Interview with Jef Davis, International Admissions Expert and Accepted Consultant [Show Summary]
Dr. Jef Davis’s nearly 30 years of experience in international student program management makes him exceptionally qualified to share the ins and outs of applying to U.S. schools as an international applicant. His perspective on the unique challenges of applying, but also the incredible benefits of attending U.S. schools, is eye opening, and if you are from abroad and considering attending a U.S. school, you don’t want to miss his insights, especially why now might be the perfect time to apply.
Getting Accepted to U.S. Universities from Abroad [Show Notes]
Our guest today is Dr. Jef Davis. who earned his PhD in International Higher Education from Boston College. He has taught or served in administration at leading universities including Clark University, Drexel University, Kent State, SUNY Stony Brook, Youngstown State University, and Wharton, and has travelled to over 30 countries around the world. He is the author of Intercultural Sensitivity in Foreign Student Advising and the co-author of the 6th Edition of Living in the USA. I am also happy to announce that Dr. Davis has just joined Accepted and is available to guide you to acceptance to U.S. graduate programs.
How did you get interested in international admissions? [2:09]
I began working with international students when I was still an undergraduate. Like many Americans I had a very limited knowledge of worldviews not just outside of the country but even my own region. I found international students provided a wealth of information from the larger world. They challenged me to think differently about my own values and assumptions, so I was very interested in working with them. I went on to pursue a masters in higher education working with supporting international students in the US. The PhD I got much later, after working for about 15 years in the field.
What do you think is the hardest part of U.S. admissions for international applicants? [3:26]
All the challenges U.S. students face in applying to colleges and universities are the same ones international students face, but they experience them at a greatly magnified level, like just trying to understand what it is schools are looking for with questions on the application, understanding why schools are asking the questions and what the appropriate response is. Cultural factors really play into it in terms of writing a statement of purpose or essay where a certain level of confidence and self-conviction are called for. The way that Americans might typically answer questions might strike international students from many countries as bragging or having a lack of humility in general, so being able to really express your best assets and why your strengths are a good fit for the program can get lost in more humble language.
What is the hardest element(s) for them to adjust to once they come to study here? [6:13]
The number one thing we tend to hear is food. The standard American diet is very different than most parts of the world, especially its emphasis on meat and more heavy foods, so students from East Asia in particular have a real challenge finding food that is satisfying to them. Another thing is it can be very difficult for them to participate in classroom discussions for the reason that many Americans will jump in without thinking through what they want to say, and the American classroom discussion is so atypical of many other education systems. Students may never have been asked to answer a question in class before. It is a one way delivery in many parts of the world. They are quite used to taking notes, listening to what the teacher says, and then spitting it back out in an exam, but not so experienced with trying to synthesize the information and develop their own point of view on what the information might mean or how it could be applied. Additionally, most of them are working in a language other than their own. They might be able to speak, read, and write English in the context of an English class, but then applying that to a class about political geography or engineering or any of the sciences – that is a very new experience. Often students will have the general English vocabulary but not the field-specific vocabulary. Those challenges can really add up for students.
Do you see regional differences in terms of areas of application difficulty for students from:
a. China [8:52]
The writing parts of an application in competitive programs really do require the bragging component, so students from China usually have had very limited experience with writing an essay in English and having it critiqued. Their English language education is focused largely on grammatical rules, so they have a decent vocabulary and good grammar but the writing part can be a challenge.
b. Middle East and Africa [9:33]
Oral proficiency is the focus of English education in the Middle East, so it’s very common to have people who can speak practically like a native, but have enormous difficulties with writing.
c. India [10:26]
Right now the biggest challenge is the visa gauntlet. I think the U.S. experienced a 20% decline in Indian students between 2016-2017 because of the vast difficulties students encountered getting visas. The timeline has increased – from initiating the visas to ultimately receiving approval – as well as flat out denial. For Indian students the majority have gone through a large portion of their schooling in English, so language is much less of a difficulty. Certainly Indian English has some marked differences from most U.S. students, but that can be overcome. There can also be those challenges I mentioned earlier – never having been asked to synthesize, or never putting together an argument about their point of view.
Do you have suggestions or exercises that international applicants can do (other than being aware of the differences) to prepare to address them in the application? [12:30]
On the essay parts, find someone who is a native speaker to read and give feedback on draft after draft. The real challenge is to understand what these programs are looking for. You know that these top programs could fill their programs to capacity with students with nearly perfect scores on standardized exams and perfect grades, but they are selecting people with high academic scores and this very nebulous idea of fit. Who is going to succeed there, who will shine and be a credit to their program later, and how does one communicate that when schools haven’t explicitly asked that?
The other big challenge is that it is really difficult to figure out the kind of information that would help them show the best fit. International applicants tend to work from a small list based on rankings or because they know someone who went to a particular school, and there are countless other programs that might be a better fit. Chinese students will tend to apply to programs where there are many Chinese students, which again might not be the best fit or a way to stand out as an applicant.
What challenges do applicants from Europe and Central and South America face? [16:26]
European students in general tend to do pretty well with the application process. They tend to get the cultural differences better considering they are already exposed to such diversity and U.S. influence. English language education also tends to be very prevalent and applicable to the U.S. education system, so I don’t see any particular challenges unique to students from Europe.
For South and Central America again there is a tendency to apply to programs where students from their country are in large numbers, which could be quite detrimental to their chances. There are lots of schools that have trouble attracting students because of weather or history, and students could really benefit from branching out across the U.S.
What challenges do students face in terms of adjustment to the U.S. once they are accepted? [18:27]
The big challenge from most countries is to break out of the social world of their co-nationals. For Chinese students, if you are one of 500 on a campus of 30,000 it can be really difficult to find your way into the social world outside of the Chinese student community, but that is what it takes to thrive. You have to work through the discomfort, really getting to know a new culture not just on a surface level but a deep level. This is true for all students, but in particular students from China have difficulty making that break because of the way English has been taught and the challenges they have making small talk in English. There is absolutely a tendency to stick together culturally (nobody sticks together more than Americans, frankly!) – it’s natural, but the social aspect really does make the difference in how you thrive. It’s especially tough because the U.S. doesn’t have a tradition of the depth of hospitality that you find in say Latin America or India. If you are a traveler in one of those countries, you will be approached and invited and included, which is not very common in the US, especially in the larger cities where foreign travelers are very common.
It is also dependent on what part of the U.S. you are going to. If you are from Brazil and you go to Miami or LA that is very different than being in Dubuque, Iowa. Whereas if you are from Bangladesh or Nepal you are not likely to find a large community of co-nationals anywhere you go, so those challenges are magnified.
What kind of research or preparation do you recommend international applicants do before deciding to come to the U.S. and before applying? [24:53]
One thing I think is critical but not readily available – what is the retention rate of international students? You need to contact institutions to find that out. How good a job do they do serving the international student population? What support services are available specifically to meet the needs of international students? What’s the level of writing center support? What’s the level of international student advising support? Is the international student services area primarily an immigration shop that deals with the paperwork and is too overwhelmed to do programming, or are there activities that are designed to help them make the transition to become part of the community – host family programs, outreach, mixers, those kinds of things.
What would you like to see to provide a welcoming environment for international students? [26:43]
One of the things we developed at Youngstown State University was a weekly program that all international students were invited to, hosted by a different community organization outside of the university each week. The organization’s charge was to provide outside refreshments and bring at least five members to socialize with international students. What rose from that was frequent invitations to family picnics, sporting events, or outings. You don’t really feel comfortable in a new country until you’ve spent a good deal of time in a private home. As an international student who spends all of your time on campus you don’t really have that opportunity, so getting those kinds of programs that get international students familiar with the family and community outside of the institution is important. Schools that offer that are much more likely to find success with their students.
What kind of support should an international student be looking for at a school they are considering? [28:26]
The writing center should have ESL specialists who go beyond advising and provide coaching. The math support services should be extensive, and the advising and tutorial services should really be directed at meeting the needs of all students – not just for those who are struggling. You find that kind of information in the university services description, but how they are described can really give you insight into how extensive they are and how seriously they are taking it.
What are some key words or phrases that would indicate they are doing a good job vs mediocre? [29:30]
“We offer tutoring services and are here if you need us,” vs a description that says “We offer tutoring in all subjects and students are encouraged to meet with a peer advisor to go over their goals and academic struggles and programs that really help our students achieve maximum success.” Students really need to look at career services as well to make sure that they are designed to meet the needs of international students also.
Do you see any distinctions that international applicants should be aware of let’s say for engineering vs MBA or other graduate management programs? [30:46]
The big question in the minds of people reviewing international student applications for an MBA is how well they can assimilate into groups, work with others, and succeed in challenging situations. Those things are really central for standing out, since it is usually quite apparent that academically they can handle the program. For engineering programs they really are looking quantitatively, and the fact is many science and engineering programs are staffed with people who came as international students themselves, so that’s much less of a concern.
What advice would you give to someone from abroad who will be applying for undergrad in a few years? [33:44]
The main thing again is fit, finding a place where you really are going to feel part of the student community, valued by the faculty, and where your presence and international perspective is not just tolerated but really embraced. Getting in really has to do with the co-curricular involvement as well, so what else did you do well aside from ace the SAT? What do you want to do with your long life? What excites you? What intellectual challenges do you want to solve? Being prepared to answer those types of questions are really important.
If international students want to return to their home countries after completing their studies, what can they do to ease their return in terms of finding a job when they finish their studies? [35:15]
The number one thing is to take advantage of some of the downtime between the academic terms to be at home. If there is an internship opportunity make sure it is either in your home country, with a company based in your country, or a U.S. company that does a great deal of business with your country. That helps ease the transition.
Can you address the current environment? With visas being more difficult to get, and perhaps the US not being as welcoming as it used to be? [36:16]
The perception that the U.S. is not as welcoming as it used to be, well, there is not a lot of meat to it. The fact that institutions have been enjoying growth in the international student population for over a decade and there is a recent decline makes it a good time to apply. I think some institutions may have become a little complacent about maintaining certain levels of growth and are concerned about a drop. Political climates come and go and tend to cycle through rather quickly. That being said the travel ban is in effect.
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