Archive for October, 2015

Your brief guide to… Hallowe’en

October 29, 2015 | Posted by ECA UK | No Comments »

The days are getting shorter and the evenings are getting darker, which means only one thing – that it will soon be time to listen out for things that go bump in the night, as October 31st and Hallowe’en are almost upon us. Traditionally the time when spirits and ghosts come out to ruin the crops before harvest, Hallowe’en (which is the shortened name of ‘All Hallows’ Eve’) is by many people no longer seen as the pagan and Christian festival it really is, but more a time for trick or treating, donning costumes, and for embracing all things horror.

The classic symbol of Hallowe’en is the pumpkin lantern, or the jack-o-lantern, with a pair of eyes and a wicked smile carved into it, and a candle inside to really give you a fright when the night draws in. Jack-o-lanterns look scary because that was their original purpose: to scare off the evil spirits and ghosts that threatened the crops. They’re now used as decoration and are a fun thing to make. You can buy pumpkins from supermarkets in the UK, and can find some great designs to carve into them. Instead of scaring away evildoers, pumpkin lanterns are something that you and your friends (or family) can make, and can be used to decorate your house or apartment and get into the Hallowe’en spirit.

One particular American tradition around Hallowe’en is ‘trick or treating’, which involves children dressing up in costumes and collecting sweets (or candy, if you must) from neighbours. The children dress up in suitably scary costumes, knock on their neighbours’ doors, and ask them, ‘Trick or treat?’ Usually the neighbour will say treat, and hand over some sweets for the children to take home, but sometimes they will ask the children to do some kind of trick in return. This is not very common in the UK, it has to be said, as we think ‘trick or treating’ is a kind of American export. There are other things for adults to do on Hallowe’en, of course, from the traditional to the non-traditional, and it’s always fun dressing up and heading out with your fellow students for some costumed fun.

There are loads of things to do for Hallowe’en in London and across the UK, and here is a selection of some of the best. Your university will probably have some events going on that you can participate in, or you can simply organise some with your friends. A Hallowe’en themed house party? That could be just the ticket.

How to … register with a doctor

October 28, 2015 | Posted by ECA UK | No Comments »

Don’t wait until you’re ill to see a doctor – make sure it’s one of the first things you do when you arrive in the UK. You see, you can’t just turn up at the doctor’s office and get an appointment, as you need to register with a local doctor first. This is why it’s important to get it done as soon as possible.

Firstly, you’ll need to know a fee new words. A ‘GP’ is what we call a family doctor (it means General Practitioner), and they can check you out for all sorts of different illnesses, both physical and mental. After they have done that, they’ll issue a prescription, which you take to the nearest chemist (the name for the drugstore or pharmacy in the UK), or if you’ve got a serious illness, or need more specialised care that your GP can’t offer, then they’ll refer you to a hospital.

That’s the usual process, but you’ll need to register at your local GP surgery first. Don’t worry, ‘surgery’ is just what we call the GP’s office – you don’t have to have an operation. There are lots of doctors with whom you’ll be able to register, so finding one won’t be difficult.

Obviously you should choose somewhere near where you live…

Registering at the surgery is pretty simple, and you’ll need to remember to bring a letter from your university or college that proves you’re a student, as well as your passport and biometric residence permit. You might also need a proof of address, such as your contract for your accommodation. Registering with a doctor means that you won’t be charged for using the National Health Service. In fact, you’ve already paid for it, remember? That immigration health surcharge fee that you had to pay when you applied for your visa is meant to cover most of your health-related expenses, so make sure that you don’t end up paying even more because you forgot to register with a doctor.

This doesn’t mean that all your health and medical expenses will be free, and you’ll have to pay for certain treatments and procedures at hospitals. But your initial appointment with your GP will be free, and for students on courses of any duration in England, Scotland, and Wales can have free appointments. In Northern Ireland, only students on courses of 6 months or more can get free appointments, so you’ll need to make sure that you don’t get a surprise bill at the end of the appointment.

After you register with your local GP, you’ll receive a medical card through the post with your NHS number. Make sure you take this with you when you visit the doctor, and don’t lose it! And that should be everything. Hopefully you won’t need to visit the doctor very often – or at all – during your stay in the UK, but make sure you’re prepared.

How you can deal with culture shock

October 27, 2015 | Posted by ECA UK | No Comments »

Studying overseas is a great experience. You’ll meet friends from all over the world, visit new places, and be stimulated by something different pretty much every day. It’s not always plain sailing, though, and there will be challenges along the way that you will need to prepare for, not least the culture shock that will affect all of you at some point.

When you’re feeling uncomfortable about experiencing a new way of life, this is culture shock: it is usually talked about when someone has moved overseas to study or work, and they have difficulty adjusting to their new way of life, their new surroundings, or have trouble adapting to the language barrier. You can also experience culture shock when adapting to a new social environment, or another type of life. Culture shock comes from trying to manage cultural contrasts, and is that attempt to adjust to surroundings or an environment that are completely foreign. If you are feeling culture shock, it is not just you who is suffering from it, as it is something that is very common, and happens to everyone.

You can look at culture shock as a kind of psychological condition, where you feel disoriented by your new, unfamiliar surroundings. It doesn’t always start like that, however, as the first stage of culture shock is usually a ‘honeymoon period’, of finding everything about your new home great. The food, the people, the culture, everything about the new experience seems great. You’ll be spending time with people who speak your language – but who you might discover you don’t have many things in common with – and you’ll be respectful and friendly towards your new hosts. This honeymoon period usually lasts for about three months, by which point all those things you started to like have in fact started to annoy you, and those friendly locals don’t seem so friendly.

This change in opinion is where you start to see culture shock taking shape. The differences between your old culture and your new one become more and more visible, and the excitement that you used to feel has turned into frustration. This period is known as ‘negotiation.’ You will start to feel homesick, and notice that there are cultural and language barriers between yourself and other people. Homesickness can be especially bad if you are missing birthdays, Christmas with your family, or other religious festivals and family time. For international students, the negative aspects can be heightened even more, as you won’t have your family to support you, and you will be outside your usual network of friends. Having to use English in an academic setting can also make the communication and language barriers seem worse than they are, as there is more pressure to use English correctly.

After the three month honeymoon period, you’ll hear lots of people moaning and complaining, about the food, the locals, the trains, in fact pretty much anything. It is easy to be negative and to complain as well, but try not to. And if you can manage this, then you’ll be in the ‘adjustment’ phase or culture shock. This is the light at the end of the tunnel, as you’ll be in a new routine based around your new life, and you’ll have learned new problem-solving skills. You’ll also have learned a lot of new information about the UK to share with others, which makes the whole experience easier to handle. Adjustment doesn’t mean that you’ve ‘gone native’, but it does mean that you have come to learn what to expect in most situations in your new home, and that you have adjusted and to life here.

Once you have learned how to adjust, then the final stage is ‘adaption’, which is seen as being ‘bicultural.’ Not everyone can reach this stage, however, as no one will truly leave their old culture. But adjustment and adaption are the goals, so those who suffer from culture shock need to look at how to reach them.

Everyone is different, of course, so the time frames for each stage will be different, and the things that set off culture shock will be different for each person. The methods of coping will be similar, though, and the first step is research. You need to know what to expect, in terms of life style, food, where you can buy things from home, and also safety. This will make your initial few months, and the transition to your new life, much smoother. It’s always a good idea to keep learning the language, and to try to make friends who are not from your home country. This will help you integrate more into your new surroundings, and you’ll also find that you’ll learn about new cultures and new perspectives, which is one of the reasons people want to go overseas in the first place.

If you find it difficult to meet new people, then try joining societies or clubs at university, where you can learn more about the UK. You’ll also be able to share any difficulties you’re having with your new friends, and that will make them all easier to handle. Of course, try to stay in contact with your friends and family back at home, and try calling instead of messaging. This is much more personable, and you’ll be able to maintain relationships easier. You’ll also be able to meet any new family members that you missed out on, even if it is remotely.

Striking a balance between your old and new life isn’t always easy, and it is a challenge of living overseas. There is a lot to take in, and it will be tempting to hang out with people from the same country as you. The most important thing is to try to enjoy yourself and stay positive, as your study abroad experience is something that you’ll be able to remember for the rest of your life.

Key dates for UCAS 2016

October 12, 2015 | Posted by ECA UK | No Comments »

It’s that time of year again, when students all around the world start thinking about where they want to spend the next few years of their life. For many of you, that means choosing a university and subject to study starting September 2016, and trying to work out how to apply for it. If you want to study a bachelor’s degree in the UK, you will need to use something called UCAS, which is an online system through which you can make applications to the university courses of your choice. The UCAS system is fairly strict, especially for UK students, but for international students it is a little more flexible. There are a number of important dates that you need to be aware of, however, which can have an impact on your applications if you’re not careful.

Let’s have a look at those dates in more detail:

October 15th 2015 – This is the deadline for applications to Oxford, Cambridge, medicine, dentistry, and veterinary science. It is much earlier than other universities and other courses, and these applications also require a great deal more work.

January 15th 2016 – This is the application deadline for most undergraduate courses if you’re a home student (someone from the UK). It’s basically inflexible: miss this, and you’ll have to apply through clearing. As an international student, however, universities are far more flexible, so you don’t need to worry about this particular deadline. International students will still be able to make an application right up until September 2016 at some universities.

February 25th 2016 – If you don’t hold any offers from your course choices, then you can use UCAS Extra to add another choice. It opens on February 25th.

March 24th 2016 – Deadline for some art and design courses.

May 4th 2016 – If you receive all your offers by March 31st, you will need to reply by May 4th. If you don’t, they’ll be declined and you’ll have to use UCAS Extra or ‘clearing and adjustments’.

May 5th – If you completed all your applications by January 15th, the university deadline to respond to them is May 5th. Once you receive all those offers, then the next date is an important one…

June 8th – This is the deadline for responding to all those offers you received by May 5th. Make sure you don’t miss this one.

June 30th – This is an important date for all students, as it’s the last date that you can apply to university for September/October 2016 entry. If you make an application after this date, then you’ll have to go through clearing.

July 4th – This is the last date you can add on Extra choice on UCAS Extra.

July 5th – The International Baccalaureate results are released today. Good luck to everyone taking them!

July 14th – If you applied by June 30th, this is the deadline for university and college decisions to make a decision and make an offer.

July 22nd – This is an important deadline, as it’s the very last date for replying to offers that you received by July 14th. Make sure that you don’t miss this one, as UCAS don’t send out any reminders! If you do miss this date, then you’ll enter clearing and adjustments.

August 18th – A Level results are released on August 18th, which means that adjustment and clearing opens. If you’ve missed your target universities, then you can go into clearing and apply for your course that way. You can only apply for one at a time, and as some courses fill up quickly you will have to move fast!

September 20th – This is the last date for September 2016 entry applications through UCAS. Applications should arrive by 6pm.

October 20th – This is it: the very last date for adding clearing choices, and for universities and colleges to accept students through clearing. Hopefully you won’t have waited until the middle of October to make your applications, but if you need to know it, then this is the very last date.

That is quite a lot of dates to remember, of course, and it’s not easy to remember all of them! For international students, you will have to apply for undergraduate courses through UCAS, but your deadlines are different. The January 15th deadline is only for home students, so you can still make applications after January, but you will have to respond to any offers you get by July 22nd. That is the key date, as after July 22nd you will have to go through clearing; this can be confusing and frustrating, so it’s best to get your applications completed and everything replied to by July 22nd! Of course, it is much easier if you ask an agent to make the process smoother for you, and if you don’t achieve the grades you were hoping to get, your agent will be able to give you some more options and advice.

Are you ready for Freshers’ Week?

October 9, 2015 | Posted by ECA UK | No Comments »

Sometimes Freshers’ Week doesn’t last a week – it lasts a fortnight. That’s 14 nights – and days? – of hard partying, socialising, and not much else. It all sounds pretty good, really, and many people will tell you it’ll be some of the best weeks of your life. Don’t worry if it’s not, of course, and don’t worry if you don’t seem to make loads of new friends, either, as you’ll have 3 or more years to do that. If there is one thing guaranteed, though, it’s that you’ll get Freshers’ Flu, which is basically just a cold you’ll get from meeting people from all over the country, made worse by all the excitement and not resting properly. You can blame it on all those boozy club and pub nights you’ll be going to, but everyone gets it and it’s nothing to worry about. Just make sure that you get some rest, and try not to spend all your budget in those first few weeks.

Believe it or not, there are things to think about during your first few weeks at university other than going out and having fun. The whole going out and having fun thing is of course the main point of Freshers’ Week, and it would be remiss of us to encourage you to do anything other than have fun and meet people. But there are certain essential chores that you need to do when you move in to your accommodation for the first time, such as checking the inventory that your university provides you. You’ll need to have a look at this and make sure that everything listed is indeed in your room. You can also check your room for any damage – if there is any, take a photo of it, and let the university housing department know about it. You don’t want to be charged for damage that you didn’t cause, which is what might happen if you’re not careful in those first few days. It’s important to take care of those first few housekeeping chores, and then start thinking about meeting people and heading out into university life.

Not everyone is bouncing-off-the-walls sociable, and some are just plain scared of this big new university world they’ve stumbled into. If your neighbours or roommates are not keen on going out, or doing the same things as you, then don’t think anything bad of them – everyone goes at their own pace, and being able to develop and live at your own speed is one of the great things about university life. If you’re one of those who doesn’t like going out, and doesn’t want to get involved in all those crazy events with music you don’t care for, then don’t worry – there will be many, many more opportunities to make friends throughout the year. The hard truth is that the people you meet in your halls of residence probably won’t be your best friends throughout university, and a year – or 3 years – is a whole lot longer than Freshers’ Week.

One of the great things at Freshers’ Week is having the opportunity to join all manner of societies, like those that match your interests and those that you just like the sound of. After you’ve joined up, you’ll be able to meet new people, learn new things, and get involved in different activities. It is probably tempting to join as many as possible – as you’ll be able to meet lots more people and do things that might be outside your comfort zone. All of which is good and healthy, of course, but you don’t need to go crazy and join every society and club that you see. You could join a sports society to get some exercise, or a music society, and meet people who have the same interests. You don’t need to spend all your time at Freshers’ Week going to the drinking events, as there are many more ways of meeting people, making new friends, and getting involved in university life than just going to the Guild of Students or various student nights in the town centre.

It’s not just other people that you’ll need to get to know, as you should spend some time getting to know your surroundings and the campus. How to get into town and back, for example. What are the best bus routes? Where is the train station? And try to learn your address and postcode – that always helps.

And lastly, you’re at university to do some work, most likely on a computer. Don’t forget to back it up.

A few things about council tax

October 7, 2015 | Posted by ECA UK | No Comments »

People in the UK are famous for their dark humour, and we often say that there are only 2 certain things in life: death, and taxes. Now, we’re not going to talk about death, but we are going to talk about tax. In fact, there’s one tax in the UK that you should be aware of, and that is council tax.

Firstly, don’t panic: not all students will have to pay council tax, and if you’re an international student it is likely that you will be exempt. However, it is better to be safe than sorry, and to know just what it is that you may or may not have to pay. Council tax is something that most people living in the UK have to pay based on the value of their property (called a ‘dwelling’), and that money goes towards paying for services provided by the council, such as the fire brigade and rubbish collection. The bigger and more valuable your dwelling is, the more council tax you have to pay. Similarly, if you live with one or more working adults (people over 18 with full time jobs), you will also have to pay council tax.

However, the good news is that not everyone has to pay council tax, as some people – and some properties – are actually exempt. This means that if you meet certain requirements, you don’t have to pay any at all. Yes, that’s nothing at all. Zero. Zip. Nada. Having those extra pounds in your pocket can make all the difference to students trying to survive on a budget, and it is definitely worth knowing who is exempt, and who is not.

The people who have to pay council tax are those who are ‘solely and mainly’ resident in the UK. This means that any of you who are international students studying English for a short period of time, or if you’re a student studying another kind of short course, then you won’t have to pay council tax, as you are not regarded as long-term residents in the country. In the case of university students, you also don’t have to pay council tax. Even if you’re writing your dissertation or thesis, so long as you are still enrolled at your university you will be considered a student – which means no council tax.

Some courses have work placements as part of them, and this can affect your status as a student. Basically, the length of your work placement can’t be longer than the period you spend studying; if it is, then you are no longer regarded as a student. This is going to be a rare occurrence, but it shows that you need to remain enrolled as a ‘student’ for the majority of your stay in the UK in order to be exempt from council tax.

Some universities will give you a certificate stating that you’re a student, and you can show it to the local authority if they ask to see one. Other local authorities have online forms that you need to complete, and then they check your student status directly with the university. Each local authority is different, so it is worth checking when you arrive in the UK.

When you’re choosing who to live with, as a full time student who will need to be a little careful: this is because, if you’re living with a person or people who are not full time students, then you might have to pay council tax. As a student, you will be able to apply for a student disregard discount, but this will still mean that you have to pay some council tax. You can apply for a discount with your local council.

If you are an international student in the UK with a spouse or dependent who is not a British citizen, and they have leave to enter or leave to remain in the UK, but are not able to get employment here and ‘no recourse to public funds’ on their visa or Biometric Residence Permit, then you will be exempt from council tax. You will have to show a copy of the passport or BRP to prove it, of course.


A few things about IELTS

October 2, 2015 | Posted by ECA UK | No Comments »

From 6th April 2015, the UK government changed the regulations for English tests acceptable for visa applications, meaning that only Secure English Language Tests (SELTs) can be used in visa applications. One of these is IELTS Academic for UKVI, which is the test most international students will take, and is the main English test that UK universities recognise. There other tests that universities recognise, but IELTS Academic for UKVI is the standard.

If you took your last test before 6th April 2015, you will still be able to use it to apply for a visa – but only until 5th November 2015, when the new regulations come into force. So if the last IELTS test you took was before April 6th, then you will need to take another IELTS test as soon as possible! The IELTS Academic for UKVI test is the same as the previous one, so you should prepare for the same type of questions as before. The only difference is that you will receive a secure number that will be used for your visa application, so make sure that you choose the right test when you’re completing your online booking.

You can see more information here, but let us know if you have any questions about the new IELTS test!