Going abroad to study at university is a big decision. Many considerations are discussed; what school is best for me, what major should I choose, which country or state should I go to, how much will my education cost, will I have any type of support network of friends or family where I am going, are my English test scores high enough to begin studying my major right away or will I need to take English language classes before I can start studying my major classes? No small task for anyone.
In my experience as a former English Language Program student advisor at a university in the U.S., I have seen many students flourish in their new environments and many others struggle. It is the students who are well-prepared before or shortly after they leave their home country that usually transition more smoothly. Part I of this article looks at communicating with the university about language requirements and living arrangements, preparing for possible homesickness, becoming and staying active socially, and motivational tips for when you are not feeling very motivated to continue your studies.
Every individual is different. Therefore, you will need to think about how you will prepare yourself to study in an English language medium university. With that said, before you even set foot on the airplane to your new country, here are the first 5 out of 10 super tips to get you started on the path of a successful language and study experience abroad.
Tip #1: Know the English Language Requirements of Your University
Too many times I have seen international students come to university thinking that their English is good enough to start studying their major courses only to find out that the university requires them to take as many as two more years of academic English classes.
Make sure to contact the admissions department to see what kind of English tests the university accepts. Do they take IELTS scores? Do they have their own tests that you take when you arrive? The university where I worked accepts IELTS scores before a student arrives, but will not accept scores if a student takes the English Language Placement Test through the university. This rule has disappointed quite a few students!
Communication with the university is a key factor for understanding what is required before starting your studies.
Tip #2: Live on Campus Your First Year
Students who decide to live on campus their first and second year tend to have an easier time making friends.
Depending on the country you'll be living in, you could be given a dorm room to share with a roommate. You can choose as to whether you want to share a room with someone from your home country (if there are enough students available from your home country) or share with a student from the host country. My recommendation to you is to choose living with a student who speaks English!
When students came to see me for appointments, the ones who had an English-speaking roommate more often than not always had better English speaking skills. Additionally, they seemed happier because their roommates were familiar with the culture and surroundings, so were able to get help faster and easier.
Tip #3: Know How to Deal with Homesickness Before It Happens
At the beginning of the semester, most students are excited, curious, and motivated in their studies. The reason for this is what is called the “Honeymoon Phase”. For the first one, two, or even three or four months, everything is new and interesting. You are living in a foreign country after all. This might even be your first time in a new country.
The problem is after the honeymoon phase. Some students (not all) start to miss their friends and family from back home. They start to get tired of eating foreign foods. It is draining learning a new language and at the same time living a new language. You are forced to speak, read, eat, and sleep in English. Yes, this is the whole point of studying abroad, but when done in a foreign language it can be very tiring day in and day out.
You need a plan in case you start to feel homesick. Here are some very smart ideas to help you maintain your level of language study before and during a case of the homesickness blues:
- Stay busy: Don’t sit in your room and think ‘Why me?!’ Do your homework, go out with friends, go to a football game, anything to keep your mind occupied.
- Kick the online gaming habit: I have seen far too many students who only want to play online games in their free time. It is no wonder that they are homesick and tired all the time. In this kind of situation, it is better to interact with people in the flesh. Go out and try to make new friends. If you are unsure how to do this, start by asking a classmate (who also speaks or is learning to speak English) to go out for a coffee or lunch.
- Don’t live alone: As mentioned earlier, having a roommate is extremely beneficial in more ways than one.
- Talk to someone: You have support all around you; friends, teachers, and advisors or counselors on campus. Don’t be afraid to ask for help or guidance when you are feeling down about missing home. Most teachers and advisors are very sympathetic towards homesick international students and will go out of their way to make you feel better!
- Know your triggers: If you know that watching your favorite movie in your native language is going to make you sad and miss your family more than ever, don’t watch it! Be aware of what causes you to feel worse, so you can avoid or mentally prepare yourself. On the other hand, note what makes you feel great and be sure to continue to include it in your daily routines.
Tip #4: Get Involved
Studying at an English language university abroad offers you so many chances to get involved with student life or local community life. Ask yourself, why are you going to another country to study? Hopefully, part of your answer is that you want to learn about the culture, meet its people, and make new friends.
There are many ways to do this including joining clubs, whether it be an academic club, a sports club, a theatre club, or a book club just to name a few. Another way to become active on campus is to take advantage of all the free activities offered to students. This could range from famous or semi-famous guest speakers to movie nights to stress relieving yoga classes. The choices really are endless!
Just remember to come with ‘international language’- a smile! Also, come with a friendly word or two in English and you will start making friends and becoming part of the university or surrounding community in no time. Not to mention you will have ample opportunity to practice speaking English! For a range of interesting ways to greet native English speakers check out this article.
Tip #5: Do Your Job as a Student without Excuses
As I mentioned previously, every person is different. This is why some students are completely organized and others are not. As an English Language Advisor to university students, I have heard every excuse in the book as to why a student’s English and academic grades are suffering:
- I can’t get out of bed for class
- I am jet-lagged (4 months after arriving in the country)
- I live so far away from campus, I can’t arrive on time
- I can’t find a parking spot in the morning
- I stay up too late
- The class is too early
- I party too much
- The teacher is boring
- I don’t understand the material
- I don’t think I need this class
- I have calculated that I can miss X amount of classes and quizzes and still pass the course
The list goes on and on, but I will stop there. I always try to help my students get back on track with their studies one way or another. It is best to remain ever so positive in these situations by explaining to students that you are the master of your own destiny. A little on the dramatic side, but still true.
Have you heard the expression ‘You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink’? This means that no matter how much support, advice, and encouragement I can give to a student, the only person who could assure his or her success you, the student.
In order to succeed while studying abroad, don’t make excuses. Instead, if you hear yourself coming up with excuses, try to find a solution to the problem. For instance,
- I can’t get out of bed for class – Go to bed earlier; buy an alarm clock; ask your roommate for encouragement to get up, create a schedule and follow it every day.
- I am jet-lagged (ex. 4 months after arriving in the country) – Try to prepare for jetlag. There are many helpful tricks you can use online. Try this article.
- I live so far away from campus, I can’t arrive on time – Before signing a contract for an apartment off-campus, do a little test. See how long it takes you to get from your apartment door to your classroom door. Will you be able to manage this distance? Is there reliable public transportation? Will you buy a car? If the distance is just too far perhaps you should consider getting an apartment that is closer or simply living on campus.
- I can’t find a parking spot in the morning – My suggestion for those students who drive around and around the parking lots looking for a space, but only live about a 10 - 20 minute walk from campus is to use those wonderful legs of yours and walk. It is less stressful than fighting traffic.
- I stay up too late – Easy. Go to bed earlier. Try going to bed five or ten minutes earlier every night until you reach your time goal.
- The class is too early – Welcome to the real world, baby! Think of this as training for a job. You would never say to your boss, ‘work starts too early’. You would be laughed out of a job. Time to take responsibility for yourself and your studies.
- I party too much – If you feel this is a serious problem, go see a counselor on campus for help. If not, try to only go out on Saturdays in order to better focus on your studies during the week and rest on Sunday.
- The teacher is boring – This happens. Nearly every student in history has had at least one ‘boring’ teacher. The only thing you need to do is the work assigned and show up for class if it’s required. That way, your ‘boring’ teacher is satisfied and you pass the class.
- I don’t understand the material – This is more serious. Have you gone to your teacher’s office hours for help? Have you signed up for on campus tutoring? Do you sit by the smartest student in your class so you can ask them for help?
- I don’t think I need this class – Well, of course not. That’s normal for university. Some classes you do not need for your major, but are still required of you. This is what makes you a well-rounded human being. Try to take away something positive from the class anyway.
- I have calculated that I can miss X amount of classes and quizzes and still pass the course – Gambling man/woman, eh? In my experience, the house usually wins.
It is the student who heeds the advice of those who are savvy with the do’s and don’ts of studying abroad that have a happier and smoother transition into university life in an English-speaking country. Knowing the English language requirements of your university before you arrive, living on-campus with a local roommate, understanding the potentials of homesickness, allowing yourself involvement in the (university) community, and focusing on solutions instead of excuses will allow you to assimilate more comfortably into your new English language environment.
In Part II of 10 Super Tips for University Students Wishing to Study Abroad in an English-Speaking Country, we talk about exploration, budgeting, health and more and how these are related to successful students in an English language medium university.
Morgenthaler, Timothy, M.D. “How to Fight Jet Lag.” Huffpost, https://www.huffingtonpost.com/timothy-morgenthaler-md/how-to-fight-jet-lag_b_5881646.html. Accessed 4 December 2017.
Hero image by Brooke Cagle on Unsplash