How International Students Can Cope With Difficult Classes

Get help from professors and visit the writing center if you’re having trouble in U.S. college classes.

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Don’t get discouraged by classroom challenges you may face as a new international student.
Don’t get discouraged by classroom challenges you may face as a new international student.

International students often face more challenges than their American classmates because of language and cultural barriers. Don't be distressed when you have a hard time in a particular class – just remember, if the school admitted you, you are smart enough to handle all courses offered. Chances are others are struggling as well.

The following are some steps international students can take to either prevent this situation or to improve both their learning experience and grades.

1. Pick classes wisely: Take your English proficiency and cultural experience into account when choosing courses. If you are a freshman who started learning English a year ago, taking a high-level reading- and writing-based humanities class, such as History of Philosophy, might not be a good idea.

[Explore ways to prepare for the TOEFL.]

Most colleges have course prerequisites and many have a ranking system to help students understand the difficulty level of each course. As an international student, you should pay attention to this information, as well as the level of English proficiency that is required for each class.

Save classes that require a strong vocabulary for later years. When you start college, it is best to take entry-level classes that fulfill the general interdisciplinary requirements. For example, your first class could be calculus, which would satisfy a mathematics requirement and doesn't require the level of English proficiency a political science course would.

Don't let this stop you from pursuing your interests. If you want to major in Comparative Literature, you should definitely take classes in the English department. However, it might be best to start with a class on short stories your freshman year and wait until you're a senior to take literary theory or dive into a course that requires you to read "War and Peace."

Throughout your time at school, your English will naturally progress. Trying to take classes that require a sophisticated understanding of the English language too early might not only make it harder for you to earn good grades, but could suppress your interest in a certain subject.

[Take courses that add to the international student experience.]

2. Get help if you're struggling: Most college professors are very understanding about the challenges that international students face in the classroom, and will try to help you as much as possible if they are aware of your problems.

When I took American history in college, I had a very difficult time because I didn't have the high school history knowledge that my American classmates did. When I expressed concern to my professor, he gave me a few books that had a lot of background information and found me a tutor within the department.

Many colleges also have a writing center whose staff will help you edit your papers. These centers frequently have reference books and sample essays, and are excellent resources for international students.

[Learn to connect with professors at your U.S. college.]

3. Take English as a Second Language classes: Many colleges offer supplementary ESL courses, which I think are a great way to improve your English and lower the language barrier. A friend of mine took an ESL course throughout her freshman year, and by her sophomore year, was ready to sign up for high-level humanities courses.

Many college ESL teachers make it their goal to improve your class participation and extend your vocabulary. Spending a small portion of your week taking those classes can be very beneficial for your college career.

4. Study hard and be patient: A challenging class can be a great source of stress and frustration, but remember that hard work pays off.

You may have to spend more time studying than other students because there are words that you don't know, or because you can't read as quickly in English, but it could also mean that you will remember information longer than your classmates will.

Also, when you find class difficult, other students probably do as well. Be patient and kind to yourself and your efforts will be recognized.

Tra Ho, from Vietnam, received full financial aid to attend Colorado College in 2004. She graduated magna cum laude in 2008 with a degree in mathematics and is currently working as an actuary for a consulting company Washington, D.C.