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The Challenges of Higher Education Choices for Expat Students

Updated 29 Sep 2016

The majority of international school students won’t seek their studies in higher education in their host country.  As a result, one of the most pressing concerns for parents with children at the secondary school level as they move abroad or from one host country to another as expats is figuring out the potential support they might need to seek for preparing for university applications.

Most of these students literally have the world at their fingertips, so gaining an understanding of the different types of higher education curricula, systems and programmes from country to country will be important. 
How to find that help can seem daunting. Here are a few important tips for parents and students (many of my own students do take the initiative to seek out this help on their own) as they reach out and try to find guidance:

Use the school’s resources

If your student is attending an international school, they will most often have very good resources.  Yes, it’s true that it’s going to be difficult for the school to give your child hours and hours of one-on-one time – but these counsellors are usually very knowledgeable, so it's a good place to start. 

Use the internet… but to a limit

The bottom line is there’s too much information out there and trying to differentiate the reliable information from the unreliable, or flat-out wrong information, can drive a person mad. If using the internet to get some basics on education systems in different countries, go to the country’s education department website for the official information.

This may be when you realise you need a qualified, experienced, unbiased and independent international educational consultant.

Some advice on seeking an international educational consultant for your child and for the family:

  • Have an idea of what you would need the person for. Are you hoping to gain a better understanding of the different types of programmes offered in the UK and Australia? Does the student need guidance on what might be the best-fit university among the thousands in the US? Does the student need a university that can offer support for people with learning difficulties? Try to define the issues that need addressing before looking to a consultant.
  • Don’t start too early. Yes, you read correctly: don’t start too early. I work with students who are two years or less from graduating from secondary school. Very rarely will I work with someone younger. Why? I have found an inverse relationship between the student who starts very early and the ultimate quality of their applications. Let your child explore education, extracurricular pursuits, friendships, passions and interests before starting this process!
  • Look for consultants who are professional members of organisations that rigorously vet their members; for example, the Independent Educational Consultant Association (IECA).
  • Look for consultants who will give you the opportunity to “meet” with them free of charge, even if for a brief Skype call, with no obligation to work together.
  • What is being offered? This is critical for you to understand, as there is no international standard of what a consultant should or does offer. 
  • Ask the consultant how their process works, whether an agreement will be signed (it should) and if they abide by a system of ethics (they should).
  • Prices vary depending on the consultant and by country. Services will also vary. You may find extremely diverse pricing, from a thousand or two USD to over 10,000 USD for a package or service.  Hourly rates, too, will vary tremendously when and where they are offered. Having done your research will help you gauge if the price is worth it to you.
  • Ask for references in the form of another family the consultant worked with that you could communicate with. If a consultant cannot offer a reference, think again.
  • Never, ever pay for a 'guaranteed entry' into any institution. This is a farce. Walk away. Quickly.
  • Do not work with an 'agent'. This is someone who works for an institution, and they will not have your child’s or the family’s best interests in mind. Instead, the agent gets paid by the institution for the placements they make and may 'sell' you one institution over another even if it’s a terrible fit or environment for your child.
  • Don’t work with someone who only works with 'top students'.  This is a red flag.
  • If it feels like too much of a business and less so like someone who is truly going to have your best interests in mind, keep searching.
  • Finally, trust your gut. You’ll want someone you can confide in, who will treat you and your child like the individuals that you are, and who will maintain professional boundaries while being a partner throughout the process.

The bottom line for finding the right consultant follows the same advice I give my students when they research their universities: due diligence is worth gold. Go to internationally recognised, non-profit organisations that vet their members like IECA, contact several consultants, ask questions, request information, and seek references. When it doesn’t feel quite right, walk away. When it does, perhaps ask a few more questions (see above!), and hopefully, you’re in for an experience that will lead your child to a best-fit university and a successful future.

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