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How to Handle Common Stressors as a University-Bound International Student

International students face a unique set of challenges in their university search. Stay on track and stress-free with this advice from a real student.

It still feels like a fever dream that I’ll be attending university internationally this year. I've always known that I wanted to study abroad since I enjoy traveling and relish the chance to learn new things and make friends. You may find yourself with the same interests and goals. It takes a lot of planning, considerations, and energy to study in a different country. So how do you manage this often stressful process while still in high school? Let’s discuss frequent problems encountered by international students, their solutions, and some of my favorite advice that will hopefully benefit you as much as it has helped me.

Choosing a country

As an international student, one of the first considerations in the admission process should be what country you’d like to study in. During the summer before my senior year of high school, I spent a lot of time researching colleges and universities in various countries, using websites such as CollegeXpress to find out information about them, and searching social media to look for students who already went to these schools. After my research, I decided I wanted to attend university in the United States. Depending on the country you decide, there are various application portals such as Common App (for the US) and UCAS (the UK's admission system). Other countries have various portals, so be sure to keep this in mind. Do you need to apply for a student visa to go here? Can you use your passport to travel there? These are a few questions you should ask as you think about all your options.

Related: 4 Great Destinations for International Students Pursuing Higher Education 

Application portals

There are various ways to apply to schools in the US with platforms like the Common App and Coalition App. Some schools expect you to use their personal portal to finalize your application. I was able to discover all this through virtual webinar sessions and prospective student meetings. A lot of schools offer direct email access to the admission office to make asking questions and applying easier and stress-free. Showing demonstrated interest like this is a good way to increase your chances of getting accepted to a university.

Testing differences

Another thing I noticed during my research was the difference in the educational testing system of my country and that of the US. I come from a country where at my school, standardized exams include the International General Certificate of Secondary Education (IGCSE), Advanced level qualifications (A-levels), and an exam body called the West African Senior School Certificate Examination (WASSCE). But in the US, testing requirements for applying usually include the SAT or ACT, plus your transcript. The good news is that many application platforms allow you to upload results from international exams (those that are recognized nationally in your country), so the effort you put in during exam season in your own country will not be in vain.

Last year, thanks to the impact of COVID-19, I was fortunate enough to avoid having to take the SAT and ACT. If you’re required to take one of these exams, I would suggest taking them in addition to an English proficiency test (such as IELTS, TOEFL, or Duolingo) for a stronger application. With the internet, it’s so much easier to find resources to study for standardized tests, with a personal favorite of mine being Khan Academy. Additionally, there are many free practice tests for improving English scores and getting used to the test portals. If you’re feeling stressed about the entire preparation process, confide in someone, take a break, then start again. You don’t want to get burnt out in the process.

Related: 2 Easy Study Tips for Both Admission and Language Tests

Time zone conflicts

Depending on the state, my home country is a minimum of six hours ahead of the US. This worked in my favor while I was applying to colleges because the deadline in my country was different, giving me more time to review my applications for American schools. Most college application deadlines are usually 11:59 pm, and they are usually Eastern or Pacific Time. However, do not procrastinate your applications because you think you have extra time on your hands. Time goes by very quickly, and since you still have academic obligations, it’s important to set reminders well before the time to submit (I’d recommend at least a week before to finalize your application).

Online events in different time zones

Another problem I faced was being able to connect to Zoom meetings based on time differences. Most colleges have a lot of virtual events for parents and students so you can get a feel of what the college is like. Unfortunately, time zones often got in the way of some of the events. For example, afternoon could sometimes be 1:00 am for me, and still being in school, I sometimes had to miss these meetings because I needed to sleep. In this case, what I decided to do was use the school’s earliest meeting times so I’d be able to attend and participate in virtual events. Be sure to use a time zone converter for your country to choose the most convenient times for you.

Related: Smart Things You Can Do If You Can't Visit Campus

Making friends

Making friends before you start university is a good way to ease your nerves and really settle in when you get to campus. It’s also helpful to make upperclassman friends who are already enrolled; that way, you can get advice from people who’ve already gone through the experiences you’re currently facing. I looked on social media for freshman-focused Instagram pages and asked a few questions on their Q&As to learn more about the colleges that were my top priorities. Someone reached out to me privately and even introduced me to another international student, and we’ve been friends ever since.

With all the group chats available for incoming students, you can always check social media to start meeting people before the semester begins. Some chats are created by the school and some by students. Additionally, there are groups that cater exclusively to international students going through similar issues or even pursuing the same degree as you. Join as many groups as you can to meet your prospective classmates, but be careful not to fall victim to online frauds, as some hackers may try to use it as an opportunity to hijack your accounts or steal personal data.

Paying for college

There’s no argument that college is expensive and even a bit of a burden financially. This is the biggest and most challenging factor that international students face. Currently, I am still in this situation, but I’m hoping that in the upcoming weeks I’ll be able to find the resources I need to pay for college fully. America has a variety of higher education institutions with different tuition rates, including community colleges, private for-profit and nonprofit schools, and public colleges; fees are generally higher at private schools and for citizens who live out of state. That’s why it's important to choose smartly.

In order to make college more affordable for you, choose a school that gives you a lot of scholarship offers and a good financial aid package. Negotiate with institutions to increase your aid, and look for internal scholarships on your school's website that you might qualify for. External scholarships are also essential; websites where you can search for them include CollegeXpress, Scholarship Owl, Cappex, and IEFA. There’s a scholarship out there for everyone, so keep applying for them until you are successful in getting free money for school—and don’t stop until you graduate. You shouldn’t have to be deep in debt because you want to study internationally.

Related: International University Search: How to Find the Most Aid

Once you make up your mind that you want to become an international university student, you have to brace yourself for the things you need to get ready. As application season approaches, try to effectively utilize your time during the summer and get all the resources you need to deal with the stress and situations that international students face. Good luck!

Not sure where to start your university search? Check out our featured schools looking for international students like you and get connected instantly!

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About Oluwafeolami Awe-Joseph

Oluwafeolami Awe-Joseph is a freshman at Ithaca College. She hopes to share her experiences and background as an international student in order to motivate and inspire others.


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