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Pursuing higher education in the United States as an international student has become a popular choice. Institutions are increasing international student enrollment and students are attracted to higher education in the United States.

Overseas education is an established trend. These are the statistics as of 2018, according to the Biannual Report on International Student Trends:

To that end, we want to support international students and provide insight into how to prepare for the unique particulars of a U.S. education.

Higher education is a journey that is both rewarding and stressful. When you add an overseas element into the equation, the potential rewards increase--but extra variables like culture and differing pedagogy can also make things challenging.

So how does one prepare for higher education in the United States to make the most of such opportunity?

Let’s start with highlighting potential cultural differences in learning:

Potential Differences

The ways in which teachers teach and thus, how students are expected to learn, may differ overseas. These are some ways that the U.S. higher education system may differ.

  • Class Participation: There is a bigger focus on class discussion, class participation, and active learning in the U.S. Students may be expected to come to class with questions or original insights. This is in contrast to other cultures, which may be more teacher-centered in their approach to learning.
  • Teamwork: Group work and projects may also be a new concept for overseas students. Not only can working with other students be confusing--it may lead to a crossover into student collusion if the concept is misunderstood. Group work is for work that will be assessed as a group. Collusion occurs when students work as a group on work that will be individually assessed.
  • Extracurriculars/Social Life: Extracurricular activities are part of the admissions process and continue to be a part of higher education life. It may be intimidating to take part in extracurricular activities if you’ve never done so--but it’s important to be prepared to become part of a community and mitigate feelings of isolation. Residential life in the dormitories, for instance, also emphasize community and social programs.
  • English Language Education: It’s difficult if you don’t have a solid foundation in the English language, to finish English-language-based work. Even if your emphasis is in STEM, general education requirements will demand writing and English language skills. Without this foundation, students can be susceptible to plagiarism or contract cheating.
  • Plagiarism/Mimicry: Again, if there isn’t a solid foundation in the English language and an understanding of U.S. pedagogical practices--as well as cultural isolation, then plagiarism becomes a temptation. Mimicry is a form of pedagogy that can resemble plagiarism--which may lead to misunderstanding about attribution and citation in student work.

Yes, these differences exist--and acknowledging these differences will help students ensure success while studying abroad. But let’s also talk about how to prepare:

Ways to Bridge Differences

What are some ways to bridge and embrace these differences and prepare for overseas education in the United States? How can students mitigate culture shock?

  • Keep an open mind about majors. It’s not uncommon to change your majors at a higher education institution in the United States. It’s also important to experience different disciplines so as to understand the broader scope of education.
  • Visit the country beforehand. It’s important to visit the country of your destination--specifically the geographical areas in which you plan to apply for or attend university. There are a lot of intangibles you will discover on a visit that you wouldn’t learn from a brochure or a website.
  • Connect with students at your future school on social media. Even if you don’t know a single soul at the school you wish to attend, follow the institution on social media, whether it be a Facebook page or a Twitter account. It will give you an idea of the social scene, campus resources, as well as potentially connecting you with student groups and organizations.
  • Practice speaking English beforehand. If you can, try to find a Native English speaker with whom to dialogue--there are turns of phrases and a general cadence with which you want to get familiar before you reach campus.
  • Attend high school in the U.S. This is a longterm investment and one involving more logistics and frankly, more financial resources. However, this is something that is happening with more frequency. By attending high school in the U.S., international students can become more familiar with the U.S. grading system while buffering culture shock.
  • Consider attending a 2-year college. Attending a 2-year college helps provide a transition into a 4-year institution, allowing for increasing familiarity with social landscapes and American pedagogy. It also gives you time to adjust and understand where it is you want to attend university. While this too is an expensive option, 2-year community colleges are traditionally less expensive than 4-year colleges and can cut down on overall costs.
  • Attend summer school to prepare for your overseas education. Many higher education institutions offer summer programs that prepare international students for higher education in the U.S. Yale, UC Berkeley, and Northwestern University, for example, all offer programs specifically geared towards preparing international students for higher education in the United States. This is a way to familiarize yourself with a classroom setting in the United States in a lower-stakes environment.
  • Plan your first three weeks. The first few weeks are already stressful and busy. But short-term goals will help you transition with less discomfort. Make a checklist of what you need to do, and by which date you need them done. Establishing a bank account, purchasing books, buying amenities, as well as walking through your daily schedule and class locations, will help mitigate stress.
  • Consider living in a dormitory on campus. You will generally share a room and a common bathroom with other students. Also included are meals on campus--and while it may make for less independence, residential programs provide social scaffolding to ensure student success in the first year of transition.
  • Attend office hours and take advantage of on-campus resources. You’ll be surprised at how accessible professors in the United States can be. They expect students to participate in classroom discussions and ask questions--but professors also hold office hours and welcome questions and concerns about the coursework. And the better the relationship you have with your instructor, the more motivated you will become about the coursework and subject matter.

We hope these tips help you in preparing students for a rewarding overseas education experience.


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