Preparing for your journey to the United States for study

The last six months have thrown the world as we know it into a state of disarray. Covid-19 has impacted every corner of the planet in ways we never thought imaginable. As a result, things in everyday life for students seeking higher education outside their home country have changed substantially. If you’ve been planning to study in the United States and have been admitted for study, gotten your visa, and are now ready to go, what do you need to know?

Get your documents in order

Now more than ever, because of recent changes in immigration regulations in the United States due to the pandemic, having your documents in order matters most. From your I-20, to your passport and F-1 student visa, to your admissions letter, academic and financial documents, everything must reflect who you are and what your institution’s plan is for classes this coming academic year. While the new rules do allow for new international students to participate in a mix of in-person and online courses (called a hybrid program), if your intended college has recently made the decision to go completely online, you may not be allowed in the country.

Communicate with your university regularly

Our friends at EducationUSA, the U.S. Department of State’s network of educational advising centers in 170 countries, traditionally hold pre-departure orientations for international students before they head to the United States for study. While most of these sessions have gone virtual due to the pandemic, they are still happening and can be great resources for students like yourself trying to make sense of a very confusing time in our world. As you get ready to begin your U.S. study journey, the most important people you need to maintain regular communication with are the international student office staff at your college or university. For many U.S. higher education institutions, the past few months have been ones that have been dramatically disrupted, like much of the world, by this global pandemic. Plans these colleges made in April for how the next academic year would look like for new students may very well have changed. As a result it is essential for you to be aware of what those plans are and know what you should do.

Know the immigration and airline rules

Entering the United States as an international student is a fairly straightforward process in normal times if you’ve taken all the required steps and are well-prepared for this last step of your journey to U.S. study. However, these are not normal times. You must know what the current procedures both for the airlines you may be flying into the United States and the Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) division that handles immigration control at the borders. There have been reports that some airlines want passengers to have had a negative Covid-19 test before flying internationally. Depending on where you live you may need to look into getting a test before you fly.

Moreover, when entering the United States, the officials at CBP who interview each person seeking entry have to ask questions about your intended studies when you present your documents at the immigration checkpoint at the airport. The Department of Homeland Security which oversees CBP has put together important resources in its Study in the States site that discusses the current regulations. Be sure to review this guidance before you leave.

Good luck!

IELTS Test Day Advice: Speaking (Part 2)

In Part 1, you read about four ways in which you could improve your IELTS Speaking score – avoiding prepared answers, warming up before your test, wearing comfy clothes, and reminding yourself of the exam format.

In this part, you’ll get to know of some more things to do on Speaking test day.

5. Speak more than the examiner does

To score well in the IELTS Speaking section, it’s important that you show a willingness to speak at length, especially in Parts 2 and 3. For starters, a high score on fluency will only be possible if you’re able to keep going without much effort. Besides, the longer you’re able to speak for, the wider range of grammar and vocabulary you’re likely to produce. Finally, if you need to be seen using various pronunciation features, the discourse needs to be long.

6. Be spontaneous – No right or wrong answers

Contrary to popular belief, there are no right or wrong answers in IELTS Speaking. It’s the language that the test taker produces during the interview that determines their fate. With this in mind, respond to questions with a certain degree of spontaneity, expanding upon the ideas you present.

7. Treat the test like a friendly chat

Having your stomach in knots during an exam is perfectly normal. However, do remember that it’s important to steady your nerves so that you perform as best as you can. Luckily, the IELTS Speaking session is designed to resemble a real-life conversation, so all you need to really do is treat it like a chat with a friend. That way, you’re likely to come across as confident and spontaneous.

8. Ask for clarification

It’s generally agreed that in a language test, answering questions without having the need to hear them again is a good sign. But as an IELTS test taker, you do have the option to ask the examiner for clarification. And if you think seeking clarity might decrease your score, think again! In fact, it is better to make sure what the question being asked is before answering than to blurt out something based on a false assumption.

Don’t forget to read the final part in this series for more Speaking test day advice.

IELTS Test Day Advice: Speaking (Part 1)

The Speaking section in IELTS is a face-to-face interaction between the test taker and examiner that lasts around 14 minutes. There’s no doubt that it is as close to a real-life situation as a test could possibly get.

Here are some handy tips that’ll help you give a good account of yourself on test day.

1. Avoid prepared answers

Many of the questions that examiners ask, especially in Parts 1 and 2, tend to be highly predictable. Naturally, the idea of rehearsing answers beforehand might be a tad tempting. But remember that prepared answers won’t get you too far – you wouldn’t sound natural when you speak, and the examiner is likely to notice this.

2. Have a good warm-up

Just like how on a cold day you’d rev your car engine to warm it up before driving off, it’s important to have some warm-up exercise before your Speaking interview. This could be a friendly chat in English with a friend, or some quick practice with your teacher. As well as getting rid of pre-test jitters, it should also help you get in the zone, ensuring that you’re performing at your best.

3. Wear something comfortable

The IELTS Speaking interview isn’t a formal affair, so it’s best not to approach it like you would a job interview. There’s a popular misconception that you need to be dressed formally to form an impression on the examiner. That’s so not true – the examiner will only be interested in how much language you produce and how skilfully you do it. So, don’t let others pressure you to go overdressed for the occasion.  

4. Remember the test format

Once the venue staff register you, it may be a while before you’re ushered into the test room for the interview. This is precious time, so make it count. Run through the different parts of the Speaking section and remind yourself of what to expect in each. For example, Part 1 tends to focus on familiar topics, which means the responses here can be shorter and more personal than the ones in subsequent parts.

We’ll be back with more useful tips that can help you up your Speaking score. You can check other Speaking tips here.

What U.S. colleges are doing to help you understand study options during Covid-19

It’s safe to say that 2020 has been a year many would rather soon forget. But if you have been planning for months if not years of leaving your home country for a higher education experience abroad, this year represents a truly unique time. This fall, U.S. colleges across the country are making plans for several different versions of what the new normal of instruction and campus life will be. From your destination college or university, to an in-country pre-departure orientation, to the required immigration documents recommended by U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, the resources exist to help you travel to the U.S. like a pro.

Connect with college international office staff

I asked several U.S. institutional representatives about how they are responding to the impact of Covid-19 for international students hoping to study at their colleges, and here are a couple of the responses:

Cathy Knudson, East Carolina University, North Carolina
“We have a standard communication plan explaining basic remaining steps and arrival guidance; however, it mostly directs them to contact us to discuss their situation. We are doing a lot of individual outreach via WhatsApp to explain the options students have for enrollment and what steps to take. A lot of attempts to ease anxiety.”

Kara Wagner, Calvin University, Michigan
“We have created emails and a website with arrival information for incoming students. We are also holding an option of online or on campus for those that can get a visa in time or are in the States currently. We have asked students to arrive on campus August 14 for August 22 orientation but are prepared to work with them on arrival dates. We do not have many students who are able to arrive on campus this fall.”

No one can provide you, as a new incoming international student, all the details you will need to know about getting ready for life at your college as well as the international student office can. It is vital that you maintain close contact with your university in the weeks leading up to arrival and orientation.

Consult local pre-departure experts

While your U.S. college knows everything you need to know about what to bring for your studies, how to get to campus, and what to do once you arrive, others closer to you can assist you in getting ready mentally for your journey. The U.S. Department of State’s EducationUSA network of over 400 advising centers in 170+ countries provides pre-departure workshops for international students preparing for their arrival. These sessions are all virtual meetings at present and may attract between 20 and 300 people getting ready to travel.

Comprehend required immigration documents

By now you realize the most significant step to realizing your study abroad dream in the United States is the last one: immigration control.

Before you arrive, make sure to review the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s useful Study in the States site, in particular the Preparing For Your Trip to the United States page. On this site, the team at U.S. Customs and Border Patrol outline all the relevant documents (and where to keep them) as you travel to the United States. The best advice recommends that you carry with you on the plane the most essential documents you will need: academic transcripts, passport, I-20, admission letter, financial documents, contact information for the international student office at your college, and any medicines you need.

In the end, your success shortly after you arrive at your college or university will depend on how well you have prepared.

POWER Your Way Through IELTS Essay Writing (Part 3)

So far in this series we’ve talked about how you should ideally draw up a plan and then arrange your ideas logically before you begin writing your essay.

Let’s now discuss how the last two stages can help produce a response that is both error-free and relevant.

4. Evaluating

On studying the essay question carefully, generating ideas and sequencing them, it isn’t uncommon for test takers to spend the rest of the time available on writing as long a response as possible. In a language test like IELTS, such an approach is hardly advisable. Instead, it’s best to write only what is needed to meet the word limit and the requirements of the task, and then use the remaining time to check your work for errors.

It’s a race against the clock to finish writing an essay in 40 minutes. You are likely to make grammar mistakes, omit punctuation, or misspell words, any of which could affect your writing score.  Given the pressure cooker atmosphere of a test, even competent language users are known to make the occasional slip. Finding time to evaluate what you’ve written helps you to identify such errors and improve the accuracy of your response.

5. Revising

Revising what you’ve written forms the final stage of the POWER writing plan. Here you need to go through your response in its entirety and consider it in relation to the essay question. It’s worth remembering at this point that an essay will be penalised if it is tangential or completely off topic. The key is relevance. This means that you are now reading to make sure that all the paragraphs you wrote in stage 3 have come together to fully answer all parts of the essay question. If there’s any doubt that a point isn’t absolutely relevant, think of something more appropriate and write it in its place.

Now that you know what the POWER writing strategy is, practise using it so that your essays always stay on topic and never consume too much time.  

POWER Your Way Through IELTS Essay Writing (Part 2)

In the first part, we spoke about what you need to do in the ‘Planning’ stage of the POWER writing plan – analyse the task and generate ideas. 

Read on to know about what happens in the next couple of stages.

2. Organising

Once you’ve gone through the essay question with a fine-toothed comb and jotted down some useful ideas, it’s time to think of how you’re going to organise your writing. The essay type you receive on test day should help you decide the overall structure of your response. For instance, if you receive an opinion essay, you would want to state your position clearly at the beginning and then provide reasons for taking such a stance in two to three paragraphs.

If you experience difficulty expanding upon an idea that you’ve generated, now is the time to get rid of it and think of an alternative. Remember that irrespective of how brilliant an idea sounds, you’ve got to be able to say more about it and add details in order to write a meaningful paragraph. Failing to do so could mean you end up with an essay that lacks progression in parts. To make your writing cohesive, see to it that you link sentences and ideas using discourse markers, such as besides, further, and for example.

3. Writing

As far as essay writing goes, building a skeleton is without doubt half the battle. Having done that, you can focus your energies on fleshing out the skeleton by adding more details and examples. Although this stage of POWER writing should obviously last the longest, work done in the previous stages will help you write faster than usual. It’s also the time to impress the examiner by showing off your grammar and vocabulary skills – the range of grammar structures and lexical items you display is just as important as how accurate your language is.

While writing, invest more time developing the body paragraphs of your essay because that’s where all your ideas lie. Of course, for this very reason, your examiner will spend a lot more time reading those paragraphs, deliberating how well you’ve met the requirements of the task. 

Do read our next blog post in the series that’ll deal with the remaining stages of the POWER strategy.

Applying to U.S. Colleges in Uncertain Times

Over the last five months the world has come to grips with a global pandemic that has fundamentally changed the way we live. From the simple act of washing our hands or getting food to complex tasks of travel and work, how we interact with others outside our immediate families is dramatically different than in was in 2019.

For students seeking study opportunities in the United States for the next academic year, you likely have many questions. While we don’t have all the answers, we do hope to at least point you in the right directions for the information you seek.

College social media and website

While never a substitute for physically visiting campus or interacting with an admissions officers, faculty, or alumni from a college or university you are interested in, institutional websites and social media accounts can provide useful information to assist you in making informed decisions. Here are a few examples of what you can access to get what you need.

  • Reviewing Facebook pages and groups for important updates on changes and announcements.
  • Watching YouTube videos of current students explaining how they are experiencing life on campus during the pandemic.
  • Checking out Instagram posts about what’s happening at the college.
  • Visiting Covid-19 web pages, like this one from the University of Oregon.

Particularly if you are looking for admissions information, these university sites that have specific details about any changes to the application process in terms of tests required, alternatives available, and changes in deadlines or deposits.

Virtual tours and events online

One unintended consequence of the impact of Covid-19 is how U.S. colleges increasingly connect with their prospective students through digital means like offering virtual tours to their campuses and events.  These resources will help you in:

  • Seeing campus through online videos and self-guided tours gives you a window into what life would look like for you at colleges you are considering.
  • Hearing student experiences about everything from arrival on campus, attending class, studying, participating in activities and events paints an important picture.
  • Learning process/procedures related to applying for admission, funding your studies, getting your visa and more.
  • Attending student pre-departure events to make sure you are ready for your journey to campus.

These virtual connections will be essential as you ensure you are making the right choice for your higher education options in the United States.

Chats with current international students

In the end, nothing means more for prospective students like yourself to have conversations with currently enrolled students at the colleges and universities you are considering. That insight from a fellow international student, maybe even someone from your country, is invaluable to get the full perspective you need about where you will spend the next two to four years (or more).

  • Asking questions directly
  • Connecting with students from your country
  • Dispelling rumors about what’s happening

As you narrow down your list of colleges you may apply to, be sure to ask the international admissions office about opportunities to chat with their international students. To hear some of the discussion around this topic, check out a recent Facebook Live Chat we did that shares some useful insights. Good luck!

POWER Your Way Through IELTS Essay Writing (Part 1)

Writing a 250-word essay on a topic of general interest, that too within 40 minutes, can be an overwhelming task, especially if you haven’t got in enough exam practice. It’s hardly surprising then that the Writing section in IELTS is what worries test takers the most.

Often a great deal of time is spent on identifying the perfect beginning to an essay or deciding what points to include, resulting in test takers losing valuable time. One effective way to manage time well is to consider the essay writing task as a process that has different stages: Planning, Organising, Writing, Evaluating, and Revising.  

Let’s take a closer look at the five stages that make up the POWER writing plan.

1. Planning

Some test takers hurriedly read the essay question and begin their response; some others spend too much time mulling over what to write. As you might imagine, neither approach is likely to yield good results in IELTS.

In this first stage, it is essential that the test taker reads the essay question carefully and identifies what the topic is. Remember, forming an understanding of the overall topic and knowing vocabulary are key to ensuring that the response you write does not digress. Sometimes this may mean spending adequate time to read the question twice or thrice, but that should be okay. Underlining important parts as you read the question could help you stay focussed on what you need to write about.   

What’s also important at this point is to not get distracted by specific words in the question. For instance, if the topic is ‘use of technology leading to social isolation’, do not zero in on the word ‘technology’ and look for related ideas. Simply writing about technological advances will certainly earn you a penalty, subsequently affecting your writing score. Therefore, only after you gain a full understanding of the essay task and its parts should you brainstorm possible ideas. Before you move on to the next stage, check whether the ideas you’ve generated are sufficient to fully answer the question.

We’ll be back soon with information about the remaining stages of the acronym, POWER.

IELTS Test Day Advice: Reading (Part 3)

Thus far in our series of posts about IELTS test day advice on the Reading section, we’ve had a look at several little things that you need to get right in order to score well.

Here are four more Reading tips to help you ace the test.

9. Write answers on the answer sheet   

Unlike IELTS Listening, the Reading section doesn’t allow test takers extra time to transfer answers on to the answer sheet. Naturally, writing answers in the question booklet as you find them and then transferring them later just doesn’t make sense. While it’s perfectly okay to underline text in the question booklet or to write short notes, answers written there don’t get looked at. Therefore, right from when you begin practising reading, form a habit of entering answers straight on to the answer sheet.

10. Attempt all questions

In IELTS Listening and Reading, the test taker is not penalised if they go wrong. While each correct answer receives one mark, any wrong answer that they write does not affect their total score in any way. Remember, in some cases a single additional mark can elevate your Reading score by half a band. Even if you aren’t sure what the answer is, take a guess, as you clearly have nothing to lose.

11. Use upper case if required

As we’ve said before, spelling is important in the IELTS test. Although you can copy the spelling of answers from the reading text, bad handwriting could sometimes cause confusion to the clerical marker evaluating your answer sheet. To play safe, see to it that you write all answers in UPPER CASE.

12. Check all answers

It’s true that a lot of people struggle to complete a reading comprehension test in time, so checking answers may be the last thing on their minds on the day. The key to finding spare time to check answers is to give yourself enough reading practice. Do that, and you’ll be able to check all your answers before the test ends. 

During the IELTS Reading section, stay calm and alert so that you’re able to recollect and use all the tips you’ve read here.

Worried about the U.S. student visa process? 10 tips to help you prepare

Everyone has heard a story of a friend, or friend of a friend, who has been denied a student visa to study in the U.S., right? Well, the truth is, yes, prospective students can be turned down at this next to last hurdle to realizing their dream of attending a university in the United States. While this can be a cruel end, it doesn’t have to be. The reality is that over the last 5 years, the global average of students being APPROVED for a U.S. student visa has been over 80%. 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 are the steps you will need to take as U.S. consulates and embassies reopen after the pandemic.

1. Got your I-20?

Make sure you have received the I-20 and 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 make a decision as to which institution you will attend before starting the visa process.

2.  Check your passport

  • Make sure your passport will be valid for at least six months after your initial planned entry into the U.S.
  • Is your name spelled the same (and in the same order) as is listed on your passport? It has to be!

3.  Pay your SEVIS fee

Students can pay this $350 fee online. You will need an e-receipt for next steps in the process.

4.  Complete the Visa Application Form

You can do that 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 completion the online DS-160 application, print off the DS-160 Bar Code page. You will not need to print the entire application.

5.  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). 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.

6.  Schedule your visa appointment

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.

7.  Attend a Visa Session

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 they will make it clear what they are expecting from successful student visa applicants, and the kind of questions they will ask.

8.  Enjoy the experience

A few years ago our friends at the U.S. Embassy in London put together a great video to help ease your fears, Mission: Possible – Get Your U.S. Student Visa.

9.  Talk to your friends 

Are any of your former classmates studying in the U.S. now? Ask 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.

10.  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!

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