Jul 19

Preparing for Higher Education: A Guide for Elementary and Middle School Students in Japan

by Trent Baumbach

Preparing for Higher Education: A Guide for Elementary and Middle School Students in Japan


When we talk about college prep, we often focus on high school students. However, planning for these studies, especially abroad, can and should start much earlier. As an international student living in Japan, starting early can help to ensure you’re adequately prepared for both admissions and success at top universities in the U.S. In this blog, we’ll explore how international students at the elementary and middle school levels can start paving their way to U.S. universities.

Do you want to improve your chances of getting into a top-tier university? Schedule your consultation with Tokyo Academics today!

Establishing the Foundation

Developing strong academic skills during your elementary and middle school years is key to future success at the university level. Establishing this strong foundation involves more than just achieving high grades—it’s about acquiring deeper critical learning skills across subjects like math, science, English, and social studies.

Three essential skills to start working on early include:

  1. Learning independently
  2. Thinking critically
  3. Writing with clarity

These skills transcend specific subject areas alone as they are fundamental for all university-level studies in the U.S.

Essential Skills

  1. Learning Independently: Independence is a cornerstone of U.S. education, especially at the college level where students are often expected to learn and research on their own. Accordingly, students in Japan should begin by developing this skill early. For example, if you encounter something you don’t understand, try to find the answer yourself before asking for help. This practice will nurture self-reliance and boost your confidence.
  2. Thinking Critically: U.S. universities also value critical thinking, which involves analyzing information, considering various perspectives, and making reasoned judgments. Start practicing this by applying critical reading habits from a young age. For example, after reading a paragraph, focus on the big picture meaning by identifying  its main idea and how it contributes to the overall text.
  3. Writing with Clarity: Communication, particularly written communication, is integral in the U.S. education system. From longer form essays to more informal emails, your writing should be clear, concise, and effective. Regularly revise your written work, focusing on clarity, grammar, and structure.

Building Subject-Specific Skills

While the three skills mentioned above are universally applicable, developing mastery of the four following subjects before high school  is equally important.

  • Math Skills: By the end of middle school, you should (at the very least) understand key math principles, like the order of operations, proportions, integer operations, solving equations, and measures of central tendency. Mastering these foundational skills will set you up for success in high school math and beyond. Additionally, students with a mastery of introductory algebra through quadratic equations will have a leg up.
  • Science Skills: Strength in life science, earth science, physical science, and technology is essential. You should be able to design and conduct experiments following the scientific method, record and analyze data, and develop conclusions based on the data.
  • English Skills: Since English is the language of instruction at U.S. universities, proficiency is crucial. Work on persuasive and expository writing, understanding poetry, enhancing vocabulary, and improving reading comprehension. Speech and presentation skills tend to play a larger role in American English classes than in Japan, so comfort here will also be key.
  • Social Studies Skills: Familiarize yourself with key social studies themes such as geography, world cultures, types of governments, global connections, and civic ideals and practices. Note that both U.S. and World History are part of all American high school curriculums, so students will also need to be familiar with these topics.

Assessing Your Skills and Mindset

To check your proficiency in these areas, consider taking assessments designed to identify any gaps in your skills. Tools like the ADAM K-7 for math skills or DORA for reading abilities can provide insight into your strengths and weaknesses. Having an understanding of your own current state will help in planning what areas to put the most time into improving.

When reviewing the results, it’s essential to cultivate a growth mindset. Remember that any areas of difficulty are not failures but opportunities to learn and grow. As Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck explains, a growth mindset sees abilities as being developed through dedication and hard work, creating a love for learning and resilience essential for accomplishment. U.S. universities will expect their students to exhibit this growth mindset!

Bridging Skill Gaps

If you identify any skill gaps, work on addressing these as early as possible before progressing to high school. Consult your teachers, school counselors, or tutors for help and resources. Online courses can also be a valuable tool for filling in these gaps.


While attending a U.S. university might seem a long way off for an elementary or middle school student living in Japan, it’s never too early to start preparing. By focusing on the essential skills of learning independently, thinking critically, and writing clearly, while also honing subject-specific abilities, you’ll set the stage for a smooth transition to high school and, eventually, college abroad.

Remember to approach any challenges with a growth mindset, seeing them not as setbacks but as opportunities for improvement. With preparation, dedication, and a positive attitude, your dream of studying at a U.S. university can become a reality.

Join the best summer school program in Japan! Our 2024 Summer Classes are specially designed to help students excel in the fall. Explore over 200 classes tailored for grades 3-12 and make your summer count.

Enroll today and transform your academic journey!