Preparing to Study in the USA: Getting Here is Just the Beginning

International students in the United States are seeking a combination of intellectual and cross-cultural experiences that will prepare them to succeed in the global marketplace. With billions of dollars of funding, cutting-edge research and innovation, and unmatched flexibility on more than 4,700 campuses, the United States offers unparalleled educational opportunities. But with this depth and breadth also comes complexity and confusion. Succeeding at a U.S. college or university can be difficult if you don’t understand the system.

Stacie Berdan, co-author of Preparing to Study in the USA (Institute of International Education 2016)


There are many reasons why students choose to spend their university education in a foreign country. Motivations range from a desire for adventure, to having a wider choice of institutions as compared to back home, to an opportunity to study with a particular professor in a specific field.

All, however, face the challenges of living in a foreign country, studying in a foreign language, and understanding the nuances of a culture in which they did not grow up. In their new book, Stacie Berdan and Allan Goodman, both of whom have long experience in the field of international education, have tried to address those challenges as they apply to students coming to the U.S. for college-level study.

Why This Book Could be Useful

There are more than 4,700 U.S. colleges and universities, Berdan and Goodman tell us. The variety is tremendous and includes large state-run institutions, small liberal arts colleges, specialized institutions, and two-year community colleges. The range of opportunities this variety presents is attractive to international students. It also presents a challenge to those same students, since there is no centralized application process or standardized set of application acceptance guidelines. It’s school by school.

One’s first reaction to that, if you’re from the U.S., is “of course, it’s school by school!” Berdan and Goodman explain that this is not how many countries manage college applications. Just imagine the challenge this poses to students from other cultures; not only are they trying to navigate a foreign culture and understand the nuances of English before they get here, but they have to do it one school at a time.

Berdan and Goodman note that only 4 percent of the 21 million students in US colleges are from other countries. Schools have seen increases in recent years. The authors believe that these increases will continue. Our world is becoming more interdependent, they argue, and it’s important for US students to meet and interact with others to be effective global citizens. I would agree. Having our own children and young adults interacting on an ongoing basis with international students is one reason why I work with high school exchange students. Berdan and Goodman also note that tuition from international students provides another source of school revenue; the Institute of International Education’s 2015 Open Doors report estimates that international students contribute $30 billion to the U.S. economy annually.

Open Door intl students graph
Institute of International Education, 2015. “International Student Enrollment Trends, 1948/49-2014/15.” Open Doors Report on International Educational Exchange. Retrieved from

The authors also believe in the cultural exchange and citizen diplomacy aspect of encouraging international students to study in the U.S. Students who study here will, hopefully, gain a better understanding of who we are as Americans. They will, hopefully, establish friendships that will last over time and create bridges towards improved cross-cultural communications.

Berdan and Goodman provide students with practical tools and tips. An incoming student can use these tips to improve chances of admission at a school that “fits” with the student’s goals and to improve chances of success once the student sets foot on U.S. soil. This, perhaps, is where this book can be useful, if we can get the students for whom it is intended to read it and use it.

Studying in Another Country is not Just the Application Process

Preparing to Study in the USA does more than its title initially suggests. The authors try to take into account the lack of knowledge of their foreign student readers regarding the US college admissions system. They also try to convey some of the nuances and cultural perspective of a different system. The lack of a centralized admissions agency, mentioned earlier, isn’t just a “fact.” It’s the basis of a national approach—a cultural perspective—that will seem totally alien to many students. It has its source in American history, a history that the authors argue has resulted in an education system different from that of any other country.

The book covers practical tips as well, however, “how to” suggestions that an international student should relish. Chapters include not only admissions and graduation requirements an international student can expect from a typical U.S. college, but also information on getting a visa, how to deal with university registrars, information about college advisers, approachability of college professors, and health care.

I was pleased to see a section on academic ethics and plagiarism. As Berdan and Goodman note, how the U.S. education system defines “plagiarism”—and enforces violations—takes international students by surprise. It’s not that foreign students believe cheating is acceptable; rather, it’s the rigorous application of attribution rules and the dedication to individual critical thinking that can be difficult for students from other cultures to comprehend.

The chapter on college sports might raise some eyebrows; isn’t college about academics, many will ask. Our high school international students could probably jump in here to tell you that sports play an integral role in the American educational system, both at the high school and college level, and that having some understanding of sports helps an international student be a part of his or her host community. Just look, as Berdan and Goodman note, at how sports idioms occur throughout the English language.

Safety also receives mention. Berdan and Goodman don’t try to downplay this issue. Student safety is an issue everywhere. That does not mean students are unsafe. It does mean you need to pay attention to your surroundings and learn what’s real, what’s not. If you stay home, you won’t meet people who could change your life, or see wonders that could affect how you view the world — or learn about other cultures and customs which could help prevent future “bad things” from happening. Berdan and Goodman treat the subject objectively and explain what students can do to protect themselves.

A Checklist to Success

I don’t think this book is perfect. I think the authors could have emphasized more strongly the need for students to work on English skills. Many teachers, professors, and other students have commented on the inability of many foreign students to truly participate as full members of their university community due to poor English comprehension and limited vocabulary. I also would have liked to see more emphasis on how to really succeed in one’s daily life. While the authors do suggest becoming active in extracurricular activities and being open to learning from fellow students (see, e.g., Chapter 11: Campus Life, and Chapter 15: Making the Most of It), the recommendations seem understated. Those of us involved in international cultural exchange see first-hand the difficulty many students have in truly throwing themselves into their host culture. We all tend to seek the familiar, even if we’re adventurous enough to study abroad. Many international education professionals lament the tendency—at both the high school and post-secondary levels—of international students to hang out together rather than seeking out their fellow American students. Could Berdan and Goodman have planted a stronger seed for future students?

Such shortcomings, however, do not take away the book’s value. As those of us who work with international students know, placement is just the first step. Students often think that placement is the key element to their success. Where will I end up? Will I be in an interesting place? Why would I want to even consider studying ____ (fill in with preconceived notion of why any particular location might be considered “undesirable”)?

That’s simplistic thinking, and it’s something we work on with our high school international students and their families. An initial placement for a high school exchange student does not make or break a student’s success; so, too, admission to a particular college is just the beginning. Using the 15 chapters in this book as a checklist, international students coming to the US for college can begin to learn much more as they begin their education journey.


Preparing to Study in the USA can be purchased directly from the Institute of International Education or from Amazon.

See our review of Berdan and Goodman’s previous book, A Parent Guide To Study Abroad.


I Want to Study Abroad…Tell Me Where to Go!

one sign over here other sign no this way with sky in background

A few weeks ago, we did a blog post on the process we sometimes see in which students coming to the U.S. want to choose a specific region of the country or a specific state for their high school exchange experience. We also get a broader question sometimes from students thinking about studying abroad, asking “where should I go?” So … here are our thoughts.

I’m looking to study abroad next Fall and I’m deciding between the United States, England, and Germany. Where is the best place to study?

The nutshell summary? Only YOU can answer this question. It’s like comparing apples and oranges. They can both taste good, but whether you like one or the other is an individual taste. The best choice for you depends on your personal circumstances, your academic situation, your motivations and goals, and perhaps your age.

College students generally can choose a particular country for a study abroad program from a menu of options offered by their university. They will still need to think about the questions raised above. Are you hoping to study a particular subject area based on your major field of study? Are you more interested in cultural immersion and local life rather than specific classroom subjects? Do you need to get credit at your home university (which might constrain your choices based on available classes)? Are you hoping to become more fluent in a particular language, or do you hope that you can take classes in your own language? The answers to these questions might direct a student to a different country based on what is offered at his or her university.

High school students looking to study abroad may have choices about which country, or they may not. Language capability plays a significant role, as students generally need to be able to get by in the language of the host country. The host country may have specific regulations governing high school aged international students and schools in the country may have criteria for student admission. There may be visa requirements that could affect a student’s country choice. Students wishing to live with a host family and become truly immersed in the local culture may face different choices than students who wish to live in a dormitory and who are more interested in academics. Students wishing to attend private schools and live in a dorm may face significant competition for admission.

For any student, personal choice also matters. What one person considers a disadvantage might not be something that another student would even notice. Cost factors can affect country choice as well.

493803017 prioritiesWe recommend trying to take a problem-solving approach to the choice. Take a piece of paper (or do it on a computer, whichever works best for you). Make two columns for each country on your list. List all the benefits for each opportunity, and list the downsides for each opportunity. Be honest with yourself; the process doesn’t work if you don’t write down truthfully what you would like and dislike, what is an advantage and disadvantage. After you have finished, look at the list and think to yourself what’s really important. What do you hope to gain from the overall experience? You might decide that particular benefits and particular negatives need to be weighted more (or less) heavily. You might realize that certain items require more information. Do you really know what the language requirements are? Do you really know how much it will cost? Do you really know if your grades are sufficient?

In the end, you should have enough information to make a reasonable decision. Perhaps you have figured out that you are dealing with completely different options and one truly stands out. You may also have found out that you are dealing with apples and oranges, and that both seem pretty tasty. Wherever you end up, you can throw yourself into the experience, gain new understanding of another culture, learn new things from taking classes from a different cultural point of view, and teach the people you meet something about your own country and culture. It’s a win-win.

Photo credits:,

Highlight of the Week: Generation Study Abroad

Something that people often find surprising when we talk to them about international education and cultural exchange is how few American students choose to study abroad, either at the high school or college level. So this week I’m highlighting an initiative here in the U.S. that more people should know about. The Generation Study Abroad initiative, spearheaded by the Institute of International Education, aims to double the number of U.S. students studying abroad by the end of this decade. As part of this five-year goal, IIE is investing $2 million in the initiative, and the organization is seeking funds to provide scholarships to college and high school students.

Why is this initiative even needed? Here are some of the numbers.

  • At the college level, 289,400 students studied abroad during 2012-2013, an increase of 2% over the previous year. Sounds like a lot in raw numbers, right? But look at the total: 2.6 million students in this country graduate with associate or BA degrees every year. The number of students studying abroad totals only about 1% of all U.S. students enrolled at institutions of higher education in the United States, and under 10% of U.S. graduates.
  • At the high school level, just over 1,100 U.S. students studied abroad during 2013-2014. This represents a steady decline over the past decade:
Source: CSIET, 2013-2014 International Youth Exchange Statistics (2014).
Source: CSIET, 2013-2014 International Youth Exchange Statistics (2014).

IIE recognizes that studying abroad costs money, and that this has been a barrier for many students. The initiative includes the establishment of a Study Abroad Fund; companies and individuals can both donate to the Fund. An additional goal of the initiative is to “find new ways to extend study abroad opportunities to tens of thousands of college students for whom traditional study abroad programs aren’t working.”

How is the initiative doing? At its Generation Study Abroad Summit just a few weeks ago, IIE announced that it has received pledges of US $185 million in support over the next five years. The initiative has more than 600 partner organizations, including 350 U.S. colleges and universities and 100 from outside of the United States, study abroad and education organizations, and 14 country partners. About 500 teachers from all 50 states have pledged to encourage their students to develop a global perspective and consider studying abroad.

There’s a long way to go. The numbers are still low as compared to the numbers of students who come to the United States each year at the high school and college level. Additionally, the majority of U.S. students who study abroad come from middle-class and affluent families, and racial diversity is not very high:

Source: NAFSA, Trends in U.S. Study Abroad, based on data from IIE Open Doors Report and U.S. Department of Education National Center for Education Statistics.
Source: NAFSA, Trends in U.S. Study Abroad, based on data from IIE Open Doors Report and U.S. Department of Education National Center for Education Statistics.

Programs like this are what we need. For more information, visit the Generation Study Abroad page on the IIE website, and take a look at the one-year progress report IIE recently published.

Study Abroad: Finally, Parents Are Now Part of the Picture

A Review of Berdan et al.’s A Parent Guide to Study Abroad

Parents-Guide-to-Study-Abroad-IIE-Front-Cover-ImageHigh school exchange program coordinators talk about the needs of students and the needs of host families. Add in the needs, resources, and limitations of the schools we work with and you have a three-legged stool supporting a successful exchange year.

But the truth is it’s a four-legged stool. Parents back home can be a key factor, particularly in today’s world of instant communications, even if those parents are often unseen and unheard; it’s just a function of how exchange programs operate that we may have little or no contact with the shadowy figures who send us these teenagers year after year. It’s not just coordinators, either; host parents may or may not have communication with their student’s parents.  If they do communicate, it may be rife with cultural and language misunderstandings, and host parents often feel that their student’s parents do not fully understand what is involved in the cultural exchange experience or the study abroad process.  Finally, the high schools where our students go to school for a semester or academic year rarely have contact with the exchange students’ parents. Yet, solid parent preparation and understanding of the nature of an exchange and study abroad generally are key to a student’s ability to adapt and develop a healthy relationship with his or her host family and community.

Certainly, there are resources about study abroad that can be useful to students’ parents; a recent example that comes to mind is Helene Rybol’s Culture Shock: A Practical Guide (you can read my review of Rybol’s book here). What we don’t see are books or articles specifically exploring the parental side of the equation. Individual exchange programs and university study abroad programs do provide parent orientations, and they work hard to educate parents. Nevertheless — human nature being what it is the world over — parents may not be able to fully assimilate all the information provided to them. Having an outside source can be invaluable.

Stacie Nevadomski Berdan, Allan Goodman, and William Gertz are trying to be that source.  They aim to make parent preparation more transparent in their 2015 publication of A Parent Guide to Study Abroad. Published by the Institute of International Education (IIE), the book’s goal is (as stated by IIE) to “arm[] parents with the right mix of practical information to get involved just enough, while also giving the students the independence to learn and grow on their own.” The three authors, all well-known and experienced international education and study abroad professionals, acknowledge that parent involvement is critical for a student’s success. But as Berdan notes in her introduction, not every parent knows where to begin; and as Goodman notes in his introduction, parents need a plan.

So what is that plan, and what do the authors feel parents need to know to be effective? In truth, it’s not a lot different from what students and host families need to know, which shouldn’t really be a surprise.  If you were to only look at the chapter titles, you might think it is almost the same advice as that given to students. Chapters in the book include the value of studying abroad; how to find the best program; addressing costs and means of paying for a study abroad program; staying safe and healthy; and how to prepare for success while in another country.

There are some nuances, however, that are different simply because a parent’s perspective is different from that of a student or that of a host family. For one thing, two chapters specifically address parents’ actions during and after a study abroad program. These are key areas in which parents’ knowledge and expectations can help make or break a student’s successful integration into a host community as well as transitioning back home after three, six, or nine months abroad.

Two minutes into reading the book — indeed, I hadn’t even gotten past the authors’ introductions – I found a perfect example. William Gertz, president and CEO of the American Institute for Foreign Study, compares his own three-month traveling abroad journey many years ago with his daughter’s more recent study abroad experience, focusing on his own perceived needs and well-intentioned actions:

When my daughter went abroad during her junior year, I was excited for her. I wanted her to have “my” experience” (first mistake). But life is different nowadays, and you can’t really unplug. While she was studying in Florence, we spent far too much time talking on Skype and communicating via Facebook. We were always connected; and while this was comforting for us both, it may have hampered the freedom she needed—the freedom of spirit, exploration, and trial and error that I had. Still, she came home a more confident, more accomplished young woman.

Her study abroad program was superbly organized down to every detail, perfect for the millennial generation, complete with ample hand holding. Days packed with detailed itineraries including learning excursions; volunteering trips and language courses were quite the contrast to my backpacking, hostel-hopping days of self discovery. Traveling by air on weekends, she probably had fewer adventures than I had traveling by rail. But I had to remember, this was her experience, not mine.

My strong advice is this: let your children breathe. Don’t call too much, don’t solve all their problems, let them make their own mistakes and find their own path.

I could go on — there is actually quite a bit in this short 60-page book — but this, in a way, is the nutshell of the book’s messages to parents: help your child choose the program that is right for her, not for you; don’t overuse technology to remind them of what they are missing back home while they are trying to learn a whole new world; and let them learn what it is they went abroad to learn.

The book is intended for college students’ parents; moreover, it’s written for U.S. parents. But the issues faced by parents of high school students studying abroad aren’t much different, and the themes of what a parent needs to know and think about apply equally to parents whose students are coming to the U.S. It’s important to have parental support and understanding. It’s important to think about finances; if it’s a good idea for college-age students to understand budgets and how to get access to funds in another country, it’s doubly more so for teenagers who have thought even less than their college counterparts about what ordinary things in life cost. It’s important to think about how you will stay in touch, and how often.  It’s important at all ages to “develop a global mindset so that they will be best positioned for success in our competitive, global marketplace” – “one of the best gifts we can give our children,” Berdan notes.

There is nothing revolutionary in A Parent Guide to Study Abroad. It’s not over-burdened by long explanations. It’s just good, useful advice that all parents should review and periodically refer to while their son or daughter is abroad.  We’ll be recommending it.

*This blog post is linked to the My Global Life Link-Up at*
A Parent Guide to Study Abroad is available from IIE Publications for $4.95. IIE is offering a significant discount for bulk copies for schools to give to parents (20 copies for $20.00). The companion book, A Student Guide to Study Abroad, can also be ordered for $14.95, with discounts of 30%-50% for bulk orders.