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Studying overseas

By Margaret Adolphus

Choosing a course

Choosing an institution can be difficult enough in one’s own country; in another it can be positively bewildering.

Ideally you need to visit any place you are interested in, but if this is not practicable, you will find a wealth of material online. You might also be able to speak to someone directly at an international student organization. Check if there is an overseas advisory centre in your area which can provide information, and perhaps put you in touch with a representative.

One of the most important points to bear in mind is that most countries have a system of assessing the quality of courses. For example:

Once you have checked out the metrics of a course you are interested in, there are a range of other issues which you need to consider, from the place where the institution is situated to the type of teaching. Here are issues which you might find useful to add to your own checklist.

  • How attractive is the place where the university is situated? Can you imagine yourself living there for several years? Does it provide the sports or artistic amenities you require? Would you be happier in a small town or a large one? Try and find out independent estimates of its attractions – the institution’s website is bound to talk it up.
  • What impression can you gain of the quality of the teaching environment? For example, how many faculty are there, and do they represent areas in which you are interested? Is the style of teaching lecture based, are you encouraged to learn independently, how many teaching hours are there per course? If you are studying a vocational subject, such as business studies, what is the possibility of gaining relevant work experience?
  • What is the method of assessment? Is it continuous, with marks on coursework contributing to the final degree classification, or is it based on examination?
  • Finally, what about cost? The cost of fees can vary enormously, and some schools, while high on your "aspiration list", may just not be affordable. Careful consideration of what you can afford may concentrate the mind wonderfully and help you narrow down your list to those courses which meet your requirements.


For an MBA, you need to be particularly concerned that it offers the subjects in which you are interested in sufficient depth, and that the faculty has enough research and practical expertise. You also need to think about size – a course with a lot of students may have a lower staff-student ratio, but on the other hand will bring you into contact with more people. Other questions you need to consider include:

  • Is the learning environment competitive or collaborative?
  • Are there opportunities for development of leadership, teamwork or entrepreneurial skills?
  • Does the course place emphasis on a particular method (for example some schools follow Harvard’s case study approach)?
  • Most business schools have an alumni association – how many and how active in this case?

An international degree

A current trend is for universities to form cross-boundary partnerships so that you can study for different years at different institutions and still get a recognized degree, or take part in an exchange. This way, you have the best of both worlds – studying both at home and abroad. Your university’s international office should be able to advise you.

A different learning environment

Going to live in a foreign country means subjecting yourself to a whole host of different cultural experiences, and it can take a little while to settle into a foreign environment.

One of the biggest shocks may lie in the way you are required to study and learn.

Whereas in some countries you can be taught parrot-fashion, in others, you may be encouraged to challenge accepted thinking, and participate in debate with lecturers and students.

You may also be required to be more of a self-starter, pursuing your own lines of study rather than just relying on teachers’ notes. In the UK and the US, some subjects will require much written work, in particular essays and reports.

Most universities in the West tend to look very severely at what they term plagiarism, which is copying from other people in written work without proper acknowledgement.

You may well also find yourself studying in a foreign language, and you should be sure to acquire a level of that language which is sufficient to read, write, listen and participate in academic discussion. Many English language courses stipulate a certain level of English. You may be further helped while studying by the inbuilt English language support which many English-speaking universities have.

The application

Once you have narrowed down your search and established your criteria, you will need to start making your application. To say that you need to take care with this is a statement of the obvious, but it is surprising how many people send in sloppy applications which have not been properly proofread. The application process is complex and you need to make sure that you allow sufficient time to go through the various stages, and that in particular you don’t mail something you haven’t had time to proofread.

The bottom line is that all institutions are looking for people who show the potential to complete the course with good marks, also that any institution worth applying for will have more candidates than places. American universities in particular are looking for good all-rounders; people who are not just academically bright but who have other dimensions to their lives, shown as extra curricular activities in sports, the arts, etc. Such people will enhance campus life.

Most institutions will be aware of the different grading structures of foreign schools, and also of the fact that some schools do not have the facilities for extra-curricular activities. Application systems vary, but a typical application for a US university might require the following:

  • Application form.
  • High school transcript.
  • Results of any standardized tests, such as the Official Scholastic Aptitude Test® (SAT) and TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language™).
  • Letters of recommendation.
  • One or more essays, which may ask you to describe an important achievement, discuss an important personal, local, national or international issue and how it has affected you, describe how a particular person has influenced you, describe your role in a community project, etc.
  • Application fee.

You also need to show that you have some idea of your future direction, both academic and career, how the institution can help you achieve it, and how you think you would survive in a foreign culture.

Application for an MBA is even more complex and you are advised to place an application between October and December for entry the following academic year for a good university. Bearing in mind the time taken to get everything ready, you need to start in July to prepare for a December application, which means that you will be initiating the application process 18 months before you start your course. Typically, you will need the following:

  • The Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT®) and TOEFL™ test results (remember, you need to allow time to register, and you will also want to study and practice, especially for the GMAT®).
  • School and college transcripts.
  • Letters of recommendation.
  • Financial statements showing that you or your sponsor have sufficient funds to cover your studies.
  • Essays, in which you can describe your past accomplishments, your aspirations, how this particular course will help, and what qualifies you for desired success.

Studying in the USA or Canada

The USA represents the ultimate dream destination for many students: it is a huge and varied country with top quality, post-secondary education. There is also a great variety of programmes, and you can study almost every imaginable subject.

American universities value diversity, and welcome the different perspectives that international students bring. A substantial proportion of both faculty and students come from minority groups.

Such quality education does not come cheap, the cost of living in the US is higher than in some places, and non-US citizens or residents are not eligible for federal aid. More and more universities, however, are giving financial aid and can help students with grants, which may not, however, cover the whole costs of study.

Canada has a reputation for being very welcoming to foreign students, and, as a result of its own bilingual English/French situation, is a leader in second language training. Like the USA, it has universities and community colleges, the latter offering two-year programmes. Public education is under provincial jurisdiction, so the system will vary from province to province. Education can be cheaper than in the US.

Both the US and Canada require students from overseas to have a visa: check with the relevant embassy, or institution, what the exact requirements are. In the US, the immigration procedures are cumbersome, and practical matters such as getting a driving licence or social security number can be difficult.

Studying in the UK

Like the US, the UK offers high quality education, and is still considered one of the best places to obtain a degree. UK institutions offer a broad range of study options –- lectures, seminars, tutorials, practical work, etc. Many also incorporate an optional or mandatory work experience period, which helps you both apply your learning and acquire professional skills.

You can study for a two-year course in the form of a Higher National Diploma, while most degrees take three years. Full-time MBAs generally last a year, as opposed to two years in the US.

The cost of living in the UK is high compared with some countries (though not Europe or the US), and overseas fees (for non-EU students) are some of the highest in the world. Grants may be obtainable from:

You will need to sort out your finances before you come to the UK; it is very difficult to do so once you are in the country, and in any case, you may experience difficulties with immigration.

Studying in Europe

Europe can also offer much to international students: exactly what, obviously, varies from country to country.

There are particular advantages to studying business and management in France, which has a well-established tradition of business education, with the first business school being created in Paris in 1819. The instruction is highly focused, teachers have close links with business and there is plenty of opportunity to interact with practising managers.

Studying in Australia or New Zealand

Both the Australian and New Zealand systems of education are based on the British model, and have institutions with very high standards. Both are highly multicultural places, offering a warm welcome to overseas students – Australia’s campuses are the most international of the world.

The cost of education can come cheaper than in North America and the UK, so you get British-style education at cheaper prices.

Support from your institution

Whichever country you select, try and choose a university which has a good support system for overseas students. Many universities have an international office with dedicated support for both academic and personal matters, offering advice on admissions, visas, cultural adjustment and courses, and providing pre-departure briefings, induction programmes, language support, etc.

Many student unions also have an international officer who can give you valuable support.

In the final analysis however, your experience abroad is what you make of it. You need to make efforts to understand the culture you are living in, and to integrate and make friends, even though at times there may seem to be a lot of barriers. The ability to overcome cultural barriers, and understand what motivates people of different nationalities and backgrounds, as well as familiarizing yourself, and to a certain extent integrating with, the home culture will be invaluable whether you intend to develop an international business career – or just live peaceably in our global village.