Why International Students Struggle Academically?

Considering, the financial burden associated with studying abroad, it always shocks me how many international students start university oblivious to challenges they are about to face and factors that might affect their academic performance. 

For instance, few international students know that:

  • reading and writing on IELTS and TOFEL modules differs from authentic reading and writing at university (in particular at postgraduate level)
  • IELTS/TOFEL scores are a poor indicator of success at university (students with good test scores might fail or struggle)
  • expensive pre-sessional and preparatory courses run by universities don’t always seem to work
  • academic writing workshops, although helpful, rarely solve the problems with academic writing
  • universities in the UK, the USA, and Australia accept international students with English below the recommended levels
  • universities have limited means to support students struggling with academic reading or writing
  • students can improve their learning at university by using cognitive strategies

Students who don’t have accurate and relevant information on university preparation are obviously at a serious disadvantage. This deficiency affects students’ preparedness for university and decreases the chances of succeeding.

Students who struggle academically often belong to the group of students who did not have accurate information before entering university or simply ignored this information. 

How many times I heard from struggling students ‘I wish I had known it before’. 

The good news is that international students can prepare for most of the academic challenges they will face in the UK, the USA, Australia, or other English-speaking countries. 

The awareness of potential adversities and knowledge of practical methods to avoid, manage and reduce risks helps students succeed academically. 

Unfortunately, only a minority of international students have this awareness and knowledge prior to starting university. 

That raises an interesting question.

Why are international students relatively uninformed before starting their courses abroad?

Based on my professional experience and talks and discussions with international students, I don’t think, it is the case of wilful ignorance. 

Many students genuinely want to know what lies ahead of them at universities abroad. Some students are in contact with their universities, educational consultants, and recruiters. Other students browse the Internet, actively look for information, talk to former international students, post questions on forums and Facebook groups for international students. 

So students seem to make rational decisions based on the information they have collected. Still, some students enter university abroad without any reflection on what they get themselves into. 

When I think about international students I tutored, met, and talked to, I can name several plausible reasons explaining why students are unaware of factors affecting their academic learning and success. That list is of our course not exhaustive and very subjective. 

1. Students confuse IELTS/TOEFL with university preparation

First, students equate IELTS/TOEFL scores with university preparation. Once students get the desired score on IELTS/TOEFL, they believe they have an adequate level of skills to succeed at university. These tests are, of course, an important source of information on English language proficiency. Also, getting the desired score on IELTS/TOFEL is not a small achievement. It requires considerable time, energy, motivation, stress, money, and luck. Often brilliant students with excellent English need to take the tests several times. 

Consequently, for many students, a good score on the test is a testimony that they have what it takes to succeed at university.

Students are wrong here for several reasons. First, IELTS/TOFEL score has a low correlation with measures of academic performance. Students with better scores can fail or struggle at university. 

Also, many universities accept students with too low IELTS/TOFEL scores. So some students might meet the official university requirements but in practice, they still have insufficient language proficiency to succeed. 

IELTS/TOEFL tests don’t measure all-important skills at university. IELTS/TOFEL doesn’t measure motivation, independent learning skills, interests, working memory, organization skills, criticality, etc. 

Finally, tasks performed on IELTS/TOFEL tests differ from authentic tasks students perform at university. Writing a 5,000-word academic project differs from writing a 500-word essay.

There are obvious problems with the validity of these standardized English language tests. These tests might not measure what they are purported to measure.

I often compare students who got a good score on IELTS or TOFEL to runners preparing for the Boston marathon. We all know that it is hard to even qualify for the Boston marathon.

Runners need to first meet rigorous standards, e.g. run previously another marathon with a very good time. Let’s imagine now the successful runners who qualified for the marathon being told in Boston that they will have to do a triathlon rather than a marathon. So the runners learn that instead of one race, there will be three continuous and sequential endurance races (running, swimming, and riding a bike).

No matter how well the runners did on the qualifications, most of them will not do very well in Boston. Of course, unless they trained swimming and riding a bike. But, most of them did not. They did not ask even the questions about triathlon preparation, because nobody told them, they would have to do a triathlon in the first place.

It is exactly the situation in which many international students, notably postgraduate students, find themselves at university abroad. Strenuous preparation for IELTS and TOFEL condition them to think only English language skills matter at university. It is not true, but students don’t know about it so they don’t ask questions about the true nature of the race ahead of them.

2. Too much reliance on what former international students say

The second reason, why international students enter universities uninformed is students’ reliance on anecdotal evidence from former international students. 

Stories and accounts of former international students (including me), no matter how convincing or entertaining they seem to be, are usually a highly unreliable source of information because of the small sample size and inherent bias. What happened to a particular student might not be a general experience of a larger group of international students. 

Such stories are also rarely objective. Reports of former international students are often emotional, exaggerated, suffer from social desirability bias, can inflate certain aspects of studying abroad and deflate others, students might present studying abroad as a positive experience despite traumatic experiences and under-report undesirable behaviors. 

Also, students are usually unaware of factors that helped them succeed academically. For instance, students often contribute their success to a high level of proficiency in English, ignoring the fact that excellent reading skills in their first language, knowledge and the passion for the subject might have contributed the most to the success. Self-reflective students who can analyze their own learning process are rare. 

Now, I am not saying that prospective students should ignore what former international students say. Still, they should take these reports with a pinch of salt (or a bucket).

3. Too much reliance on English language teachers

That is probably controversial but in the same way, international students rely too much on English language teachers as the source of information on university preparation. 

English language teachers are central in the preparation for university at English-speaking universities. Students cannot succeed academically without good English skills. It does not surprise that international students naturally gravitate towards English teachers and treat them as experts on university preparation.

That would be acceptable if university preparation was only about developing English language proficiency. It is not the case. 

International students to succeed academically also need great research skills, the ability to write long academic projects (e.g. 5,000 words), use scientific evidence to support their claims, read critically academic journal articles, understand lectures, great note-taking skills, ability to do an academic presentation, skills to take part in academic discussions, independent learning skills, etc.

Few English language teachers, IELTS/TOFEL tutors have the experience and knowledge necessary to prepare students for university and/or provide students with reliable information on successful preparation. 

Particularly, future postgraduate students (Master’s, doctoral, Ph.D.) need skills that extend far beyond English language expertise. Unfortunately, few English teachers preparing international students for a doctorate, master’s or Ph.D. degree understand the process of academic writing or have well-developed scientific literacy to understand and explain the research. Also, few English teachers did their university degrees in the UK, the USA. Those who did (native-speakers mainly) rarely have insight into the skills needed to succeed. They might also not understand international students’ needs.

I often meet international students who tell me that their English language teachers made them drill passive voice, write short essays, learn general academic vocabulary shortly before starting university. In my eyes, these students were wasting their precious time on useless activities contributing little to students’ preparedness for authentic university tasks.

The only professional group that should have (at least in theory) skills to prepare students for university are tutors of English for Academic Purposes (EAP). In practice, finding a good EAP tutor is hard. Most of the so-called EAP tutors are actually English language teachers who rebranded and repositioned themselves as academic English teachers. Their skills are probably ok for preparing students for IELTS, TOFEL, and undergraduate degrees. However, the preparation for postgraduate degrees requires expertise few English teachers possess.

 4. Information overload

Although it is often said that information is nowadays at your fingertips, finding reliable information on university preparation is hard. Students might spend weeks looking for answers about university preparation and still be unsure of what to focus on and whether the information they found applies to their specific situations. Information overload can be truly incapacitating. Accurate pieces of information on university preparation are dispersed among tons of poor quality, obsolete, irrelevant information. Students need to sort the wheat from the chaff. To paraphrase John Naisbitt, students are drowning in information but starved for knowledge.

Ironically, it is easier to find on the Internet information about the price of a pint in the pub in the UK and advice on making friends with locals than the information on how to increase the chances of being successful at university. Also, students cannot always evaluate the information they find. Students rarely check the credentials and qualifications of the author, think whether the information is a fact or only an opinion, look for bias, affiliation, and reliability. 

5. Questionable information on many university websites misleads students

The first place international students visit before applying for universities is university website. Even after applying students still look there for valuable and trusted information. 

Such websites usually have plenty of information on the benefits of studying abroad, applying for accommodation, applying for student finance, checking permission, English language requirements. 

At the same time, these websites often lack information on how to prepare effectively for challenges at university.

If such information is present, it ranges from accurate but cursory to simplistic and misleading. 

It is startling that many serious university websites can be full of useless, simplistic, clichéd advice. Sometimes advice given to students on language learning, academic reading, academic writing, and university preparation makes me cringe. Some examples:

 ‘listen to radio’, ‘talk to your friends’, ‘go ahead with your reading’, ‘use social media to get chatting with your new course-mates’, ‘make sure you understand what your tutor says ’, ‘when you use a marker and make of important points, it will get highlighted in your memory’, ‘set a time limit for each subject’, ‘write 500 words every day, no matter what and your writing will improve’, ‘take speed reading course’, ‘learn words from context only’, ‘tips for memorizing: use all your senses’, ‘make sure that your study space is organised ’, ‘think in English’, ‘language immersion works’, ‘just watch a ton of movies’, ‘keep motivated’, ‘watch British television channels’, ‘play games which involve words or word play’, ‘read a book or magazine – pick something that interests you ‘, ‘join an English course at our university’, ‘outline first’, ‘ work on only one thing at a time’, ‘start with introduction’, ‘be confident’, ‘focus on your strength’, ‘use your leaning style’

At the face value, these pieces of advice seem to make sense. Unfortunately, only at the face value. I don’t want to explain here why such advice is incorrect, misleading, or naïve in the context of challenges international students face. 

People who wrote the articles with these words of wisdom did not understand the second language acquisition, the student’s academic need, the process of writing and psychology behind learning.  

In short, these pieces of advice help little to overcome academic challenges and are pernicious and detrimental to students’ progress.

There are informative university websites that provide information based on evidence derived from peer-reviewed articles and scholarly sources. Such websites are rare.

 6. Few good books on preparation for university abroad

There are several books on the market for international students preparing for universities in the UK, the USA, Australia, or other English-speaking countries. However, I am not aware of the book which provides practical solutions helping students meet academic challenges with confidence.

Most of these books I know focus on aspects such as the benefits of studying abroad, social life, choosing the right university, living in a destination country, adaptation strategies, overcoming culture shock, life after graduation, daily life in the UK/USA, dealing with the language barrier. I accept that it is hard to focus on learning without fulfilling these basic needs first.

Still, these books don’t help international students succeed academically. The books which discuss issues related to academic preparation are rather generic and provide few practical solutions to frequent challenges encountered by international students. For example, some books describe in detail the study skills needed for university, e.g. critical reading, note-taking, or writing. They fall short of providing more specific advice, suggestions, and tips on how to improve these skills.

7. Financial interest prevents stakeholders from being honest about the challenges related to studying abroad

Another important reason international students don’t have the information on effective university preparation is money. International students are a profitable industry sector worth in some estimations 100 billion dollars. Only in 2014-2015 international students generated almost £26 billion for the UK economy. 

For universities, educational agents, recruiters, IELTS/TOFEL teachers, also academic tutors like me, international students are the source of money. This has far-reaching consequences for international students.

For instance, it is not a secret that universities are under pressure to recruit international students. Tuition fees paid by international students are an important source of income for higher education in the UK, USA, and Australia. So universities have their agendas and commercial-related vested interests. Consequently, most of the information offered by universities is not neutral.  

Universities use advanced marketing and social media technologies to maximize outreach to prospective international students. The key part of any successful student recruitment strategy is to create a picture of a learning environment that benefits students. There is little place in this strategy for negativity and full honesty.

Although all universities want international students to succeed, it is not necessarily in the interest of universities to provide potential students with information that could scare them and make them choose another university. Universities have no incentive to tell students about all the negative aspects of studying abroad. So the bad news about students who fail and struggle academically is often suppressed.

In other words, many universities are more concerned about their recruitment goals and generating income, rather than caring about international students’ learning outcomes and educational experience.

Also other stakeholders e.g. educational consultants, recruitment companies, IELTS/TOFEL owners (ETS and British Council) might not tell international students the whole truth about studying abroad for their own reasons.

Now, I am guilty of being biased too. I help international students prepare for academic challenges. Although I strive for objectivity, I might exaggerate risks and challenges related to studying abroad and/or withhold more positive news. I always say, better safe than sorry but some students might not agree with my approach.


I know that some points discussed here can be controversial. There are surely responsible universities, educational consultants, and recruiters who care about international students’ academic success. Still, students should never take it for granted. Students who decide to study abroad should do their research. They should also critically evaluate relevant information. The ability to find accurate information and its critical evaluation is the first step to develop critical thing skills valued at any English-speaking university. It is also an important step in understanding academic challenges.

Trust me, Wilbur. People are very gullible. They’ll believe anything they see in print.’ ― E.B. White, Charlotte’s Web