Taking the pulse of international students: What do their university decisions look like in 2021?
Taking the pulse of international students: What do their university decisions look like in 2021?
Taking the pulse of international students: What do their university decisions look like in 2021?
Katryna Snow CIS Associate Director of Higher Education Services


By Katryna Snow, Associate Director of Higher Education Services, CIS



It has been almost a year since the COVID-19 pandemic gripped the world and altered the way schools have been able to deliver education to students. For many secondary school students, it has also changed how they have been able to learn about university options and, in some cases, changed their thoughts about when and where to enrol at university.

As part of the CIS webinar series Monitoring a changing landscape: Counsellor conversations, we questioned counsellors from 21 CIS member schools about how the pandemic has impacted their school communities, changed students’ thoughts about university options, and impacted their well-being and mental health.


Whether schools are operating in-person, in a hybrid model, or strictly online, the pandemic has caused signnificant disruption for many within our school communities. Regarding a shift to online teaching, Annie Prasanna, College Counselor at the American School of Bombay, said, “we pride ourselves as a ‘sticky campus.’ The school campus and community is a place where students come first thing in the morning for sports practice or families come together for mentorship or learning the local culture or language. All that was taken away. We were left in front of a computer trying to recreate that sense of community. School isn’t just about classes. We felt a support system was missing.” Other counsellors, such as Andrea Fleming, High School Counsellor at The Overseas School of Colombo, echoed the sentiment saying, “we couldn’t get 16 of our new teachers into the country. Even when students were on campus, they were sitting on-screen, taught by a new teacher whom they had never met who was in a different country. New students have never been on campus; they’ve never physically met their teachers, nor have they physically met any of their peers. It’s been really challenging.”

Checking the pulse of student mental health and well-being

Not every school has been challenged to the same extent by the closure of country borders or a shift to online learning. Schools that have been able to bring students to campus note that it generally improves students' attitudes. According to Kathleen Leishear, High School and College Counsellor at the American School of Brasilia, moving to a blended model of learning where students come one week on, one week off “has lifted some spirits. It has made a [positive] impact on students’ mental health and well-being.” In Singapore, where the closure of schools was relatively brief, Rachel Duce, Head of University and Careers Counselling at Dulwich College (Singapore), said, “the online learning situation was for just six weeks. Students during that time were very much engaged. In Singapore, the students are stressed about the future in one way [uncertainty around exams], but on the other hand, they’ve been less overwhelmed and, in effect, less busy with extracurriculars. Our students have also done a lot of reflection and realized they’re in a very privileged position, especially as compared to our neighbors. They are very fortunate with their day-to-day.”


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For students not able to attend school in person, the loss of interactions and school activities has been difficult. Heather DeVore, High School Counsellor at Jakarta Intercultural School, said, “all students are trying to be resilient in the face of an end-of-high-school they never could have anticipated. They’re missing out on a lot of traditions and celebrations that they would have looked forward to. Long term, we have a generation of students moving into university who have spent a significant time either learning from home or in some kind of lock-down and haven’t had those social interactions. I think that ‘how is the mental health and well-being [of these students]’ will be an ongoing question that universities will be facing too as these high school students come to you.”

Even for schools operating in person, the changes required to keep the school open have caused challenges for students. Sonja Phongsavanh, Head of University and Career Guidance at Yew Chung International School of Shanghai said, “it’s sad on our campus. Even though the students are on campus and still have that social interaction, it’s not anywhere near the bustling place with all the activities that are going on. With the students having to eat in cubicles, for example, they don’t really get a chance to interact with each other.” Kaersten Deeds, Director of University Counselling at Dulwich College Seoul, echoes that and said, “our students [no longer] have the social interaction they want and need. They’re tired of sitting in front of a computer. It’s causing them to not be as engaged.”

Although many counsellors talked about how the online environment has been very challenging for students (particularly the extroverts), in some cases, other more introvert students have even been flourishing. According to Alex Becker, College Counselor at International School Bangkok, “we’ve had a few students that have really thrived in this situation, where their personalities really did come out when they were online. Some even have said they miss [online learning] a little bit. That’s certainly not the majority.”

The online world has provided challenges in how schools support students. Keith Layman, Counselling Department Head at the International School of Düsseldorf, said, “this latest period of lockdown is going on six weeks, so it is a real challenge to reach out and to connect with students. Students who are feeling down or students who are feeling disconnected, students who are having issues with their mental health—it’s harder to connect with them with a Zoom call or an email or a Google Hangout chat. If they don’t want to be found they won’t be found, which is concerning.”

This was echoed by Andrea Fleming in Sri Lanka, “There are a lot of pockets of kids who are suffering, but it’s really difficult to find ways to help them. They don’t want to be online. They don’t feel comfortable talking about their problems online.”

Schools find themselves addressing the lack of interaction and impact on student health and well-being in various ways. Paul Sweet, High School Counsellor at St Mary’s International School in Japan, said, “As a school community, we’re really trying to move from being reactive to proactive. We are adding a full-time social/emotional counsellor. We’re looking for ways to enhance our advisory programme.” Dwayne Zamora, University and Careers Counsellor at Taipei European School, echoed this and said, “our school’s leadership team increased the number of social/emotional counsellors. We have really emphasized a lot of mindfulness and well-being at our school. That was a nice thing that supports our students at this time.” Alex Becker said, “we try to reaffirm to our students that we’re going to be here; trying to reassure them that they’re certainly not in this alone.”


New trends in university applications

Although each school has had to face various challenges related to COVID-19 in the past year, there was one thing that they all agreed on. When asked if students are still considering travelling abroad for university study, there was a resounding consensus that students were still very much interested, even though the way they are thinking about it may have shifted focus and several new trends have emerged.

One trend is an increase in the number of university applications per student. According to Deniz Mehmetzade, International College Counselling Director at Üsküdar American Academy in Istanbul, “students have always applied to multiple locations. The big change has been they still apply to multiple locations but additional [universities] in those multiple locations. There is an increase in applications.” Claudia Botero, International Counselor at Marymount School Medellin, echoed this and said students “are applying to universities in more locations. They’re looking for the best options [that are] available.”  Neena Virmani, College Advisor at Pathways World School in India, said that the students “are looking for more options and of course keeping the Indian option very much open. They really don’t know how things will take shape.” Many counsellors noted this “wait and see” attitude—students applying widely but waiting to see what the upcoming months bring in terms of COVID-related news before deciding on the exact location where they will enrol for university study.


Students are also casting a wider net in terms of the types of school to which they’re applying. Sonja Phongsavanh noted, “I’ve seen an increase in students applying for more selective and more highly selective universities than we have had in the past. They’re thinking they have an opportunity because of the pandemic.” Ryan Hinchey, University and College Counsellor at ACS Cobham International School said “we did see an increase with some students applying to the US this year, especially because of SAT and ACT test optional [options]. I had a lot of students last-minute say, ‘because I don’t need to do an SAT, I’m going to throw my hat in the ring for this [university].’” Dwayne Zamora noted the same, “students are hedging their bets”—with more US schools being test-optional they’re applying “just to see if they can get in.”

The counsellors also note that many students are looking for options closer to home, either in the region where they attended secondary school or in the nation of their citizenship. Annie Prasanna said “[students] prefer going to their home countries. You get a fantastic education for a very reasonable price so students prefer that. In terms of safety, parents feel a little more comfortable having their children nearby.” Rachel Duce said that within Singapore “many students are keeping their [university] options open, but we’ve found that the pattern has been much more driven by the passport and that’s connected to fees and financial difficulties and constraints perhaps.” Maria Bibler, High School Counselor at International School Ho Chi Minh City - American Academy, echoes this and agrees, “if you’re an expat student studying here, a lot of [your university search is] driven by your home country and where you have your passport. For the Vietnamese students, a lot of them are looking at staying locally, at least for the near future. They’re not saying they won’t go abroad at all, but they want to delay their travel abroad plans.” In terms of staying regionally, Dwayne Zamora agreed, “students are looking at a ‘safety country’”—a closer option geographically. Counsellors noted that in some cases parents actually recommend saving their money for an international experience at the Master’s level, and not having the student travel abroad for undergraduate study at all.

Financial impact of COVID driving decisions

Some decisions about where students are choosing to apply are being driven by changes to family finances and a closer analysis of the value of the education. Roshan Gujar, University Admissions Advisor at Cedar International School in the British Virgin Islands, said, “I’m hearing parents ask a lot more about return on investment.” For many families, that means starting university in-person, and not in an online experience. Maria Bibler said “I have had families tell me they want their [child] to not enroll abroad if it’s online versus going in person. They don’t want to spend as much money if it means they’re just going to stay here and enroll online.”

Some families are also making decisions based on changes to family finances. Brian Marshall, Director of University Counselling at Raha International School in the United Arab Emirates, said, “I’ve had some families that have had to look at different universities and perhaps even different countries to apply to based on the new financial arrangements that they’re having to face.” Alex Becker in Bangkok said, “a lot of our parents work in the service industry so they’ve taken a big financial hit due to COVID. There’s been more interest in aid and scholarships.” Aya Abdelhadi, College Counselor at the International Academy Amman also noted the need for financial support is impacting school enrolment as well, “we’ve seen more students apply for [university] scholarships and ask for financial aid. We also noticed that request come through to our school [International Academy Amman]. They’ve also asked for help financially with the fees.”

The British exit from the European Union is also compounding the decision for many families. Ryan Hinchey in the UK said, “some of our EU passport holders who are no longer getting the [UK] home fees are now considering other countries where before it was at a reach [financially] but now there’s not a huge difference between international fees in the UK and another country.” Kaersten Deeds adds “what we are hearing for our EU citizens, that could be related to family finances—due to the fact that Brexit has happened, a lot of our EU citizens are not looking to go to the UK anymore for university because of the cost. They would prefer to attend to university in other places in Europe.”

Less appetite for gap years?

Thoughts about gap years vary widely from school to school. Many counsellors noted the lack of opportunities if students were to take a gap year. According to Ryan Hinchey “there hasn’t been a lot of interest in a gap year this year. Typically, we have about 5% of our students look at gap years, but this year I think we’re about 1%. They don’t want to do a virtual experience.” Deniz Mehmetzade echoes this, saying, “students do not have many enticing options out there.” Heather DeVore notes it is much the same at her school in Jakarta: “There’s not necessarily been intentional interest in gap years so much as students talking about not wanting to go to university if it’s going to be virtual.”

Students who did pursue a gap year have gotten creative about their options. Rachel Duce in Singapore said, “some of them take some local courses. Others are doing online courses. There are some medical opportunities where you can volunteer at the COVID testing centres or at the migrant worker dorms, and for others it’s just looking for opportunities within their families. If they’re having a gap year, they’re having to look inside of Singapore at local opportunities rather than the wider experiences that they normally would have gone off and done.” Andrea Fleming in Sri Lanka said, “I have several students from the Class of 2020 who took a gap year. One is working in telecommunications full-time, one is a barista making coffee, one is working in a hotel, I have another one who is tutoring private students all around the city. Students in the past would travel in their gap years, and now that’s just not possible. I imagine the Class of 2021 will have a lot of interest [in a gap year], especially if they have to start their university career online.” Annie Prasanna in India said “one of my students took a course during her gap year and started a baking business from home. [Another] one of my students is into programming, so he worked for a couple of start-ups using his skills. I had another student who took up a tutoring job. I had quite a few students do [virtual] internships with investment banks or think tanks or even with volunteering organizations, helping them transition to a virtual model. Even students who were [already] enrolled in university decided to take a gap year. They felt that staying up at one o’clock at night [for online classes] was not the kind of college experience they wanted. Instead, they decided to do a gap year in the middle of their university experience.”  

Some counsellors noted that even though students in the Class of 2020 did not plan on taking gap years, they chose to postpone their studies and were sort of forced into a gap year. According to Kathleen Leishear in Brazil “I saw this last year with our previous graduates. A lot of them had planned to attend university but when COVID hit a lot of them ended up doing gap years. What are they doing now? A lot of them are doing online courses, sometimes not at the school where they were going to enrol but at a school that may be less expensive. Some of them are working for family businesses. Some are electing to study something super intensive, like a new language, and then planning to attend [university] in the fall.” Keith Layman in Germany noted the same, “what was surprising was the number of students from the Class of 2020 who have an unexpected gap year. Some students who had intended to take up their place in the fall were not able to for different reasons, so we’ve really had to scramble and help those students figure out what to do this [past] fall. Some of them were re-sitting exams in November, a few of them were taking MOOCs.”

For counsellors, universities, and students, the quick pivot to the virtual world has had its challenges. But it has had triumphs too.

Roshan Gujar reflects, “this shift to online engagement has been a huge game-changer. [My students] have more access than ever before to higher education, and that is extremely exciting as a counsellor. I think that this time has enabled us as educators to really advance our goals in levelling that playing field for access, and that’s been a wonderful by-product. We’re going to push for [our students] to continue to have that access even after we overcome the pandemic. Thank you [to universities] for your sincere collaboration and enthusiasm. These moments of interaction these students have with you—you’re giving them the opportunity to imagine their future self.”

Related content:

Taking the pulse of international students: What do their university decisions look like in 2021?
  • Student well-being
  • University admission & guidance
Taking the pulse of international students: What do their university decisions look like in 2021?