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In Search of an Ideal Education

Many students see a foreign education as a good way to gain an advantage in their chosen profession.

Published: February 27, 2013 (Issue # 1748)

 

in-search-of-an-ideal-education       QUACQUARELLI SYMONDS / SPT

     Students considering education abroad meet to discuss their options
     at events such as the QS World Grad School Tour.

February and March have become extremely busy months for the growing number of Russian students seeking to continue their university education abroad, with most deadlines for testing and applications falling in late winter.

Many students see a foreign education as a good way to gain an advantage in their chosen profession, develop international experience, or even as a first step in the emigration process. But no matter what their motivation, hopeful students applying to foreign universities all usually face the same issues, starting with where to go.

Spoiled for Choice

The most determined students go abroad with a clear understanding of what sort of education they want — they know which area they are interested in pursuing and where the top professionals in their chosen field are to be found.

Those who may not have a clear idea in mind are helped in their decision making by the annual international rankings of universities, the most well-known among them being the QS World University Rankings published by Quacquarelli Symonds. QS holds a number of touring education fairs in cities around the world. The QS World Grad School Tour stops in St. Petersburg twice a year, with the next event scheduled to take place Feb. 28 at the Grand Hotel Europe. Such events can be extremely useful no matter whether you are simply considering an education abroad at some point in the future, or are currently gathering documents for a specific degree program.

Marina Tkacheva, a student in the History Department at St. Petersburg State University, who is now weighing her options said: “Tuition fees, the availability of a master’s course in English and a university’s or school’s rating are the most important criteria for me.”

“By using some of the official rankings that are out there (the Times Higher Education ranking or the Academic Ranking of World Universities) you can understand more or less if the university is strong, average or weak” said Alexandra Olenina, a representative of GradStudyAbroad, an organization that helps Russian students to secure financial aid. “But that is just a tenth of what you need to consider when choosing a university.”

Financial Aid

Perhaps one of the most important issues facing those planning to study abroad is the cost of education, especially when financial resources are limited. Countries like Finland, France, the Czech Republic and some parts of Germany provide free education to both local and foreign students. The downside of many of these programs is that knowledge of a language other than English can often be a requirement.

One option available is to find a scholarship or grant for a program at a university where tuition fees are charged. All universities offer some sort of financial assistance and most make information about such programs available on their websites. Governments also offer programs to help students finance their studies. The websites of the Russian Education and Culture Committee or other foundations like the British Council, the American Council, Germany’s DAAD, the Swedish Institute and Campus France all serve as good resources for those seeking financial support. The advantage of such programs is that the financial aid they provide can be used at any university. Competition, however, is often fierce.

“The higher the level of education you have, the easier it becomes to get a scholarship,” said Vladislav Popov, another representative from GradStudyAbroad. “To be able to receive funding for a bachelor’s degree you have to be a real genius, but if you have a master’s and are applying for a PhD program you have a better chance that your education will be funded, in whole or in part.”

The Russian government has been making changes recently to the way that it supports education abroad. From 2013 to 2015 the federal government’s Agency of Strategic Initiatives will fund 3,000 students to study at 300 of the world’s top universities. The government will cover the cost of education as well as living and transportation expenses, on the condition that students return to Russia and work in governmental and municipal management for three years.

Internationally, however, it is becoming more and more difficult to receive scholarships with each passing year. Both austerity measures as a result of the ongoing economic crisis and increased competition for the limited funds available from European sources adversely affect the chances of Russians trying to secure financial aid.

“If you wanted to study abroad in the 90s, all you had to do was be smart and have an average knowledge of the English language, whereas nowadays you really need to be something special,” said Popov.

English Proficency

Because most foreign university programs require that prospective students demonstrate their knowledge of English before being admitted to a course of study, standardized tests have become a customary part of any student’s application procedure. Because of the variety of exams available, students often wonder which exam to choose.

Kathleen Bull, director of the St Petersburg office of Carfax Private Tutors, explained that “a key difference between the TOEFL and IELTS exams is that candidates are expected to have a 30-minute one-on-one interview in IELTS, whereas in the TOEFL exam candidates interact with an automated computer program. IELTS also combines a greater variety of activities, whereas TOEFL is a much more standardized format with both reading and listening elements of the exam being purely multiple choice.”

Olenina and Popov both advise choosing whichever exam seems more straightforward, as both are widely accepted. The Cambridge FCE, CAE or CPE exams, which have the advantage of their qualifications never lapsing, are generally accepted only in the UK, Australia, and some mid-level European universities. A relative newcomer in the testing field is the Pearson Test of English. Like TOEFL, the PTE is taken entirely on a computer and is also accepted by many educational institutions in the UK, Australian and America. The main advantage of the test is that there is a relatively short wait for results (1-5 days), which is often a boon to students who have left things until the last minute.

While many language schools offer courses to help students to prepare for the exams, self-study is also an option. For those who already have good English skills, the goal then becomes simply to become familiar with the structure of the exam.

“If you are going to take an exam in 2013 you should buy a current book, as they constantly change,” said Olenina.

Preparing for the stress that comes with sitting one of the exams is another problem, and one that a professional teacher, preferably a native-speaker, will be more able to address than a book.

Timing is Everything

Gathering all the documents necessary to apply for a university education abroad can take anywhere from six months to over a year and a half, and is serious work.

“Deadlines at some European universities for foreign students are in November or December, and you have to send a copy of your diploma,” said Yana Zakhvatova, a journalism student in her last year at university who wants to continue her education abroad. “The problem is, many students in their last year at school haven’t yet received them. In order to apply you have to wait a year after finishing your bachelor’s degree.”

“Some universities can send you a conditional offer if you don’t yet have your diploma,” said Olenina, addressing this problem. “That means that if you send the university your diploma by August, having received it in July, you will be accepted. If not, the university will offer your place to someone on their waiting list.”

Motivation and Recommendations

One of the most important documents, and the one that helps applicants stand out from other students with good grades and great language skills, is a motivation letter. Answering the question of why a university should choose one student over another needs to be answered convincingly in the motivation letter. An interesting personal story that shows passion for a research subject and the specific reasons why you are a perfect fit for the university are two essential points that should be addressed in any motivation letter.

“It is quite important to say in your motivation letter that you plan to return to Russia, but in fact I would like to find job and live in the country where I will be studying,” said Zakhvatova.

“It is better to have a clear plan of exactly what you are going to do and with which professor. It is a great advantage if your interests match that professor’s current activity, rather than his or her area of interest from ten years ago,” said Popov.

When choosing whom to approach for letters of recommendation, it is important to take into account how well they know you and whether or not they can describe your achievements using specific examples, as well as if their work has been published in international academic journals.

Academic mobility programs such as Erasmus and “free movers” exchange programs offer opportunities to study abroad throughout an education. But no matter which route you choose to go, such study opportunities have a beneficial effect on both the country hosting exchange students, as well as those studying abroad. To get started, all that is required is motivation and self-confidence; everything else can be accomplished as long as the will is there.

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