The basics
Study abroad : Applying to University

Pathways to courses overseas

Read our guide to pathways courses such as foundation, pre-masters and pre-sessional courses, and find out how they can help you prepare to study a higher education course overseas. Which course should you take? What do they consist of? Find out more

International students on pathways courses

Pathways courses enable international students to bridge the gap between the qualifications they already have and those required by the college or university in order to commence a particular higher education course with them. These are often an excellent gateway for international students to study in a new country or at a specific university.


What are pathways courses?

When students apply to an institution abroad, the admissions office have a set procedure to take grades from education systems around the world and compare them to their own; this way they can judge whether that student has the required skills and expertise to keep up with the course content and teaching style. After all, they don’t want to accept a student who’ll struggle. Pathways courses fill the gaps when an international student doesn’t quite meet these requirements but are still serious applicants.

Pathways courses will vary in name, length and content structure from one institution to another. You’ll hear a lot of names being thrown around for different types of courses, including ‘foundation courses’, ‘pre-Masters courses’, ‘pre-sessional courses’, ‘summer schools’, ‘summer institutes’.....there’s a lot of different names which essentially mean the same thing – to prepare international students for future study. However you should always check with the institution as to what these courses cover and what they’ll allow you to do later.


What course should you take?

This will depend on what you want to study later, whether this is an undergraduate or postgraduate course. As the name suggests, pre-masters courses are for those preparing to study at postgraduate level. Foundation courses are usually for those preparing to study at undergraduate level. Pre-sessional programmes are for those who have the academic ability to study a particular course but need to improve their English skills. Summer schools take place during the summer (often the summer before a student begins studying a course at that particular university).

You can study a course to improve your English and get it to the level you need for a particular course (remember, undergraduate and postgraduate courses often require slightly different English language levels). You can also take a pathways course to add to the knowledge you already have about a particular subject to prepare you to study it at a higher level.


How long are pathways courses?

The length of the course you have to take will often depend on what your current level is. For example, Oxford Brookes University offer pre-sessional English courses varying from 36 weeks (over 3 semesters) in length for those with an IELTS score of 4.5 to those lasting just 6 weeks for those with an IELTS score of 6.5.


How are pathways courses taught?

Courses are taught in smaller seminar or class environments than you would have at undergraduate or postgraduate level. Usually international students will make up the whole class. This kind of environment allows students from different countries to gain confidence using English or in a particular subject. Group-work means international students to form close, personal bonds with their classmates as they learn together.


How can a university help you?

It’s important that you communicate with your chosen university so they can work with you to find the course that best suits your needs and goals. Often when a student applies to a university to study at undergraduate or postgraduate level and they’re lacking in a particular area, the university will suggest a pathways course they can take as part of their offer to that student.


And 3 reasons why a pathways course is a good idea...

Improve your language skills

Usually the most common issue for international students is the language barrier. If your IELTS scores are not strong enough for an undergraduate course you’re interested in, consider a pathways course to help you improve your language proficiency. After all, you wouldn’t want to be accepted onto an undergraduate course, only to struggle to keep up with the lectures and course material, right? Pathways courses allow you to improve your language skills in a country where English is the primary spoken language; this means you’re likely to speak and practise your English in many more scenarios and interactions, because you’re surrounded by it all the time. Pathways courses can help relieve concerns a student may have about studying abroad.


Gradual entry into a university community

Becoming a part of a university community is a life-changing experience where you grow as a person, become a part of a large group of likeminded people, and make lifelong friends. However, words like ‘student union’ and seeing such a large campus for the first time can be intimidating (especially if you come from another country).

A pathways course means that you become a part of the community slowly. The people on your course will – like you – be sharpening their language skills and may have moved from another country too. You’ll likely find that you have a lot in common, so you’re more comfortable learning alongside them and exploring the campus/surrounding area together.

Plus, while a pathways course is challenging, it won’t be as intense as studying at an undergraduate level the moment you arrive in a new country.


If you wish to study further

If you aspire to go on to further study at that institution, a pathways course will allow you to establish relationships with those whom you can call on to provide a reference for you. They may be your tutors, but also they can also be those in the administration who have helped you or gotten to know you. Undergraduate admissions staff will look favourably on those who are already at home at the university, and they are more likely to trust a reference from someone they know or can reach easily (i.e. someone sat in the next building). If you make the job of an admissions staff member as simple as possible, it will only help your chances.



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Search for universities which offer pathways to undergraduate.

If you are preparing to study abroad, you can always improve your language skills through these unorthodox means.

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About Author

International students on pathways courses

Paul Ellett is the editor for Hotcourses Abroad. His role is to plan, produce and share editorial, videos, infographics, eBooks and any other content to inform prospective and current international students about their study abroad experience. When he's not thinking about student visas in Sweden and application deadlines, Paul is an avid fan of comedy podcasts and Nicolas Cage films.