Coming to America
by Jim Martinho
The best and brightest students from across the globe are finding a match in US private schools
When The Washington Post interviewed eighth-grader Min So Kim for its March report on rising numbers of international students at area private schools, the 14-year-old offered a simple explanation why her parents in Chungbuk, Korea, sent her to attend Fairfax Christian School in Virginia:
"My father hopes I study English very well and become a famous person," she said.
Although they offer no guarantees of fame and fortune, America's elite private schools are increasingly finding parents in the world's most fiercely competitive education markets willing to invest in the rigorous academics, global perspective and English fluency afforded by an American diploma - and prized by competitive colleges and job markets around the world.
Government data show 35,000 international students attend American primary and secondary schools, not including those visiting for yearlong or short-term cultural exchange and language programs. Because public schools in the United States charge tuition to foreign students and limit their stay to one year, most foreign students seeking an American diploma attend private schools.
American boarding schools have for decades reserved room in their dormitories for overseas students lured by English as a Second Language courses and sterling academic reputations. A few American boarding schools rival Ivy League universities in admissions selectivity as applications roll in from high-demand areas such as China and East Asia.
Beyond America's nearly 300 boarding schools, in the past few years more and more college preparatory day schools have opened their doors to international students. Prep schools usually provide home-stay accommodations with faculty or student families, or depending on school policies, students may live with relatives within commuting distance. It's important to check with individual schools to make sure.
Parents should begin searching for schools at least 18 months before an expected fall enrollment, to allow time to research and visit schools, complete all application requirements and obtain a student visa.
For parents beginning to research private schools, educational consultants who are well-versed in the American private school search and application process can provide invaluable guidance. More private schools than ever send admissions staff to recruiting fairs around the world, offering opportunities to collect materials and meet school personnel face to face. School web sites increasingly feature multiple translations and allow parents to compare admissions policies, academic and extracurricular programs, facilities and costs.
Tuition and fee policies often vary for international students, as schools may charge a higher annual rate or require a sizeable deposit before issuing a visa. Financial aid for international students is limited or nonexistent at most schools, and parents need to factor in additional expenses such as airfare and ESL courses for students with limited English proficiency.
Pay special attention to any unique deadlines or requirements for international applicants. Some schools require students to demonstrate English proficiency through minimum scores on the TOEFL or other standardized tests. Schools that provide intensive ESL courses often will accept applicants with little or no English skills.
Standard application materials include official school transcripts, teacher recommendations, essays and certain standardized test scores. Most boarding schools and many day schools require the Secondary School Admissions Test (SSAT), administered at test centers in the U.S. and abroad about once a month from October through June. Educational consultants may oversee the SSAT on alternate dates for students unable to reach a test location.
Once admitted, the process for obtaining a student visa can take three to four months and requires an interview with an officer from the U.S. consulate. The interview will be conducted in English, and applicants must demonstrate that their reasons for returning to their home country after graduation are stronger than their reasons for remaining in the United States.