Studying Abroad for an Undergraduate Degree: an insider perspective and tips from a college counselor

Article Francis Miller

Are you a Chinese student who wants to study abroad for an undergraduate degree? Or perhaps you are a foreign teacher in Xi’an who has students looking to study abroad? Or perhaps you are a family with a third-culture child who you want to send to abroad for school? No matter who you are, I hope you find something useful in this article.

The single most important guidance I’ll give: use RELIABLE INFORMATION to make GOOD DECISIONS.

You should now ask yourself: Is Francis a reliable source? Of course, I’ll say yes, but this is because I’m currently a director of college counseling at a high school in Xi’an, a committee member for two of the largest professional organizations for college counselors in the world (InternationalACAC and ChinaICAC), and have been invited as a guest speaker by EducationUSA, ETS, and Cialfo for professional development events for college counselors, among other qualifications.

So why are good decisions so important? This is because from the moment you decide to study abroad, your study experience (and the rest of your life) will be shaped by choices big and small:

  • Which country?
  • Which university?
  • Which program/major/course?
  • Which activities or student organizations?
  • Which dormitory?

In order to make these decisions, it is important to ask yourself/your student/your child: What is most important in a future country/university/program?

  • Safety?
  • Diversity?
  • Quality of teaching?
  • Ranking?
  • Finances?

For example, the U.S. has incredible student diversity, an enormous economy, top-ranked universities, and among the highest-quality teaching (especially at liberal arts colleges) worldwide, but the tuition costs and application complexity (different application systems, requirements, essay writing, interviews and more) are arguably unsurpassed. More questions to consider:

  • Covid-19 management?
  • Location?
  • Climate/Weather?
  • Student-professor ratio?
  • Friendly for LGBT, ethnic, or other affinity groups?
  • On-campus recruiting by dream employers like Pixar/Goldman Sachs/Ben and Jerry’s?
  • Ease of university application?
  • Ease of visa application?
  • Access to special programs, research centers, laboratories, or Nobel-prize winning professors?
  • Competitive or intramural sports?
  • Legacy consideration? (What is “legacy?”)

The questions can be endless, but it is important to decide for yourself which factors to prioritize. It is also important to understand how these factors may affect a future education. For example, many Chinese students apply to Cornell University because they think 1) it is an Ivy League school and 2) has one of the highest acceptance rates for Chinese applicants. However, Cornell is in New York. This is not the bustling metropolis of New York City, but rather the tiny rural town of Ithaca that receives ungodly amounts of snow each winter and a disproportionately small amount of sunlight. Students there are basically guaranteed to suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder. Many (but not all) of my students reconsider after this revelation.

Once you know what factors are most important to you, then you should start to narrow down countries, universities, and programs of study. For learning about the benefits of different countries, I recommend official embassy programs. For example, EducationUSA, British Council Study UK, and Campus France all have English websites and a big Chinese presence on WeChat. Moreover, NACAC (affiliated with InternationalACAC) also publishes the Guide to International University Admission, an authoritative manual for applying to more than a dozen countries. While it is written in English and with American students in mind, it includes useful background info, tips, and an explanation for how to apply.

For choosing different schools and programs, the best search tools are often the application websites and portals themselves:

  • U.S.:,,, and others
  • U.K.: (Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, for all U.K. schools)
  • Canada:,,,
  • Australia: (University Admissions Centre)
  • Netherlands:
  • France:
  • New Zealand:
  • Other international platforms:

For learning more about a specific university or getting questions answered, usually these application portals provide helpful contact information. For example, when you create an account on, you are assigned an admissions counselor who you can call or email. CampusFrance also has a representative based in Xi’an. Wow! If you are old school and just want a book, the Fiske Guide to Colleges is arguably still the easiest for learning about schools in the U.S. Take advantage of these kinds of resources to answer questions.
To wrap up this article, I also wanted to address some common myths I hear from students and parents in the college application process:

I need to study STEM, Business, or some other specific major/course to get a job.

This is very short-sighted thinking because of the difference between an “entry-level” job and a “career.” Spending 3-4 years to complete a bachelor’s degree to prepare for an entry-level job is a waste of 3-4 years of time and money. Most knowledge and skills you need for an entry-level job are task-oriented and learned during an internship or on the job. Ideally, students choose a major/course they are passionate about learning and will actively develop transferrable skills like leadership, teamwork, communication, and problem-solving that will actually be useful in their later career.

But what about pre-professional programs?

Law, Medical, Dental, Veterinary, Education, and other “pre-professional” programs are designed to prepare a student to pursue an advanced graduate-level degree in these fields. Students should think long and hard before they commit possibly 8+ years of their life to these programs.

A higher-ranked school will help me get a better job in the future!

While it is true that a higher-ranked school on a resume may help land an interview, ultimately the ability to connect interests and skills with what is valued and needed by a company will get you a job. What are those? Make a LinkedIn account and look at some job descriptions.

The more countries and more schools that I apply to, the more options I’ll have and the more chances I get to be accepted!

This is very misleading, especially if you are applying to U.S. universities. The more countries and applications there are, the more requirements needed to be meet and the more work needed to be done. This ends up reducing application quality, which in turn hurts chances of acceptance. It’s best to apply to a select number of universities, among which are at least 2-3 schools that offer a high chance of acceptance. And how do you know if you are a good “fit” for a school? Look at their most recent “class profile” to see trends in test scores, GPA, and other academic information. Or just send an email to ask.

Finally, a side note about agencies and “education” or “application” consulting companies, known in Chinese as liuxuejigou 留学机构 or zhongjie 中介. They are eager to assist with applications, but often for a hefty fee. Before you sign a contract, know that there are professional groups that accredit and vet independent consultants for professionalism and ethics, among the largest being IECA-Independent Educational Consultants Association and HECA-Higher Education Consultants Association. In Xi’an, I know dozens of independent consultants, but have not yet met a member of IECA or HECA.

If you are still reading, you must be curious or desperate, or both, and I assume that feeling comes from U.S. university applications. If you are curious, I would recommend the book Admission Matters (in Chinese, 升学之道). If you are desperate, I would recommend carefully reading the website for guides and tips. Good luck!

Francis is a full-time college counselor at Xi’an Tie Yi High School. Want to learn more about college counseling or applying to overseas universities? Feel free to contact Francis at