How U.S. High School Can Prepare International Students for College

Growing up in Germany, Daniel Posmik says he always had a fascination with American culture. So he was excited to get the chance to attend Lakota East High School, a public high school near Cincinnati, Ohio, for 11th grade, through a student exchange program.

“Attending an American high school helped me in communicating and understanding foreign cultures more effectively,” says Posmik, who was awarded a scholarship to cover program fees and travel.

For Posmik, his U.S. high school experience helped chart his academic path — he graduated from the University of Cincinnati in spring 2022 with two business-focused bachelor’s degrees and a minor in math.

He’s not alone. Nearly 70,000 international students enrolled in U.S. high schools in 2019, according to the Institute of International Education.

International students interested in attending a U.S. university may want to consider enrolling in an American high school for 11th or 12th grade to help them prepare.

Keep in mind that students participating in a one-year exchange program through the U.S. Department of State will need a J-1 visa and will generally need to pay program fees, which can cost up to $10,000 a year. Those planning to study at U.S. high schools for more than a year require an F-1 student visa, experts say, and must pay the full cost of education, which at public schools can be between $3,000 and $8,000 per year, according to the State Department.

[READ: Follow These 4 Steps to Obtain a U.S. Driver’s License]

Here are four ways attending high school in the U.S. can help prepare prospective international college applicants:

— English language practice.

— Adjustment to the U.S. education system.

— Access to AP and college classes.

— More opportunities for extracurriculars.

English Language Practice

Attending a U.S. high school gives international students lots of opportunities to practice their English as they interact with classmates and teachers. And many high schools also offer English as a Second Language programs to assist non-native speakers. Students may also have access to English language tutors who can work one-on-one with them.

“Spending a year or two in a U.S. high school, often offering ESL programs, can greatly hone an international student’s English skills, which is demanded by college studies in the U.S.,” says Sharon Tan, former academic director at Educatius Group, which helps students enroll in international high school programs.

For students with stronger English skills, two years in a U.S. high school can be helpful, says Stephen Lanier, immigration coordinator at Oklahoma State University’s international students office. But for a student whose English ability is low, he says the best option is three or more years, which “allows the student to improve their grades and earn a better cumulative GPA.”

Korean national Juyoung Seo attended 10th and 11th grade at Our Lady of the Lakes Catholic School in Waterford, Michigan, and 12th grade at Orono High School in Maine. Seo says taking an ESL class at her first high school really helped her with papers she had to write for English class. She learned how to check grammar, brainstorm paper topics, cite references and use MLA and APA academic styles — useful skills for studying at U.S. universities.

Jon Weller, director of international enrollment at the University of Cincinnati, says a U.S. high school experience can allow students to improve English communication skills as well as “feel more comfortable in American social situations.”

Posmik says while he didn’t take ESL or have a tutor at his high school, being around his American peers allowed him to sharpen his English and communication skills.

“My English improved to the point that I even lost my accent,” Posmik says.

[Read: How International Students Can Practice Speaking English.]

Adjustment to the U.S. Education System

Attending an American high school can expose students to a different education system.

By attending a U.S. high school, Weller says, international students will become more familiar with the U.S. grading system. Tan says the experience ensures a smoother transition into U.S. higher education, as high school is intended to prepare students for studies at American universities.

Orlina Boteva, director of the Office of International Programs at the University of Maine says she’s noticed that students who spend a year or two at a U.S. high school adjust more quickly to college-level academics and tend to seek more academic support.

Posmik says his experience with the American education system helped him enormously. Not only did he know what to expect on standardized tests like the ACT or the TOEFL, but it also helped him write better college scholarship and application essays.

There’s also another benefit to adjusting to the U.S. education system. Weller says the confidence students gains from their U.S. high school experience can translate to similar confidence and a strong sense of belonging at a U.S. university, “which can help them academically and socially.”

Access to AP and College Classes

Most American high schools offer Advanced Placement classes, which can help prepare students for college-level work and, if they pass the AP exam, earn college credit. In many places, high school students can also take college classes through a dual-enrollment or early college program.

Boteva says AP and early college offerings can set students up for success and speed up their time to college graduation. For example, the University of Maine offers reduced rates for international students in U.S. high schools to take college courses through the school’s Early College program at the rate of $138.25 per credit hour.

“These are significant savings for students’ families,” Boteva says.

Seo took a calculus II course at the University of Maine — the same university where she ended up pursuing her undergraduate studies. She graduated with a bachelor’s of science in management in 2020.

[Weigh the Weigh the Benefits, Stress of Taking AP Classes]

More Opportunities for Extracurriculars

U.S. high schools can also offer students more opportunities to participate in extracurricular activities.

Weller notes that with the increase in test-optional admissions policies at U.S. universities there’s an even bigger emphasis on holistic review of applications, “to find applicants who are qualified academically but also to find those applicants that universities feel will thrive in their unique environment.”

Attending a U.S. high school can help fill any gaps. Lanier says students who attend U.S. high schools have opportunities to participate in extracurricular activities that may not be available at their schools overseas. These can include participating in clubs, community organizations and high school sports.

Seo says in Korea it can be difficult to participate in extracurricular activities due to the emphasis placed on studying in Korean culture. During her senior year in Maine, Seo took advantage of her options by joining the soccer and basketball teams.

At his high school, Posmik says he played varsity sports and made a lot of athletic progress. He was nominated as an all-state linebacker in 2016 and received an athletic scholarship to a university in the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics in 2017, though he ended up transferring to the University of Cincinnati.

He says for students considering attending a U.S. high school, it’s important to have an open mind and be active in the school’s extracurricular programs. “Both of these points will be important for your personal and academic success,” Posmik says.

More from U.S. News

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