Where to Study: Ten Key Issues

Where to Study: Ten Key Issues

QS Staff Writer

Updated February 22, 2023 Updated February 22

IE University’s Dr Rolf Strom-Olsen outlines ten key issues you should consider when deciding where to study abroad.

Students considering where to pursue their university education have a greater choice than ever and there are an increasing number of international universities that cater for students looking to study abroad.

Here is a list of ten things to consider when deciding where to apply:

1. Networks

The friendships you form in university will stay with you – and indeed help shape – your entire life. So what kind of network are you looking for?

International universities typically have very diverse student bodies, which means that students end up making friends from all over the place.

Take as an example the experience of my former student, Claudio. When I ran into him last semester and asked him how his summer had been, he replied casually that he had spent his time visiting his friends from university.

As it turned out, this meant Claudio had spent his summer in Greece, the UK, France, Switzerland and Morocco, as well as hosting a bunch of his friends who came to visit him in his native Italy. International universities foster global friendships, even if you are not a globetrotting couch-surfer like Claudio!

2. Faculty

If you are considering an international university or grad school, check the list of faculty to make sure the diversity of the staff reflects the diversity of the student body.

Where major national universities will have a majority of professors educated within the local tradition, international schools tend to draw from people all over the world.

At my university, for instance, our students just in their first year are taught by professors from Spain, Canada, Finland, the US, Pakistan, Germany, Argentina and France, among other places. This means that you can expect to benefit from a broad range of academic backgrounds (as well as accents!) in the classroom.

3. Class environment

International universities tend to be smaller and follow an Anglo-American model of pedagogy. This means smaller classrooms and a much more interactive learning environment.

Students at major national institutions typically (although not always) end up in large lecture theatres and have only limited interactions with most of their professors at least during their first two years of study.

International universities look much more like small liberal arts colleges, where class size is restricted and professors are encouraged to be accessible and part of campus life outside the classroom.

4. Campus life

Typically, international universities feature small, often residential campuses. This means student life is much less anonymous and much more engaged than at larger institutions where students often live at home and visit campus only for lectures or to study. So if you want a more active student life, then often smaller is better.

On the downside, however, smaller institutions can have fewer resources, like sports facilities or large research libraries. So you should think about what is important to you in terms of the campus experience.

5. 'International' vs. 'foreign' student

There is an important distinction between being a foreign and an international student. Students, for example, who come from abroad to study in larger national institutions often end up part of a community of foreign students.

At international universities, everyone is 'foreign', even local students, because there is no dominant national identity on campus. So the label becomes meaningless since students are not absorbed into or surrounded by a specific cultural identity on campus. Everyone is international; no one is foreign.

6. Language

The language of international universities is always, to my knowledge, English. If you are interested in pursuing your studies in that language, then an international university is probably a very good fit.

With a broad international reach, the level of English within the student body will vary considerably, despite TOEFL scores or other tests that international universities tend to use to ensure all students have a suitable level of language competency.

But I have observed that acquisition of very strong spoken and written English is an incidental benefit from being in an immersive English language environment over four years. Students do not always enter our institution with the strongest English language skills, but they usually graduate with a near-native command of the language.

It is also worth noting that international universities are by definition very multicultural, which means that students end up benefitting from multiple language circles. In my classrooms, for instance, I typically walk into a mishmash of languages being spoken by my students. So while your curriculum will be in English, your world will be multilingual.

7. Career plans

This is important because an international university can offer outstanding preparation for some careers, but not others. If you want to be a doctor or a schoolteacher, for example, you are probably much better served by pursuing your studies at a national institution.

But if you are interested in pursuing an international business career, for instance, then studying at an international institution is likely a strong choice.

When they graduate, our students tend to consider options across the globe. Some will certainly choose to return to their home country, but others will head to places like New York, London or Singapore where their education and their university network has opened doors for them in launching their career.

8. Cultural literacy

Wherever you study, you will of course end up discovering the world beyond campus, which offers you the opportunity to acquire literacy in that culture. So if you are considering studying abroad, you should make sure that you have an affinity for the country in which the institution is located.

Many of our students come to us in part because they are attracted to Spain and want to learn both the language and about the culture.

Sometimes it is not that profound. I had one student tell me she that, while she wanted to study a business degree in English, more importantly she hated winter and so was looking for a place that was mostly sunny and warm. And given those criteria, Spain sounded pretty good.

Whatever your motivation, the country is going to be your home for four years, so you should ensure you will be happy there.

9. Talk to existing students

If possible, you should visit the universities you are thinking about attending to sit in on a lecture or two and get a feel for campus life. Where you pursue your university education will be one of the most important decisions of your life, so it is worth investing the time and energy to make sure you choose the right place.

That is not always feasible of course, particularly if you are thinking of institutions that are far away from home. What you can do, however, is talk to students who are already there. No one can tell you more about the institution, its culture, the professors, the curriculum, even the quality of the cafeteria food, than the students.

Every university should make available someone with whom you can have an honest discussion about the pros and cons of attending. You should take advantage of that opportunity.

At my institution, we have a program that pairs student volunteers with prospective freshmen. And while the students who volunteer are generally enthusiastic, they are not there to shill for the university but will give you honest and straightforward answers about the academic and social life on and off campus.

10. Do you want your future to be local or global?

I know this sounds like an empty slogan, but it is actually an important consideration. Because we have invested a certain cachet in the word “global”, it is probably instinctive to think, “Oh, I want to be a global citizen.”

But in fact, you should think seriously about whether that is true. Barack Obama is in the White House precisely because his citizenship was focused locally (although I’m sure going to Harvard helped)!

Students who pursue degrees at international universities often come from international backgrounds – they have multiple passports or languages or have lived in many different places. So they feel comfortable plotting a future that is indifferent to national boundaries.

Other students come precisely because they want to give themselves an advantage to move beyond their local circle. Yet others come because they are looking to go back home with wider cultural horizons. But that is not for everyone and it is worth thinking about where you will be comfortable.

Connect with students worldwide in our international student forum >

Dr. Rolf Strom-Olsen is a Professor in the Faculty of Arts and Humanities at IE University in Segovia, Spain.


This article was originally published in October 2012 . It was last updated in January 2020