Blog 🏛️ University 27th September 2022

Why You Need to Engage With International Students Much Earlier in Their University Exploration Journey [& How To Get Started]

Profile image of Zahra Onsori
Zahra Onsori University Content Writer
We explain why understanding an international school student’s university discovery journey can help you to engage with best-fit students much earlier. 

For many universities, it’s still the case that their first engagement with international students will come from a number of established touchpoints. 

These include university fairs (either in-person or digital), online advertising, social media, or simple word-of-mouth recommendations from a peer, a counsellor or a family member. 

And while these remain important touchpoints for your institution as you seek to nurture and engage with your future international undergraduates, we’d argue that an international school strategy presents your admissions team with an opportunity to take your international student engagement to the next level. 

As well as encouraging you to rethink how you market your university to potential international undergraduates, an international school strategy also requires you to rethink when you begin engaging with these students.

Get in touch

Learn how BridgeU can help you align your enrolment strategy with your international student audience.

Last week, we explained how to adapt your international enrolment strategy to the needs of the potential 2022 undergraduates you’re likely hoping to enrol right now

But successful international student engagement needs to start much earlier than this. 

So we want to pose a question to you. How long before international school students apply to your institution do you think you should be engaging with them? 

12 months? 18 months? 

Try 36 months. 

That’s right. If you’re really intent on nurturing, engaging and even delighting those international school students who might be a good fit for your institution, we’d recommend starting as far back as three, or even four years before they apply. 

In this article, we’ll map the typical international school guidance curriculum and we’ll show you the students’ journey through it. And finally, we’ll explain how you can become a more active participant in international students’ university exploration journey.

Part One: Understanding the student journey

The combination of an ever more competitive global jobs market, combined with a Fourth Industrial Revolution that is expected to change the nature of work itself, means that an international student’s post-secondary decision-making must begin much earlier in their time at school. 

At BridgeU, we’ve worked with international schools to map out a whole-school approach to university and career guidance.

A whole-school approach means empowering students to take a holistic, self-aware and strategic approach to their own career planning and higher education applications.

Rather than simply introducing students to higher education at the point at which they are close to applying, a whole-school guidance curriculum builds on a foundation of teaching students about their unique strengths, skills and interests.

With the help of their counsellors, students can then use this awareness of their strengths and skills to inform conversations about their possible career pathways and, ultimately, their higher/further education options. 

We can break the student journey into a number of stages.

Stage 1: Who am I?

In many international schools, this first step sees students explore their strengths, skills and interests. Let’s take a quick look at each of these factors. 


How would students describe their personality? For example, would they describe themselves as creative or analytical, calm or high energy, sociable or introverted?


What are students good at? It could be maths, languages, humanities or programming. Skills awareness can be as simple as understanding what subjects they enjoy at school – and why. 


Closely related to skills are students’ interests. What are their extracurricular activities and hobbies? Are they interested in sports, reading, or creative writing? 

These combined factors help students to have a greater sense of self-awareness and critical reflection, both of which are invaluable when considering wider career options. 

The extent to which different international schools offer this early assessment of strengths and skills will, of course, vary depending on the size and resources of the school. 

Some schools may start this work with students from a young age, possibly as young as year 7/grade 6/middle school. For others, this exploration may begin at a slightly later date. 

 It’s also common for international schools to use personality and assessment tests to help students to gain awareness of these attributes; for example the 16 Personalities test or the personality and careers-based tests offered by organisations such as Human eSources

Stage 2: What can I do?

Building on a foundation of skills and strengths awareness, the next stage for many international students will be to consider what careers are a good fit for them. 

Activities at this stage could include students being encouraged to collect their strengths, skills and experiences into their first CV and thinking about what skills and competencies are essential for certain careers. 

Again, depending on the curriculum, provision and resources of an international school, this career exploration can take place any time between the ages of 14 to 17.

Stage 3: Where shall I go?

Depending on the curriculum they are studying, it’s not uncommon for international students to begin thinking about their higher education options in grade 10/year 11/end of their IB Middle Years programme. 

This early consideration of their post-secondary options may coincide with their choosing subjects that they will work towards at A-level/IB Diploma Programme. 

As they move into their final two years of school, students may begin a high level of exploration of international destinations and begin to investigate those institutions that are the right academic and cultural fit for them. 

This may be the first point where international students are likely to engage with different universities, attending fairs, webinars and virtual open days to help guide their higher education discovery. 

Stage 4: How do I get there?

At this stage, students will begin to finalise their final list of preferred higher education institutions and submit their applications. 

This stage will involve getting to grips with the practicalities of preparing their applications for university (if this is the path they have chosen).

These will include considerations such as writing application essays and working with their counsellors to prepare relevant application documents and academic transcripts.

Stage 5: What choice should I make?

At this final stage, students have submitted their applications and, upon receipt of one or more offers, will make their final decision. 

For an international student, there are still a few unknowns at this stage. For example, most students will still need support with accommodation, financial planning, visa applications and, perhaps most importantly, making the transition from one stage of their life to another.

Watch: BridgeU Partner universities meet international school students interested in science & engineering

Part Two: How to align your marketing to the student journey

As you can see from the previous section, an international student’s decision-making journey in the years leading up to final higher education enrolment is a long and complex one. 

Because global higher education is becoming both increasingly complex and increasingly competitive, international students increasingly need the information that guides their decision-making much earlier. 

And because your international school strategy allows your institution to become more closely aligned with a school’s counselling curriculum, this means that your admissions team has the ability to get involved in the student’s decision-making much earlier. 

Years 9-11/Grades 8-10/IB Middle Years Programme

At this stage, students are most likely to be at the ‘Who am I’ and ‘what can I do’ phase of their guidance journey. 

But it’s important to stress that there’s no hard and fast rule here. It’s not uncommon for some counsellors to get their students thinking about ‘where can I go’ as well. 

The value of an international school strategy is that it encourages admissions teams to take the long view. Just because these students won’t become undergraduates for another 24-36 months doesn’t mean that they won’t get value from engaging with you. 

We know that, when you reach out to an international school, you’ll understandably want to focus your efforts on those students who are closer to application.

But taking the time to provide content for younger students will pay dividends when it comes to building a high-quality relationship with international schools. 

This content could take the form of a webinar or online fair to introduce your destination country to these students in a more high-level way. This in turn can be a massive boost to a counsellor/teacher’s middle years guidance programme. 

Alternatively, why not speak to the counsellor at the school and ask if there are any careers-related talks you could get involved in.

Strategy tip

At BridgeU, it’s come to our attention that counsellors and students often struggle to get an in-depth understanding of how career paths differ across countries. 

For example, subjects like medicine and law have different qualification frameworks across countries. It can be particularly valuable for students to hear from university reps as they seek to understand how their choice of the destination country can impact their ultimate career path. 

So, if your time and resource permits, we’d recommend providing content that helps students to learn about different careers as they relate to higher education at your institution. This could be a short webinar or a taster lecture!

Watch: BridgeU international students hear from US universities about a city vs campus college experience

Year 12/Grade 11/IBDP1

In the penultimate year of school, students will very much be focused on the questions ‘where do I go’ and ‘how do I get there’? 

This is where the university research and application process kicks up a gear. With 12-18 months remaining until students submit their applications, counsellors will ask students to start thinking seriously about which destination countries and institutions align with their personal and professional goals. 

For universities, this is most likely the point where your traditional digital advertising and marketing efforts might launch. 

But if you’ve built a good relationship with an international school, this presents you with a valuable opportunity to take a more integrated, holistic approach to your marketing. 

We’d argue that, for many universities, this is the year where a well-designed international student strategy is most likely to have the greatest impact on your wider enrolment strategy. 

Strategy tip

In our experience, there are a number of exciting ways that you can work with international schools to help students at this stage. 

  • Run themed university fairs with schools or groups of schools in a target region in order to introduce both your institution and your host country to students. 
  • Design workshops and interactive sessions covering application-related topics such as application essays, student finance, or just making the transition from school to university! 
  • Offer intimate, one-to-one networking sessions with any counsellors who may have questions or help manage the application process.

Year 13/Grade 12/IBDP2

For many international students, this is the point at which they submit their applications and, of course, it’s the key point of conversion for institutions such as yours. 

In the first four months of students’ final academic year, many students and counsellors will be laser-focused on one thing – preparing and submitting applications. 

But that doesn’t mean you can’t be on hand to answer any questions or concerns that counsellors and students may have. For example, at this stage, students might just be worried that their application has reached you at all! 

At this stage, letting counsellors, students and parents that you’re on hand to help with any barriers to application goes a long way

Strategy tip

In the past year, COVID-19 has shaken up the final enrolment process. Universities face stiffer competition as they try to encourage successful international applicants to enrol. 

This coincides with students increasingly hedging their bets or having a last-minute change of heart about their ultimate destination. 

So be prepared to offer last-minute support and resources that will help students make that final transition from school to university. Some ideas include: 

  • Making use of your student ambassador programme to ensure applicants receive plenty of peer support as they enrol. 
  • Ensuring you run offer holders open days or admitted students’ events. 
  • Running office hours or drop-in sessions for any students who have any last-minute changes of plans when they get their final results or transcripts. 

Get in touch

Learn how BridgeU can help you align your enrolment strategy with your international student audience.