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Eight Tips for Counseling International High School Students

By Joan Liu, University Advisor at United World College East Campus, Singapore

NACAC Member Joan Liu

​With more international students attending US high schools, guidance professionals and college counselors face the challenge of building their knowledge about admission and financial aid for non-US citizens. What are the unique needs of international students as they seek to access US higher education? How does counseling an international student differ from counseling a domestic one? Having worked at both public and private schools in the US, and national and international high schools in Turkey, England and Singapore, I'd like to share a few tips I've learned over the years. Here are a few suggestions on how to support the international students in your US high school community: 

1) Holistic Admission: Your international students may come from a country where entry to elementary schools, secondary schools and higher education is based strictly on a district or national examination. Because of this, international students may have no cultural reference point for "holistic admission." (In Turkey, there is not even a one-to-one word translation for the word "holistic"). Therefore, taking the time to explain what "holistic" means, and encouraging your international students to attend or participate in mock admission workshops, can help your international students grasp the complexity of the admission system in which they will be evaluated. 

2) Flexibility of Study: International students may come from national contexts where higher education is not a time to explore, but rather, a time to specialize in a particular subject. They may come from a country where high schools do not offer a range of subjects, but rather, only a few subject areas which prepare the student to study a particular subject at university. Unlike the US, where students apply for entry into an institution, some countries prepare students to apply for entry into a particular department at an institution. Some countries model their graduation requirements after England's A-level qualifications, which are designed to help students narrow down their career focus. Help your international students understand the liberal arts/general education concept is the cornerstone of US higher education; it allows students to develop critical thinking, problem solving and analytical skills employers seek and value; and these skills are transferable across a wide range of professions and careers. Help students understand being "educated" can mean not just specialization in one subject area, but understanding that subject from other viewpoints as well.   


3) Standardized Testing: International students are faced with a significant challenge when it comes to taking standardized tests (e.g., ACT, SAT or SAT II Subject Tests) because English may be their second language. Even if it is not required by the university, students may want to go ahead and take the TOEFL or IELTS. Submitting these English proficiency test scores can help to mitigate lower standardized testing scores in reading and writing, and can reassure admission officers a student is ready for university entry. Like domestic students, international students may feel standardized testing is the end-all and be-all of their admission to university, especially if they are coming from a country where that is the sole entry criteria for higher education. Encourage students to keep in mind standardized testing is one of the many criteria that are used to evaluate their candidacy at an institution. Also, encourage students to look at test-optional or test-flexible schools that put greater weight on other factors. There are several wonderful institutions that offer a test-optional or test-flexible policy to international students. 

4) Letters of Recommendation: The least helpful recommendations are those that unintentionally make an international student sound like a stereotype. Depending on when an international student arrives at your school, you may have limited time to get to know him or her. Have your students fill out a questionnaire about their background, family, values, and cultural contexts so you have a better understanding of the kind of transitions they are undertaking in coming here to the US to complete their high school diploma. Include this background information in your recommendations so admission officers can read these students in the context of their prior cultural context, their progress in English as a second language, their transition to your school and curriculum, and their growth as a person who is adapting to new cultural rules and norms that may be vastly different than their own. 

5) Family Dynamic:  Some international students will be the first in their families to access higher education, or the first in their families to seek higher education in the US. This may mean varying levels of involvement from their families. While it is generally acceptable in the US to ask American students to take the lead in their college process, it may be unrealistic to expect international students to do the same depending on the family expectations and the cultural norms of the country they are from. Take the time to ask the student, "What will be your family's involvement in this process?" in order to understand cultural expectations, a student's former context and the most effective way forward when guiding this student in his or her transition to higher education. If possible, it may simply save your office and the student valuable time if you include the family from the beginning of the process. Fortunately, Skype and other technological tools can help facilitate a family’s involvement. 

6) Financial Aid: For international students seeking significant financial aid, it is important to know universities and colleges that are need-blind towards domestic students may not be need-blind towards international students. In fact, as of last year only six schools in the US—out of the over 4,000 college and university options— had need-blind policies towards international students. In no particular order, schools that admit students regardless of their ability to pay are Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Amherst, MIT, and Dartmouth. Additionally, a small number of schools in the US are need-aware but able to offer full financial aid to a high need international student who has few resources. EducationUSA provides a regularly updated database of schools offering international student scholarships. 

Information about average financial aid awards, and the number of students awarded aid, may not be not easily accessible. Therefore, strong research on the part of the counselor and student can make a critical difference in an international student's ability to access higher education in the States. Adding further complication, financial aid is a constantly changing landscape. The best way to collect information, other than university websites, is to encourage students to look at the Common Data Set of each school they are interested in. These data sets offer more detailed information about how much aid was awarded to international students, and to how many. Another superb starting point is Doug Thompson's List. Thompson is a leader in the Overseas ACAC and many counselors working at international schools abroad use this list as their primary reference point when working with students with financial need. 

7). Medical School.  Many students aspire to study medicine and then return to their home countries as doctors. On Yale's undergraduate admission website, there is a "Special Note for International Students Intending to Study Medicine," which includes the following advice: "International applicants who are considering a career as a medical doctor and hope to receive their education at an American medical school should think carefully before applying for admission to an undergraduate program in the United States." Counselors should inform international students that gaining admission to a US medical school is extraordinarily challenging, as less than one percent of F-1 students applying to US medical schools will gain admission. If a student needs further proof, show them this document from National Association of Advisors for the Health Professions, who provide a list of US medical schools and their admission policies towards non-US citizens. When I show students this list, they suddenly understand—the numbers speak for themselves. Students who want to pursue medicine may find a more viable path by applying for direct admission to medical school in the UK (where students apply directly for medicine as undergraduates) or in their home countries. However, applying for medicine in the UK is also extremely competitive and there are limited seats for international students at each medical school. Students should be advised to research this landscape early, no later than 11th grade, so they are aware of their options and the implications of their choices. Students who want to study in the US long-term may find an alternative career in something related to healthcare but which does not require medical school.  

8) Women's Colleges. If you are working with an international female student who needs full financial aid to access higher education, women’s colleges are some of the most supportive institutions when it comes to removing financial barriers to accessing higher education. Start this conversation early with your students because perceptions of these institutions can vary by country or cultural background. In some countries, women's colleges are viewed as progressive, pioneering and leading-edge; in other countries, women's colleges are viewed as entirely the opposite! It may take you some time to dispel myths about women's colleges, but keep at it! These schools are on the leading edge of opening access to US higher education to students all over the world, through their philosophical commitment, recruitment, outreach, travel, and financial aid programs. 

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