According to the January 2020 ICEF Monitor, “Fewer than two percent of American postsecondary students opt to study abroad.” As an IEC based abroad, this statistic confirms why there are many misconceptions about the US high school diploma and how it works when applying to universities overseas.Regionally, IECs possess insight into the types of students who can get into US-based universities, but more global knowledge is needed. With over 26,000 universities around the world and globally mobile families becoming more common, it is important that IECs know how to navigate a global application process. They need to understand what is needed for an applicant coming from the United States curriculum.

Diploma Equivalency Varies

Each country’s education ministry has its own requirements for the US high school diploma. For example, in the Netherlands, a standard high school diploma with limited (fewer than four) or no APs gives students access to applied science universities, but not university colleges or research universities. In Denmark, students must possess a high school diploma plus three APs with a passing grade and a score of three or above on the exams. Applicants to the University of Malta are admissible with a high school diploma to their junior college. At the National University of Singapore, students must achieve specific ACT or SAT minimums in conjunction with AP exams or SAT subject tests, but they do not superscore. Overall, the standard US high school diploma may not be strong enough to gain access to universities in many countries, but for the advanced student with a significant amount of AP courses, the entrance requirements may be more achievable. In order to find correct information, the first step is always contacting the international office at universities. Some countries have robust government funded websites that will clearly communicate requirements, including Germany, the United Kingdom, Denmark, and Sweden.

Holistic Admissions Does Not Reign

Unlike the US system, admissions processes in other countries are overall straightforward. They require an application, transcript, and potentially AP exams or SAT scores. Countries such as Australia, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, Denmark, South Africa, Singapore, and Ghana require students to have a certain GPA with the potential addition of APs or standardized test scores to access public universities, both applied and research oriented. While there are exceptions to every rule (university colleges in the Netherlands, private universities in Asia, and numerus fixus/clausus programs), it is important to note that letters of recommendation, personal statements, and robust extracurriculars will not carry much weight in a majority of programs. Generally, if students do not meet minimum requirements for university overseas, they should be advised to not apply as they will not be successful in the process. If a student is looking for more holistic admissions, it would be prudent to research American-style universities located overseas, which do offer a holistic review.

Course Selection Really Matters

Contrary to the open curriculum in the United States, other countries offer study tracks or profiles in secondary school. As a result, university courses may require specific secondary school course requirements for entry. If a student comes to you in their senior year with limited APs, it will be of utmost importance to check course entry requirements. 

For example, the University of Twente in the Netherlands requires students to have (pass the class and exam) at least four APs in specific subjects to study: AP Calculus AB or AP Calculus BC or AP Statistics; AP Physics C: Electricity and Magnetism or AP Physics C: Mechanics; AP Chemistry; and AP Biology. Therefore, if a student has four APs but not these specific subjects, they are not admissible unless the student sits for one of two specific external exams in the required subjects. These exams, which take place in the Netherlands, would require additional travel funds to take. Consequently, students may find their dream of Europe in limbo if they did not plan in advance. For graduate students, it is important to follow the proper bachelor’s degree to gain entry to master’s degrees in Europe and beyond. Typically, a BA will give you access to an MA and a BS will give you access to an MS. Rarely will ministries of education make exceptions. Obviously, the earlier we work with students, school counsellors, and parents, the better we can assist in forming accessibility pathways to mitigate these situations. 

AP Scores Matter

While AP scores matter in US admissions, schools will review transcripts to see how a student did in their classes. However, in many countries, research universities will expect to see anywhere between three or four AP courses with both a passing grade in the class and at least a three on the exam. This can mean big implications for US diploma holders as a student is left with a conditional admission that cannot be finalized until AP scores are received. Therefore, it is always in a student’s best interest to have a backup plan if they feel their AP scores will not come to fruition. 

SAT/ACT Scores May Be Required

Although universities are becoming test optional in the United States, this trend is not prevalent globally. Some private universities may accept a high school diploma without a standardized test; however, this is not the case in every country. Research universities across Europe, Australia, Asia, and in select African countries require a combination of GPA and test scores and state specifics for these scores. If a minimum score is required, flexibility does not exist. A student must achieve that score.

Navigating the global admissions landscape does not have to be overwhelming, but it does require significant research and cultural understanding as an IEC. We are in unique positions to bring knowledge to our clients and their support teams. By starting these discussions and working through pain points early and seeking out advice from global IECs, you can effectively guide students through the international admissions process.

By Lauren Joyce Hensel, MPA, Launch Education Advisors, IECA Associate (Netherlands)