you might actually be placed ahead of your classmates if your academic background is stronger than is usual for college applicants in that country.


The bottom line is that if you’re considering applying to a college outside the US, don’t assume that the standard procedures for applying to college inside the US will be sufficient to fulfill your requirements. You won’t be admitted unless you have the proper qualifications or make specific arrangements to have those requirements suspended.



Visas and Documentation

If you haven’t traveled much, you may not be familiar with the rules and regulations that come into play when you cross international borders. You’ll need a passport to travel abroad, of course, but you’ll also usually need documentation to show that you’re legally permitted to live in that country for a certain period of time. This is known as a visa.


Different types of visas exist for different purposes and lengths of stay. Fortunately for you, education is usually seen as a valid reason to live in another country temporarily, and being enrolled at a university will help you justify your stay.


Even among student visas, conditions will vary based on the country and the type of visa. For instance, US students who want to study in the UK for less than six months can get one type of visa that doesn’t allow them to work in the UK, while students who plan to study for longer (or for the entirety of college) get a different type of visa that does allow them to also get a job.


Getting visas and filling out your paperwork can be a major task that involves substantial fees, long waiting periods, and exhaustive documentation, or it can be relatively simple. You may or may not have to get your visa in advance.


If you’re planning to travel to a country where the official language isn’t English, you may have to get your documents professionally translated, which adds additional time and cost to the process.


The bottom line is that you should always do your research on your specific country and school ahead of time so that you know what to expect. If your immigration and/or residency status is complex, or you have specific questions about your personal process, it’s best to speak directly to an expert, such as a lawyer who specializes in immigration.



Everyday Realities of Living Abroad

As a student from the US living in another country, you need to expect that you’ll encounter many differences from your life at home on a day-to-day basis. Besides the obvious language barriers, you may run into some surprises in terms of culture, customs, rules, and laws, some predictable, others unexpected. Adjusting to this new lifestyle can be a major challenge.


On a practical level, you’ll need to think about how you’ll finance your education, including the additional expenses associated with travel. That includes paying attention to exchange rates and figuring out whether you can or want to get a job. You’ll also need to work out a plan for what to do in case of an illness or other emergency, as the cost of last-minute international travel (whether to get you home or to get your family to you) can be very high.


Of course, your specific surroundings will shape how much you need to adjust your lifestyle as an American attending college abroad. Whether your location is urban or rural, how many English speakers or Americans are nearby, and whether you feel accepted and comfortable where you are all matter. Again, every country and every school is different, and it’s important to do your research on your specific details.


No matter what, though, attending college abroad is a huge change for most students, and the distance and cultural differences can amplify the challenges that face even students who stay within their own country.


You need to do your best to prepare—mentally, emotionally, practically, and academically— but you also need to be resilient and responsible as you encounter the surprises you’ll inevitably find along the way.


Studying abroad, whether short-term or long-term, can be an amazing opportunity for the right student, and it can help you build a valuable international perspective that most students don’t get to develop, especially at your age.


However, as you can see, applying to a college in another country can demand a lot of work from you before you get to reap these rewards, and that’s on top of the ordinary requirements of applying to any college.


As always, the most important thing is for you to get informed by reading, listening, and asking questions. The more you know and the earlier you know it, the better you can decide whether being a full-time student in another country is right for you, prepare to be a competitive applicant, and live out your dream of getting your college education in a new and exciting place.


If you decide that applying to a college in another country isn’t right for you, studying abroad, usually during your junior year of college, is another exciting option—and one that often comes with the benefits of support and resources from your home university.


To learn more about what it means to study abroad and which schools are most invested in providing high-quality study abroad opportunities, read our post Five Stellar Colleges for Students who Want to Study Abroad.


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Monikah Schuschu
Senior Blogger

Short Bio
Monikah Schuschu is an alumna of Brown University and Harvard University. As a graduate student, she took a job at the Harvard College Office of Financial Aid and Admissions, and discovered the satisfaction of helping students and parents with the often-baffling college admissions process. She also enjoys fiber art, murder mysteries, and amateur entomology.