For many students, deciding where to go to college is the first major life decision they get to make on their own. With thousands of colleges in the United States, one would think that any prospective applicant is already spoiled for choice. Yet an increasing number of students are realizing that the American college experience is just not for them. For a myriad of reasons, more and more applicants are looking outside the US for a degree that better fits their professional and personal goals.
Just as no one college is perfect for everyone, surely no one approach to higher education is perfect either, right?
That said, the decision to study abroad for an entire degree should not be taken lightly; there are a number of important differences between the American higher education system and that of other countries. Attending college, or more precisely, university, abroad is not just about doing the same thing one would do in the US but in a more exotic setting. Often times, it requires a completely different approach.
How is College Abroad Different?
There are a number of differences between studying in the US and studying abroad, terminology being one of them. In the US, “university” often refers to a larger institution that comprises multiple colleges, only one of which is the undergraduate program. Overseas, “college” often refers to a secondary school, while anything that results in a degree is a university. There are some exceptions, of course, but this is the general rule when it comes to nomenclature.
Beyond names, perhaps the biggest difference is the depth of focus. Outside of a few places like Scotland, Canada, and Ireland, most international universities will expect students to focus on no more than two areas of study for their degree. This means that there are no general education requirements, but also very little room for electives or minors. Upwards of 85% of a student’s coursework will be in the area of the degree, and only in later years is there a chance to study other subjects as electives.
This means that overseas degrees are incredibly focused. According to the Rhodes Scholarship Trust, a British BA is about as focused as an American MA. For students who are truly passionate about what they want to study, this can be an incredibly convincing reason to consider going to college abroad.
This heightened focus means that many overseas degrees are shorter as well. For much of the EU and UK, a degree is typically finished in three years. Even in countries where that is not the norm, like Ireland or Australia, there is typically an option to finish in three years.
Of course, college isn’t just about classes, and for many, this is a drawback to university abroad. Greek life and intercollegiate sports have nowhere near the popularity that they have in the United States. For students whose hearts are set on pledging and tailgating, an American university may be the better choice.
One other major difference is worth noting. In much of the rest of the world, law and medicine are undergraduate degrees. This means that students who aspire to practice law or medicine can earn qualifications that allow them to work in the United States significantly faster. For would-be lawyers, check the relevant state bar association to find out if foreign law degrees are admitted (e.g., in New York and California, they can be with the study of a one year LL.M at an ABA-recognized law school). Aspiring doctors should evaluate what type of medicine they want to practice. Those looking to work abroad or focus on primary care medicine (where 40% of US PCPs are foreign trained) can save time and money by going abroad, while those looking to become dermatologists should likely stay in the US for superior residency opportunities.
Study Abroad for One Semester, or for Four Years?
Every year, more than 330,000 US students study abroad, the vast majority for only one semester. For many students, this is a great opportunity to see the world, meet new people, and improve their language skills.
But a semester abroad only provides a portion of the advantages gained from completing an entire degree overseas. Rather than just becoming conversational in a foreign language, someone who earns a degree abroad can become functionally fluent. As many foreign university courses are year-long, students who spend only a semester abroad are also missing out on a lot of what their professors have to offer.
Finally, there’s the cost. Many students apply to study abroad through their home university, or through programs that act as third-party brokers for enrollment. Almost always, these programs are significantly more expensive than direct enrollment in a foreign university.
How Do I Apply to College Abroad?
This is perhaps the most important difference between US and overseas applications: for many countries, students apply to a specific degree field rather than a university or college. The exceptions to this rule are often the countries whose universities allow students to take four years to graduate, so if someone is undecided, Scottish and Irish universities are typically a better choice than English or Dutch ones.
The admissions process is also incredibly different. In the US, top colleges evaluate applicants using holistic admissions, giving weight to everything from extracurriculars to family background. Overseas, and especially in the UK, students are weighed entirely on their past academic performance as well as their desire to study their chosen field.
That past academic performance is evaluated through performance both in the classroom and through standardized tests. Countries differ considerably here; many Belgian universities are impressed with a high GPA, while Oxford and Cambridge (as well as most elite UK universities) want to see high marks on AP or IB exams relevant to the course of study.
If anything, Americans often find themselves getting a boost because they bring a different perspective to the classroom as a result of a cross-pollination of teaching techniques.
Overseas universities evaluate a student’s application, at times requesting an interview or an assessment test, and either reject the student or offer an acceptance. Students can be offered an unconditional acceptance or a conditional acceptance, with the latter receiving a list of requirements that must be met. Typically, these involve getting a specific score on an upcoming AP or IB exam.
This focus on academics extends to university rankings abroad. Groups like QS or The Times Educational Supplement focus on factors other than cost and admissions rates when coming up with their global rankings; instead, they are almost always focused solely on academics and research.
How Do I Pay for College Abroad?
In many instances, going to university abroad can be considerably cheaper than college here in the United States, especially for families who are not going to receive much in the way of merit or need-based aid. While rumors of free college abroad fail to take into account room and board, it is sure that tuition at many English-language programs in the EU can be a tenth of what many public universities charge in-state students.
On the more expensive end, institutions like Oxford and Cambridge can easily cost $180,000-$200,000 over the course of the degree for tuition, fees, room and board, and travel. However, that is still a fraction of the cost of Ivy League or other top ten universities in the US. In fact, Oxford is comparable in price to what many in-state students pay for some of the top public universities in the country.
Both merit and need-based aid are often limited, but both Federal Direct Loans and 529 plans can be used at hundreds of universities outside of the United States. These typically include top universities in the UK, Ireland, Canada, and Australia.
While college abroad is not for everyone, it can be the right decision for many students. As with all aspects of the college admissions process, beginning the research phase early on can pay major dividends once senior year approaches.
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Kevin Newton (aneducationabroad.com)