Applying To International Universities – The Cultural Side

By | June 13, 2023

Who does not want to go to a famous University like Oxford, Harvard or the Sorbonne? As the world gets more competitive, the quality of University you get your degree from can determine a lot about your future. Getting a University degree from a high-quality international University can give you that edge over top graduates from a University in your own country.

What many applicants do not realize is that applying to a University, especially an overseas University, is not just a matter of going through the application process. Anyone can do that, and, at prestigious Universities, many more do than get in! To paraphrase the Bible: “many knock at the admissions office door, but few are allowed in”.

Even when English-speaking students apply to English-medium Universities overseas, there is an element of culture involved. Culture means, to make it very simple, “how people think and behave in a certain country”. Americans, Britons, Australians, New Zealanders, and Canadians, for example, speak the same language but have different cultures. We think that they are the same because the differences are so much less than the differences from countries where English is not the first language.

Even countries which use the same examination system do not necessarily have the same culture, and that leads to surprises. Each year, millions of Nigerians, Indians, Kenyans, Pakistanis, Malays, and west Indians, who went through “British system” schools with good marks, fail to get into good British, Australian, and Canadian Universities when they try. Getting a high grade point average in a public high school in Nebraska may not get you into Cambridge either. Nor will an Ivy League University in America necessarily give your British public school (more so if it is in Africa or Asia) the credibility that Universities in your country would.

Of course, you need to be smart. Yes, you need a good education. The best strategy in the world will not get a moron into a top University. Yet most of those who do not get into the University of their dreams are not morons at all: they are quite smart and have done well at school. Thus, the greater the heartbreak when they fail. They just cannot understand why!

The cultural side of University admissions involves things like perception and value. You may well have to “sell” your secondary school to your prospective University, just because they have not heard of it before. Remember one thing: the top Universities stay at the top because they only admit students who are almost sure to succeed, both in their Universities and in their careers. They do not like to take chances. Yet telling the admissions office how great your school was will not even begin to sell it.

British students may have to give information to American Universities that they never thought of to get in, and they may not always be asked for it. Similarly, American students may find that the things they think are their strongest points are of no interest at all to British Universities: at least unless they are presented in a certain way. To generalize (which of course means that there are many exceptions), American Universities are more interested in the student as a person, while British Universities are more interested in the student’s academic excellence, standing apart from other applicants.

African and Asian students who top their class in English-medium schools in their countries often learn methods that make them fail in western Universities, and never learn methods that will make them succeed. That is not a matter of bad education: it is education for the wrong culture. One clear example: in Africa or Asia, if you memorize the textbook, you are a good student and will get top marks. In Britain or America, if you memorize the textbook, you have no creativity and will fail the examination. That sort of thing will show up in the application process, and the University admissions committees know just where to look: unfortunately the students have no idea about any of this and just fill in the forms in their customary way.

Confused yet? Hopeless? Does it all sound impossible? Here is the good news: it is nowhere near impossible! Thousands of students get into the overseas Universities of their dreams each year, succeed and go on to great things. It is very possible, but those who succeed have the right strategies, the right information, and the right advice.

How do I know? I know because I have been helping students to get into overseas Universities for years. I remember one Malaysian student, when I was teaching at Victoria University of Wellington, who wanted to get into a British University to become a Barrister. Her English was good enough, but her confidence was not. She knew little about the British Universities, even which ones to apply to. I just answered her questions at every step of the way, and I think I gave her a letter of reference. Just that was enough help for her.

Another Taiwanese student was snowed under by the UCAS system of application to British Universities. English was part of the problem, but the biggest problem was just total unfamiliarity with the whole system. I just stayed with him through the process, checked his forms and advised him on options, and kept his spirits up. I was so happy, some 4 years later. when he came back to thank me, Commerce degree in hand.

Either one of them, or many others whom I tutored on their IELTS or TOEFL examinations or helped them to improve their writing and reading skills to succeed in college, could easily have failed if no one had been there. You do not just need an application essay editor or a high school guidance counsellor. You need a professional advisor who can help on EVERYTHING!: that is, whatever you, specifically, need to get into the University of your dreams. It will not be a 1-day, or 1-month process: the earlier you start, the more likely you are to succeed.

One important tip: the application process does NOT start when you get the application form! A successful application to a major University starts YEARS in advance: in the school you choose, the subjects you choose, and the activities you participate in. After that, the form-filling process is either a matter of good strategy or disaster management to succeed.

So you need someone who can go the distance, and not run the clock at Madison Avenue rates every time you have a question. If I am not the one helping you, find someone in your family or neighborhood who has “been there, done that” (no “instant experts” need apply).

Jack Effron Copyright 2007 All rights reserved (except as provided under the rules of