During my first year at university in the United States, I had to:
- Read about 1,000 pages per week
- Participate in class seminars (discussions) nearly every day
- Write one 3-5 page paper every two weeks
- Write a 15-20 page independent research paper twice per semester
- Give a large, public presentation with a group of students
I did not take a single test my entire first year. I was judged entirely on my written and spoken work. My question for students who are planning to study abroad:
Are you ready for this?
The fact is, many Vietnamese students struggle during their first year in foreign universities. Why? Because even though they scored 7.0 or above on the IELTS, they have not prepared themselves with the foundation they need to succeed in a foreign academic environment.
What Do Students Do In Foreign Universities?
Students at foreign universities:
- Listen to lectures – including taking notes and understanding the main ideas
- Participate in discussions – with professors and other students
- Work on group projects – conducting and presenting research with other students
- Conduct field work – including going off-campus to interview people
- Write papers – this means producing your own conclusions based on what you hear and read
- Give public presentations – present your research in public
How about tests? Do university students take tests? The answer may surprise you. Foreign universities generally have fewer tests than Vietnamese students are used to. In fact, it is not unusual for classes to have no tests at all!
What Skills Do Students Need To Succeed?
To succeed in the environment mentioned above, you need both group skills and independent skills.
- Teamwork – the ability to work well with others
- Clear speaking – the ability to present your ideas clearly
- Open mindedness – the ability to consider points of view that are different from your own
- Self-reflection – the ability to understand your own learning and communication styles, and change them to suit your environment
- Self-motivation – the ability to keep to a timetable and do all your work without anyone telling you what to do
- Critical thinking – for me, this is the most important skill: the ability to question anything someone tells you, without just accepting it as true.
Critical Thinking: An Example
Imagine you are in an economics class, and the professor says:
An open-market economic system is best!
What should you do? Well, the habit of many students is often to write down what the professor said. After all, it may appear on a test! But in most foreign classrooms, you are expected – even encouraged – to question such a statement – even if it comes from the professor!
First ask yourself: Is this a fact or an opinion? The statement above is clearly the professor’s opinion. You might ask the professor the following questions:
- Why is an open-market economic system the best?
- How do you know it’s the best? What research do you have to prove this?
- Is an open-market system the best for every country?
- What problems does an open market cause?
If you are prepared to ask questions like these, you are prepared to succeed abroad. Critical thinking is the key to success!
Focus on The Bigger Picture
I understand that at some point you need to focus on the IELTS or the TOEFL. But what I want you to do is think of the bigger picture. Ask yourself – would you be comfortable doing the following in English?
- Listening to a lecture, taking notes, and understanding the main ideas
- Participating in discussions about complex, academic subjects
- Interviewing people
- Writing independent research papers
- Producing a public presentation
- Openly (but respectfully) disagreeing with what the professor says
If you feel comfortable with all of the above, then it’s time for you to focus on the IELTS or the TOEFL. But if you’re NOT, then you may be better off building your foundation, by taking an Academic English course that will help you build the study skills you need to succeed abroad.
It’s not enough to just get into university. You want to make sure you succeed once you’re there.
What Do You Think?
Don’t just accept what I say because you read it in a blog! Do you have any critical thoughts you’d like to share? Let us know in the comments area below!