4 Benefits for International Students at U.S. High Schools

By Katy Hopkins –  May 11, 2012 | 8:00 a.m. EDT

Are you considering sending your child to the United States for high school? For an international student who’s ready to handle the transition, it can be a way to help ensure they’re academically and socially prepared before entering a U.S. college, some experts say.

“I think coming here early would have helped for sure,” says Huijia Phua, who came to the United States from Singapore to attend the Yale University School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. Now, she counsels other international students through her company, UNIcq.

“I’ve had students who have come here for high school, and they pick up English much faster … and are more used to the culture. The hope is that they would be able to assimilate better into the general society of America.”

Here are four ways international students can benefit from a U.S. high school education.

1. English language training: Students around the world learn English in classrooms, through study guides, and even by watching cartoons or listening to the radio. But the study methods fall short of full exposure, some say.

“The fact is that real life immersion in the English language is going to get them way farther than any classroom in their home country,” says Krista Tacey, director of international student services at Texas A&M University.

English training is one of the reasons Chinese student Judy Cao is in California for high school, she says. “I was worried with my English speaking and listening, because the English speaking and listening level that college courses require are much higher than the English we learned from textbook[s] in China,” Cao wrote in an E-mail. “Even though we may get high score[s on the] SAT or TOEFL test, we will still have problems on class and work.”

Mastering English at the high school level may not be any easier than learning it in college, but what can start out as a tough experience improves with time, Cao notes.

2. Pre-college navigation: Applying to college in the United States can be a long and complicated process—with tests to take, schools and majors to explore, and essays to write. And much of the process is riddled with lingo that is often unfamiliar to international students, Phua notes, but which may be clearer for students if they’re already here.

“In the U.S., you get to know the terms [colleges] are using, like FAFSA, for example,” Phua says. “It’s so much easier for them, compared to international students who are not in the U.S.”

It may also make the process simpler for some colleges—particularly public institutions, Texas A&M’s Tacey notes—if your student is applying with credentials from a U.S. high school.

“It’s much easier to compare apples to apples when you’re looking at students coming from a U.S. institution, regardless of whether they’re an international student,” Tacey says. “The requirements for admission are much clearer when you’re looking at a transcript from a high school in Dallas than a transcript from a high school in Beijing.”

3. College readiness: In addition to a better understanding of the English language, international students studying at U.S. high schools are exposed to American-style teaching, which tends to be more participatory in nature, says Melissa Cassel, dean of students at the Walnut Hill School for the Arts, a private high school in Natick, Mass.

That can be a big help once students are enrolled in college, Texas A&M’s Tacey notes.

“[Some] students do very well on placement tests, but then get here and absolutely struggle because the classroom pace is so fast, and the requirement in our universities that students interact often in class becomes a real challenge,” she says.

4. Social acculturation: The college experience in the United States doesn’t end when class is dismissed, and coming to high school here can prepare students to succeed socially, too.

“[Parents] are probably giving their students a big leg up when it comes to being socially integrated,” says John Burdick, dean of admissions and financial aid at the University of Rochester.

The transition to college can be tough for any student, but with a prior understanding of cultural norms, terms, and habits, your student may be better suited to fit into the fabric of a new school.

Texas A&M’s Tacey, who works with international students from around the world, says she saw a noticeable difference in the transition period for a female student who had already been in the United States for high school.

“From day 1, she just seemed to have everything a whole lot easier because she already understood the culture and the openness and the way people were,” Tacey says.

But for all the benefits a U.S. high school education can provide, the transition might be too much for some students who come here on their own.

“The extra distance and the time changes make it harder for us to communicate with parents; often the kids are dealing with things … more on their own,” says Cassel of Walnut Hill School for the Arts, where international students make up 30 percent of the student body.

“[Parents] have to assess the maturity of their student[s] and their ability to be away from home and handle things on their own, in the moment.”