Opinion | Seniors, don’t limit yourself — apply to grad programs outside of the U.S.

By Sarah Liez, Senior Staff Columnist

As a senior and prospective graduate student, I know graduate applications are both an exciting and stressful prospect. After going through admissions procedures for undergrad, we have a foundation to go off of as we search out more niche programs if, like me, Pitt doesn’t have the right grad program for you.

Whenever someone asks me about my current prospects, I give them an answer they typically aren’t expecting… I’m not applying to any universities in the United States. Then I tell my American peers they should consider doing the same.

When asked why I’ve made this decision — to apply to universities primarily in Canada and Europe, but none in my own country — I offer several reasons. My central motives are the cost of tuition and obtaining a degree in a program known for its excellence. In addition to many programs abroad having lower costs and greater accessibility to first-rate programs, attending university outside of the U.S. allows you to expand your worldview, explore new places and build an international resumé.

If you, like me, prioritize the cost of tuition and living when choosing where to pursue an education, then you can tailor your grad search to more affordable countries worldwide rather than the $30,000 to $120,000 we spend per year in America. Even after including the cost of living, travel, and other additional costs of studying abroad, you’ll find that studying internationally is often less expensive than studying inside the U.S. 

Personally, I want to pursue a master’s degree in environmental studies, and I’ve found the annual cost of programs are as low as $7,071 USD at the University of British Columbia, $20,890 USD at Wageningen University in the Netherlands and $15,753 USD at the University of Copenhagen — all of which are rated some of the best programs in the world. Almost none of the programs I’ve researched, through the U.S. News Report and World Report rankings, have come close to tuition fees at similar universities in the U.S. such as Harvard, Stanford and the University of California at Berkeley.

It is important to note, however, that many grants, scholarships and fellowships are available to offset these large prices at U.S. universities. Still, American degrees often leave students with large amounts of debt that may take a lifetime to pay off.

I’ve also discovered a number of excellent, distinctive programs that are not as accessible, or necessarily as valuable, as similar ones in the United States. As most American students know, the college admissions process in America is a complex and tedious one. It necessitates standardized tests, several essays or prompts and vague holistic criterion on top of universal criteria such as a GPA, academic transcript, reference letters and extracurricular experiences.

Because of a selective culture surrounding college admissions, students often apply to a large number of universities in order to gain admission to a program they like. This excessive admissions process only makes admittance more competitive, decreasing acceptance rates drastically. International universities, in comparison, have much higher acceptance rates due to a less aggressive, more reasonable admissions culture.

I’ve even found that some of the best universities in the world — such as Wageningen University in the Netherlands or University of Exeter in the U.K. — only require a standard number of credits and GPA for entry with a few minor supporting documents. No standardized tests, one or two references, and only a brief personal statement are necessary.

In addition to price and accessibility, studying abroad — whether for a single semester or an entire degree — expands your worldview, by which I mean your perspective and philosophy on the world around you. When you experience a culture outside of your own, you gain alternative viewpoints. Choosing to study and live in a new area of the world also allows you to travel and explore in ways that improve personal growth by escaping your comfort zone, improving adaptability and learning independence.

Depending on your academic area, you may even find it far more effective and meaningful to pursue an education in a region more relevant to your field. Some disciplines, such as environmental science or architecture, are best studied at universities that specialize in this subject through renowned, targeted research that is put to real use. Wageningen University in the Netherlands, for example, is a research university focused on environmental and life sciences. By opening up my search to international universities, I discovered an array of niche degrees not offered anywhere else in the same level of excellence. 

This argument does, of course, have its limitations. Decreases in cost of tuition, living and travel may not be possible at all universities outside of the United States due to a specific program — such as a medical degree — or school location. Living far from home also has its own difficulties. You may battle loneliness, isolation and language barriers that decrease accessibility to communication and travel and make it harder to enjoy yourself. You may also come into contact with safety and security issues, as not all regions with relevant and excellent programs may be safe for extended living or travel.

Universities in the United States certainly deserve their due credit as well. We are home to some of the highest-ranking universities in the world. Attending university in the U.S. has perks, like familiarity with the culture and language and greater accessibility to going home and seeing friends and family. Still, our hometown excellence should not limit us, and considering studying abroad can change your life for the better.

There are certainly ups and downs of attending graduate school abroad. It’s daunting to consider leaving what feels familiar and safe, yet exciting and enticing, too. If you choose to pursue an international college search, I suggest completing online research, or speaking with an academic advisor or other educator who could help you on this journey. You may even use the resources referenced in this article, or feel free to reach out to me via the email listed below, should you need some tips or wish to share in my own applications process.

You should consider your personal needs, program of study, and desire to explore and weigh your pros and cons. Most international application deadlines are still open, and you may be surprised to find that university abroad is right for you.

Sarah Liez writes primarily about gender issues and social phenomena. Write to her at [email protected].