When famed novelist Harper Lee moved to the UK to study abroad at Oxford, she studied law. However, as time went on it soon became apparent that her interests lay elsewhere. 

Lee switched her focus to literature under the direct study of talented scholars in areas of literature, philosophy, and classicism. That short 6-week program would fuel her love of writing. Then, a decade later, she would go on to publish the American classic, To Kill a Mockingbird.

Today, millions of students choose to study abroad at foreign universities. While it’s a rewarding experience, it’s not an easy one.

Here’s everything you need to know about studying abroad. Learn how to pick the right program, how to apply to foreign universities, and tips for the 10 most popular countries to study in.

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Benefits of Studying at a Foreign University

There are a host of reasons to study overseas, whether it’s to live in a new foreign city, see new cultures, or improve your career success. Other reasons to study at foreign universities are to increase career opportunities, gain new cultural experiences, and fulfill a degree requirement. 

In all, studying abroad is a great way to expand your own horizons and gain new perspectives. 

How to Choose a Foreign University

Picking a university can be stressful. After all, there are a host of factors to consider before you dig into how to apply to foreign universities. Here are six things to do to find the perfect fit for you.

Choose a Discipline 

Before picking a university, first decide what you want to study. While you might change your major during your studies like Harper Lee did, try to choose a broader discipline to focus on. 

Major academic disciplines to choose from include:

  • Business: Accounting, Finance, Management, Marketing
  • Humanities: Creative Writing, History, Languages, Literature, Music, Philosophy, Performing Arts, Theater, Theology, Visual Arts
  • Natural Science: Biology, Chemistry, Earth Science, Geology, Physics, Space Science
  • Applied Sciences: Agriculture, Architecture, Business, Education, Engineering & Technology, Environmental Studies, Forestry, Journalism, Law, Library Science, Medicine, Public Administration, Social Work
  • Formal Science: Computer Science, Mathematics
  • Social Sciences: Anthropology, Archaeology, Economics, Education, Geography, Political Science, Psychology, Sociology

Choose a Country

Some countries are well-known for specific programs and academic disciplines. However, before you figure out how to apply to foreign universities, you also want to consider other factors than just the reputation, like the cultural differences, campus life, and the location.

For example, a more conservative country (like the United Arab Emirates) might come with some culture shock if you’re from a liberal country. Factors to evaluate when picking a country to study in can include:

  • Student Visa Process
  • Affordability & Live-ability
  • Community Safety
  • Primary Language
  • Employment opportunities
  • Immigration policies
  • Standard of living

Consider the University’s Rankings

For some, simply traveling abroad is the goal of their degree. In this case, a university’s reputation might be a low priority. For others, traveling abroad is a secondary benefit and they may choose a university based on its status and quality of education. 

To determine the university’s ranking, you can use resources like Times Higher Education, U.S. News Global University Rankings, and QS Top Universities.

While these resources don’t always rank schools based on the same factors, it’s a good place to start. You should still consider seeking other types of evidence to learn the finer details of what universities have to offer. 

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Read Reviews from Other Students

Another thing to consider before you work on how to apply to foreign universities, is the words of previous students. While there are websites dedicated to reviewing universities and their courses, you can also try more “out of the box” methods. There are student reviews and testimonials in all sorts of places. 

You can find reviews in places like:

And if you want to find real, authentic feedback, try asking former alumni directly. Not everyone is likely to answer, but if you reach out with a personalized message to a previous student on social media, for instance, there’s a chance they’d be willing to offer their opinion. 

Of course, you need to take everything you read online with a grain of salt. Don’t trust the first review you read. Look at the bigger picture to decide if the program will work for you before you embark on how to apply to foreign universities.

Calculate the Cost

International programs are often more costly than local programs. As an example, the National Center for Education Statistics reported that international students in the United States paid an average of more than $26,000 per year in tuition and fees in 2019.

This means you need to choose a program that’s within your budget since it’s likely to cost you more than studying in your home country. If your desired program is too expensive, find a way to fund your degree through grants, savings, scholarships, or student loans.

Once you’ve decided what to study and where you want to go, you can start the more tedious process of applying to your chosen universities. 

How to Apply to Foreign Universities

Applying to foreign universities can be complicated, but there are plenty of resources out there to help you. If you’re struggling with some steps, don’t be afraid to reach out to the program coordinators directly.

As a prospective student, the university’s staff are there to help you, so take advantage of them. Once you’ve settled on where and what you’re going to study abroad, here are the next steps to take.

Pick a Program

Pick a program that aligns with your values. If you pick something you’re not confident you’ll enjoy, you may be likely to quit the program. This is money not well spent. 

The good news is that failure rates for international students aren’t significantly higher than the rates for domestic students. 

Check the Admission Requirements 

Before applying, be sure you qualify for your program of choice. Note the deadline so you can apply on time. You can also find helpful advice on government websites to confirm that your nationality is accepted.

Tip: Consider the acceptance rates of your desired program. If there’s a low acceptance rate, come up with a backup plan. Acceptance rates for international students in the United States were an average of 43.8 percent for their national universities. 

Gather Your Documents

Once you’re ready to apply, get your paperwork together. Some of the common documents you’ll need to study abroad are: 

  • Transcripts
  • Passport & ID
  • Recommendation letters
  • Motivation letter 
  • Exams

You may also need to have your documents translated if they’re in a different language from what you’ll be studying. If you’re not sure, reach out to the admissions department to find out.

Register for an Entrance Exam

If your program has an entrance exam, register right away. There are a lot of different exams out there, so you’ll need to find out which specific ones you need when applying. These generally fall into two types: 

  • Aptitude Tests: SAT, GMAT, GRE
  • English Proficiency Tests: IELTS, TOEFL, PTE

Book an Interview

An admission interview is common for select programs at schools like the University of Oxford. In general, you can expect them to ask questions like:

  • Why do you want to study there?
  • What is your background?
  • What are your future plans?

As with any interview, practicing beforehand and being confident is the best way to nail it.

Book a Visa Appointment

After you’ve passed the interview, you can finally book an appointment for a student visa. This is usually straightforward, and you'll do it after you get a letter of acceptance to your university. Some of the documents you'll want to prepare are: 

  • Application form
  • Your passport 
  • Medical and background information
  • Receipt of payment for your university tuition fee
  • Bank statements

Create a Budget

Finally, be sure you have the funds to study abroad. If there are scholarships available for international students, you’ll want to apply to those. If not, you’ll need to decide if you're using savings, student loans, grants, or other ways to pay for the program. 

Pros and Cons of Applying to a Foreign University by Country

While every country has its benefits, they also have downsides. To help you decide, here are some of the pros and cons of the 10 most popular countries for international students

The United States

Pros: The United States is known for their high academic standards. There are good support systems for international students. 

Cons: Application requirements can be difficult as many universities require you to take SAT, ACT, and TOEFL or IELTS exams.

The United Kingdom

Pros: Many universities have rigorous and reputable programs. It’s a good choice for international students since cities are multicultural. 

Cons: Living costs are quite high. Students are encouraged to study more independently. 

Canada

Pros: Many of the country’s 1- and 2-year programs are highly regarded since they focus on hands-on experience and job readiness.

Cons: Major cities have cold winters which can be a major adjustment for international students.

Australia

Pros: Plenty of reputable programs. Warm climate for those who hate the cold.

Cons: You’ll need to be financially stable as there are fewer scholarship opportunities for international students in Australia compared to other countries. 

France

Pros: A big selling point is affordability. Some cities have low-cost transportation and accommodations that are student-friendly. Financial aid is also easily available. 

Cons: One drawback is the language barrier when chatting with anyone outside your program.

Russia

Pros: As the country is trying to bring in more international students, the government offers scholarships for high-achieving international students. Other perks are the low cost of living and high-quality education for natural sciences. 

Cons: The downsides are the language barriers and lack of job opportunities upon graduation.

Germany

Pros: The country has an excellent education system. In some cases, tuition is free for international students seeking to study abroad. The cost of living can be quite low. 

Cons: The German language is difficult to master, but if you keep up then this is a great place to study.

Japan

Pros: Japan has some of the best universities in the world for those who want to study technology. 

Cons: Drawbacks are the work-centric attitude, high cost of living, and language barriers.

Spain

Pros: Spain is known for its fine wines and friendly people. There are plenty of highly-rated universities and various scholarships, so you’re not sacrificing education for fun and ambience.

Cons: The main downsides are constant traffic, costly accommodations, and language barriers.

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About the Author

Karin KelleyKarin Kelley

Karin has spent more than a decade writing about emerging enterprise and cloud technologies. A passionate and lifelong researcher, learner, and writer, Karin is also a big fan of the outdoors, music, literature, and environmental and social sustainability.

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