Purpose – this study reports on the academic support programs targeting first-year business students at la trobe melbourne. The at-risk students were offered both a general academic support class and a content-based program. This study was conducted to explore students’ perception of the usefulness of these programs. The paper also aims to create a better intervention to attract more at-risk students by exploring the reasons behind the low rate of at-risk students making use of these services. Design/methodology/approach – the specific research uses a mixed method approach to explore a way to best address the academic needs of the first-year international business students, especially those identified as at-risk students in a college in melbourne where both a general academic program and a discipline-based program were on offer. Findings – the findings indicate that although the content-based program was highly evaluated by students and also attracted more students than the general support module, many at-risk students did not use this service. The low level of english proficiency, the heavy workload, the passive and dependent learning style, the unclear information about the service and the desire to follow only teachers’ guidance all prevented at-risk students from making use of the available services. These students need further help and guidance in this transitional period to recognise the assistance provided for them and to make use of these services to enhance their learning. Originality/value – recently, various support activities have been designed to assist international students in enhancing their language and academic skills necessary for pursuing their study in australia. These activities range from credit-based english for academic purposes courses, to optional general language and study programs, and more recently, discipline or content-based programs. There is also a tendency in several universities to move from offering general language and study programs to embedding disciplinary programs. Adopting disciplinary-based academic support activities seem to be the right direction in many universities as these activities are more likely to help increase the overall pass-rate and improve student learning outcomes. However, problems seem to remain when many at-risk international students do not seem to go for these services. This study has led some light on how to improve the future language and academic skills to support activities for first-year overseas business students. Emerald group publishing limited.