Navigating University Academic Expectations


Having been offered a place at university in another country is testimony to the fact that you are undoubtedly capable of successfully meeting the academic demands of the course of study that you have chosen; what will be different is the way you are expected to complete them, compared to your current setting.

Studying at university requires a significant gearchange in the way information and content is presented to you, and the way you are required to meet expectations. There is a need for university students to move from recalling information within a context to one that is more evaluative, progressing towards independent study and research. Ballard and Clanchy (1984) exemplify this through their three approaches to cognitive activities within education; reproductive, analytical and speculative, and if students are not able to ask questions, think critically and creatively and work on their own initiative, they are unlikely to meet the academic expectations of universities in a manner that reflects their academic capability.

Gaining a qualification is not the only outcome of a university education; there are many measurable and immeasurable skills and abilities that are gained as well as interpersonal and communication skills that prepare students for life beyond university, but they do require students to challenge themselves and get out of their comfort zone.

This is not isolated to international students as home students also find the move to university and adjusting to the academic expectations a challenge, but there are some pinch points that are particularly challenging to international students.

Below are 10 things to consider, that can help you meet the academic challenges you may face when you go to university as an international student.

1. Choosing the right university

When shortlisting universities, of course considerations such as the profile of the university, ranking, course availability etc are important, but it is also crucial for you to review the profile of the university in terms of the diversity of the student population, especially in relation to international students as this will be reflected in the cultural diversity in the classrooms and how competent the university is in meeting the needs of international students. Many universities, such as the University of Oxford share reassuring information for example “Oxford is a truly international University, with 41% of our students and 48% of our academic staff coming from countries outside the United Kingdom.” and they even provide an interactive map so that you can see how many students they have from each country. For the University of Oxford, in 2021, the USA led with 1,900 students, followed by China at 1,670 while Vietnam had 35 students. If we look at the US, 33% of all international students can be found in three states – California, New York and Texas, with universities such as NYU, Northeastern University (Boston) and the University of Southern California having the highest numbers or percentages of international students. When a university has such a profile, you can be more confident that the climate across the campus will be a very inclusive one, lecturers will be more adept at ensuring that international students are actively involved and engaged, and there will be better resources and guidance to help you settle in and deal with any challenges you may face.

2. Exploring the subject area, and developing general knowledge

Whilst international students are academically capable and can access course content and are able to meet and exceed the minimum requirements of courses of study, being aware of world history, key events, social and political issues will help greatly in adding context to any academic activity or assessment. You should use YouTube and Twitter to identify and become familiar with leading developments and individuals within your chosen field of study. There are also many documentaries from reputable sources such as National Geographic, the BBC and Discovery that will extend and enrich your understanding and provide you with interesting, easily accessible information, as they are aimed at the general public. When speaking or writing academically, having a growing foundation of relevant contextual background information will enhance the quality of your discourse and your vocabulary and your writing.

3. Ask for clarification and support if needed

There will be occasions when the information that has been presented to you by a lecturer or a peer is unclear or where you need some help. This is natural and expected for any pupil, in any subject regardless of academic ability. Remember, it is unlikely that it is only you that is in this situation; there will be others in the same situation but who are not confident in voicing their needs. The danger if you don’t clarify things in a timely manner is that the negative impact of this will be compounded and multiplied, and you will struggle in ever increasing amounts. It is therefore imperative that you ask for help as soon as you need to. It will help the lecturer appreciate that they may not have been as clear in their communication and instruction as they may think.

4. Being confident in expressing personal opinions

International students have a unique perspective, life experience and knowledge base that can enrich discussions and promote others to consider different ways of looking at things. That is why you should always share your personal opinion if you feel it is relevant, as there is rarely a wrong answer, especially when the matter under discussion is subjective. Try and be yourself, engage with others in an open and friendly manner. It is definitely easier to hide behind a mask of formality but your input will enrich your learning and that of others.

5. Evaluating sources of information and their validity

Be aware that there are many unreliable sources of information, and many sources such as websites may look very authentic and professional yet contain information that is misleading or erroneous. Learn to question the source and validity of information that you come across, or that is presented by others. There are times when individuals, institutions and companies have a particular agenda so it is important that you do not take everything at face value but train yourself to look beyond the narrative.

6. Providing positive challenge

Part of a university education includes healthy debates and discussions, and international students need to be ready to question and challenge in a positive way. This is something that may be daunting at first, especially if this has not been the norm in your current educational setting, but like everything, the more you practice speaking your mind, the more natural it will be for you to interact with constructively with other students and lecturers. Others may disagree with you, but they will respect you for your values and integrity especially if you are encouraging them to look at things differently, but also actively listen to their point of view too.

7. Ensuring that you are aware of referencing

It is important that you are aware of the need to research and reference properly, and comply with, and work within, the conventions of academic integrity. Regurgitating text from books and web sites, copy and pasting from undisclosed sources should be avoided at all costs, and you should aim to maintain originality in your writing, and highlight where you have drawn on the work and ideas of others. Presenting the work of others as your own is plagiarism and is dealt with very severely at university. Hence you should never knowingly plagiarize. Always credit the original author.

8. Reducing the language barrier as much as possible

Just because you meet the minimum language requirements of a course, do not become complacent. One of the main challenges to academic success that international students face relates to accessing content, understanding the requirements for assessment and writing in a manner that reflects their academic ability. Many universities offer summer programmes and pre-sessional courses in academic English that aim to prepare international students with the skills and confidence to be able to write and speak at a level that will help them when they start their programme of study, and although they come at a cost and include assessments, they will help you significantly, so do take advantage of them if you are able. To achieve the grade you deserve, your English will need to be as enhanced as much as possible.

9. Participating in the wider life of the university

Universities have thriving student unions, clubs and societies and there is usually a period of at least a week where a huge range of activities for new students are offered so that they can get to know each other, the university and the city that will become their home for the coming few years. Take advantage of every opportunity to engage with and meet others, especially those from different backgrounds. Make sure you incorporate academic, sporting and leisure activities that you may not have experienced before. This will help develop your confidence and your ability to deal with new situations, which will be invaluable during your time in education and beyond. And you are likely to have some fun and gain some good stories to tell from the experiences.

10. Keeping strong, positive relationships with family and friends

Missing home, family and friends is natural but with modern technology it is very easy to keep in touch with those you care about. There will be challenges, but by making the decision to study abroad, you have already taken a brave step, and as long as you remain optimistic and solution focused, there will be very little that you cannot deal with, and there are always support services available through peers, the university and other avenues. Bear in mind that others at home may not have studied abroad and will naturally be worried about you, so try and share as many positives as you can about your experience in order to reassure them.


These ten points are by no means exhaustive or comprehensive, and I am sure as you may have others to add to the list as you progress through your own studies. They are simply a series of tips and tricks that will hopefully assure you that studying abroad can be a very enriching experience as well as an opportunity to equip you with a qualification that will enable you to access further study or employment. Like everything, the more effort you put in and prepare yourself for challenges, the more you will benefit, and this will lead you to better meet the academic challenges of studying at university in a foreign country.

Copyright Ⓒ Juvenis Maxime 2023

Author: Ardeen Top