In the following guide, we take you through the major criteria you need to consider when planning out your first study abroad experience. If you put our advice into practice, you’ll find that when it comes time to settle on a destination, you’ll be confident in your choice and prepared to set out on a life-changing journey.
Why Study Abroad?
Students choose to study abroad for a variety of reasons. Some are purely interested in travel; living in another country provides a perspective well beyond the scope of most tourists’ visits. Others want to improve their foreign language skills or even their resumes. Some want to delve into a specific topic related to their majors, and a particular location will afford them learning opportunities they can’t get anywhere else. Finding the best cultural fit for you and your passions is also part of the study abroad process, extending your educational experience and preparing you for work and life after graduation.
A 2013 study from the Institute of International Education (IIE) found that the number of U.S. college students studying abroad is at record high levels. In the 2012-2013 school year more than 280,000 U.S. students studied abroad in programs that earned academic credit. While this number has been increasing in recent years, IIE points out that this is still a small percentage of the millions of students eligible to participate in these programs.
Where are U.S. Students Studying Abroad?
The Institute of International Education (IIE) provides an extensive list of the top study abroad destinations for American Students.
Deciding to Study Abroad
Choosing to study in another country, whether it's for the summer, a semester or a full year, is an individual decision. Here are a few factors you'll need to weigh when researching and comparing destinations.
Will you earn academic credit for the coursework completed during your study abroad program? The answer really depends on whether or not the program is offered by your university, another university, or in partnership with an independent organization. If academic credit is a must-have, you need to ask the following questions:
- Are you eligible to study abroad? Most programs require a formal application. Before anything, be sure to check the requirements of each program you are interested in to determine if you are eligible. Application decisions can include factors like your GPA, major, number of completed credits, prior language courses or language proficiency, and year of college (i.e. sophomore, junior, senior).
- Is study abroad credit transferable (assuming you choose a program outside your institution or intend to transfer after being abroad)? Talk with your academic advisor to find out how these credits, usually earned through coursework and/or experiential learning opportunities (e.g., project-based work), will be applied toward the requirements for your degree (i.e., general education courses, classes in your major, electives).
- Do you need to get pre-approval? Assume the answer to this question is "yes" and coordinate with your advisor and academic department to make sure they know what your abroad program entails and how that affects your degree. Credit transfer is easiest if the program is an extension of your home university, but other options are available and even encouraged, although additional paperwork and planning are required.
- Will study abroad delay your graduation? Study abroad programs are usually an optional experience for students. While there are a few schools that require students to study in another country, most don't. It is essential that the experience helps you reach your graduation goals and doesn't extend your time as a student, which could result in additional costs.
If the study abroad program you are interested in applying to does not result in earned academic credit, you should consult with your advisor to find out more about how the experience will complement your degree plan and/or potentially delay your planned graduation date.
While virtually every student can find a worthwhile reason to spend a semester or two abroad, when you look at all the students who end up abroad, there are some clear standout types of students, based on major, that take the journey.
Learning a Foreign Language
Not all locations require you to understand or learn a new language, but many programs provide language-focused coursework and the opportunity to immerse yourself in a culture of native speakers. To many, there’s no better way to learn a new language than through the level of immersion living abroad affords. In a recent study from IES Abroad, 84% of study abroad alumni reported developing skills, such as language proficiency and communication, that proved beneficial in the workplace after graduation.
Personal Maturity and Growth
Moving away from home to attend college is one thing; committing to a study abroad program in another country is something else entirely. These programs require you to move out of your comfort zone and interact with people and cultures that are often completely new to you. A successful experience is the result of being aware of the maturity level you'll need and making sure you really are prepared to meet the challenges of living abroad.
While you'll have some support services available to you via your school or other program sponsors, studying abroad is a very independent experience. For example, you are required to understand and take control of your personal finances. You may pay rent to a local landlord or have to do your banking locally, even opening up an account abroad. Navigating local customs and business practices different from those you are accustomed to in the U.S. will increase your confidence and independence as you solve problems and overcome the challenges of life abroad. However, you should also do some research to set realistic expectations before you go.
As a study abroad student, you'll be responsible for a number of costs. Additional tuition and fees may be required by your school or by the school you are enrolled in while studying abroad. The cost of travel to and from your destination, as well as travel while in your host country, can add up quickly. You also need to budget for housing, meals, passport fees, visas, insurance and any number of other minor expenses.
Do you want to travel to other cities or nations while abroad? Side excursions are a big draw of studying abroad; if you are excited by the prospect of some globetrotting while abroad, you'll want to make sure you've set aside some money for a few such trips.
Expect your program to help you estimate the types of expenses you'll encounter. Ideally they'll be able to outline a rough budget that will work for most students. The program may also provide financial support through specific scholarships and grants designed to support students enrolled in the program. Be sure to ask about any and every available funding opportunity.
The timing of your study abroad program can greatly alter your academic plans at your home university. Consider the following scheduling questions as you weigh programs:
- Will a study abroad program align with your academic calendar? Opportunities offered by your institution will likely follow your semester or term schedule, but those coordinated through other institutions may need special consideration. For example, Australian summer holidays usually occur from December through February.
- Will participating in a study abroad program rule you out for certain jobs or internships? As a college student, you have a lots of activities to choose from, be they opportunities to travel, to research, to intern or even to pursue a particular job while in school. When you commit to a semester abroad, you invariably turn down any number of those opportunities. Make sure you know what conflicts with your abroad plans just to confirm you are comfortable missing out on the alternate opportunities.
- Will study abroad affect your scholarship(s)? While organizations that provide students with financial aid, through loans, grants, scholarships, etc., may support students' interest in studying abroad, some have strict requirements about where and when they'll award aid, which may force students to abandon or suspend their financial aid while abroad. Be sure to contact your financial advisor and/or scholarship coordinator to find out more about what is and isn't possible given the stipulations of your own aid package.
You may find your school already has a large catalogue of specific study abroad programs for its students; some may require students to have particular majors or good grades, while others will accept any enrolled student who's interested. That being said, when you are scouring for great abroad programs, remember you aren't limited to those specifically offered by your university.
There are several private, nonprofit and governmental organizations that provide their own array of opportunities abroad. These groups coordinate programs across the globe, which include a wide range of academic coursework and cultural activities for students in all majors. Each sponsor is different, but many coordinate housing and travel; they may also provide on-ground support staff in the host countries.
As you explore independent organizations, make sure your school recognizes the programs you are considering attending. This coordination is critical to ensuring transfer credit and also provides a second source of review and approval.
Check with your college's study abroad program for more information about affiliate and other external study abroad sponsors. Here are a few programs and resources to jumpstart your search:
- Abroad101: This site allows you to search for programs sponsored by colleges, universities and independent organizations. The site also comes with student reviews.
- American Institute for Foreign Study: This cultural exchange organization coordinates study abroad opportunities for more than 50,000 students annually.
- Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs Exchange Programs: The U.S. Department of State sponsors a variety of international educational programs for high school students and college students at both undergraduate and graduate levels. Opportunities are also available for people who have already graduated.
- CIEE: A nonprofit organization, CIEE coordinates study and other travel abroad programs that include pre-departure orientations and logistical support through in-country study centers.
- GoAbroad.com: Find out about the international study, internship and volunteer options provided by this group, which connects students with travel organizations.
- IES Abroad: Coordinating the experiences of more than 6,000 students each year, IES Abroad features international internships and scholarships.
- IIEPassport.org: A resource of the Institute of International Education, this site highlights featured programs and provides a detailed search tool.
- National Registration Center for Study Abroad: NRCSA presents evaluations of international programs and multiple ways to search for opportunities that meet your needs.
Choosing the Right Location
Accepting a study abroad opportunity means committing yourself to at least a few months in an international location. Academic considerations (e.g. specific courses required, transferrable credits, sponsoring school) are just a few of the variables you should include in your decision about location. This choice should also include research about what your day-to-day life will be like at your study abroad site.
Whether you already speak a foreign language fluently or have little to no proficiency in the language, your ability to communicate should be one of your first considerations when choosing a destination.
- Do you want to improve your language skills? By choosing a country where English is not the primary language, you have the opportunity to practice the language with native speakers. Some programs require fluency or at least a few completed courses in the language of the host country, but other programs provide introductory level course work in the language and an English-speaking staff in the host country.
- Would you feel more comfortable in a country that has English as an official language? Many students want the travel and cultural exchange opportunities provided through study abroad participation, but they are not interested in learning or speaking a foreign language. There are many programs available in English-speaking locations you might expect, such as the United Kingdom and Australia, and those you may not have considered, places like Denmark, Belize and Malta.
Study abroad programs also offer a variety of living arrangement options. Not all are available in all locations, so it is helpful to understand both your preferences and the situations you can expect to find as you research study abroad programs. Make sure you know what each program can arrange before making your choice. Here are a few of the accommodation options you'll encounter:
- Host Families: Also referred to as a "homestay" arrangement, you may be placed with a family and live in their home during your study abroad program. Family members may or may not speak English, but this situation does provide a chance to experience the country fully immersed in the local culture and language. Students often develop close relationships with their homestay families, but the experience can also present challenges related to privacy and safety. Make sure your school or program coordinators have a screening process in place to ensure the best possible match of students and families.
- Campus Housing: If you are already living in a residential hall on your college campus, making the transition to a host-college campus dormitory may be a good option. This can be a good way to connect with other students and experience the college lifestyle in another country. You'll also have the advantage of being near campus dining and laundry facilities. Living in campus housing can be more isolating from local cultural experiences, however, especially if you are placed in a facility reserved for international students.
- Apartment: Renting an apartment is perhaps the most independent option for housing and is well suited to students comfortable creating their own experience abroad. It can be an isolating experience, though, if you are not accustomed to this kind of freedom and end up spending most of your time alone in your apartment. Private apartment rentals can also be expensive, and leasing arrangements differ widely from those found in the United States.
Just as the cultures of individual towns, cities and states differ here at home, you'll find a variety of options available through study abroad programs in different countries. Picking the best location for you means considering your own preferences, as well as thinking about how this experience will broaden your views of the world. Choosing a location similar to where you are living now can be limiting, for example, but there's a need for balance. You don't want to place yourself in a situation that will be too challenging to navigate nor too dangerous.
Consider the pros and cons of each location that interests you in with respect to cultural considerations. Here are some examples:
- Rural vs. City: If your college is in an urban area, some study abroad programs are great opportunities to discover what life is like in a small town or rural community outside the U.S. The reverse logic also applies: for students attending school in small college towns, a large city can be an exciting, fast-paced alternative. You may even have a specific city in mind for your study abroad experience. While rural locations offer the potential for you to become part of the community, city locations may feature more tourism options and academic infrastructure, meaning more libraries, museums and classes to peruse.
- Large vs. Small: Similar to the item described above, study abroad options are available at large and small schools. Large schools often provide a wider range of support services and sponsored student activities, while smaller schools are often well regarded for their personalized approach and close-knit student community.
- Societal Norms: Will you like the food? How should you dress? What holidays will be celebrated while you are there? These are just a few of the questions to consider as you choose a location. Remember that you will be both a representative of the U.S. and a guest of another country while you are away. It is important to understand the customs of the culture you are joining so you can learn as much as possible, while not offending your hosts.
- Conservative vs. Liberal: Most cultures include a mix of views about how decisions should be made related to the economy, social issues and governance. These views and their related practices are often described as predominantly conservative or liberal, and every country offers its own unique combination of approaches. You can expect differences, often vast ones, between your experience at home and what you can expect abroad in terms of issues related to gender, religion and politics.
- Political Climate: Is the location safe? This is perhaps the most important question you can ask about study abroad program locations. As in the U.S., some areas have higher crime rates than others, but internationally, you also need to be aware of issues related to health, political unrest and the potential for violence. Research each program's plan for the emergency evacuation of students and explore advice provided to traveling students by the following:
- Students Abroad: The U.S. Department of State's travel guidance specifically for students.
- Bureau of Consular Affairs: The U.S. Department of State's general travel advice site, including alerts and warnings and a list if U.S. Embassies and Consulates.
- Transportation Security Administration: The U.S. Department of Homeland Security also provides information to help you prepare for air travel and airport screening.
The Cost of Living Abroad
You'll find that basic costs vary wildly from place to place. While many young college students may have no appreciation for the price tag behind even their most basic necessities, the radical difference in cost for even the most mundane expenses can be something of a shock.
Generally speaking, there are two sorts of financial experiences students have when acclimating to a new economy: they are either in a place where most things are slightly more expensive than back home, with some things costing a good deal more, or they are in a place where things are considerably cheaper than back home; this sort of economic divide captures the distinction between developing nations and alleged "first world" nations.
To give you a sense of how these costs might differ place to place, we identified the international universities that receive some of the highest numbers of U.S. study abroad students. Then, using Expatistan.com, we looked at how costs in the areas surrounding those schools differed from the costs students experience at two American schools known for their study abroad programs: New York University and the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Using NYU and New York City as the control group for our comparison, we showed how much more or less expensive each location was in terms of the basic expenses that matter most to students (Food, Clothes, Transportation, Personal Care and Entertainment). Our results are logged below.
Setting Realistic Expectations for Your Study Abroad Experience
Becoming part of a new community is hard to do. Even if you speak the language, it takes time to get to know your classmates, instructors, a new school and a new place. Be patient with yourself and use all of the resources available to help you transition from a college student in the U.S. to a college student in another country.
Your school wants your time abroad to be valuable and provides assistance in many ways. Before you leave, reach out to your study abroad office for general guidance and orientations geared specifically to the country where you will be living. Prepare by learning and practicing norms related to personal communication in your host country, such as making eye contact and hand gestures, and respecting personal space. The University of the Pacific provides an online tutorial, for example, that addresses nonverbal communication, body language and communication styles.
During your time abroad, ask questions when you aren't sure what to do. Establish positive relationships with those who can give you guidance about communicating in a foreign language and interacting with members of the local community.
Students often get homesick while participating in study abroad programs. It's only natural to miss your friends and family, your own room or apartment and the many objects and rituals that make up your familiar day-to-day life. Understand that while initial feelings of homesickness are normal, there are always reasonable actions you can take to better adjust.
- Talk to your classmates. They are likely experiencing similar feelings. Connecting with them means you can support each other as you work together to stay focused and complete the program.
- Connect with a local family. Homestay arrangements can alleviate some homesickness, giving you a chance to become part of a new family in your host country.
- Immerse yourself in the culture. Stay busy taking in all that your study abroad program has to offer. Get involved in study groups, go on sightseeing trips and try something new every day.
- Stay focused on your study abroad goals. Why did you choose to travel in the first place? GoOverseas.com recommends reflecting on your initial goals. Making a "bucket list" of things you want to see and experiences you want to have while you are away that will help you reach those goals.
Interacting with Local Students
At first you may be more comfortable staying close to your American classmates, but you should really try to branch out as quickly as possible to work with your international peers. Think about how you might help them if they came to study at your home college. Join them in class projects, service opportunities and as a member of student clubs and organizations. While you may not agree on everything, or even most things, you'll learn a lot in the process of working together.
Interacting with local students is also a great way to learn more about the local area and develop supportive relationships for additional assistance while abroad. Local students can provide excellent guidance on everything from the best restaurants to the most interesting side trips.
Living in a Foreign Country
Embrace the differences between the culture of your host country and what you've experienced at home. Being open to living like the locals and to everything new to you is an important part of overcoming what's often referred to as "culture shock." Depending on your location, you may find that even most day-to-day tasks require adjustment, from buying groceries and ordering a meal to recycling and taking out the trash.
Adjusting to Life Back Home
The study abroad experience is often life changing. After spending a few months in another country, you can expect some level of reverse culture shock when you return to the U.S. It took you time to adjust to a foreign culture, and it will take you time to readjust once back home. Keep these guidelines in mind as you make the transition:
- Studying abroad often matures you. You may have trouble relating to your friends and family, and you may find your views are now not as similar to theirs as they were before you left. Be patient with yourself and with others.
- Reflect on the experience. While you will probably be glad to reconnect with the people, places and things you missed about America, you may also feel something like homesickness for your new friends and fresh memories from abroad. Consider documenting what you experienced. You may also want to establish a new goal for learning more about your host country or plan to explore a new idea or skill you developed while there.
- Reconnect with the Study Abroad Office. Just as they prepared you to live in another country, your program coordinators can provide helpful guidance to assist with the transition back home. They can also connect you with other study abroad alumni for advice.
- Remember that rules/laws are different. Did you drive overseas? If so, you may have gotten used to traffic patterns and laws that will get you into trouble in the U.S. Some college students are legally able to drink at age 18 in other countries, but the age limit is still 21 in the U.S. Be cognizant of your surroundings and behave responsibly.
- Beware the travel bug (in a good way). Once you've experienced international travel, you may find yourself eager to plan another trip as soon as possible. Look for other options, which may include service opportunities, that will further your interests, as well as your career and academic ambitions.