Why study outside the UK?

Canada / Europe / Guides / USA

With a highly-regarded and high-quality university system in the UK, students and parents are often a little unsure why they should think about university in another country.

However, when realising that the experience of studying at a UK university is not one automatically replicated in other countries, students can be more open to the idea. Too often, people assume that university in a different country will be the same as a UK degree, but in a different climate, culture or language. To help with this, here are some ‘British assumptions’ about the way university works which aren’t necessarily true.

You have to decide what you want to study at university before you apply

This is hardwired into the UK education system, with the curriculum narrowing at 14+ and 16+ to make sure that students are studying the appropriate combination of subjects to apply to their chosen course at university. Our system is built around first choosing WHAT you want to study at university, then cross-referencing with the GRADES you might achieve, before choosing the LIST of universities.

Outside of the UK, there are many options where you apply to university without specifing the subject you wish to study. In the Liberal Arts and Sciences model of the USA, Dutch University Colleges and many other institutions, students study a broader curriculum with some areas of specialisation, but do not have to nominate one or two areas of study at the time of application. For students with very broad interests, or two or three interests which can’t be found on UCAS, studying abroad can help find a good fit.

University is all about lectures and exams

The UK university assessment model still mostly follows a traditional pattern: study for a year, take some exams, study for two more years and take some more exams, perhaps with some coursework thrown in. Despite secondary schools delivering their curriculum to suit the learning styles of their students, at university this can be ignored. So for students who would rather be assessed in a different way, studying at an international university can be the ideal match. The US model is perhaps the most obvious one, with students taking a number of classes each term and their Grade Point Average being built-up semester by semester. Top-ranked European universities such as IE in Spain and EHL in Switzerland assess students on their teamwork and project-based skills, while those using a ‘Co-op’ model of internships and placements will grade students on their real-world performance.

My predicted grades will determine where I can apply

The UK model is based entirely on this: getting A Levels is the key to the university you want to go to. Internationally, however, this works differently, which can help students who are not suited to the pressure-cooker nature of A Level exams. Students applying to many public universities in Europe only need to achieve a minimum threshold of grades, with selection ‘after the gate’ at the end of the first year being the main point of weeding-out underperforming students. Across the world, many universities will practise ‘holistic admissions’, whereby as well as a student’s academic profile they will also ask for information about their extra-curricular profile as well as many more letters of motivation. It is fairly common in many systems for students with top grades to be denied in favour of those with slightly lower grades but a stronger overall profile.

Universities don’t really care about anything except school work when deciding who to admit

Following on from the issue of grades, many international universities will place significant weight on non-academic factors which, truth-be-told, many UK universities are not concerned with. Particularly in the USA, colleges are looking for ‘fit’ between a student and a university, and universities which pride themselves on having an active community will seek students who can demonstrate involvement in many activities during their school career. For students attending UK schools where they have developed their interests far beyond the classroom, an international education can see these other aspects of their profile come to the fore.

I need to go to a ‘top’ university to get a good job

When discussing this in presentations, I typically joke that if anyone can define ‘top university’ then please let me know; the truth is that this definition is in the eye of the beholder. Increasingly, employers are aware of the relative merits of international universities and will assess job applications on WHAT a student has achieved rather than WHERE it was achieved: the old school (or old university) tie network is not what it was.

More widely, stepping away from the norm and pursuing an education far away from home at age 19 shows character traits which employers value. With many international universities seeing career placement (and career advancement) as part-and-parcel of what they do for their current and former students, studying internationally can be the ticket to an amazing future.

Studying internationally is not for everybody, but as soon as students know more about how different their university experience can be, they may be able to make choices which are ideal for them.