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How to Choose an ESL Program in the United States

Climate and You

You want to study English in the U.S., but have you noticed that the U.S. is a pretty big country?  Take a good look at a U.S. map to help you decide where you would be most comfortable living. You need to know yourself well and what will make you happy. Look carefully at the different regions of this country to see which climate and population size will make you the most comfortable. The Internet can help you here. For example, do you like a warm climate?  How about cold?  Would you feel better in a large city or a small town?  Are you a beach person or a mountain person?  (Something I’ve noticed over the years as director of ESL programs is that often, international students don’t know what the climate is like at their new schools.)  Some international students like the excitement of living in or near a big city, whereas others are happier where they can get out into the country easily.  Learning English is difficult enough without having to deal with temperatures or locations you’re not really happy with, so choose thoughtfully!

Where Is That City Again?

Another thing I’ve noticed is that many international students are unaware of distances between places.  For example, they may have a family member living in Washington, D.C. with whom they’d like to stay while they are attending ESL classes in neighboring Virginia.  If they have been accepted at a school in central Virginia for example, they are at least three hours away from their new home in D.C!  Clearly this won’t work!  If you are planning to stay with relatives, be sure you know how many miles they live from your new school and how you would work out transportation.

Home Sweet Home

Will you be most comfortable living in a dorm? Do you know what living in a dorm is really like? Would you rather live in someone’s home?  How about an apartment off-campus?  In my experience, many international students say that they want to live in a dorm, but later they change their minds.  Make sure to find out what your new school has available to you before you come, and, if you change your mind, how easy it will be to find a new place to live.

ESL Programs

Now that you’ve decided which climate in the U.S. you’d be most comfortable in, and which type of living arrangement would work best for you, it’s time to decide which schools to apply to.  That depends, in part, on your future plans.  For instance, if you plan to study further in the U.S. after you finish your English study, you may want to apply to the ESL program at a nearby college or university. There are two major types of ESL programs; those that are part of a college or university and those that are privately owned but are also located on or near campus.  In any case, the ESL program instructors should have extensive education and experience specific to the teaching of English as a Second Language.  Many schools, both public and private, have undergone significant scrutiny by accrediting agencies that look at ESL programs to decide if they meet high national standards.  These agencies assess everything about the programs, their management, faculty and staff preparation and development, class size, advertising and recruiting practices, student testing and placement, curriculum, facilities and housing, as well as mission, goals and objectives. You can identify these programs because they usually display the logo of the accrediting agencies in their advertising material. If the school you are considering is accredited by any one of these agencies, you can feel confident that your experience will be a good one, and that you will have the best chance of achieving your goals.

Paying The Bill

What can you afford?  U.S. colleges and universities (and ESL programs) differ widely with regard not only to tuition costs, but also to the general cost of living in the area.  Look, too, at the cost of health insurance because most schools will require that you purchase U.S. health insurance; these expenses may differ widely as well.  Be honest about how much you and your family can reasonably spend each year on the combination of health insurance, tuition, housing, living and recreation costs.  Remember that some ESL schools will not permit you to work on campus while you are studying English, and those schools which will allow this generally have very few work opportunities available on campus.  And of course you know that you are not permitted to work off campus; penalties for ignoring this can be severe.  Finally, when you compare costs, it might be helpful to break your figures down into cost per week because program length can vary.

Having Fun

How important are social activities to you?  Some ESL programs have many opportunities to get out and have fun while others have fewer.  Some schools are located near famous attractions and amusement parks, while others may depend more on “home-grown” fun such as playing games, attending movies together or going fishing.  Try to get a sense of this by visiting the website of each school that you are considering.   Make a list of all the good and bad points of each one.  Being able to see all the facts side-by-side may help you to make the best decision more easily.


What have we learned here today? First, we’ve suggested that it’s really important to decide in which part of the country and in which type of setting you will be the most comfortable, happy and productive. Next, if you are already sure where you would like to continue your education after your ESL program, you might be comfortable choosing a program in or near your future school.  Then, it’s important to consider an accredited ESL program, as well as be honest about what you can afford.   Finally, we invited you to think about how important social activities are to you and how to find out what ESL programs offer.   We didn’t tell you what to pack, and that part is up to you!  Now it’s time to apply these ideas, do your homework and find the best school for you! Good luck!

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