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Your main role as a parent is to be supportive – and support will be needed in bucketloads.
Getting to university in the US is a drawn-out process with a raft of requirements – and all the while your child is bogged down in the middle of a battlefield of A levels. To venture to another country for university is brave and nerve-wracking for everyone involved, so share the excitement of one of the most significant experiences your child will have - and keep the application show on the road.
How to choose the perfect university
There are more than 4,000 universities and colleges in the US, so tracking down the institution best suited to your child can be daunting. You can begin whittling down the selection process by asking him or her the following questions:
- What do you want to achieve by studying in the US?
- Would you be happier in an urban, suburban or rural environment?
- Would you prefer a small college, with only a few hundred students, or a large university with thousands of students?
- Which climate is more appealing to you outside the UK?
- What types of activities would you like to see on a campus?
More often than not, the best answers to these questions may not be the usual brand name suspects. Encourage your son or daughter to dig deeper than just the first three or four unis that come to mind; don't let lack of familiarity inhibit the research.
Last, and most important: Ask yourself what kind of budget you have for your child studying in the US (see below).
Fulbright recommends you take three sheets of paper and head them First Choice, Second Choice and Safety. Safety institutions are those to which your son or daughter feels sure of entry because their achievements exceed the admission requirements.
These lists will help you to identify what is within your child's reach. Try to be as encouraging as possible about every institution he or she zeros in on. Identify the differences between institutions and pin down what makes them interesting. Then match them to the criteria you have generated above.
Application to a US university is technical and time-consuming. Study the application information we provide, carefully - you as a parent will probably see ramifications of the various requirements which your child will not.
To set out these requirements briefly:
Admission to US universities is based on academic merit and standardized tests. Personal recommendations are important and, unlike UK university requirements, extra-curricular activities also count. US schools are looking for students who can succeed academically and also contribute to campus life.
The application process takes a long time. For example, if your child wants to begin studying in September 2016, it’s vital to get the ball rolling eighteen months earlier (i.e.spring of 2015).
Contact the universities which your child is actively considering; get on their mailing list.
Complete the application form fully. Most US universities use the online Common Application form.This consists of a questionnaire about academic and cultural background, activities (in and out of school) and an essay. It is important to answer all questions honestly and accurately.
Provide a transcript of exams and results. Your child will need an official copy of their academic record (or ‘transcript’) – not something most UK schools are used to providing, so give them plenty of time and information.
Letters of recommendation – references, but not as we know them – will be needed, too, written by a teacher or employer who knows the applicant’s character and work. Check with the institutions to which your child is applying and see what type and how many recommendations are required. Make sure the person writing them understands what is needed.
Sit the SAT or the ACT- your child should schedule and take SAT Reasoning test or the ACT (but not both), plus SAT Subject Tests if required (see Entrance Tests, below).
There are no university entrance tests for US universities, but applicants do usually need to take either the SAT test or ACT, and often the SAT Subject tests (at least two of the latter are required by the most competitive unis).
If the SAT or ACT is required by the uni (and one or the other usually is), the exam has to be taken before you submit an application. Make sure to register for them well in advance, since they fill up quickly.
Talk to your child's current school/college – many of them can advise on the hurdles you face. Register online (www.collegeboard.org) and plan to sit these tests for the first time in May or June of the year you start to apply. The SAT is offered about six times a year and can be taken multiple times - if necessary, tests can be retaken in the autumn just before submission of applications. The same is true for the ACT (www.actstudent.org).
The key to financial planning is to start early so you and your child can keep on top of the many challenges. You must be fully aware of the financial commitment involved in studying abroad.
Most US students have low-interest government loans. As a UK resident you are only able to apply for a US loan if you have an American co-signer - and even then it will be a private loan, not from the government. Encourage your child to believe that funding an education abroad is attainable. It’s a long and winding road, and parents are definitely needed on the journey.
The non-refundable application fee for each university ranges from $20 to $150 and covers only the processing cost. Some universities require applicants to cover international mailing costs, and/or charge for prospectuses.
A visa will be granted only if a student can prove they have sufficient funds to cover all costs for the first year.
It is difficult to generalize the basic cost of an academic year because institutions set their own tuition fees, and the cost of living varies greatly according to location. Tuition, Room & Board and fees will run anywhere from $20,000 to $60,000 per academic year (nine months).
Students must buy their books, adding as much as $1,000 a year to the cost. For students not living in school accommodation, living expenses are highest in big cities, ranging from $7,000 to $16,000 a year. You will also need to factor in air travel to and from the US along with health insurance and personal spending money.
The best source of funding for your child's US education is the institution itself. Many of them allocate funds for international students, mostly based on academic merit, though some colleges offer funding based on need.
Usually, more funding is available from private rather than state institutions; however, full scholarships are rare. It requires a huge amount of time to research and apply for scholarships.
Funding from independent bodies is less common, but it is available. Some universities give athletic or performing arts scholarships. It is extremely important if your child wants to apply for a scholarship to be certain the scholarship is available to international students.
A student visa allows on-campus work for up to twenty hours per week to help cover living expenses and to earn pocket money. But note, none of this income can count towards a visa application. Help your child research and draw up a budget. Is it affordable? How does it compare with the costs of university in the UK? Is the difference in quality really worth it?
Frequent Flyer Tip: Most universities will allow you to pay with a credit card. If you are making a large payment to the university anyway (or perhaps breaking it into several payments, depending on what the bursar allows), it's worth considering making that payment through a credit card that gives air miles; you can still avoid the interest charges by paying the credit card company immediately. And either you or your US student will certainly use the miles.
Health and safety
One common concern for a parent thinking of sending their child overseas is safety. Rest assured, American colleges (ever wary of lawsuits) take very good care of their students. Most campuses have security staff or police who patrol day and night.
Many have an escort service to pick students up and drive or walk them to any destination on or around campus. These services are usually free and operate until late. Most institutions have emergency call boxes located around campus which directly access police emergency lines. Find out what security services are available and make sure your child will be able to call an escort when needed, or walk with a friend.
In case of an emergency, it is extremely important your child has not left home without as many means of contact as possible. Email addresses, mailing addresses, phone numbers of family members and fax numbers are just some of the suggested safety contacts.
It will be up to you to talk to your child about what means of communication to use and in what order. Most universities have a parent support network with a designated person to help deal with international students and parents. Before your child makes a definite decision on a university, check the services each institution's International Student Office (ISO) provides.
Insurance and health
International students need to check with the campus health centre to see if their insurance policy will be affordable and suitable. Services vary depending on the size and location of the institution. Some campus health centres offer emergency care, others don’t. Contact your centre direct, or ask at the International Student Office, to find out more.
Many institutions include a basic health insurance plan in their fees (and this can often be supplemented through the same insurance company if you want more coverage); others require international students to take out all of their own health cover.
Carefully look at the range of insurance plans available from both the UK and the US to establish which offers the best value for money and the most comprehensive coverage. A perfect health insurance policy covering 100% of the costs for 100% of the time may be too expensive. One which covers the majority of costs may, of course, leave you picking up the tab for the shortfall.
There are significant differences between US and UK healthcare policies. You must weigh up the advantages and disadvantages, and plump for the one that’s best for you. Principal differences are cost, preventive healthcare, pre-existing conditions and liability insurance.
Some student cards offer limited insurance cover. For example, the International Student Identity Card (ISIC) is a globally recognized identification card which carries some insurance benefits.
Communicating with your child throughout the application process in the UK is crucial. Make time to talk regularly about how it’s going.
It is a good idea to contact other students who have studied abroad and discuss the realities of living there, including funding, academic life and cultural lifestyle. These people are an incredibly valuable source of information, and contacts can be found through the internet or the International Student Office of the institution your child will be attending. The ISO also provides other services for your child once they are in the US, usually including culture shock therapists and counsellors.