How to Develop a Great University List When Applying Outside the U.S.

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—Disclaimer: For the purposes of this article, an “international student” is a student who is a “nonresident alien”—not a  U.S. citizen, U.S. national or eligible non-resident, who has not passed the green card test or the substantial presence test—regardless of where the student completed his/her high school education. “College” and “university” are also used interchangeably.

How many universities in the world can you name? Twenty? Fifty? Maybe even a hundred? Did you know that there are actually over 17,000 accredited universities around the globe?

For students dreaming of studying abroad, the idea of learning about so many distinct educational systems and unique universities can be daunting.

So, where should you begin? 

If you’re concentrating on creating a list with a handful of the 4,360 colleges and universities in the U.S. and can afford U.S. college price tags, this blog post—How to Choose a College: A Step-By-Step Guide—has wonderful suggestions.

However, a huge caveat for students on a budget is that being granted a generous to full financial aid packages in the U.S. to lower the total cost of attendance to below USD $20,000 is extremely competitive—so competitive that we dedicated on article to it (see: How Realistic is it to get a Full Scholarship in the USA for International Students).

… but fear not! Even with limited financial resources, you can create a list with wonderful schools and programs. And you may be surprised at how many great options there are; we ask that you keep an open mind as you move forward and to keep informing yourself. Education varies from institution to institution, country to country, and you need to keep research if the pedagogy, grading system, timeline for major choices, and more is truly the right fit for you.

So, if you’re interested in universities outside of the U.S., then this is the guide for you. 

In this guide, we will:

  • Lead you through 10 questions to consider as you plan for college

  • Give tips on how to advocate for yourself and be proactive in this process

  • Recommend reflection exercises to help you gain clarity on what you’re looking for in your college experience

  • Reinforce the need to create a plan in your home country

  • Explain what to consider as you evaluate a Gap Year

First, let’s think about the big picture for a moment.

The more clarity you have about what you’re looking for in your education, the more likely you’ll find the best fit for you.

10 Sets of Questions to Ask Yourself as You Plan for College

Think of these questions less like an “interview” and more like a journaling exercise: we want you swirling with options for your future, especially if you haven’t given these responses your full attention before. Grab that favorite pen and a notebook, write out your thoughts, and discuss them with a trusted friend/mentor.

  1. Why do you want to go to college outside of your home country? Will receiving a degree abroad, such as in medicine, be accepted in your home country? What are your options if you stay in your hometown or your country? 

  2. What’s your budget for higher education?

  3. What do you want to study? Why? If you’re not sure what you want to study, how can you inform yourself better as you plan for college? 

  4. What’s important to you in your experience as you achieve your undergraduate degree? Which factors are must-haves and which factors can you negotiate? 

  5. Are you looking for a more structured degree (one focused on a specific career or future job) or a less structured degree (open to various majors with more flexibility to find what you’re most passionate about)? 

  6. In which countries are you open to studying abroad? How can you inform yourself better about these options? Would you consider English-language degrees in non-English speaking countries? Will an 8-hour plane ride away or a 22-hour plane ride away make a significant difference in your decision?

  7. In what languages besides English would you feel comfortable studying? Does that shift the options you could consider?

  8. Have you considered graduate school? Will your undergraduate studies support your graduate level studies?

  9. Do you see yourself working in your home country as soon as you graduate, in 10 years, or do you not have plans to return? Do you want to work in the country where you attended university? What support will you have from the university to get a work-visa in the same country as you studied after you graduate?

  10. Where do you see yourself five years after graduating from college? And in 10 years? 

You need to think long and hard about your answers to these questions, especially in terms of the goals you have set for yourself, and how committed you are to them. We highly recommend you talk out your answers to someone you trust.

How do I advocate for myself in the college search process?

Is there a counselor or teacher at your high school who has supported students applying to international universities before? If not, is there a counselor or teacher who’d be willing to learn alongside you?

When applying, you’ll need to send certain documents from your high school, such as your transcripts and recommendation letters. It’s incredibly helpful to have someone who can support you in the process, from discussing your interests to researching schools to submitting the applications themselves. 

EducationUSA has 400+ advising centers worldwide to assist you in accessing U.S. higher education opportunities. Most centers can connect you with university administrators, host college fairs, can speak to you in your native language, provide you with a computer with Internet access, advise you about financial aid, and more. There are free information sessions as well as advising available, sometimes for a small fee.

In addition, you can benefit from reaching out to a local college advising mentor. Many countries have volunteer organizations to guide you through the college planning and admissions process, and can even support you with plane tickets, test fee waivers, and more. For example, Education Matters supports Zimbabwean students and BRASA aids students in Brazil. Virtually, The Matchlighters Scholarship offers free college application counseling for high-achieving, low-income students from experienced college counselors to students from the U.S. Acceptance to these programs is competitive though, and it is always recommended that you begin early.

Has anyone from your school or community applied to college abroad? Ask around. Chat with that alum from your high school who studied in Belgium or your neighbor’s friend who spent a semester abroad in Japan. More often than not, you’ll be surprised by how eager people are to share their experiences and advice.

Don’t be afraid to reach out to a college’s admission office! Look to see who is in charge of international admission or admission in your region or country and reach out directly with questions. What countries are most of their international students from? Can they put you in touch with a current student studying Psychology (or your chosen major)? Building a relationship with the International admission officer is an invaluable way to learn more about a college and demonstrate interest.

Ask for fee waivers if you need them. If you demonstrate financial need, admission offices and testing offices can often waive the fees: however, this can be more common in applications to U.S. universities than non-U.S. universities. This can make the process itself of applying to college much more financially accessible.

What am I looking for in a college? 

Do you love to be bicycling down the city street on your way to class in a city building—ready to watch your lecture in an auditorium with rows of students from all over campus? Or do you want to watch the sun set over the ocean on your way across the campus green to enjoy one-on-one conversations with a professor and a handful of classmates?

It’s time to dig into what you’re hoping to get out of your college experience. Dr. Steven Antonoff, an independent educational consultant who has worked with more than 3,800 students, has some great resources to guide you in this exciting, and sometimes challenging, reflection process.  To learn more about yourself and your values, take a look at his activity guides. They’ll help you better understand yourself as a learner, pinpoint your values, and consider the different qualities that characterize colleges.

Thoughtfully working on these activities will bring you more clarity in your search.  Keeping your answer in mind, let’s check out how to create and use a college list.

How do I choose the right college for me?

Research is key! Before you even start researching, you want to set yourself up for success. 

1. Download and make a copy of the College List Research Tracker.

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