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Study Abroad Guide for US Students in 2024

Study Abroad Guide for US Students in 2024

Due to increased competition and opaque entrance requirements at top US universities, more and more American students are looking overseas to pursue their education. In this article, we'll answer all your pressing questions about studying abroad, including how to increase your chances of admission at a foreign university.

Kevin Newton
Kevin Newton
College Admissions

Why Should You Study Abroad?

Each year, admissions at top universities in the United States just get more and more competitive. At the same time, the path to entry is even more opaque; just what are these schools looking for?

Luckily, for universities outside the US, the answer is much simpler; they are just looking for smart students who are passionate about their field of study.  Combined with the fact that class sizes are much larger, the admissions rates at top universities outside the United States are significantly higher.

Of course, an easier path to admission is not the only reason to study abroad.  Students who want to specialize in their field can go into incredible depth in degrees outside of the United States, while also typically graduating a year before their friends back home. And the cost savings for many students wanting to study abroad make it a realistic option even for students focusing on their in-state public flagship universities.

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.

How Can Study Abroad Help Your Career?

When it comes to getting your first job, one of the most important things you can do is stand out. An international degree helps you do that, just by the name on your resume. Of course, other advantages, like mastery of a foreign language, a professional network that spans continents, or an entirely new perspective on your field of study, can also help your career significantly.

How Many US Students Study Abroad Every Year?

According to the latets report by U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs and the Institute of International Education, during the 2021/2022 academic year 188,753 USA students decided to study abroad.

Tens of thousands of students spend a semester abroad every year, with tens of thousands more spending a year abroad to earn a master's degree. A smaller, but growing, number choose to earn their undergraduate degrees abroad. Luckily, universities overseas crave the unique perspectives that American students offer, so they’re quite happy to admit them.

How Old Do You Have to Be to Study Abroad?

Typically students are 18 when they go abroad, but there are definitely options for those who might just be 17 at the time of high school graduation. For students to study overseas in places like the UK, typically a university refers parents to a third-party agency that agrees to coordinate any emergency care the student may require, or otherwise serve in a guardian capacity until the student turns 18.

Is it Difficult to Study Abroad?

The application process to study abroad isn’t necessarily difficult, but it is quite different from what you’d find in the United States. Instead of focusing on a holistic picture of a student, universities outside the US are typically interested in your academic performance, especially in fields related to what you want to study, as well as your passion for the field in question. That makes your personal statement quite different, as well as your recommendation letter. In fact, some places don’t require either one, while others put incredible weight on them.

Beyond that, test scores and your performance in high school matter considerably. One thing that won’t impress admissions officers is extracurricular involvement outside of your chosen field.

What are the Top Countries to Study Abroad?

Not surprisingly, countries where English is spoken are the most popular study abroad options for students looking for full degrees. The UK tops this list, with places like Oxford, Cambridge, and St. Andrews being incredibly popular. Other popular universities in the UK include Edinburgh, the London School of Economics, and the University of Birmingham.

Outside of the UK, plenty of students apply to Trinity College Dublin in Ireland, McGill and Toronto in Canada, and the University of Sydney in Australia. Beyond the English-speaking world, programs in the Netherlands, Spain, and Italy are incredibly popular for American students.

How Much Does It Cost to Study Abroad?

The cost for a degree overseas can vary immensely. The most expensive options are often programs that advertise themselves as the American University of wherever, but outside of a few, these are rarely good values. Instead, the most costly solid options we typically recommend are programs in Scotland, where the typical cost of a degree can come out to around $200,000; please note that is the total cost of all four years, including room and board. Programs in the rest of the UK are about 25% less, due to the fact that Scottish programs are 4 years instead of 3.

Studying elsewhere can be considerably more affordable. Tuition in mainland Europe is often a fraction of what it would be in the US.

How to Study Abroad for Free?

There is really no such thing as a free lunch, but there are ways to really slash your costs when studying abroad. A number of universities, especially in Scandinavia, Belgium, and Germany, have low student fees (typically around 500 Euro) and no real tuition costs. However, you will still have to pay living expenses, although many students find part-time work heavily subsidizes this amount.

How to Get a Scholarship to Study Abroad?

If you happen to have a passport from an EU state, chances are that (except for Ireland) you can receive considerable aid to study in the EU. Additionally, some merit and need based scholarships are available from each university, but these are less common than in the US.

Luckily, many universities do accept US Federal Aid in the form of Direct Loans, and 529 plans often work overseas.

How Long are Study Abroad Programs?

Throughout Europe, the UK, and Oceania, undergraduate degrees are typically 3 or 4 years, with Scottish and Irish degrees (as well as Australian Honours degrees) taking 4 years, while most others are done in 3.

Masters degrees typically just take 1 year, but there are exceptions.

If you are studying abroad temporarily while pursuing an undergraduate degree at a US university, these programs are typcally one semester. Some students may opt for a full year abroad, but this is less common.

Study Abroad for One Semester, or for Four Years?

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 to Choose Where to Study Abroad?

There are a number of questions you should ask yourself when considering where to study abroad:

  • What do I want to study? Outside of the United States, it is more common to choose to specialize at the beginning of your degree. While it is possible to study broadly over the course of your time in university, especially in Scotland, Ireland, and Australia, many UK programs (but not all!) require that you spend upwards of 80% of your time in your degree field.
  • What is my budget? The cost for going to college can vary considerably.  Some universities, especially those in mainland Europe, often charge only fees, including for international students. Others, especially in the UK, can have much steeper costs. While going abroad can often save considerable amounts of money, it is not a guarantee of doing so.
  • Do I need someplace that accepts 529 plans or Federal Direct Loans? A growing number of universities overseas accept 529 plans and Federal Direct Loans; in fact, if a university accepts one, they almost certainly accept the other. Most places in the English-speaking world do, but some surprising options elsewhere accept both as well.
  • Where do I want to live after my degree? Many countries offer visas to graduates of their universities. In the UK and much of the EU, for example, a poststudy visa can be the first step to permanent residency and ultimately citizenship.
  • Do I feel comfortable in the local language? Even if you attend a program taught in English, you might still be in a society where English isn’t widely spoken. In parts of the Netherlands, where 95% of the population speaks English, that might not be a big deal, but in other regions, such as Italy, you might want to have at least some mastery of Italian.

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 to Prepare for Study Abroad?

The best thing you can do to prepare for a degree abroad is to begin demonstrating your interest in the field you want to study. This can be done in a variety of ways; particularly, reading widely in the field of study is a great way to stand out, because it gives you something to discuss in your personal statement.  Additionally, strong performance in relevant classes can also make the difference.

Of course, there are options that allow you to study broadly, but having a rough idea will help you in your application process. Also, taking advantage of the test prep services offered by Ivy Tutors Network can also drastically improve your chances overseas.  From preparing for the ACT and SAT to help in all subjects, including AP exams, Ivy Tutors Network is in a unique position to help you with your college applications.


Written by Kevin Newton (aneducationabroad.com)


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