International schools' new approach to university entry

Universities around the world have been changing admissions criteria – here's what international schools need to know

Dan Worth

International schools and university admissions: The latest insights

Getting into a "good university" is often the hallmark of success for schools, students and parents. It’s not the only measure, of course, but it’s certainly one of the most enduring.

In the international school market this is especially true, not least because students at top schools around the world (and their parents) set their sights on moving on to equally high-status universities across the globe – from the US and UK to China and Australia or across Europe.

The pandemic threw a spanner in the works for these international opportunities, though, and raised concerns that it would become a lot more difficult for students to study abroad in new destinations through a mix of travel restrictions, reticence to travel, increasing costs and a lot more.

However, a new report from ISC Research shows a different story – one that makes positive reading for international schools and reveals interesting insights into how university admissions teams have adapted the way they assess applications from prospective students, and may continue to do so in the future.

Here we break down some of the key findings from the report, The Pathway from International School to Higher Education.

International schools: University admissions 'still healthy despite Covid'

A global mix

The first thing to put into context is where the data comes from.

The research was based on responses from 165 respondents in higher education institutions in 23 countries, including the UK, USA, Australia, UAE, Canada, China and Japan, as well as Germany, India, Switzerland, Nigeria, Hungary, Belize and Armenia.

The survey was carried out in the summer of 2021 ahead of the confirmed admissions for the September start of the 2021-2022 academic year.

Perhaps the most notable finding from this survey from this geographically diverse array of nations was that 40 per cent anticipated “an increase in international undergraduate entry for the 2021-2022 academic year”, while 37 per cent predicted it would remain the same.

Of course, this means that 22 per cent of respondents expected it to decline.

Those universities that expected an increase in international students were predominantly from the UK (46 per cent) and the USA (16 per cent).

Some of this was simply due to deferrals from 2020 but interestingly others said the pandemic had reshaped expectations of learning abroad, with many comfortable with the idea of studying online at an institution in another part of the world or not phased by any visa or vaccine issues and happy to move for study.

This is certainly a positive as, with the hope that the pandemic is easing, it should mean that future university admissions to other nations can continue as normal.

Future concerns 

However, those less optimistic about intake cited many of the issues you may imagine: Covid-19 restrictions – from visa delays to concerns over low vaccination rates – to higher fees for international students or the impact of Brexit in the UK.

Overall, though, these figures offer a positive suggestion that submissions from international students are still looked upon favourably.

The hope will certainly be that this carries through into the next admissions cycle.

How students are assessed

If international university admissions remain healthy, then the next question many will want answered is: how do you stand out from the crowd?

The ISC Research report offers some interesting insights on this from the responses gleaned.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, academic grades and secondary school leaving qualification remain the two most important criteria.

However, there are many other elements of an application that are monitored by admissions teams.

For example, language proficiency, quality of personal statement and interview are all important, too.

Knowledge and commitment to subject and motivation for application also carry a strong weighting.

At the bottom of the list are hobbies and extracurricular activities.

ISC Research on university admissions

                                  Data from the ISC Research report 

So while hobbies and other activities are bottom of the list, the fact they are on the list at all goes to show that a rounded application that goes beyond academic prowess is definitely worth promoting. 

This, though, is not a huge change from what has come before, with 68 per cent of respondents saying that they had not changed their admissions criteria weighting for the most recent cohorts because of any impact from the pandemic.

However, this does at least mean that 32 per cent had amended their admissions criteria in light of the issues the pandemic has caused, with those in this bracket saying they were looking at a broader array of criteria, such as English language competency, portfolios, auditions and grades from previous years.

A systematic approach

Pia Maske, East Asia field-based researcher at ISC Research, says the data reveals the split in the sector between those universities able or willing to adapt to new challenges or preferences from international schools – and those that are not.

“The research report reflects what many international school college counsellors have been experiencing; that some higher education institutions are responding to the current challenges of international students, and others are not prepared to adapt,” she says.

Of course, if exams return as normal next year, we may well see the 32 per cent slide back towards the status quo, too, and push more weighting back to grades and expected outcomes.

However, it could well be that the other elements of an application only gain more prominence as university admissions teams look for ways to broaden the scope of how they choose applicants and now have experience of doing so because of the pandemic.

The importance of wellbeing

Furthermore, there appears to have been a realisation that the university application process is intensely stressful for students and that, combined with the mental health impact of the pandemic on young people, having good wellbeing and support services available will be key.

The report quotes a director from an institution in Canada, who said: “Looking ahead, the largest challenge for HEIs will be trying to figure out how to best serve students with respect to mental health and wellbeing.

"The pandemic has created a new pandemic revolved around mental health, and I believe that universities will have to plan for this challenge.”

For international schools, this will be reassuring.

After all, the importance of mental health in schools is now well understood and promoting good mental health is increasingly central to how a school ensures the best outcomes for its pupils.

Knowing that universities are recognising this, too, and providing more resources as required is reassuring.

And perhaps for some students and their parents, it could be an important part of the selection process.

Staff to help students 

Overall, Maske says the data and changes that have impacted the sector over the past 18 months underline the importance of international schools having dedicated staff who can help students to identify the best university destination for them.

This should be done to avoid purely basing decisions on a university's brand or heritage but also on the courses and academic focus that suits their interest and aptitudes.

“International schools still transfixed by university rankings or brands for their student pathways will have experienced many challenges for their student admissions this year," Maske says.

“Meanwhile, international schools that have developed a ‘best fit’ strategy, and educated their whole community on the value of such an approach, will likely see the benefit through successful offers for their students to first-choice destinations."

She adds that schools without this approach should start to consider now how they can embed it into their operations to help give students the best chance of moving on to the destination that suits them best.

“This requires a broader knowledge and understanding of pathway potential by international schools, and the need to dedicate time to developing relationships with university international officers beyond the traditional routes," she says.

“Expanding college counselling teams and supporting them with effective ways to pursue engagement may become an increasing priority for some international schools.”

Matt Topliss, British School principal at El Alsson British and American International School New Giza, in Egypt, says this sort of focus is key to its work with students as they assess their university options.

"We provide university guidance counselling and support for students on their applications to university and the various deadlines that exist for different application processes both in the host country and in other locations across Europe and North America," he explains.

"We also begin this work lower down the school now to ensure that student pathways through key stage 4 and 5 are appropriate to student abilities, course choices at university and future career aspirations."

He adds that this expertise is also important for keeping abreast of any changes to how university entry requirements change.

"We have recently had a change to requirements here in Egypt, so this counselling has allowed us to properly advise students so that their subject choices and the timing of their applications to universities can be made at the right time," he says.

"We haven’t seen any significant change in this guidance due to the pandemic but have seen more students staying here in Egypt as opposed to travelling to other countries for their third-tier study."

No doubt many others do something similar – as the ISC Research touches on. However, those that don't provide this sort of direct guidance on future university admissions are missing out. 

After all, it seems clear that, whatever the impact of the pandemic, helping students to make the right choices for future studies is more important than ever to ensure their talents are pushed in the right direction.

This should make sure that the university application process is about more than simply getting students into a "good" university – but into the right university for them.

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Dan Worth

Find me on Twitter @danworth

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