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!

IELTS Test Day Advice: Reading (Part 2)

In a previous blog post, we introduced you to some exam tips that can help push your IELTS Reading score up – keeping an eye on the clock, noticing special features, copying words from the reading text, and predicting answers.

In this post, you’ll receive another set of handy reading tips.

5. Watch out for paraphrasing

In the IELTS Reading section, or in any international reading comprehension test for that matter, the grammar structures and vocabulary used to form questions are different to those used to state the same information in the reading passage. This technique is called paraphrasing, i.e. expressing the same meaning of a text but by using different words. If test takers have to be able to find answers, they’ll need to have the skill of spotting paraphrases. For example, if the key word in the question is ‘dangerous’, then the reading text may have a synonym such as ‘hazardous’. Spotting information in paraphrased form is a quick way to find answers.

6. Adhere to the word limit

Whether it is IELTS Listening or Reading, if the question isn’t accompanied by a list of possible options from which the answer can be chosen, instructions generally specify the maximum number of words that the test taker can write as answer. If you’ve been asked to ‘choose NO MORE THAN 3 WORDS from the passage for each answer’, then keep that in mind and see to it that your answer doesn’t exceed the word limit.

7. Don’t be fazed by unfamiliar words

No matter how good your English is, the chances are that you will come across words that you don’t understand during the Reading test. If this happens, there’s no need to be nervous; instead, check if knowing the meaning of such unfamiliar words is essential to finding answers. If they are important, try to deduce meaning from context. Whatever you do, do not panic, as it’ll break your concentration.  

8. Be mindful of grammar and spelling

Bad spelling and incorrect grammar can cost you dear in the Reading section. While writing answers, be sure to carefully copy the spelling of words from the reading text. Similarly, pay attention to your use of singular and plural words, and other grammatical features.

There’s more IELTS Reading advice to follow in our final part in this series.

IELTS Test Day Advice: Reading (Part 1)

Reading is something which many feel is both relaxing and pleasurable. That being said, in an exam setting, completing reading comprehension exercises can be anything but a breeze.
Here are some handy tips to help you do your best in the IELTS Reading test.

1. Be wary of time

In IELTS Reading, test takers have to answer 40 questions within an hour, reading anywhere between 2,150 to 2,750 words and answering a range of question types. Clearly, time is precious so managing it well could make all the difference to achieving the required score. Do not spend too much time on a question or part, as this will stop you from completing the test. IELTS recommends that you spend no more than 20 minutes on each section or passage, so pay heed to it.

2. Notice special features

In an effort to find answers, test takers tend to be so focussed on understanding the text that they pay little attention to special features – bold or italic type, capital letters, figures, tables, diagrams, etc. More often than not, such features hold important clues that can help the reader find answers. It’s also a good idea to notice headings and subheadings because they help test takers orientate themselves to the text. 

3. Take words from the reading text

While some question types in IELTS Reading require test takers to choose the answer from a list of options, others require them to select words or numbers from the reading text as answers. In such cases, instructions make it very clear that test takers are supposed to ‘choose words from the text for each answer’. It’s worth remembering that the format or the order of the words in the text should not be changed.

4. Predict answers

Some question types in the IELTS Reading test have gaps that need to be filled. In order to save time, think of what type of word may fit the gap – for example, if an indefinite article (a, an) appears before the blank, the answer might be a noun, or an adjective followed by a noun. By using this approach, you get a fair idea of what word(s) to look for as the answer.

We’ll be back with more IELTS Reading advice that you’re likely to find helpful on your test day. 

The View From Campus – “I’ve Been Admitted, Now What Do I Do?”

This month’s article is featuring Brooke O’Donnell Mitchell, Director of International Student Services at Pepperdine University. Ms. Mitchell explains what steps international students should take after they are admitted to U.S. colleges.

Q: Describe your institution in 5 words?
A: Breathtaking. Caring. Impactful. Spiritual. Prestigious. 

Q: For what is your institution best known overseas? 
A: Ranked within the top #50 national universities and #39 Best Value, we are known for having 7 other global campuses and 80%+ of our students study and intern abroad. We are also known for our incredible coastal location near Los Angeles, which has been ranked the “most beautiful” campus in the nation several times. 

Q: What are your top academic programs
A: Business Administration, Biology, Psychology, Economics, Sports Medicine,#3 Dispute Resolution, #47 Best Law Schools, #83 Best Business Schools, Combined Master of Dispute Resolution/Master of Business Administration (MDR/MBA), #65 Public Policy.

Q: What are the top 5 countries represented at your college?
A: China, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, Canada, Brazil

Q: How does your institution use IELTS in the admissions process? How valuable a tool is it in evaluating prospective students?
A: An IELTS exam with a score of 6.5 or higher can waive our English proficiency requirement. Because Pepperdine is a top university and does not have an English Language Center on campus, it’s essential that students can demonstrate proficiency in the admissions process. 

Q: If international students are admitted to more than one institution, what are the most important next steps they should take?
A: Students are choosing their home for the next few years, which warrants candid questions to enrolled students about life, rumors about the school, etc. Don’t be afraid to ask the tender questions…we expect them and students will be honest in their response. Additionally, have honest conversations about financing your education with family and the institutions.  

Q: What advice would you give to students making their final decision where to attend?
A: Trust your intuition. Listen to counselors, parents, friends, etc. but, honor yourself. This is an important life lesson that is most freeing and impactful when heeded early. 

Q: Can international students receive financial aid from U.S. universities?
A: Financial aid and scholarships are different. Both are available by many institutions, but scholarships are offered more frequently than financial aid. Aid requires that students demonstrate their financial capacity for review. Most scholarships are independent of such evaluations and are related to academic merit or special talents.  

Q: Is a deposit needed to secure a place at the college or university students choose?
A: In most cases a deposit or tuition prepayment (deposit is used towards the first tuition payment) is required. May 1 is the national deadline in the U.S., however due to the recent COVID-19 pandemic, some institutions may consider an extension. It is important to clarify well in advance as wire transfers can take a few days to post. 

Q: What is an I-20, and how can international students get theirs?
A: The I-20 is essentially a permission slip to study in the United States. The University will initiate next steps with students usually once a deposit is received. At Pepperdine, our office renders the admission as well as assists students with the I-20, orientation, making connections on campus, and managing their F-1 student visa throughout their time as a student! 

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