This is not visiting for a semester, but attending a foreign college to earn your degree.

Americans are used to international students studying on our campuses. What we don’t often hear about are the American students earning their college degrees in a foreign country. This option offers many rewards and the perfect fit for the right student.


Reasons to attend college abroad The primary highlight is the cultural exchange, the opportunity to experience life in another country. The more focused programs mean students take classes in their “major” without most of the required gen ed classes common here. Plus the annual cost is cheaper than many American colleges, sometimes even free, and degrees don’t always require four years of school.

Peter Schleisman of Minnesota, who is in his second year at University College London (UCL), found the program he was looking for abroad. “I wanted to do something more focused than liberal arts and I wanted to get away from the core requirements you usually find in the U.S. I wanted a school where I could combine German and the social sciences/humanities in a single degree.” He found that in European Studies, available at a lot of British and Irish universities.

The type of student who should go to college abroad Independent and mature teens arrive with the best chance for success. Foreign universities are less hands-on than U.S. colleges. An international student also embraces the opportunity to travel, has a clear idea of what they want to study and is comfortable being far from home.

Elizabeth Larsen, Schleisman’s mom, explained why she suggested he look into colleges abroad. “I thought Peter could benefit from an international undergrad experience because he’s extremely independent and was motivated to figure out how to make it happen. He loves studying languages and loves learning about different cultures.”

Where to study Among American students, the most popular countries to study in are in the United Kingdom (UK), i.e. England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, as well as Ireland and Canada, where English is the primary language. These countries also have some of the top-rated universities internationally.

Students interested in studying in a non-English speaking country need to be fluent in that country’s language, and not just for academic reasons. “The Netherlands offered a lot of good programs in English, but I was sort of worried about the language barrier and how it would be to socialize and make friends in a country where I couldn’t speak the language at all,” Schleisman said.

Finding colleges and universities abroad Online research is the way to go. For an overview of where to study abroad, start with this article from the New York Times that provides general information about going to college in various countries.

Other sites to check out include: and

Some colleges hold information sessions in the U.S., but if your family can afford the trip, or already has plans to vacation abroad, sign up for formal tours at universities your student has researched to coincide with the time you’re there.

[Because of its popularity, this post will focus on the experience of applying to colleges in the UK.]

Understand the application requirements Do this sooner rather than later. When exploring the prospective students section of college websites, look for the link for International Students, and, on some sites, the subcategory for Americans.

Foreign universities don’t generally recognize our standard American course and grading system. Instead, they require scores from Advanced Placement (AP) and International Baccalaureate (IB) exams, SAT Subject Tests, and the ACT or SAT exams. For AP scores, the highly ranked schools tend to require 5s, with maybe one 4, for a specific list of courses. Some universities will accept more 4s, depending upon the major/course.

The application includes a personal statement, similar to, but different than the typical Common App essay. “They don’t want to hear about who you are,” explained Schleisman. “They want to hear that you know what you’re doing. Basically, give us, in essay form, a list of all of the things that you have done that prove that you are going to be the best-qualified applicant for this degree.”

You can upload certain extra-curricular activities, but the emphasis here, too, is on how they directly relate to the degree program you’re applying to.

Most UK universities use the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS), but some universities, like University of St. Andrews in Scotland, will allow Americans to apply via the Common App. And there can be variations on the UCAS applications based on the country.

Photo credit: Charlie Brady

Other considerations If your teen’s high school doesn’t offer either AP or IB classes, the situation Schleisman found himself in, your student will need to study on their own and work with their high school to figure out when and where to take each test. 

Making friends at college even in the U.S. requires effort; it can be harder at a foreign school, depending upon the student population. “The particular university that I’m going to is like 55 percent international students, which makes it even easier because there are tons and tons of students who are kind of in the same boat as me,” Schleisman said.

Your family’s health insurance plan probably won’t work abroad where most countries have universal healthcare. But your student can sign up for healthcare in country.

International students also need a foreign bank account. “I had to open up a British bank account, then I had to figure out the best way to transfer dollars to pounds,” Schleisman said. “That was difficult to get my bank account to work.”

Independence starts in the classroom. Attendance isn’t checked in lectures, but it is in seminars where there is often a quota in order to be allowed to take the final exam. Coursework is assigned but no one reminds you when it’s due, which usually includes one or two papers worth a significant portion of your grade. There are no tests during the year, just one exam at the end of the class. Sometimes the two essays replace a final exam, depending upon the class. Universities in the UK are known for a tougher grading system; As are rare.

Residence life is also more about independent living. “It’s uncommon to have a roommate,” Schleisman said. Dining halls offer a more limited experience than at American colleges. Plenty of students grocery shop and cook for themselves.

College abroad costs less, but you’ll need to factor in the price of airfare. “I’d connected with a mom who clued me in to buy him a one-way ticket to London and then do all the rest of his travel roundtrip, originating in Europe, which is less expensive,” Larsen explained.

Ultimately it comes down to self-sufficiency. “One of those features of a British university is they don’t usually offer the same sorts of student services,” Schleisman pointed out. “If you need something, you have to be able to go ask for it on your own. They give you all the resources you need to succeed, but they don’t necessarily guide you through how to use them.”

My next post focuses on preparing for the college admissions process at a foreign university.

Share your thoughts on attending college abroad in the comments section below.