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  • Writer's pictureJennifer Tracewell

College Abroad — it's not as complicated as you think! (but requires high-level preparedness)

Are you itching for an international experience beyond a semester-long study abroad program?

Are you hoping to turn your burgeoning foreign language skills into full-blown fluency?

Are you looking for a college experience that really takes you outside your comfort zone?

If so, then the thought of earning a bachelor’s degree outside of the U.S. might already be on your mind! After all, this option is becoming increasingly accessible to English-speaking-only students, with plenty of benefits to consider.

One pro, for example, is the price tag: tuition is often less expensive in other countries (e.g. Germany, Austria, Norway), and it’s possible to use federal financial aid abroad, plus free health care and housing aid might be available, too.

Check out this list of where you can study abroad for free or very low-cost tuition. While the cost of college attendance continues to skyrocket here in the US, it’s good to know you have other appealing alternatives.

Amid all the benefits, there are also plenty of hurdles to look out for. We said it's not that complicated, however, it is time-consuming to plan. Preparation is going to be key to making this dream come true! So here are a handful of tips for any of you who are looking to apply to an international university:

Do your research

Education systems vary widely from country to country, so if you’re considering an international degree, you might also consider throwing what you think you know about college out the window and starting from scratch. Get ready to not only look into which schools or countries to consider, but how they work. After all, you want to make sure the type of education you’re looking for aligns with the type of education that college provides. Here are some questions to guide your research: What types of courses are required? The format could vary from sitting in a weekly lecture alongside hundreds of students, to one-on-one monthly meetings with a professor for independent study. How do they evaluate learning (e.g. exams, essays, oral defenses) and give credit (e.g. grades, pass/fail, written feedback)? Do people live on campus? In Australia, for example, it’s usually up to students to find their own housing. Are extracurricular opportunities like sports and clubs available? Whether you want to participate in them or not, those aspects of a school influence the campus culture!

Get in touch with an admissions counselor

Because the admissions process and application timeline looks nothing like what you’re used to in the United States, it can be a lifesaver to reach out to the admissions office of your intended institution of study. Many universities have admissions officers dedicated to supporting international applicants, and keep in mind they want you as much as you want them! Don’t hesitate to seek this invaluable help — it will save you time, money, and undue stress, as well as local tips and customs you’d otherwise be blind to. In France, for example, admissions counselors are known to help international students find housing and healthcare. Canada is great at supporting students with securing off-campus jobs and extending their stay even after they graduate. For instant admissions help, we highly recommend NACAC’s Guide to International University Admission — it’s free and you can download the PDF right now!

Commit to a major

College students in the U.S. are often exposed to a variety of subjects before needing to choose a major, and even then, one study showed that a third of U.S. students change their majors at least once before graduating. Schools outside of the U.S. don’t cater to that kind of educational exploration, though. At many international schools, students are expected to apply not just to a college, but to a specific program within it, right from the beginning—that means choosing a major and sticking to it from the very start. Want some help solidifying what to study? College Board has some great resources on finding the right major for you.

Learn the lingo

It’s daunting enough to learn U.S. college lingo, let alone the international university system! How does a “diplom” or “magister” compare to a Bachelor’s degree? Have you heard of a Bac +2 or L3 or M1? Subject, course, and programme could all mean the exact same thing, depending on the institution. Do you know the difference between a semester credit hour and a credit point? You will definitely want to prepare a list of important terminology that’s used at your international destination. But don’t worry too much, it will all begin to make sense as you adjust to the new jargon!

Prepare to apply for a visa

Because this can be a very time-consuming process, and varies from country to country, you should allow yourself a year of advance planning, and even up to two years. Definitely build in time for snags and upsets to occur, because they most likely will! Don’t let this deter you, but just be aware and do careful planning! Although the process will be different for each country, below is a list of basic preparations and documents to get in order for your international education:

  • Passport: your passport must be valid for at least six months after your expected return. You can’t start your visa application without a valid passport, so get one right away. The wait time can take up to eight weeks, so allow for processing time.

  • Acceptance letter: you’ll need proof of admissions from your intended study abroad institution. This is a requirement for the visa application, so the timing is critical. Don’t apply for a student visa without your international college acceptance letter.

  • Financial records: provide evidence that you or your parents can cover the costs of your living expenses and college tuition/fees while abroad. Typically proof of funds to cover one year’s worth of living costs is sufficient.

  • Health insurance: you will need documentation of full health insurance coverage while studying and living abroad. Some countries offer a discounted rate on their own student health insurance for international students.

  • High school diploma: a copy of your high school diploma or equivalency is required to obtain a student visa to study abroad.

  • Language skills: depending on the country, the university, and the course of study, you may need to prove you have a certain skill level in the country’s language. For example, in Germany, while some courses are taught in English at many universities, the majority of undergraduate bachelor degrees require proof of B2 level of proficiency in German.

  • The visa application: to get ahold of the actual visa paperwork, you’ll need to visit the embassy or consulate, either in person or online/phone, to get the necessary documents. Most initial work can be done online, however, often a face-to-face interview is required at the embassy or consulate that has jurisdiction over you. You need to be prepared for the travel and costs required, which vary by your location and your country of study.

Begin your search for international bachelor programs here, and check out the 50 most popular universities. If you’re concerned about how international universities stack up compared to their US counterparts, check out the QS World University Rankings list.

Finally, how do you feel about being away from home? No matter how exciting the prospect of spreading your wings on this grand adventure, you will inevitably feel that tug at your heart and wonder, what am I doing in the middle of this foreign country? I want my family! Know that this is normal, and you will get through this homesickness. It helps to keep busy (this will be easy!), immerse yourself in the culture, join clubs, be as social as possible, and don’t forget about Skype! Your loved ones are just a phone call or FaceTime away. For now, the world awaits.

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