Expatriate life is often described as a two-edged sword, offering both opportunities and challenges. The adventure of learning first-hand about a new culture, language, and lifestyle can be exhilarating. Equally, the lack of familiarity with surroundings and social expectations, exacerbated by the distance from family and friends, can be disconcerting.
Parents considering an international move often find themselves balancing the advantages of an overseas experience with concerns about the continuity of their children’s education, and especially the impact on university-bound teenagers. The good news for families moving between the U.S. and the UK is that the potential benefits far outweigh the diffi culties.
Colleges and universities on both sides of the Atlantic welcome the global mindset of students who have lived and studied abroad. The international status of expatriate students can give them an edge, as admissions officers strive to attract students with diverse backgrounds, interests, and perspectives.
A WORLD OF CHOICE
Many expatriate students prefer to keep their further education options open and apply to institutions in both the UK and the
U.S. University selection and application may be complicated by the additional choices available to globally mobile students, however most obstacles can be overcome with a bit of knowledge and planning.
When considering schools for teenagers, one important factor is how much support and guidance will be provided during the college search and application process. Questions to ask include:
- Is there a dedicated college counseling department?
- Are students advised as a group, or do they receive individualized counseling?
- What resources are provided to help students determine their areas of interest, and identify the universities that offer an appropriate course of study?
- Are advisors familiar with the application requirements of institutions in different countries?
- How many students apply to universities in the U.S. and abroad? How many are accepted?
FINDING THE RIGHT FIT
The most important objective in the college search should be to find a university that provides a good fit for the student’s aptitude, objectives, and learning style. Understanding the differences in the university systems may help to refine the focus.
While some students have a specific idea of what they want to study, others prefer to explore their interests and possible career choices. Most American colleges and universities offer four-year programs with built-in flexibility. Many students do not declare their major course of study until their second year, and many others change their major along the way. Students can also graduate with a liberal arts degree rather than choosing an area of specialism.
In England and Wales, most university courses last three years, while Scottish universities follow a four-year system. Although a growing number of UK universities now offer a version of liberal arts, most students must apply to study a particular subject and cannot change their program without starting over. Compared to their American counterparts, British university students often have fewer classroom hours and less “face-time” with teachers and professors, requiring more self-directed study.
Course content can also vary widely, so it is important to research the specifics of each university’s curriculum. In today’s online world, students can easily access comprehensive information regardless of their location.
ON YOUR MARKS…
In considering students’ academic records, university admissions officers take into account the different curricula applicants are following. In the U.S., the rigor of the course load is as relevant as the grades achieved. In the UK, full transcripts are generally not required, and exam results (achieved and predicted) are a key factor in the acceptance decision.
Many American high schools offer one-year Advanced Placement (AP) courses, considered to be the equivalent of college-level classes. Students considering matriculation to UK universities are advised to take at least three APs related to their intended field of study. Test scores of 4 or 5 are generally recognized by UK schools as being equivalent to Bs or As awarded for British A-level examinations.
In the British secondary school system, the required curriculum narrows and students take three or four A-level courses during their final two years. Many American universities regard these intensive courses as AP equivalents, and award credits accordingly.
The two-year International Baccalaureate (IB) diploma program requires the study of six subject areas, three at higher and three at standard level. This popular program is increasingly available, and is recognized for its high level of academic challenge by universities in the UK, the U.S., and internationally.
The IB, A-levels, and APs all culminate in externally graded exams. AP and IB scores are released in July, but A-level results are not available until August. As a result, acceptances to UK universities are often offered conditionally, pending the achievement of defined exam scores. For students whose qualifications do not meet the requirements for direct entry into an undergraduate program, many UK universities offer a foundation year.
The Universities and Colleges Admissions Service in the UK (UCAS) coordinates the applications for UK higher education providers. Their website (ucas.com) offers information on the types of courses, the institutions that offer them, the entry requirements, and the various application deadlines.
Students can apply to up to five UK universities using one online application which includes a brief personal statement. Limited to 4000 characters, this statement must clearly demonstrate a student’s genuine interest in, and commitment to, the chosen course of study. It is not used to document a student’s personal achievements or activities, unless they are internships, work placements, or other experiences specifically related to their intended field of study.
Schools provide UCAS with their students’ achieved and predicted examination grades, as well as a composite reference. Full transcripts and personal references are not required.
In contrast, the Common Application for American colleges and universities (commonapp.org) includes a full transcript, teacher recommendations, and standardized test scores. The required essay gives students the opportunity to detail their extracurricular activities, accomplishments, and leadership roles. Many institutions also require supplemental essays.
Most applicants are required to take either the ACT or SAT, standardized tests which U.S. admissions staff use to assess the academic potential of American and international students from different educational systems. A university website’s admissions page will indicate which of the tests are acceptable. Students can opt to take both and submit the higher score. Some of the more competitive universities will also require two or three SAT Subject Tests.
The ACT is curriculum-based, testing students in English, Mathematics, Reading, and Science Reasoning. The SAT Reasoning Test, designed to measure critical thinking and analytical skills, is currently comprised of three sections: Critical Reading, Math, and Writing. However, the College Board has just announced that a radically redesigned version of the SAT will be introduced from Spring 2016 (collegeboard. org).
There are 22 SAT testing centers in the UK, whereas the ACT is offered in six locations (fulbright.org.uk). Exams are held several times during the year, and early registration is recommended as test centers fill up quickly, especially in the London area. These tests are considered in determining both admissions and merit-based scholarships. However, good scores are not sufficient to guarantee admission and are ideally paired with good marks.
Visiting colleges and universities is an important aspect of the search process, but trips from abroad are costly and time-consuming. Where distance is a mitigating factor, there are many ways to glean information about a campus and its facilities. From video tours and interactive maps, to student reviews and department blogs, the Internet can provide what amounts to a virtual visit.
Students may also take advantage of university fairs, such as the annual USA College Day sponsored by the Fulbright Commission in London. It pays to do some homework before attending, as the sheer number of institutions exhibiting can be overwhelming. Many schools also host visits by university representatives, which allow students to pick up admissions materials and ask questions about their specific interests.
The expatriate experience can be rewarding, and exposure to cultural enrichment, travel opportunities, and diverse points of view can help a student stand out of the crowd in the university applicant pool. More importantly, the advantages of having lived abroad don’t stop at university. As more companies expand into international markets, the latest theme in graduate recruitment is “the global mindset”. In fact, a cross-cultural educational experience may translate into improved employment prospects. And so, to university… and beyond!
Mary Mitchell is an Advancement Associate at TASIS The American School in England, an international school located in Surrey, for students ages 3-18
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