11 things I've learned from working in international higher education overseas

International Education Week is here, which is a joint initiative between the U.S. Department of State and the U.S. Department of Education to encourage more Americans to study overseas.


This is such an important initiative to highlight the need for more cross-cultural engagement in our society and the benefits that can be gained by going abroad to study.


And as someone who has studied abroad multiple times and spent most of her life working in international education--both in the U.S. and abroad, this week I've been reflecting on my time in this industry thus far and decided to take a closer look at the main takeaways from all of my experiences.



Universities overseas don't always understand the U.S. high school education system


How does a GPA of 4.0 from Poway High School compare to that of La Jolla Country Day? What about weighted and unweighted GPA? Is an Advanced Placement exam equivalent to an SAT subject test? Are community college credits equivalent to university level study?


These are all valid questions, and I have certainly been asked many times by admissions teams to provide context on U.S. qualifications when I worked in student recruitment overseas.


I, like most Americans probably, wrongly assumed when I first moved overseas and started in this industry that the whole world would know everything about the U.S.


And while that may be the case when it comes to pop culture, boy, did it come as a surprise that there are still many question marks in regards to education.


Most U.S. counselors, students and families don't understand overseas admissions


Equally, there is a widespread lack of understanding by U.S. school counselors, students and families alike when it comes to the admissions process for college abroad.


Are essays required? Reference letters? And if so, can students submit the same ones to University College Dublin as they're submitting to UCLA? Can you apply on the Common App?


Now that more students are applying overseas, the word is getting out there about the differences in admissions procedures and timelines, but nevertheless, there is still a clear need for more guidance in this area since applying for college abroad is so night-and-day different from applying for college in the U.S.


Diversity is important, but universities do prioritize recruitment in particular regions


When you factor in the cost of travel and running events in certain countries, it's no secret that the U.S. is a more expensive place to recruit students than somewhere in Asia, for example.


Universities, like businesses, also have to think about ROI, or return on investment.


By spending x-amount on recruitment, how many students will end up enrolling from a particular region?


Working for universities in Australia, my focus was largely on recruiting U.S. students for one semester of study abroad, whereas for The University of Edinburgh, it was mostly about recruiting students for their entire bachelor's degrees.


Universities have different recruitment strategies


You may have heard of what's known as an "education agent," and depending on the country or university, you'll find that some universities rely heavily on them to do the recruiting for them.


In exchange, these providers receive compensation from the universities for recommending them and providing all the support necessary to get them onshore and enrolled.


The problem, however, is that quality of agents really varies, some being excellent and some not so great, and as a prospective student, it may be hard to know whether you're receiving advice that's really in your best interests--or advice that would result in the agency gaining the highest commission (and different universities pay different amounts!).


Regional reps don't influence admissions decisions


In place of agents, many universities have moved to "in-country representative" schemes.


I also have experience as an in-country recruiter for both Edinburgh and the University of New South Wales.


But unlike a rep of, say, George Mason University, regional reps from international universities mostly aren't involved in the reading of applications or making/influencing admissions decisions (with a few exceptions).


They're simply there to help spread the word about the university, answer questions more quickly in a time zone closer to yours and provide context for the staff on the main campus about market trends, opportunities, etc.


International students make up a huge source of income for universities


This is true, but at the same time, universities tend to be quite rigid when it comes to changing even what may be a simple internal policy in order to facilitate more students applying or enrolling.


It's also a key reason many universities in Australia had to lay off hundreds of employees when the Covid-19 pandemic started; there is sometimes a reliance on international student fees that is just too great, particularly from certain countries as well.


Universities may be more flexible for entry into programs where there aren't many applicants


And because of that reliance on international student fees, I have seen it to be the case where a student may be close to the cut-off score required for a particular program and end up being accepted simply on the basis that the program is "undersubscribed" for that application cycle.


Also, many times where a university is offering scholarships to a particular program, it's also for the same reason; they're trying to drum up interest in a new offering or revitalize a less popular one.


Universities overseas love to restructure internally


Sure, improvement and evolving is important, but when I was an employee at universities overseas, it never ceased to amaze me just how often they restructured themselves.


I've been through many of them, and often a new one started right when another one ended--if not before!


Two of the main things that tend to change are how international student applications are processed and how international students are supported.


For example, sometimes you'll find that international applications are processed by a regional team or sometimes processed jointly with domestic application by a specific faculty team.


The same goes for student support; sometimes international students have a dedicated center where they can go for advice on issues directly relevant to being international, and other times, both domestic and international students see the same "student central" hub.


Cross-cultural differences exist within this sector, too


Like every global company, universities overseas are also diverse workplaces, and cross-cultural challenges in communication exist there as well.


Whilst working in various study abroad offices in Australia, I had to learn how to change my communication style with partners depending upon whether they were based, such as in North America, Latin America, Europe or Asia, for example.


I also learned that the workplace at Australian universities was a lot different than in the U.S. in that it was much more laid-back (with better pay and benefits!).


Also, recruiting international students for a U.S. institution had an incredibly sales-driven approach, whereas while recruiting U.S. students for universities in the UK and Australia, there was a lot less pressure.


In the latter, it was more about making sure we could truly offer the experience/program sought by a student, rather than recruiting every single student for the sake of "achieving numbers" even if it wasn't the best fit.


The U.S. college admissions process really needs to be overhauled


This is certainly a major takeaway in all this; there are so many problems with the U.S. admissions process that I couldn't even begin to address them all here.


(There are also some really good books out there that seem to cover it, such as the newly released Jeffrey Selingo book "Who Gets In and Why: A Year Inside College Admissions").


By contrast, universities overseas are far more objective, transparent and fair when it comes to making admissions decisions, so the U.S. still has a long way to go.


Working in international education is not just about a pay check


I remember being in Australia during my first study abroad experience and receiving a visit from my Ohio University advisor, and a little lightbulb went off.


"You mean you get paid to travel and visit universities?"


Obviously, my desire to work in study abroad and international education blossomed into more than just getting to travel; I really wanted to help support other students in their study overseas journeys.


And to my surprise, working in study abroad in the U.S. was/is incredibly competitive to get into.


There aren't that many jobs, the salaries are pretty low and you pretty much need a master's and some experience already to get an entry level position.


This tells me that the people working in this field are truly dedicated and passionate about their "why."


Nevertheless, from the moment I enrolled in my first study experience overseas at the age of 20, to graduating with a master's in Australia, to getting my first job in study abroad, to becoming a full-time international recruiter, to becoming an in-country recruiter in the U.S., to opening my own educational consulting practice, I have come a long way.


But my passion for international education has only grown with the multitude of experiences and connections I've made over the years.

I can only hope it does for you, too. Happy International Education Week!

G'day! My name is Sara, and I'm the founder of College Apps Abroad. I'm a San Diego based educational consultant, specializing in helping students across the U.S. and Canada apply for college and grad school overseas. I have more than 10 years of experience working in international recruitment and admissions and studied and lived overseas myself in the UK, Ireland, Australia and Brazil for almost a decade. I've also worked for some of the world's top institutions, including The University of Edinburgh, the University of New South Wales (UNSW) and The University of Western Australia (UWA), and I'm passionate about international education!

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Sara Cavalieri | Educational Consultant

sara@collegeappsabroad.com | 619-919-4656

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