Blog 🏛️ University 20th October 2023

In Conversation With BridgeU Counsellors: Understanding US Application Trends in Bangladesh

Profile image of James Leach
James Leach

James is senior content marketing manager at BridgeU. He writes and directs content for BridgeU's university partners and our community of international schools

As a trusted partner to universities worldwide, we know the importance of diversifying into new markets to improve quality and diversity. 

But our work with international schools allows us to tell the other side of the story. 

What are some of the challenges that international school students in emerging markets like Bangladesh have when applying to a destination country like the USA? And how can US universities adapt their recruitment strategies to more effectively engage prospective applicants in this part of the world? 

We interviewed Ellen Johnston, University and Careers  Counsellor at the International School of Dhaka and one of the biggest champions of the BridgeU platform in Bangladesh. In a wide-ranging interview with our Senior Content Marketing Manager, James Leach, Ellen explained:

  • Why it’s important for US admissions reps to better understand a school’s profile and the key questions being asked by students and parents during application season.
  • Her tips for new counsellors starting at a new international school. 
  • How students at Ellen’s school navigate the competing admissions systems in the USA, UK and Canada. 
  • Ellen’s tips for US universities as they prepare the first bout of applications for the Early Decison and Early Action deadlines. 

We explore some of the key themes of the interview below. You can also watch Ellen’s full video with James here. 

Watch: in conversation with Ellen Johnston

Setting the scene

Ellen joined the International School of Dhaka during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. Despite the challenges of the pandemic, Ellen’s students succeeded in applying to a wide range of destinations, including the USA, the UK, Canada and, increasingly, Australia. 

The majority of students in Dhaka study at international curriculum schools. But Ellen also observes that US curriculum schools are something of a niche in Bangladesh. Indeed she explained how she was seeking out a US accredited school for her next role. 

“It’s exciting to be in what PIE News and other higher education outlets have called an emerging market.” 

Ellen Johnston, International School of Dhaka

The International School of Dhaka: key statistics 

  • 90-100% of Ellen’s students apply to university overseas. 
  • 62% of ISD students apply to university in the USA.

The importance of understanding the school profile

Ellen stresses the importance of US admissions reps understanding the profile of a school when first reaching out to students who could be prospective applicants. 

Her advice? Look beyond stereotypes or generalised perceptions of Bangladesh as an emerging market and focus instead on the specificities of a school like the International School of Dhaka.

For example, Ellen notes that it’s common for admissions reps to begin conversations by discussing financial aid and scholarships. However, this ignores the fact that ISD has the second highest school tuition fees in the city. 

Ellen explains that it’s other factors that are often top of mind for prospective US applicants at her school; for example, an institution’s brand, the programs and majors being offered by an institution, and safety on campus. 

To learn more about how investing in international schools can help you build a smarter, more targeted undergraduate enrolment strategy, download our latest ebook. 

Understanding the school’s profile also can help universities to understand students’ language requirements. Again, Ellen cautions that it’s important for US universities not to jump to conclusions, and to look to the primary language that is being taught in the school. 

“Our average IELTS score, because students have to take in most cases the IELTS, our average IELTS score is a 7. 4. That’s almost two points higher than the average around the world according to IELTS.” 

Ellen Johnston, International School of Dhaka

The evolving role of the counsellor

Ellen suggests US universities determine whether a school has a dedicated college counsellor, as this will help to gauge the extent to which the school can support international admissions. 

To reflect the fact that her role involves helping students to apply to a range of different destination countries, Ellen has changed her role title from ‘college counsellor’, to university and careers counsellor. 

As someone who must support students to navigate multiple admissions systems in different countries, Ellen explained how one of her biggest challenges is often getting her students to understand how application terminology differs across the US, UK and Canada. 

“What are ways that we can educate our families who still think that an Institute of Tech, or a polytechnic is not as high caliber as say a university.”

Ellen Johnston, International School of Dhaka

How platforms like BridgeU are evolving virtual interactions

James and Ellen discussed how US universities that aren’t typically receiving much interest from international students in Bangladesh can improve their brand awareness. 

Ellen suggests that US universities continue to become familiar with counsellor forums and international school associations, such as CIS and IACAC

She also recounted the value of BridgeU’s networking events for international school counsellors and admission reps. 

“I liked BridgeU when we were online [during the COVID-19 pandemic] they were having these speed dating calls with counsellors. And I’m fortunate I have a dedicated role. I was able to attend some of those. So informative to hear from university reps.”

Ellen Johnston, International School of Dhaka

But more generally, in the aftermath of COVID-19, Ellen stresses the importance of universities continuing to prioritise support and education for international school counsellors who are attempting to guide their students in making the most informed decisions about their future. 

How US universities can adapt their international student recruitment

A running theme throughout the interview was Ellen’s belief that universities should do more to provide valuable context for international students seeking to make the most informed decisions about their future. 

For example, she suggested that more universities should pair up to explain to students how their offerings differ. 

“I’d love to see a UK and a US rep travel together and then be able to say, this is what we do. This is different over here. But I rarely see that. I’ve seen it a little bit virtually. John Hopkins matched with University of Toronto, matched with Cambridge, and the three of them presented together.

“That was kind of a holy grail of these selective universities, but it was also one opportunity where all three different countries were in the same room, so they could have the conversation about similarities, similarities, and differences.”

Ellen Johnston, International School of Dhaka

Ellen remarked that, when US universities are willing to share a stage or co-present to her students, it results in effective presentations for her students. 

Ellen also reiterated what other BridgeU counsellors across the world have told us in the past: it’s important for US universities to not focus merely on the ‘hard sell’ of promoting their specific institution or campus, but to promote the wider university experience in their destination country. 

Here’s where partnering with other institutions becomes so important. 

While it may seem counterintuitive for universities to collaborate on a presentation to students, it can result in admissions reps more effectively marketing a destination, a city or a campus to prospective applicants. 

If you work at a US university and you’d like to know about some of the key trends shaping international school students’ applications in Bangladesh and across Asia, download our latest resource below. 

The next steps

To learn more about how investing in international schools can help you to diversify and localise your undergraduate enrolment, download our latest white paper.