The View From Campus: Getting a US student visa

Since the Covid-19 pandemic began in early 2020, many students’ study plans were turned upside down. But for those who have persevered, congratulations, you are almost there! The next step, getting your student visa, is perhaps the most nerve-wracking time for international students headed for the United States. The good news is with the right preparation, honest answers, and appropriate documentation you can give yourself an excellent chance of being granted a student visa. Here is what you should do as U.S. consulates and embassies reopen after the pandemic.

  • Got your I-20?  Make sure you have received the I-20 & admission letter from the college/university you plan to attend. You may have been accepted and received I-20s from more than one school. We recommend that you decide which institution you will attend before starting the visa process.
  • Check your passport:  Your passport must be valid for at least six months after your initial planned entry into the U.S. Your name on your I-20 must be spelled the same (and in the same order) as is listed on your passport.
  • Pay your SEVIS fee. Students can pay this $350 fee online. You will need an e-receipt for the next steps in the process.
  • Complete the Visa Application Form online DS-160 (non-immigrant visa application). You will need most of the following items to complete this form:
  • Passport
  • SEVIS ID (from your I-20 form)
  • Address of the college you will attend (usually on the I-20)
  • Travel itinerary to the U.S. if you have made arrangements already
  • Admission letter from the college you will attend
  • Proof of funding – bank statements, scholarship award letters, etc.
  • Dates of your last 5 visits to the United States (if any)
  • Profile names on your social media accounts over the last 5 years.

After completing the online DS-160 application, print off the DS-160 Bar Code page. You will not need to print the entire application. You will, however, have to pay the DS-160 application fee – $160 – online as well.

  • Been to the US before? You may be in luck! In December 2021, to avoid unnecessary delays in processing, the U.S. Department of State announced that in each country, U.S. consulates have the discretion to waive the in-person student visa interview if you have previously received a visa to come to the United States through the end of 2022.
  • Plan ahead! You can schedule your visa appointment up to 120 days in advance of the start date listed on your I-20 (when your new school requires you to be on campus). Because this summer there is two years’ worth of international students seeking visas to enter the United States, in some countries there may be a substantial wait time to get an appointment, and, more importantly, to process your application. The good news is that student visa applicants are given priority, even in countries where U.S. consulates are open for emergency appointments only.
  • Schedule your visa appointment at the U.S. embassy/consulate nearest you. Using this site you’ll learn whether you can make your appointment online or by telephone. You will also need to pay the visa application fee (approximately $160, the price varies slightly per country).
  • Attend a Visa Session at an EducationUSA Advising Center in your country. EducationUSA works closely with the U.S. consular officers that conduct the visa interviews. At these sessions (which may still be held virtually this year) they will make it clear what they are expecting from successful student visa applicants, and the kind of questions they will ask.
  • Talk to your friends.  Are any of your former classmates studying in the U.S. now? Ask for their advice about their interview experiences and ask for their recommendations. You can also check out how successful students help demystify the student visa process.
  • Breathe, relax, and be honest. You have invested a lot of time, energy, and resources to get to this visa interview. Try not to be too nervous. You are almost there. Answer the visa officer’s questions honestly – Why did you pick the particular college you want to attend? How are you funding your studies? What are your plans after you finish your studies?  You may not know the exact answer to this last question, but be thinking about how you might answer that question.

Good luck to you as you take this important next step!

Our May USA Study Live Chat focused on getting a US student visa. Check out the recording to learn more.

Resitting the IELTS Test (Part 2)

If you are yet to achieve your IELTS goals and need to retake the test, you’ve come to the right place. In the previous part, we looked at the importance of being in a positive frame of mind and discovering all there is to know about the test pattern and marking scheme.  

Read on to find out what more you could do to avoid disappointment when you resit IELTS.

4. Identify areas that need improvement

There is little sense in retaking IELTS without first honing your language skills and improving your ability to use strategies and time effectively. And such improvement is only possible if you identify what went wrong in your previous attempt. Dissect your performance – for instance, think about where you lost time or identify which task types bamboozled you – and you should have all the answers. If targeted feedback is what you’re looking for, you could opt for the official IELTS practice test, IELTS Progress Check. That way, you will get to practise in timed conditions, and receive an official feedback report and indicative band scores afterwards.

5. Set realistic goals

To avoid disappointment, it is extremely important that you remain realistic throughout your IELTS journey, setting yourself attainable goals. Before you have another shot at passing the test, think whether you would want to prepare on your own or seek professional help (e.g. enrol on a preparatory course, get regular feedback from an IELTS expert). It is absolutely imperative that you make an informed decision at this stage so that you don’t falter. If there is a massive difference between your previous IELTS scores and the scores you require, it is best to enlist the help of a trained expert. They can tell you how exactly you would be able to build your test skills and improve your language ability. By assessing your current level of English, they can also determine how long you may have to prepare in order to pass IELTS. Remember, if you don’t make a significant effort to improve your English and/or test skills before retaking IELTS, your scores are unlikely to improve. So, stop feeling frustrated, pull your socks up and set your sights on getting those elusive IELTS scores you need.

Resitting the IELTS Test (Part 1)

IELTS is the world’s most popular English-language test for work, study, and migration, which is trusted by over 11,000 organisations worldwide. With high stakes riding on the results, how you fare in the test pretty much decides the sort of opportunities that are likely to come your way soon after.

Failing to get the IELTS scores you require the first time round is not the end of the world, though: you can apply to sit the test again as soon as you feel up to the task. In this series, we’ve put together some useful suggestions for anyone planning to retake IELTS.   

1. Be in the right frame of mind

In an ideal world, we would pass every test we take at the very first attempt. However, in real life things do not always go according to plan. It is only natural that our confidence takes a hit on such occasions. Don’t feel pressured to make another attempt straight away. Instead, come to terms with what has happened, give yourself enough time to feel relaxed and buoyant, and only then should you sit IELTS again.  

2. Read up on the test format

It is said that familiarity breeds contempt, but as far as language tests go, having a thorough knowledge of the test format boosts your confidence and helps you perform to the best of your ability. So, devour every bit of information you can find about the format of IELTS. Also, knowing the various task types in advance will allow you time to practise the ones you find tricky.  

3. Improve your understanding of marking

No matter how good your English is, understanding how your language skills are going to be assessed is enormously important before you take a test. See to it that you read and understand the IELTS band descriptors so that you know how Examiners award a band score for each of the four criteria in Writing and Speaking. You can find the public version of the IELTS band descriptors here. Similarly, find out how Listening and Reading scores are calculated.

You can find more handy tips for resitting IELTS in the next part, so do read it without fail.

How Does IELTS Prepare Me for US Study?

Do you believe the IELTS test helps you prepare for study in the United States? Believe it or not, your preparation for the test, your focus on spoken, written, read, and heard English, and the steps you must take to do your best on test day all matter. That time, effort, and preparation you are taking now to take IELTS is an excellent preview of what your studies in the U.S. would involve.

Research Resources

Perhaps most surprisingly, over 3,400 institutions in the United States already accept IELTS. Most importantly, all the top 50 colleges and universities ranked by US News and World Report readily say that IELTS is acceptable for international students needing to document their English language proficiency.

As you may have already found, the Prepare for IELTS section of the British Council website provides excellent online tools to help you get ready for the test, including several free practice tests as well as resources to improve your reading, writing, listening, and speaking skills. All four of those skills are absolutely essential for your studies at a U.S. college or university.

Practice the Skills You Will Use

Ideally, as you search for universities in the United States that have the academic subject you wish to study and meet other requirements you have (size, location, climate, costs, etc.), you should research what band scores you will need to meet the English language proficiency standards each institution sets for non-native speakers. Most colleges will have at least an overall score minimum to begin a full academic load of courses in your first term. Some will also set minimum band scores across the four sections of the IELTS test.

As always, you can prepare for test day with practice tests that will share your anticipated individual band scores as well as your overall result. Be sure to check those results to see what areas you may need to focus on before taking the official test.

Fulfil The Requirements

In terms of tips you can use to use IELTS as the key to unlock your door to a U.S. higher education, there are three pieces of advice we can offer:

  • Apply with confidence – have faith in your abilities to succeed.
  • Meet your deadlines – yes, the dates set for application deadlines matter.
  • Achieve your dreams – use your IELTS preparation and testing experiences to realize your goals.

Resources For International Applicants to US Colleges and Universities

For more discussion on this topic, check out our Facebook Live chat from April 2022 on this subject.

How to Avoid Misusing the Exclamation Mark

The exclamation mark (!), informally known as a bang or shriek, is arguably the most widely abused punctuation mark, especially in the electronic era. Almost every single day we come across text messages, tweets and emails laden with this sign.  

The thing is, when we speak, the tone of our voice and body language make the intent behind what we say quite clear. Written words, on the other hand, might not always convey our emotions effectively.  This is perhaps why many people use exclamation marks generously, hoping that it will make them appear friendly or adequately enthusiastic about something. What they don’t realise, though, is that excessive use will make their writing appear juvenile, or even shouty.

The Use of the Exclamation Mark

The exclamation mark is generally used to express strong emotions (e.g. joy, surprise, anger, frustration) or to indicate a sense of urgency. We generally add one at the end of exclamatives beginning with what or how (e.g. What a lovely coat!). Here are a few points to help you use the exclamation mark judiciously.

  • The key to using the exclamation mark effectively is to use it sparingly. Overuse will certainly cause distraction, lessening the impact it can have on the reader. If there are too many bangs, it would be rather tough to identify the really exciting parts of your writing. Solution? Ideally, an exclamation mark should be summoned only if there is a clear need to express very strong feelings. Rewording sentences can oftentimes help you avoid the bang, so do explore this possibility.
  • Using exclamation marks in a row (two, three or more) to stress the way you feel about something is a definite no-no. A single exclamation mark will do, at the very most. 
  • The bang is often spotted in advertisements, novels and signage. Its presence in a piece of formal communication, however, will be considered inappropriate by most. Therefore, it is best to rely on your vocabulary range to intensify what you are saying.

Now that you’ve had some help, remember not to unleash a platoon of exclamation marks on the reader the next time you compose a text message or email; use a bang only when it is unavoidable.

Little-known Facts about IELTS (Part 3)

An increasingly mobile international workforce is also a factor that has boosted the popularity of IELTS. It is now the most widely used test for visa and citizenship purposes in Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United Kingdom.

In this final part, we will uncover for you some more interesting facts about the delivery of the IELTS test.

Test security measures

IELTS adopts a multi-layered approach to test security to protect the integrity of test results. To begin with, there are tight regulations surrounding the storage and handling of test material. Tailor-made biometric systems are used at test venues to verify the identity of test takers, right from when they first arrive till they complete the last section of the test. Strict test conditions prevail at test venues to thwart any attempts at copying or collusion. To help identify imposters, detect fraudulent behaviour and prevent cheating, test centre staff undergo intensive training periodically.

Once a test session concludes, routine inspection of test results has to happen before scores can be released.  Test takers receive a Test Report Form (TRF), which is printed on security-enhanced paper and authenticated by an IELTS validation stamp. The TRF also contains a high-resolution photograph of the test taker. Finally, as an additional safeguard against fraudulent documents, a recognising organisation (e.g. college, immigration authority) can verify online the authenticity of every IELTS TRF presented to them. All they need to do is sign up for the free IELTS TRF Verification Service: it will enable them to check if the results they receive match the results on the IELTS database.

Getting help

While the test is in progress, test takers can seek help from test centre staff if the need arises. For example, if you believe you have received the wrong question paper, or if the question paper you have is incomplete or illegible, immediately raise your hand. An invigilator will then approach you and offer assistance. Similarly, if you experience trouble with your headphones during the Listening section, an invigilator will be at hand to sort it out. However, do not expect test centre staff to provide any explanation of the test questions!

So, if you need proof of your competence in English, then look no further than IELTS, the test that more than 11,000 organisations across the globe trust implicitly.

What should you write for a statement of purpose?

If you are planning to apply for a master’s or doctoral degree in the United States, one item, more than most, makes you nervous. For most international students one of the most significant challenges you will face is writing the statement of purpose (or SOP). Let us spend some time covering what you need to know.

Graduate statement of purpose

What is important to remember in applying to U.S. graduate programs is that each department within a university may have different things it looks for in what prospective students write in their application statement of purpose. As a result, we strongly encourage applicants to focus on the department they are applying to more than the university when composing their thoughts. Oftentimes the graduate departments that require statements of purpose have the final say as to which applicants are admitted to their programs.

Tips for graduate applicants

There are many suggestions out there for writing an acceptable statement of purpose. Four tips have consistently shown to be reliable as international students approach this important writing assignment.

  • Find the right academic program
  • Investigate the specifics of each program
  • Get to know the faculty and their research
  • Be careful – one SOP does not fit all

As always, US graduate departments are keen to attract students that clearly demonstrate a desire to attend their programs. Many institution’s graduate schools offer specific advice on writing the statement of purpose. Check out these two suggestions from University of California, Berkeley and Cornell University (one of the US Ivy League institutions).

Final advice …

As you begin this process, we have some final words of advice. Remember this …

  • Nothing is perfect the first time.
  • Don’t be afraid to start over.
  • Be honest, specific, and concrete.
  • Proofread.
  • Have others read your drafts.

In the end, your SOP should reflect who you are, why you are applying, and what this degree will help you achieve in life.

For more insight on this topic, check out our Facebook Live chat from March 2022.

Little-known Facts about IELTS (Part 2)

The internationalisation of higher education in recent times has been a key factor that has driven the demand for IELTS. Given that the test is recognised for entrance to universities and colleges across the English-speaking world, it is the preferred way for most youngsters aspiring to get a foreign education to demonstrate their English proficiency.   

In this blog post, we will talk about some of the measures that make IELTS fair and highly reliable.

Ensuring quality and fairness

Over the years, IELTS has established itself as an assessment tool that is fair to all test takers, whatever their nationality, cultural background, gender or special needs.

For a start, it assesses language skills, not specialist knowledge, so the topics covered are all quite general in nature. The test measures practical communication ability, which means that learning prepared answers by rote will not get test takers anywhere. One of the pluses of IELTS is that it recognises all standard varieties of native-speaker English, such as Australian English, British English and New Zealand English. You can rest assured that your background will in no way affect the outcome of the test.

There are safeguards and systems in place to ensure that the delivery of the test is both consistent and secure. Unique test versions, for instance, are created so that test takers will never sit the same test twice. Furthermore, each test version is subject to routine analysis in order to check whether the performances of test materials, test takers and Examiners are in line with expected standards.

Reliability of test results

Not many people know that all active IELTS Examiners receive periodic feedback on their performance. This task is performed by a team of IELTS Principal Examiners and Assistant Principal Examiners, who second-mark selected Speaking and Writing performances to check assessment quality.  Additionally, if there is a significant difference between a test taker’s scores – for example, a band 5 for Reading and band 8 for Speaking – the IELTS computer system flags it up so that double marking is carried out without fail. Do not miss the final part in this blog post series – among other things, you will get to read about IELTS test security regulations.

Little-known Facts about IELTS (Part 1)

If you are looking to work, live or study in an English-speaking country, then the International English Language Testing System (IELTS) can help you do just that by letting you demonstrate your ability to use English effectively in a variety of real-world contexts. The test is accepted by more than 11,000 employers, universities, schools and immigration bodies, including 3,400 institutions in the USA.

In this blog post series, you will get to discover some little-known facts about the world’s leading language test of English for international migration and higher education.

Getting the perfect score

If you count yourself among those who believe that the perfect IELTS score – i.e. band 9 – is something that only a native English speaker can conjure up, then you are gravely mistaken! The truth of the matter is that native and non-native English speakers have an even chance of producing an IELTS band 9.

In IELTS Speaking, for instance, a native English speaker will get a score lower on pronunciation if their accent has considerable effect on intelligibility. On the other hand, a non-native speaker who is able to use a full range of pronunciation features with precision and subtlety, and who is effortless to understand will get rated a band 9 on this criterion. It’s your skill that matters, nothing else!

Test development

Launched in 1989, IELTS has built its worldwide reputation over the years by undertaking extensive research to provide secure, reliable testing that meets the needs of users across a wide range of sectors. Rigorous test design, development and validation processes are in place to ensure that every version of the test is of a comparable level of difficulty.

For example, did you know that test writers from different English-speaking countries, such as Australia, Canada and the UK, are involved in developing IELTS content so that it reflects real-life situations around the world? To ensure that IELTS is unbiased and fair to all test takers, new test questions are extensively trialled with people from different cultures.

We will reveal more surprising facts about the world’s most popular language test in subsequent parts of this series.

Funding Your U.S. Education

For many students and their parents who may be helping pay for a higher education overseas, the total cost of a U.S education can be overwhelming. To think that the cost of a bachelor’s degree might be more than a cost of a family home is a hard concept to understand. The good news is that there is a difference between the “sticker price” of what the total cost is as advertised and the actual price of the education minus any scholarships or financial aid a student might earn or qualify for during the process of applying to U.S. colleges and universities.

Level of study

Understanding what kind of financial aid and/or scholarships that might be available to you will depend on your intended level of study. Here’s a quick breakdown of what those levels are:

  • Undergraduate – first post-secondary school degrees
    • Associate (2 years) – generally students who complete this type of degree start their studies at a community college which are often cost the least of any US higher education institution. Many international students start their undergraduate education at community colleges to save money in their first two years before they transfer to a 4-year college or university to complete their bachelor’s degree. Because of the lower cost of community colleges, few offer much in the way of scholarships for international students.
    • Bachelor’s (4 years) – Most international students enrol in 4-year colleges or universities for their undergraduate degrees. The costs will vary from lower cost public institutions and the out-of-state tuition rates for international students to very expensive elite private institutions where the total cost can be close to $100,000 a year when all expenses (tuition and fees, room and board, books and supplies, and other living costs) are factored. Scholarships are perhaps most readily available for international students at the bachelor’s degree level.
  • Graduate – degrees available after completion of a bachelor’s degree
    • Master’s (1-2 years) – For many international graduate applicants, starting with a master’s degree is where to begin. Most institutions do not necessarily have significant money available for first year master’s degree students but might have either on-campus scholarships or other types of aid available for continuing/2nd year students.
    • Doctoral (3-5 years) – In general terms, international students admitted to doctoral programs generally qualify for the most significant aid as many PhD programs invest heavily in the students they bring in each year.

How students are funded

According to the Institute of International Education’s annual Open Doors Report, the primary source of funding for overseas students is international funding (60%). U.S. institutions are the primary source for another 39% of international students.

International funding consists of money from the student, his/her family and home country sources from private foundations or governmental scholarship programs. U.S. funding generally is from the institutions that enrol the students or US governmental or foundation scholarships.

Undergraduate sources

As international students, there are 4 general categories of assistance you should ask the institutions you are applying to for details on what is available to you:

  • Merit based scholarships – generally cover a portion between 10-50% of the tuition costs. Some more selective colleges do offer a small number of full-tuition scholarship which are obviously quite competitive. Merit awards can be for academic, music, art, athletic, leadership, or service based scholarships.
  • Need-based scholarships/grants – typically this kind of aid is only available to international students at the most selective of institutions. This type of money does not need to be repaid.
  • Loans – Some U.S. banks now offer loans (that must be repaid over a period of years after a student graduates with a degree) to international students, some requiring a co-signer who is a U.S. citizen or permanent resident. There may also be banks in your home country that offer low interest educational loans to help you pay for your education as well.
  • Work on campus – Legally, international students who are in the U.S. on an F1 student visa are eligible to take a job on the college campus (as a student worker in various offices and departments) up to 20 hours a week while school is in session.


Graduate sources

For international students pursuing master’s or doctoral degrees, there are slightly different kinds of financial assistance available:

  • Fellowships – generally reserved for doctoral level students – merit-based awards.
  • Assistantships – students with this aid work for a department for up to 20 hours a week for a more significant wage that can cover much of a students living expenses – room and board, books and supplies – each year.
  • Scholarships – these awards tend to be fairly small but can cover a portion (up to 20-30% of tuition costs). Some of these scholarships may be specific for books.
  • Loans – very similar to the loans available to undergraduate international students.
  • Work – the same legal requirements for graduate international students apply to on-campus work.

Where to find scholarships

There are many databases out there where you can search for scholarships. Be wary, however, of any that would charge you a fee for accessing their databases. The best ones are free! Here are the links to three specific US scholarship search sites:

For more insight on this topic, check out our Facebook Live chat from February 2022

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