The View From Campus: Why life on a U.S. college campus matters

This month we hear from Marty Bennett, award-winning international educator who has directed international student admissions and student services operations at several U.S. colleges and universities, worked with the U.S. Department of State’s EducationUSA network or advising centers around the world, and now consults with the British Council on U.S. higher education opportunities for IELTS test takers.

For many years I have asked new international students what has surprised them most about their time in the U.S. so far. One answer repeated more often than any other: “it’s not like what I’ve seen in the movies and on TV!” While there may be some appeal to living the life of a TV celebrity or movie star, this is not how the greater majority of people live.

When it comes to understanding what life will be like on a U.S. college or university campus, most international students have only what they’ve read or seen online. Very few have actually visited U.S. colleges before they enrol. As a result, many international students may rely on what the normal university experience is like in their home countries. To help give perspective on what it’s really like, I’ve been asked to respond to these five questions:

What is the most common challenge new international students face when adapting to the environment at U.S. colleges?

Adjusting to the lack of formality in relationships is perhaps the most difficult challenge to overcome. Not only do U.S. students have very informal connections with each other, but the student – professor relationship can have a really friendly and casual feel. This can be very hard to understand. There are many ways that international students experience a very different classroom environment that they may be used back home. From how well they participate in classroom discussions being a percentage of their grade, to how terms like plagiarism and academic dishonesty are defined will leave new internationals struggling to adapt.

How would you describe the life of an international student on a college campus?

Get used to most people you pass on campus saying “Hello!” “Hi, how are you doing?” and “Whassup?” and then keep on walking without stopping to have a conversation. This behavior is normal. Don’t be offended. In reality, international students at many colleges in the United States have access on campus to services, social events, advising, clubs, and activities that simply do not exist in most other countries.

How seriously do U.S institutions take the responsibility of providing for a great variety of students’ needs and interests while they live in and around campus?

For many colleges, they are the home away from home for their students, especially international students. As a result, U.S. institutions tend to provide a full range of facilities, activities, event, organizations, and services to their students. Unusual offices that help students with everything from resume crafting and interview training, counseling services for mental health concerns, to special interest clubs, to intramural sports, and dozens if not hundreds of service opportunities for students wishing to do volunteer work, U.S. colleges cater to the full range of students’ needs.

What do most international students find most surprising about what happens on campus outside of the classroom?

Other than the friendly “hi’s” and hello’s” they will get from most students on campus, the sheer scope of different events, activities, and clubs available to join is what is most surprising for international students.

What advice would you give international students to best prepare them for life on campus?

Perhaps the best advice I would give to students about coming to the United States for a college or university degree, is twofold: 1) keep an open mind – expect to be surprised by what you encounter, and 2) if at all possible, talk to current international students from your country or region of the world before you go, so you can get the perspective of someone who has been through what you are about to experience. Good luck!

Sounding Polite (Part 1)

Communicating in English isn’t as hard as many people think. Once you have a collection of common words and learn to string them together, you can pretty much begin to use English in most everyday situations. On such occasions, poor grammar or diction doesn’t always get in the way of getting the basic message across.

That being said, making sure that you sound polite or appropriate when using English is a lot harder to achieve, especially if you’ve just started learning the language. This is because all our energies go into somehow conveying our thoughts, so we sometimes fail to recognise that what we say might be too direct or offensive.

Here are some tips to help you sound more polite when speaking English.

1. Softening expressions

In some cultures, being blunt or direct is acceptable, whereas in English-speaking cultures, this is frowned upon. Therefore, it’s a good idea to use softening expressions that make what you say less direct. Examples of such expressions are I’m afraid, perhaps, I think, I reckon, maybe, I was wondering if, and to be honest.

Examples:

I can’t help you.

I’m afraid I can’t help you. 

I don’t know much about politics, so I can’t comment.

To be honest, I don’t know much about politics, so I can’t comment.

You should ask someone else for advice.

Perhaps you should ask someone else for advice.

Could you help her?

I was wondering if you could help her.

2. Avoiding negative words

There’s no doubt that people respond better to positive sounding words, making it easier to manage social interactions. Keeping this in mind, avoid using negative words wherever possible. Instead, use a positive equivalent along with a negative helping verb. Here are some examples:

It’s a bad idea to call her at this time of the night.

It isn’t a good idea to call her at this time of the night.

I find him so boring.

I don’t find him interesting.

I think this project report is useless.

I don’t think this project report is useful.

You will fail the exam if you don’t prepare well.

You won’t pass the exam if you don’t prepare well.

We’ll be back shortly with more suggestions on how to sound polite when speaking English.

Understanding the IELTS Listening Test

When moving to an English-speaking country for work or study, one challenge that many foreigners face is communication. Even those with reasonably good English skills are stunned to find themselves struggling to follow the brand of English spoken abroad.

This is for the simple reason that native speakers pronounce differently. They employ a range of pronunciation features that many non-native speakers aren’t familiar with, such as contractions and weak forms.

Being an essential survival skill, listening comprehension is commonly assessed by language tests meant for migration, work, or study. Here’s an overview of the Listening section in IELTS, the language test trusted by universities, governments, and businesses the world over.  

Skills tested

IELTS Listening tests a wide range of skills needed to function efficiently in an all-English environment. This may include understanding factual information and main ideas, recognising the opinions and attitudes of speakers, and following the development of an argument or a talk.

Content

Unlike Reading, the Listening section in IELTS is the same for Academic and General Training test takers. The test has four sections, and includes both monologues and conversations. Conversations can involve as many as four speakers. While the first two sections are set in everyday social situations, the last two have an educational or training context. A range of voices is used, which means that test takers are likely to hear British, North American, Australian, or New Zealand accents.

Timing

IELTS Listening lasts approximately 30 minutes, at the end of which test takers receive an additional 10 minutes to transfer their answers from the question booklet to the answer sheet. All the recordings are played once only, so test takers need to be alert throughout.

Questions and marking

The test has a total of 40 questions, each worth one mark. Question types include multiple choice questions, labelling maps or diagrams, giving short answers, and filling in a form. Once a raw score out of 40 is calculated, it is converted to the IELTS 9-band scale using a conversion table.

Here’s a quick tip to finish off: IELTS listening is designed to be progressively difficult, so if you are aiming for a high score, make sure you get almost all answers in the first couple of sections right. Good luck!

The View From Campus – How Public Universities Make Admissions Decisions

This month’s article is featuring Robert Hardin, Senior Assistant Director of Admissions for International Recruitment, at the University of Oregon

About the university

Q: Describe your institution in 5 words?
A:
Green, unique, groundbreaking, welcoming, and thoughtful.

Q: For what is your institution best known overseas?
A:
The University of Oregon has alumni from around the world that have made an impact, including: Phil Knight (founder and president of Nike), Daniel Wu (actor), Renee James (former president of Intel), Ann Curry (journalist), Ken Kesey (author), and Chuck Palahniuk (author) to name just a few. UO is also known around the world for having successful sports teams and individual athletes.

Q: What are your top academic programs (undergrad & grad)?
A: The University of Oregon’s top academic programs are: Accounting, Architecture, Education, Psychology, and our sciences, particularly Biology and Physics.

Q: What are the top 5 countries represented at your college?
China, Japan, Korea, Saudi Arabia, and Taiwan. We are an international university with over 3,200 international students (about 14% of the student body) from 103 different countries.

Q: How does your institution use IELTS in the admissions process? How valuable a tool is it in evaluating prospective students?
IELTS is one of the few ways we allow students to prove English proficiency. It is a helpful and valuable tool for us to determine if a student has the level of English needed to be successful at the University of Oregon.

Making admissions decisions

Q: Do most public universities have set deadlines for international admissions?
A:
Yes, most US public universities have deadlines. However, some deadlines are more flexible than others. At the University of Oregon, we accept applications after the deadline if there are spaces available. However, if you want to apply for scholarships, you will need to meet all posted application deadlines.

Q: What are institutions looking for in an application essay/statement of purpose?
A: We want to get to know a little about the applicant. The essay is your opportunity to tell us something about yourself other than your grades and test scores.

Q: What needs to be in a letter of recommendation that my teachers/professors are asked to write?
A:
Teacher letters of recommendation should go beyond what grade you received in a class. We want to know more about how you performed as a student. For example, a letter of recommendation from your maths teacher talking about the hard work and effort it took to earn your grade in the class will help us better understand your true academic potential.

Q: How important are test scores in university admissions decisions?
A:
In the US, there is no standard practice for admission decisions, so each university sets different expectations. However, the vast majority of US universities value your class grades more than your test scores or other factors.

Q: What are the most important factors public universities use to determine admissibility of international students?
A:
Grades are usually the factor that public universities consider the most important.  At the University of Oregon, our research shows that high school grades are the best predictor of success for new college students. Test scores are often the second most important factor. After test scores and grades, it is common for public universities to use other factors such as grade trend, strength of curriculum, extracurricular activities, essay, and teacher recommendations.

A Quick Guide to Nouns (Part 2)

In the previous part, we spoke of three different types of noun – countable, uncountable, and collective.

Here are some more varieties that pop up in our everyday conversations.

Common and proper nouns

We use a common noun to refer to people, things, or places in a general sense. For instance, the word woman can mean any adult female, while the word restaurant can be used to talk about any place where you can buy and eat a meal.

By comparison, a proper noun refers to a specific person, thing, or place. It can be the name of an individual, a place, an organisation, etc. For instance, Emma Watson refers to a particular adult female, whereas Hard Rock Café is the name of a specific chain of theme restaurants.

As a general rule, proper nouns always begin with capital letters in written English. If a proper noun has more than one part (e.g. Martin Luther King, NOT Martin luther king), then the first letter in each gets capitalised.

Here’s a quick comparison to help you understand the difference between the two types:

Common noun Proper noun
woman Emma Watson
man Martin Luther King
city London
country Germany
restaurant Hard Rock Cafe
motorbike Suzuki Hayabusa

Concrete and abstract nouns

As the name suggests, a concrete noun refers to people or things that exist physically. In other words, they can be experienced using our senses – sight, smell, hearing, taste, and touch. Examples of such nouns include light, aroma, music, coffee, and cotton.

Abstract nouns, on the contrary, have no physical existence. They refer to ideas, qualities, and conditions, none of which can be experienced via senses. Words such as honesty, joy, friendship, sorrow, lies, and time are all abstract in nature.

Compound noun

A compound noun is formed by joining two or more words to make a single noun. It can be a single word, a hyphenated word, or two separate words. Here are some examples: sunrise, toothpaste, passer-by, mother-in-law, washing machine, fish hook.

Remember, a noun can fall into more than one category. Sydney, for example, is both a concrete noun and a proper noun. Being aware of various types of noun can help you use language more confidently and accurately.

A Quick Guide to Nouns (Part 1)

What is common to the words Philip, Melbourne, elephant, table, and love?

They are all nouns, words which are the central building blocks of English. It’s next to impossible to avoid nouns when using English, because we need them to refer to the subject of a sentence. A noun can refer to a person, a place, an animal, a thing, or an idea. Here are some quick explanations to help you understand some commonly used types of nouns.

Countable and uncountable nouns

In English, certain nouns are treated as separate items and so can be counted. For instance, we can count words such as camera (one camera, two cameras, three cameras, etc.), pen, book, and girl. We call such words countable nouns. They can appear in two forms – singular or plural. When a countable noun is in singular form, the indefinite article (a/an) is usually used before it.

Could I please have a pen? (Not Could I please have pen?)

Uncountable nouns, on the other hand, cannot be treated as separate objects or items, as they are seen as a whole. Some examples of uncountable nouns are milk, juice, homework, luggage, advice, snow, feedback, and information. Naturally, such words are not used in plural form (milks, juices, homeworks, feedbacks). Also, the indefinite article (a/an) does not appear before uncountable nouns.

Could I please get some advice? (Not Could I please get an advice?)

Collective nouns

A collective noun is a word that we use to talk about a collection of people, animals, things, etc. as a single group. The words audience, family, team, police, orchestra, and council are all examples of collective nouns. One problem that learners face is to decide what verb to add after a collective noun – singular or plural. In British English, most collective nouns can be followed by the singular or plural verb, depending on the context. If in doubt, it’s best to consult a dictionary.

The next time you come across a new noun, try to understand what type it is. All good dictionaries list such information.

The View From Campus – How international students can best prepare themselves for jobs (2)

In a previous post, Christopher Connor, Assistant Dean of Graduate Education in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences at University at Buffalo, The State University of New York, shared with some of the resources many U.S. colleges offer their students to prepare them for work. This week we continue our interview, in which he gives us more information on the topic.  

Q: When students finish their studies, what is legally available to students who wish to work?
A: Optional Practical Training (OPT) is a period during which undergraduate and graduate students with F-1 status who have completed or have been pursuing their degrees for more than three months are permitted by the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services to work for one year.

Q: What is STEM OPT and how can international students qualify for it?
A: STEM OPT is a 24-month extension of Optional Practical Training (OPT) authorization available to F-1 students who graduated with U.S. degrees in the fields of science, technology, engineering, or mathematics. It is important for students to double check with programs they are applying to whether their program is eligible for STEM OPT as it may not always be clear.

Q: Talk about the importance of a resume and cover letter in the job/internship search for international students?
A: Having a well thought out, clear concise resume and cover letter that appropriately showcases and quantifies their abilities is extremely important. The goal is to be recognized with a combination of translatable skills that will differentiate from other students you are in competition with.

Q: When there are jobs/internship fairs on campus, what tips would you suggest students take on board to improve their chances of finding a position?
A: It is important for students to keep in mind that the job search is many cases a relationship building process. Let the company representative talk (but listen) and pick pieces of “common ground” knowledge out of the conversation.. Use the “common ground” to your advantage. Listening is a key ingredient to these interactions.

Q: In your experience, how can international students make themselves standout most when beginning the job search?
A: International students should leverage any resources or events that are made available to them to help promote professional and personal growth. Students should attend job fairs and networking events well before they are ready to actively begin their job search.

Q: Do you feel that prospective employers value what international students can offer their companies?
A: Employers are looking to hire the best qualified candidates for potions and there is a known skills gap for countless positions in the US. Given the gap, International students help bridge that gap by offering many benefits to companies.

Q: Interviews can make or break an international student’s chances of securing their dream job. What advice would you give them as they prepare for this important step?
A: Practice, practice, practice. Make sure to leverage free services such as mock interviews. The more practice you have, the better you will do when it matters most.

Q: If students who are looking to develop a plan B for work after graduation (if not in the U.S.), what would you suggest would be good first step?
A: Keep your options opened. This includes looking not only in the US but in other countries for opportunities including your home country. Starting your career somewhere can help you obtain valuable experience to increase your future career mobility.

The View From Campus – How international students can best prepare themselves for jobs (1)

For many prospective international students considering the United States for higher education, the opportunities for work experience in their field of study is often an important consideration. This month we take a hard look at how U.S. colleges and universities are preparing their international students for work. Christopher Connor, Assistant Dean of Graduate Education in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences at University at Buffalo, The State University of New York, shares what is possible for international students in the United States.

Q: Describe your institution in 5 words?
A: Premier global innovative research university

Q: For what is your institution best known overseas?
A: Students and faculty from across the globe come to our school to conduct high-impact original research in science and engineering, to become leaders in engineering disciplines and related fields.
Our School also offers the SEAS 360 Professional Development program, a unique cost free professional development training for our undergraduate and graduate students to better prepare them for the workforce.

Q: What are your top academic programs (undergrad & grad)?
A: – Industrial Engineering
– Civil Engineering
– Chemical Engineering
– Aerospace Engineering
– Computer Science/Computer Engineering

Q: What are the top 5 countries represented at your college/How international is your institution?
A: India, China, Iran, Taiwan, and S. Korea.

Q: How does your institution use IELTS in the admissions process? How valuable a tool is it in evaluating prospective students?
A: Our university accepts IELTS for English Language proficiency and requires a minimum 6.5 with no sub score below 6.0. Students meeting this criteria have been successful in completing their graduate studies.

International student work-related questions

Q: What resources are generally available on-campus for students to help prepare them for work?

Many colleges and universities in the U.S. have Career Services offices that offer assistance with:

Power or Soft Skill Development – Many colleges and universities and in some cases individual academic schools/programs offer their students cost-free workshops to develop soft skills or what employers have not deemed “power skills.” In some cases students may even be able to obtain an additional credential such as a certificate or a micro badge to include on their resume.

Career Decision Making – Self assessment tools to examine your values, personality, interests and abilities and making suggestions on which type of careers you might be best suited for.

Resume and Cover Letter Writing – career services offices help students write their resumes and cover letters. Additionally, they conduct workshops and provide one-on-one sessions during which they critique resumes and cover letters.

Interviewing – Campus career offices usually sponsor workshops to help students learn how to present themselves well in a job interview, from what to wear, to what questions to expect.

Recruiting – Career services offices host job fairs during which employers visit the campus to recruit students who are about to graduate. The offices sometimes maintain student files containing letters of recommendation from faculty, which they can then forward to potential employers and graduate schools upon the student’s request.

Networking – Career services can also  help students find networking events, where they can connect with professionals in their potential career.

Internships – Many academic units may have their own separate office that handles internships but career services offices also often work hand-in-hand with companies seeking college interns and internship advisers.

Q: As it stands now, what do international students in the U.S. have available to them to work in their field during studies?
A: US colleges and universities may have funding research, teaching  or student assistantship positions available. Additionally, Curricular Practical Training (CPT) is temporary employment authorization for F-1 visa non-immigrant foreign students in the United States while enrolled in a college-level degree program. CPT permission is granted through a college or universities International Students Office or equivalent upon approval of advisor, based on the regulations established by United States Citizenship and Immigration Services.


Understanding the IELTS Reading Section

Reading comprehension is a key language ability that determines how much of a text an individual understands when they go through it. Not surprisingly, most language tests assess this skill.

Here’s what you can expect in the IELTS Reading section.

Skills tested

The Reading section in IELTS is designed to test a range of skills that we employ to read various kinds of text and derive meaning. This includes forming a general understanding of a long text, looking for specific details (e.g. a date, figure), identifying the writer’s opinion or attitudes, and following how an argument develops.

Content

In both IELTS tests, Academic and General Training, candidates receive three sections to read, each accompanied by a set of questions. Texts are normally adapted from books, newspapers, magazines, and journals, and tend to be of general interest. So, no specialist knowledge is required to understand them.

One key difference between the two tests is that the IELTS General Training Reading section is simpler, as it focuses mostly on basic survival skills.

Timing

The Reading section in IELTS lasts 60 minutes, and test takers are recommended to spend 20 minutes per section. Unlike IELTS Listening, no extra time is given to transfer answers, so they have to be written directly on to the answer sheet. Managing time can be tricky here, as candidates aren’t really told when to begin or end each section.

Questions

A total of 40 questions need to be answered in the Reading section. A variety of question types is used so that the difficulty level remains uniform across test sessions. Answers tend to be short, with most of them being a word or short phrase. Sometimes, a letter or number will do.

Scores

Each correct answer is worth one mark. A raw score out of 40 is calculated and later converted to the IELTS 9-band scale using a conversion table. Scores are reported in whole (e.g. 6, 7, 8) and half bands (e.g. 6.5, 7.5, 8.5). To score well in IELTS Reading, see to it that you read up on the format and spend enough time understanding the various question types. Good luck!

Why Work Part-time When Studying Abroad (Part 2)

In a previous blog post on the topic, we identified two benefits of picking up a part-time job while at university: improving language ability and getting to know more people.

Here are some more reasons why working part-time can be good for you.    

Becoming culturally aware

When living abroad, especially in a country whose culture is quite different to yours, there could be umpteen ways in which your words or actions may upset those around you. This is because what is seen as normal behaviour in your country may be considered inappropriate in another society.

One of the quickest ways to improve cultural awareness is by being in a cosmopolitan work environment, where you get to observe people from other cultures first-hand. Often work stress brings out the worst in people, highlighting differences in how cultures cope with tricky situations. You get to know why different people behave the way they do. In the long run, this will enable you to respond appropriately to cultural differences by being more sensitive to them.

Now, there’s no doubt that most universities too have diverse international student communities. However, students often confine themselves to small groups which make them feel comfortable. The workplace, therefore, is a much better place to learn about cultures, as it forces you to work with all kinds of people, even those whose behaviour you might find odd or annoying at first.

Getting introduced to the world of work

Working part-time is a great way of getting to know the world of work and the challenges it throws up, before formally beginning your career. For one thing, you become aware of various do’s and don’ts when working for a business. As well as this, you also learn to deal with office politics, which is an absolute must to survive as an employee. And if you don’t happen to enjoy certain kinds of part-time work, at least you’d know what to avoid later on in life. 

Overall, part-time work experience is invaluable, as it helps you understand yourself as well as the workplace better. So, when such opportunities come your way, make sure you grab them with both hands.    

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