Guest Post • Pre-College Planning Guide

Should I Go Abroad for My Undergraduate Studies?

POSTED ON 07/11/2022 BY The Red Pen

Should I Go Abroad for My Undergraduate Studies? | The Red Pen

Recently, we came across a post where an ‘expert’ responded to the question “Should I apply for colleges in India or abroad?” with a simplistic response of “…apply to both so all your options remain open”.

The problem is that the education systems in India and globally are unique, so college admissions requirements vary and can even be contradictory. This makes it important to understand the nuances of each country’s application process and strategise where you want to apply, rather than spread yourself thin and apply ‘everywhere’.

In this article, we will explain what factors you need to consider to make your region choices for your undergraduate studies

But first, let us explain what’s so wrong with applying to more than one region and keeping your options open.

1) The preparation involved varies widely

Some regions like the US require years of preparation (primarily grades 9 through 12) to develop a holistic profile whereas others such as Singapore and the UK require rigorous focus on academics alone. In India, the traditional education system depends on you preparing for competitive entrance exams such as the JEE and NEET, which can be all-consuming. If you decide to apply for engineering in India and also in the US, how will you find the time to develop a holistic profile while also doing exam prep 12 hours a day, six to seven days a week?

The table below highlights what admissions committees consider in different regions.

India (traditional) India (new-age)1 US UK Canada Singapore Australia
Academics (high school grades) Mostly grade 12 board exam marks Yes Yes Grade 12 predicted and grade 10 board marks Grade 12 predicted and grade 10 board marks Grade 12 predicted and grade 10 board marks Grade 12 predicted and grade 10 board marks
Academic (entrance tests) Yes Yes No Some (only for Oxbridge and majors such as medicine, law, veterinary science) No No Some (only for medicine majors)
Standardised Testing (SAT/ACT) No Yes (but not mandatory) Yes2 No College-specific College-specific No
Essays (personal statement/ essay) No Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes (only for scholarships)
ECA3 (related to intended major) No Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes No
ECA3 (other) College-specific Yes Yes No Yes No No
LOR4 No Yes Yes Yes College-specific College-specific No

1 Denotes liberal universities such as Ashoka University, Krea University, FLAME University, O.P. Jindal Global University, Shiv Nadar University and more
2 Many US universities went test-optional in 2020 and continue to remain so
3 ECA – Extracurricular Activities
4 LOR – Letters of Recommendation

Narrowing down a few regions is critical to maximising your chances of success in the application process.

2) Every application needs time and effort

Every application needs time, care and effort, especially for regions such as the US and UK that need personal statements or essays. Applying without focus will result in slapdash applications which won’t convince admissions committees of your intent or motivation to join a particular college or study in a particular region.

3) Every application costs money

Many applicants underestimate the cost of applying to countries abroad. In the US, application fees can run to USD 100 per college, while in Canada, they can run up to CAD 150 per college. Applying without focus can get very expensive, very soon.

So, now that you understand the pitfalls of this strategy, how do you actually decide whether to apply to universities in India or abroad and if so, which region(s)?

Here are some factors to consider when deciding where to study for your undergraduate degree:

1) Cost of attendance

This is defined as the tuition/fee, the cost of living and miscellaneous costs such as health insurance, cost of exchange programmes, cost of travel to and from your home country and much more. Some countries, such as Switzerland, have free public universities but the cost of living is staggering. It is also important to remember that many universities will increase their tuition fee each year and inflation will affect the cost of living. When planning for costs, you need to bake in all of these increases.

The table below gives the approximate cost of attendance for the 2022-2023 admission year:

India US UK Canada Europe Singapore/Hong Kong Australia
Tuition Fee 0.1 – 12L 12L – 45L 15L – 40L 11L – 28L 1L – 21L 9L – 25L 15L – 30L
Cost of Living 1L – 4L 11L – 20L 8L – 18L 5L – 15L 8L – 18L 9L – 15L 10L – 15L
  • All figures are in INR and per annum
  • The upper end of the range is usually for programs in Medicine and Engineering at private institutions
  • Please note that these figures are approximate and deviations, either way, are possible.

2) Scholarships and financial aid

Hand in hand with the cost of attendance, it is important to understand the kinds of financial aid available in various countries and factor those into the total cost of attendance. The US is generous with need-based financial aid for international students. However, requiring a significant amount of aid can prevent you from getting an offer since universities have a limited amount of aid set aside for international students (this is called need-aware admissions). Some universities in the UK and Canada offer merit-based scholarships but again, those are limited and are usually only small amounts. There are a few extremely generous scholarships around the world that cover the entire cost of attendance but those are extremely competitive and shouldn’t be your sole plan.

As an international student, working while at university might be a way for you to afford attendance. Every country has different policies:

India US UK Canada Europe Singapore/Hong Kong Australia
Financial Aid A few new universities offer merit and need-based aid Very few Lack of options for international students Many small scholarships but very few generous ones Very few Ministry of Education grants in Singapore; merit scholarships in HK Very few
Work while Study No limitation 20 hr/week during the term; 40 hr/week during breaks 20 hr/week during the term; full-time during breaks 20 hr/week during the term; longer during breaks Most countries are similar to the UK’s policy 16 hr/week in Singapore; 20 hr/week in Hong Kong Temporarily allowing more than 20 hr/week due to labour shortage

3) Duration of the programme

Many countries in Europe offer three-year undergraduate programmes for non-engineering courses, as do some universities in Australia and many in New Zealand. While this will bring down the total cost of studies, it can be an impediment when applying for a Master’s programme in countries such as the US, which require you to have completed 16 years of education prior to a master’s degree. In recent years, more US universities are recognising three-year undergraduate degrees from certain countries as the curriculum is extremely rigorous and comparable with a four-year undergraduate degree in the US.

4) Course offerings and quality

In some countries, such as the UK, Singapore and Canada (to some extent), you have to be sure about what you want to study before applying to college. In fact in the UK, you apply to a particular course or major and there is no scope to change that once you commence your degree. Most UK universities will list what courses (or majors) they offer in their university and the course content is very clearly mentioned on their website. The three or four-year degree programme is very structured with little scope for other options. The US educational system is the complete opposite of this and encourages exploration and studying a range of courses. Most universities require students to complete general education requirements in addition to courses related to the student’s major. Therefore, if you don’t know what you want to study or are keen to explore, rigid education systems such as those offered in India (traditional system), the UK, and Singapore might not benefit you.

5) Personal factors

We have witnessed one of the largest disruptions in our lives through the COVID-19 pandemic. During the early weeks/months of the pandemic, hearing stories of students stranded in a college far away from home was unsettling. In uncertain times, having family or friends close by can be reassuring and a factor to consider when choosing a particular destination. Safety concerns and political and cultural factors are other such considerations. For instance, the USP of a US institution is the diversity it offers. Most colleges will have students attending from 50+ countries and not only does this diversity lead to an atmosphere rich in innovation and learning, but it also prepares a student well to be a global citizen. However, safety has become a growing concern in the US with the recent increase in gun violence there.

6) Post-study visa and employment prospects

Your long-term goals will be a factor in deciding the destination you choose to pursue your undergraduate degree. If you are looking at your undergraduate education as a springboard to move to a new country, then you need to consider the post-study visa and employment prospects as well as pathways to permanent residency. If you are clear you want to come back to India to work, you might have more options.

US (Non-STEM major) US (STEM major) UK Canada Europe Singapore/Hong Kong Australia
12 months 12 months + 24 months extension 2-year work visa; recently introduced a talents visa 3 years 1-1.5 years 1 year 2-4 years

In conclusion, if you are confused about whether to apply to study abroad and where, start your research early and give yourself plenty of time to understand each of the popular destinations and make an informed choice. It simply is not worth applying to a multitude of places just to keep your options open. Feel free to write to us if you need help!

Ramya Modukuri is the Career & College Counselor at Manthan International School, Hyderabad. She holds an MBA from New York University’s Stern School of Business and a B.Tech in Computer Science and Engineering from NIT Trichy. Ramya has worked extensively in the corporate world in the tech and finance industries before switching to counselling. Under her guidance, applicants have secured offers from some of the world’s top universities. 

Namita Mehta is the President and Partner at The Red Pen. She holds a Master’s in Molecular and Cellular Biochemistry from the University of Oxford. At The Red Pen, Namita assists students in planning their educational journey, while also building a talented team and evaluating quality partners to expand the company’s reach for students. She also specialises in training applicants for the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge interview process.