How to Choose an IEP?

Guiding Students to Find the “Right” IEP 


By Arlen Gargagliano


Studying abroad is as exciting as it is daunting. Navigating it beforehand can often be overwhelming. As an advisor for students who are interested in studying in one of the 800-plus U.S.-based Intensive English Programs (IEP), where do you start your guidance?  Finding the “right” IEP for a student is especially challenging because there’s always more than one possibility. This article—and book—will help you and your students narrow down some of the options. So let’s start with some basics: when looking for an IEP, there are four fundamental pillars students should consider: location, quality, support services, and cost.  



Where a school is located can make a huge difference for a student. There’s the urban versus suburban versus country debate: if someone loves a more rural environment, he or she may not necessarily be thrilled with living in an urban high-rise. By the same token, someone who enjoys the energy and bustle of a big city, may not enjoy being in a small-town setting.  


Population density factors into this equation as well. Smaller communities may not have the same off-campus possibilities for interaction. On the other hand, campus activities in urban areas like New York, Boston, Chicago and San Francisco may be more limited than in more suburban, or rural campuses. Alternately, many students might prefer a college town where school life is front and center. From Corvallis, Oregon to Wellesley, Massachusetts, and with so many in between, a college town can envelop its students in a unique community.


Another aspect of population: students should be guided to consider programs that don’t have large numbers of their own native-language speakers. Often when there are big groups of same-origin students, many will naturally gravitate towards those with whom they can easily communicate and, therefore, may miss the golden opportunity to practice their target tongue.


Weather is another key component for consideration. Fans of skating and skiing have plenty of options, as do those of surfing and swimming. Many students will also enjoy the dynamic of four seasons.  Locations with    snowy winters, moderate springs, steamy summers, and brightly-leaved falls offer students an exciting seasonal variety—one that may be new for them.


Finally, the location should also be informed by the student’s desired length of study time, and by his or her long-term goals.


All of these factors related to location are key elements for consideration. Ultimately, students, with your guidance, will need to consider which environment would suit them best.




Quality is an umbrella under which several attributes of a program can fall. It’s also something that students may be confused by. A dazzling brochure or website, for example, may represent beautiful design, yet not necessarily translate into an excellent program.  Remind your students of that and also—and this is often a tough one—that some of the best IEPs are not in Ivy League institutions.


So what gives a program a good reputation? Always advise students to select a program that is fully accredited by recognized organizations such as, CEA or ACCET. In addition, many programs are members of key consortiums such as UCIEP (University and College Intensive English Programs) and EnglishUSA. Membership to one of these governing groups demonstrates that the institution is concerned about maintaining highly recognized standards of excellence but that is not the sole determinant for the quality of a program. 


Some other criteria for measuring the caliber of a program are:



ESL program instructors should have extensive education and experience specific to the teaching of English as a Second Language.   


Class size

ESL classes should be student—not teacher—centered. They should give all students ample opportunity to participate and receive feedback on all their target language work. An average class size that facilitates those opportunities, ideally one that has about 15 students, will give those participants the opportunities they need to focus on their target language skills.  


Academic Preparation

It’s important for students to consider their English-language education goals when choosing an IEP. Does the student eventually want to matriculate in that same school? In general, most IEPs offer programs for academic purposes or pathway programs, which prepare non-native English speakers to study in an affiliated or other institution of higher education. However, there are also lots of programs for English for Specific Purposes (see  index for a list of ESP programs).  Some questions for students to consider when selecting a program: Is there a requisite lab class? Are there lab or blended-learning (part classroom, part online) options available? A variety of curriculum components have the benefit of serving students of different learning styles—and in different ways.



Support Services

In addition to the standard offerings an institution has to share with its student population, it’s important for students to know what other attributes a program might have to offer. For example, what about additional services like homestays, academic and/or cultural field trips, volunteer opportunities and internship possibilities? Is there a conversation partner program? Are there fluency workshops? Does the program integrate core elements of language learning with engaging and creative experiences? Furthermore, what type of academic support services are available via peers, tutors, or workshops? What type of library services are available?


Support needs are often not all academic and, in fact, may be more personal in focus. A student may want to seek out housing help, may require counseling for stress management, cultural adjustment, or general well-being. Visiting students often need visa advice, tax counseling and/or assistance in other areas unique to a student who has come to live and study in the United States. Support services, which may not be needed in the same way as they would for students who are proficient in English and used to navigating the U.S. education system, are important considerations—even for the most independent of students.  




Finally, one of the considerations that may be most important for students is how much this will all cost.  Though education can always be considered an investment, the cost shouldn’t be overwhelming nor paralyzing. Therefore, it’s important for students and, in many cases, their families, to have a realistic idea of how much a particular program is going to set them back financially. They need to examine all the pricing elements— tuition, books, insurance, additional living expenses, student fees—and calculate a budget.


Obviously a budget is going to vary depending on the school. Cost of living, for example, depends on the location of the institution; urban locations tend to be more expensive than rural ones. Pricing is listed here by program (though additional costs for personal living expenses and fees will have to be factored in). And though there may be some institutional scholarship help available, it’s typically not offered upon initial entry into an ESL program, and often not available until a student becomes fully matriculated in an academic program.


In conclusion, there’s not just one right school for a student. There are so many schools and IEPs; this translates into a myriad of options. Best fit is going to come from matching the desire and need of the student with the right location, duration and program. Encourage students to start looking at least six months in advance, to consider different options, and to use this book as a resource, along with your guidance, as well as other information to complement their search. In this way, students will be successfully guided into finding options, and ultimately, the “right” program.