Studying abroad is more than a vacation or a “trip”—it will be your life. When you embark on a student exchange, you not only study at a new school, but you live in a new town, in a new home, with new friends, and sometimes vastly different customs! I’d like to start by saying that there’s nothing wrong with those who choose not to study abroad, because it can be very difficult to get there financially, mentally, or even academically. Still, if the only thing holding you back is your fear that you won’t enjoy yourself, I say go for it! I’ve never met one former exchange student who wishes that they didn’t go. This is a huge topic, so I’ve split my posts into two categories. This post will be about how to study abroad, from the first information session to stepping off the plane. I’ve included this post to detail life as a student abroad, what to expect, and how it differs from being a tourist!
**Please note that this is a general guide based on my experience in a Canadian university, and all of what I say here may not apply for every exchange program at every school! Ask around at your school and see what the requirements are!**
Who Can Study Abroad?
This is a pretty loaded question that varies from across schools, provinces, and countries, but generally, a student with fair academic standing (usually a grade average at C or above) can study abroad with permission of their institution.
Most colleges and universities have exchange programs between other schools, so you often have a list of partner schools you can choose to study at and receive credits that count toward your degree at home. Some offer short term exchanges, like summer only, that may count toward a credit or two. Check out the website or international students’ office at your school!
Some high schools offer international programs as well, but it is usually more competitive than the college/university level as less spots are available. You can check with your local high school to see! A friend of mine did a short term exchange in New Zealand in high school through AFS International, which she loved. You can find their website here.
How Much Does It Cost?
This depends on your school too, but it can also depend on your host institution and what you’ll need to pay for. For example, I lived in a moderately sized (300,000 people) city in Spain while I was studying abroad. I came from a Canadian city which is roughly the same size. Some prices varied, but generally, the costs between our medium-sized cities were very similar and I ended up paying about the same for rent and food in Spain as I did at home. Transportation cost less in Spain, but clothing cost a little more. It evened out nicely! In contrast, if you end up studying abroad in, say, Paris…your rent and food costs are likely to be way higher because you’re in a large and well-known city! This is something to keep in mind when choosing which schools to apply to.
Excluding city price differences for a minute, these are things you’ll probably have to pay for:
1. Airfare/transportation to your new city
2. Rent or residence + groceries or meal plan
3. Textbooks and other school supplies
4. Visas, special documents, or vaccinations if needed
5. Medical insurance (sometimes, it may be included in some exchanges)
Don’t forget, you’re living abroad, so you’ll need to pay for most things that you pay for in your day-to-day life at home. If your school has a partnership with another college or uni, you don’t usually have to pay tuition to your host school; you just pay to your home uni.
Some schools offer study-abroad scholarships to students with low income or specific grade achievements, so don’t forget to apply for those!
What Is The Process?
Step 1: Information. Schools usually host sessions where you can learn more about the program, how it works, and if it’s right for you. Because the application and approval process can be long, info sessions and initial sign ups will often be held a year or so before you’re actually leaving.
Step 2: Research, research, research! At my school we had to narrow down a list of almost 100 schools across 30 countries into only three choices for our final application. This involves a lot of looking into course calendars and schedules at your prospective schools, to make sure that you can get some credits abroad! It’s easier than it sounds though… some partner schools only host students from certain faculties, like Business, while others may not even have your degree program at all! Talking with your professors is a good idea to match up course requirements, as well as an academic advisor. It can also be helpful to contact students who previously studied abroad at certain schools. Students who wish to give out advice to new exchangees often have their contact info somewhere on the school’s website.
Step 3: Apply, and wait. My school had us fill out an application, write a letter about why we wanted to study abroad, have a list of prospective course choices picked out, and a fee ($25). This process usually takes a few weeks to get done if you’re juggling school and work and everything else, so get those academic meetings over with ASAP!
Step 4: Acceptance. We waited to hear which school we would be admitted to. In our case, we were told that unless we had a really low academic standing or something, everybody would be accepted to a school, if not their first choice.
Step 5: Prepare. I was accepted in February, and had 6 months to prepare to go to Spain. The school will usually send you information about how to apply for residence/an apartment, signing up for classes, getting a visa (if needed), and so on. It’s good to get things done as early as you can so you’re not doing things at the last minute! If you have trouble with anything, your school as well as the host school should be able to assist you by email or in person. Don’t be afraid to ask about an application or something… you don’t want to mess that up!
Step 6: Pack. I’m working on a post about packing for a trip, but this will be a bigger and longer trip than you’ve probably ever packed for before! You’ll need things like your laptop and books for studying, not just beach bikinis and your camera. Also, make sure you research your new city, and find out what the climate is likely to be for the entire duration of your exchange. Don’t show up with shorts and t-shirts for four months only to have the temperature dip, forcing you to buy sweaters and sweatpants!
Step 7: GO! Once you make sure all of your documents are in order, board that plane and jet off to your new home! After such a long wait and so much preparation, this is just the beginning, and it’ll be one of the best experiences of your life!
Flying to Spain!
1. When choosing a school, be realistic. It’s great to imagine living in London, England, or Sydney, Australia, but could you afford the miles-high rent in a big city like that? As with any experience abroad, it is going to cost you some money, so try to think about what you can afford. I like to use Numbeo to roughly compare costs of living between my city and others.
2. As well as price, think about the customs and culture. Maybe you’d love to study in Italy to be close to great food and romance, but… do you know Italian? Are you at all interested in learning it? I studied abroad in Spain, but I was an English/Spanish major with a couple of years of language study under my belt already. Make sure your host school has classes in your language if you don’t speak another. If not, it may be wise to apply somewhere where English is the primary language (England, Ireland, USA, Canada, Australia) or where a lot of people speak English (Scandinavia, The Netherlands, Germany).
3. Reach out! A student who’s been to your school of choice already is a great resource for all of your questions and concerns. They’ll tell you the best study spots on campus, cool clubs, and more! My school has time slots where you can meet with students who’ve been abroad to certain countries, or you can usually email them.
4. Take a chance! If you’ve been studying German, don’t play it safe and go to England. Find a school in Germany and practice! My semester in Spain drastically improved my skills in Spanish, because I was forced to speak it daily with cashiers, professors (sometimes), and new friends! Most people are happy when you speak their language, even if you do it poorly, and they’ll usually try to help you too!
5. When choosing classes, most people I know took all of their electives abroad so that they could worry less about it. Yes, you still have to do schoolwork while you’re over there, but if you’re taking just bird courses, it can be a lot easier. It’s hard to have fun when your course might transfer over as an important required course! It’s also hard sometimes to match course equivalents across schools, so it’s easier if you just try to do miscellaneous credits. Finally, like anything else, take a chance with a random course for fun! My school offered a course in the Basque language, which was incredibly difficult (it was also taught in Spanish…), but it was often hilarious as most of the class struggled all together. See what kind of neat courses your host institution has to offer!
5.5. Course requirements are often different abroad too. In Europe, one class is worth 6 ECTS, which meant I needed 30 altogether to transfer to 5 credits at my school. Some classes may be worth two at your home school! This can all be discussed with international staff or academic advisors.
6. Remember your own comfort level. I was happy to live in an apartment off campus with two random international students as my roommates (we got along great though!), but another girl who went to my school was more comfortable in the residence building that was close to campus. She also had an excellent time and made a lot of friends, so just remember to stay true to your own feelings!
Have you ever studied abroad? Where did you go, or where would you like to go? I wish you all the best on your journeys!!