University options for ‘third culture kids’? The world’s their oyster

Today’s students have opportunities to study at university anywhere in the world, so when considering all the options, where do you start? Ryan Hinchey, ACS Cobham College and University Counsellor, explores his top tips for applying to university abroad.

ACS international schools university
ACS International Schools, which has three campuses in the South East England and one in Doha, Qatar, educates students who represent over 100 nationalities, many of them ‘third culture kids’ who have lived in many countries. These students go on to study at universities across the globe. Last year’s cohort is now mid-way through their fresher years at higher education establishments in the UK, as well as Argentina, Australia, Canada, Japan, the Netherlands, Russia, Spain and the US, to name just a few.  When considering their options, students aged 16 to 18 are supported by the school’s dedicated ‘university and college counsellors’, whose role is specifically to support students with their study skills and university applications.  Many of the school’s counsellors have lived and worked outside of the UK for some time and most have worked within a university. Ryan worked for eight years in university admissions in Boston, Massachusetts USA and has visited more than 75 countries while working in the field of international education.  There are over 100 different nationalities represented in ACS student community and many genuinely do have the option to study anywhere in world. Even so, the majority choose to study in the UK followed by the US, having gone through this internal reflection and decision making process with us first.  The problem for most families is where to start when looking for universities outside the UK.  The US alone has more than 4,000 universities and colleges. This is where ACS college and university counsellors provide an invaluable service to the school’s globally mobile students. Here Ryan shares his insights for students considering applying to an international university.

Related articles:

What are top universities looking for?

Top universities are looking for students to demonstrate key attributes such as an ability to think and work independently, a real passion for your chosen subject, and a positive attitude towards study.  Research conducted by ACS amongst UK university admissions officers revealed these traits are undoubtedly universal, but there are also some important differences in what universities in different countries look for.  American universities for example really value an entrepreneurial mind set, and an ability to work well in groups.   Yet most importantly, it is imperative that students first think about their own needs and learning styles, when choosing a university.

Shortlisting potential universities 

When shortlisting potential universities, students should first find out how courses and modules are delivered and if it will suit their learning style. For instance, some universities deliver all their learning through lectures to 300 – 400 students, whilst others will opt for tutorials in small groups. Universities also differ in number of contact hours each student receives with teaching staff during a week and some might value individual attention more than general lectures. Once students have identified if a university fits their learning style, there’s also a number of practicalities to take into consideration – for example, how big is the campus? Extroverts will thrive in a large university whilst introverts might prefer a campus setting.  Are the right courses offered in the appropriate language? An increasing number of European universities offer all their courses in English, such the leading Dutch universities whilst many science and medical courses in Eastern Europe are offered in English.Family geography should also be taken into account; it might be important for students to have quick access to family and friends and even the weather might make the difference to successful studies. Some people will like the extreme snowy weather experienced in Boston, for instance, whilst others will prefer to know that they will be studying in year round sunshine. Reflecting on what students wish to gain from their time at university is essential as this will change depending on the university and country. Most US universities will guarantee accommodation on campus for every year of study, but students are expected to immerse themselves fully in college life.  Contrast this with the UK and many universities in European cities where a more ‘open,’ less intense campus experience is had. Similarly, if students have a clear idea of a career path or profession, a British university may be better suited, as many overseas universities encourage trial of different subjects before committing fully.


Once students have whittled down their shortlist, it is time to consider the application process. Few countries offer a centralised system like the University and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS), so it is important to check how university admissions work for each country.In the US, France, Germany and Spain candidates apply to each university individually and could, in theory, apply to as many universities as they wish. Ideally, applicants should narrow down their choices to around six universities. It’s also important to be aware that the application cycle has shifted around in countries such as Australia and Japan where the academic year starts in January.In the States, because applications are decentralised, most schools advise their students to submit their applications by November, and regular offers are made in January or February. The decision deadline in the States when you must commit to a university is typically May 1st, when your deposit for accommodation and tuition fees for the following year is required. For a British student, the deadline in May is surprisingly early - before final exam results are known. 


This of course may rule out some countries right away, but it is always worth looking closely at the small print.  The price quoted for many American universities often includes accommodation. University in Australia can be competitively priced too, if students are not required to fly across the world too often.

And finally...

Ryan encourages students to categorise their six favourite choices into three groups: Reach: where the entry requirements make it a challenge to win a place; Likely: where applicants are confident of achieving the university entry requirements; and Safety: just in case something unexpected happens which could affect their application. Student expectations and costs from university are increasing all the time: following this process helps students to be happier and more successful in their choices when they leave school.

For related news and features, visit our Education & Schools section.

Our new Guide to Education & Schools in the UK will be available soon!

Access hundreds of global services and suppliers in our Online Directory


now to our Global Mobility Toolkit

Related Articles