IEPs Help Transition to Graduate School

Mar 22nd, 2014 | By | Category: Intensive English Programs, Levels
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Sonja Lovelace

Sonja Lovelace


—Ten years ago, many Intensive English Programs (IEPs) had a curriculum in place for language learners whose goals were to improve their English proficiency but not necessarily to prepare themselves for graduate programs. Now, more students expect a rigorous curriculum designed to equip them for success in master’s programs at top-tier universities in the US. These students have for the most part completed their undergraduate studies in their countries and have the maturity and focus to dedicate themselves to the task of gaining a level of proficiency in all skills to function in an academic setting. However, their understanding of the variety of university programs and the application process is often limited, and they are taken by surprise with the lead time required for applications, the nature of the statement of purpose, and the etiquette of requesting recommendations.

International students are generally familiar with “top” schools and fail to take seriously the value of lesser-known but highly respected universities among the thousands of universities across the country. They have heard of Stanford but not Claremont, Harvard but not Wake Forest; as a result they often limit their chances for acceptance by applying for extremely selective schools. The idea of finding a good fit for their interests or specializations is a novelty to many, who realize very quickly that it takes time to research the various possibilities across the nation to find the programs that match their own profiles.

Having found a few programs that meet their criteria, they are faced with the application process for graduate programs, which is a labyrinth for most international students. That some deadlines are set for up to 10 months before the start of the courses catches them by surprise. Many have the impression that there is a rolling semester-to-semester application process, and indeed there is in some cases, but not all. One student confessed that she had planned to start applying in the spring for the fall term and was devastated to learn that she would have to put off her graduate studies in engineering for an entire year because the January deadline had already passed. “I had no idea the graduate school had such an early deadline,” Fatimah said. “Will I be stuck in an English program for another year just to keep my I-20?” Unfortunately, those students lose motivation and often perform poorly as they bide their time for the next year. Obstacles include not only early deadlines but also the different requirements from university to university and even among different departments. One department in electrical engineering requires a TOEFL or IELTS score along with GRE scores while other departments do not accept IELTS. These different requirements can create frustration, especially if one of the standardized tests is not scheduled early enough for the deadline.

An important requirement of the application process is the statement of purpose (SOP), about which many students express confusion. The nature of the SOP—to promote the candidate’s strengths and to persuade anonymous readers of his or her suitability for the program—is quite uncomfortable for them. One student told me that he thought it was wrong to be boastful of his achievements and he had to be convinced that this kind of “boasting” was expected. Tone is often problematic with students, who may find the academic register difficult to navigate. Sometimes they even resort to a paid professional to prepare their SOP, but graduate school admissions officers are quick to spot a fraudulent essay. If the professionally prepared SOP goes under the radar, the student’s insufficient skills and background are found out as soon as he or she begins the course work. Time and money are lost, to say nothing of the stigma of dismissal. Another problem is the length limitation. One student from Korea, Jung Sa, complained that it was impossible for him to say what he wanted to in 500 words. The limitation hindered him from explaining his strengths fully. It was not until I helped him by pointing out repetitions and empty phrasing that he was able to submit his SOP to some satisfaction. The need to persuade an audience of one’s value does not come naturally, and conciseness is indispensable.

One final hurdle for international students is the letter of recommendation. There is a kind of etiquette in approaching an instructor that students may not be aware of. Unfortunately, I have had to deny requests for recommendations because the student earned a grade of C or even F in the course. In one case, the request came this way after class: “I need a recommendation from you.” Another came in the form of an email: “Please give me a recommendation. The deadline is on Friday.” Obviously, the student intended no disrespect, but approaching an instructor in this way was inappropriate. One international student told me that in his country the recommendation was not based on the student’s grade at all. If the teacher knows that the student is friendly and always attends class, that is enough, he said. Be that as it may, I have decided to make clear at the beginning of the semester that recommendations for university applications are based on the student’s performance in the class. At one dinner party, I told the story of the student who came to my office on December 23—I had to be on campus for another event and was cleaning out some files. He appeared in the doorway and asked for a recommendation. I had given this student an F in the course, so I asked him why he didn’t request one from his other teachers. “You’re the only one here,” he said. My dinner table companion, a full professor, practically choked on his food. The fact is that we learn these unwritten rules about academic or professional etiquette as we go along, and cultural assumptions inform the protocols. Some international students for whom the rules are not transparent unwittingly make social missteps, much to their embarrassment.

What can intensive English programs do to make this transition smoother, to avoid frustrations, disappointments, and embarrassments? At USC’s Language Academy, one instructor has created an elective that guides our university-bound students through the application process, and this course has proven to be extremely useful. Through the efforts of Marisa Garcia Crocker, the course, which meets four hours a week, works with each cohort in each stage of the process so that these students in the end have successful outcomes. The term begins with a clear understanding of the cost of higher education and the differences among private and public institutions. Students are asked to set specific goals and identify programs that are a good fit for their finances, their GPAs, and their standard test scores. They are asked to write extensively about those qualities that equip them to succeed in this academic quest, and they interview various people who are knowledgeable about the field, the school, and the requirements. Meanwhile, these students consult with instructors in our program about the guidelines for recommendations and view sample recommendations for style and content. Their final project consists in presenting their findings to others, sharing the information, and making recommendations. After completing this course, students feel confident that their efforts will pay off, and that they will find the best path for their futures.

Garcia Crocker said, “I believe this class is more than just writing a statement of purpose. It’s about developing the self-awareness necessary to articulate one’s academic and professional goals in both speech and writing. Once defined, students are more equipped to target a university that matches their profile.”

Intensive English programs are changing to meet the needs of a new generation of student, and one way we can meet these needs is to tailor programs to help them transition from our language-based curriculum to graduate school. This tailoring entails a certain degree of enculturation in the form, content, and style of American university settings. Many students who have completed IEPs, however, may find themselves in limbo, puzzling over the complexities of the application process and losing valuable time. By directly addressing their needs in finding a place for themselves and helping them reach their goals, IEPs will more effectively serve their international students and contribute to their academic success.

Sonja Lovelace is past IEP Level chair.


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