Academic Advising Resources


Helping First Semester International Undergraduates Taxi To Academic Success
Authored By: Susanne Stürzl-Forrest

Despite an ever growing number of international students in the United States, academic advisors often have little or no training in how to work with this rewarding student population. As such advisors can be uncomfortable assisting international students. This article provides information and ideas to help dispel some of the discomfort advisors may experience, equip readers with basic tools needed to increase international education competencies, and thus serve  international students better.
Between the academic year 2000-2001 and academic year 2010-2011 the number of international students studying at U.S. institutions of higher education grew from 547,867 to 723,277 ( Open Doors Report 2011) but professional development for academic advisors working with this student population has been minimal. Thus academic advisors may not feel particularly comfortable advising new international undergraduates because of perceived cultural, language, and knowledge barriers. Yet advisors already possess the basic tools to assist international students competently.
In this article readers will find quick tools advisors can use to enhance international student advising competencies.  The article will address issues surrounding grading differences, cultural proximity/distance, language proficiency, academic preparedness, and immigration policy impact on course selection, advising format, and advisor and instructor characteristics.

Advisors as guides in a new academic culture
Advisors nervous about advising new international students however can take comfort in a version of advice offered to parents by Dr. Benjamin Spock: “Trust ourselves -- we know more than we think we do.” Indeed, academic advisors often take on a quasi-parental role with new international students who have left everything familiar to journey to our campuses. New international students often go through the developmental stages of childhood (e.g., emotional, cognitive, and linguistic stages) in a compressed, highly accelerated way. New international students generally arrive in our advising offices a few days before a term begins exhausted, excited, and somewhat confused. Advisors who employ developmental and intrusive (proactive) advising skills can help these students feel less confused and more assured that their journey will not become an odyssey.
While parenting skills may come natural for some advisors, all can benefit from augmenting professional knowledge to better understand our students’ prior academic experiences. Advisors should understand that academic conventions are not uniform across the globe and be aware of grading conventions used in students’ previous schools.
Advisors have two fantastic tools at our fingertips: World Education Services (WES) and theOnline Guide to Higher Education Systems Around the World. WES provides higher education grading conversion tables for most countries while the Online Guide to Higher Education Systems Around the World is best for looking at secondary grade conversions.
In looking at the example illustrated below, we can see how the U.S. Grading system could become a point of confusion for new students.

Percentage earned            Nepal description              U.S. Grades  U.S. grade description








Excellent to Adequate Performance


First Division


Adequate to Marginal Performance


Second Division


Unacceptable Performance




Unacceptable Performance

Source:  Online Guide to Educational Systems Around the World - Nepal (2009) and Idaho State University Undergraduate Academic Catalog 2012-2013.


If international students from countries such as Nepal are not made aware of differences in assigned marks they can easily under- or overestimate their performance in the United States.  For example, a Nepalese student who has a 60-74% in Nepal (where any mark above 80% is reserved for truly exceptional work) is considered to be a good student, not a designation made in the U.S. when that percentage is earned.


Beyond differences in grading

Another good, no cost resource for understanding differences is Educational Statistics by Country published by UNESO.  This resource allows advisors to gain insight into the selectivity and attendant rigor of a country’s education system.  Advisors can safely assume that a country which engages in a highly selective admissions process to secondary education will produce well-prepared students who are used to studying.  A more open and less selective system, on the other hand, might produce students who are less prepared and in need of assistance to acquire the study skills necessary to succeed in the U.S.

Cultural proximity/distance is another area important to advising conversations.  On the website of one of the most respected researchers in the field, Geert Hofsteede, provides a treasure trove for anyone who wants a quick, basic resource to assess cultural differences important to our work with students. Note: of course, advisors should always use their own judgment and experience when working with international students.


English proficiency
Possibly the most important factor for students’ academic success is their English language proficiency as measured by one of the common English-as-a-foreign-language testing tools, e.g., TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) or IELTS (International English Language Testing System).  Either tool will give advisors a glimpse into a student’s strengths and weaknesses as they apply to English language usage, e.g., reading, speaking, listening, and writing. Most international students take the TOEFL on the Internet (TOEFL iBT) while the IELTS is a paper and pencil test where a person evaluates students’ speaking and comprehension skills.  It is no surprise that many students prefer the IELTS over the TOEFL as it allows for human interaction when speaking and listening, a significant advantage when first interacting in a foreign language. Students, whose first language utilizes the Latin alphabet and is in some way related to English either through the Germanic or Romance languages, tend to score higher compared to students whose first language is not related to English (e.g. Arabic or Mandarin).
The IELTS consists of four separate assessments: reading, listening, speaking, and writing. Each segment is given equal weight. The overall rating also ranges from 1-9; students may score a
maximum of 9 points on each segment.

The TOEFL, on the other hand, while also assessing the same four areas of language proficiency, rates each component 1-30 and a student’s top total score can be 120. Thus, the TOEFL allows for greater score range, which may or may not be useful.  Advisors should know the minimum scores their institution requires for admission.
When the English language proficiency score is added to placement testing for English composition and advisors’ personal experiences, advisors can develop a sense of what courses students should be able to handle during the initial term of their U.S. academic adventure. See the tables below for an illustration.

IELTS and TOEFL iBT Composite Scores and Likely English Composition Placement at Idaho State University



5-6   Remedial English: Basic English 0090 or English 1100 Introduction to Academic Writing and Speaking for Non-Native Speakers of English

61-80    Remedial English: Basic English 0090 or English 1100 Introduction to Academic Writing and Speaking for Non-Native Speakers of English

>7    English 1101,  English Composition

>80 English 1101,  English Composition


Note: To gain a better understanding of the IELTS and TOEFL advisors should review the score interpretation tables of the two language testing companies.


English Composition Placement Guidelines atIdaho State University


English Course

Compass Score

ACT English Score

SAT Critical Reading Score

Successful Completion of


67 or below

17 or below

440 or below












*Course which completes the General Education writing requirement.


Additional factors that influence student success
Three additional factors will influence student success: personal resilience, outlook on life, and immigration status. Students who view the world as “a glass half full” tend to adjust more easily to their new cultural and academic environments as compared to students who are insecure or view life more pessimistically. Students with a more pessimistic view may be less self-confident and often need advisors who are willing to function more like cheerleaders. Students who are more self-confident and optimistic may need more of a “coaching” approach to advising.

Unfortunately, advisors often do not have latitude when it comes to course load requirements for international students. All international students in the United States on F and J visas must be enrolled full-time during any regular term unless they have been granted permission for part-time enrollment by their International Programs Office. It is absolutely crucial that advisors work closely with their campus’s International Programs Office when other factors make it imperative that a student be enrolled only part-time. Violation of the full-time enrollment requirement can have severe legal consequences for students.

Course enrollment suggestions for international students
Advisors must keep in mind all the factors which can affect the performance of new international undergraduate students in their first or second semester. Experience shows that all students should enroll in an appropriate math and English composition course, two other general education courses, a course required by their major and, ideally, a college learning strategies course. The latter allows students to learn study and testing techniques needed for success in a U.S. academic environment. This is useful for all international students including those who are well-prepared and well-adjusted. Initially enrolling in 15-16 credits allows students to drop or withdraw a course that is not going well; enrolling in just 12 credits locks students into their course load.
Choosing appropriate general education courses based on students’ interests and language proficiency is a challenging task for advisors. Advisors familiar with instructor characteristics, course delivery methods, testing formats, needed language skills, and course rigor can help students make prudent course selections. Often humanities courses in the fine or performing arts can work well for international students along with a course in the social sciences, since these courses often address universal human or societal conditions and help students make sense of their new environment. These courses provide a springboard for learning critical thinking skills by allowing students to gain a greater understanding of differences and similarities between their home and U.S. culture. One credit elective courses can round out the schedule and serve as GPA boosters and” immigration insurance” credits.
Advisor insights can help students choose course instructors who are helpful, open minded, and curious about cultural diversity. Instructors who are patient with language challenges, provide good lecture notes, and set strong, yet permeable, boundaries help international students succeed.
While new international students may find support from small group advising situations, group advising is not absolutely necessary. What is necessary are advisors who keep an open door, are genuinely friendly, have a love for divergent cultural backgrounds, and possess the ability to serve as a coach for academic and cultural issues. Advisors who coach international students, celebrate their cultures and successes, and use proactive advising techniques to follow up with students, help international students truly take off!

Susanne Stürzl-Forrest
Central Academic Advising
Idaho State University


Association of International Educators (NAFSA).  (2012). Online Guide to Educational Systems

Around the World

  • Excellent source for getting a quick overview over a country’s education systems and invaluable grade conversion suggestions for both secondary and higher education grades

Educational Testing Service (ETS). (2012).  TOEFL

  • A good source for score interpretation guidelines.

Hoofsteede, Geert. (2012).

  • A good quick source for learning about the differences between U.S. culture and other cultures. Institute of International Education.  (2012). Open Doors Report. comprehensive source of data regarding international students at U.S. institutions of higher education as well as U.S. students studying abroad.

International English Language Testing Systems (IELTS). (2012). Guide for Educational

  • A good source for understanding IELTS scores’ prediction of language skills of test takers.

UNESCO. (2012). Educational Statistics by Country.

  • A treasure trove of educational statistics for virtually all countries and fascinating to look at for those who love statistical information. Click on Education on the right hand side of the website and then select Country Profiles on the left hand side.

World Education Services (WES). (2012). WES Resources. WES Country Profiles.

Discussion Questions


1.  What are the top five foreign countries represented in your undergraduate student population?


2.  How does Geert Hofsteede describe the cultural proximity/distance between these countries and the United States and what do you personally perceive that proximity/distance to be?


3.  What humanities and social science courses have your first semester international undergraduate students done well in?


4.  What grading discrepancies might the international students you serve experience?


5.  What specialized academic support resources does your campus offer to international students?

  • Resource Web links for advising International students

Cite this using APA style as:

Sturzl-Forrest, Susanne. (2012).Helping First Semester International Undergraduates Taxi to Academic Success. Retrieved -insert today's date- from NACADA Clearinghouse of Academic Advising Resources website:

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