Updated: Jan 14
The canals of Florence. Pub-hopping in England. High-speed trains across the Japanese countryside. It's hard to think of a more quintessential college experience than the idea of studying abroad. During my travels as an admissions officer, you could bet your bottom-dollar on being asked at least once per day about study abroad programs. I've been asked so many times that I had a concise and well-rehearsed response to just about every rendition of the question. I personally studied abroad twice during my undergraduate years, and each time was a significant part of my growth as an academic, professional, and person. The opportunities for growth implicit with studying abroad, in addition to its popularity among students, inspired us to create a new series of blog posts focusing on the topic.
What Is Studying Abroad?
Let's start with the basics: what does it mean to study abroad? Where, when, and how you study abroad can take many different shapes. Above all other details, there are three core components to every study abroad opportunity:
Duration of Program
An Opportunity for Growth
Unsurprisingly, studying abroad needs to take place abroad and will require travel. What is abroad though? Flying across an ocean seems obvious enough, but what about a 10 minute drive over the border to a neighboring country? Generally speaking, at minimum, studying abroad must take place in a different country than where you currently reside.
Note: I'll often joke with students that traveling across the USA for college can be very much like studying abroad. You might scoff, but I can't think of very many places in the globe more different than the heart of New York city and the mesas of Arizona. What about the bustling hub of Seattle and rural Georgia? English might be the common tongue (and even that's debatable in some locations), but the environments and cultures can be radically different. Perhaps this is an idea worth exploring in a later post?
Duration of Program
Most students and families are familiar with the traditional semester-long (4-6 months) study abroad program. While longer programs are common, a wealth of new opportunities have become more formalized in recent history. Institutions might provide one week, three week, summer, winter, or even full year-long programs. By offering a variety of choices, institutions have created new possibilities for students that might not have the resources or time to commit to longer programs. With such variety, there have been several discussions of how relevant the length of time is to the value of a study abroad program. Although there are no specific guidelines, we would feel comfortable saying that your study abroad experience should be at least 3+ weeks.
An Opportunity for Growth
What is an opportunity for growth? We deliberately use a vague term because the experience of studying abroad is often so much more than just taking classes in a different country. Students can use study abroad to grow academically, professionally, and personally in meaningful ways. Academically, students can take courses at foreign universities, travel with experts, and participate in research projects. Studying abroad can also focus on developing professional skills through shadowing and internship opportunities. Lastly, some of the most influential growth that happens abroad is personal. The act of traveling to new places and immersing yourself in different cultures encourages self-reflection of identity and culture.
When Should I Study Abroad?
As we look at institutions across the country, we see commonalities and general themes about when students study abroad. For example, many students will study abroad during their junior year of college. We tend to support studying abroad during the junior year for a few reasons:
By junior year, most students have settled into their college experience and are reaching a level of comfort with their surroundings.
Most students will have declared a major by their junior year. To be clear, studying abroad does not have to directly related to the chosen major. However, it is important to consider course credits and graduation timelines. Knowing where they are in that process will help them choose an appropriate study abroad program.
Studying abroad can be a challenging experience. Often, the return from studying abroad can be an even more challenging experience. Traveling the world, embracing the unknown, and venturing outside of their comfort zone is no easy task for most college-age students. The transition from high school to college alone can be a tricky one, so giving students more time to mature and grow as people will often help set them up for success during and after their study abroad.
Types of Study Abroad
Exploring study abroad programs can be a daunting task. Students who managed to successfully traverse the college search process quickly find themselves back in a complicated and sometimes overwhelming process. Much like finding a college, students should weigh a multitude of factors to help determine which study abroad program will best fit their goals: length of time, location of program, academic opportunities, available financial aid, total cost, and competitiveness of the program. Finding a study abroad fit, much like a college fit, is crucial. Oftentimes the best place to start the search is knowing what options and types of study abroad are available.
Institutional programs are offered specifically by the college or university where a student is currently enrolled and are only available to students attending that institution. It is common to offer shorter programs, such as "Maymesters" or summer/winter programs, especially if faculty or staff are directly involved in leading the program. One possible benefit for institutional programs is that they might offer additional financial aid or allow you to apply your preexisting financial aid.
At its core, exchange programs allow institutions to mutually benefit by exchanging two students that both want to study abroad. A popular example of this type of program is the International Student Exchange Program (ISEP). Partnering institutions can exchange students, and often allow students to apply their institutional financial aid. When you exchange with a student, you typically are enrolled directly into the study abroad institution and take courses as if you are a traditional student. Exchange programs can be good options for students looking for semester-long experiences, a more traditional classroom settings, and financial aid to help cover study abroad expenses.
Lastly, students can apply to an independent program that is separate from their institution. Council on International Educational Exchange (CIEE) is a great example of a company commonly used by students for independent study abroad opportunities. These companies offer an extensive list of programs with varying lengths, locations, and academic focuses. Independent programs sometimes also offer financial aid to help students afford them. However, it's important to still work with your institution's study abroad office to see how using an independent program might affect your institutional financial aid or academic progress. Before using a independent program, students should always make sure that the courses and programs offered will transfer back to their home institution.
What Happens Next?
In this blog post, we wanted to set the stage for an exciting series of blog posts focused on studying abroad. Over the next several blog posts, we will delve into more details about several other topics:
How to find a good study abroad fit?
How to find financial aid for studying abroad?
Can you study "abroad" within the USA?
How does a high school study abroad fit into your college application?
Study Away vs Study Abroad
Finally, we will tie all these subjects together with a post for each of my personal study abroad opportunities:
Shanghai, China. Summer Program (3 Months). Internship Focus.
Nanjing, China. Spring Semester Junior Year. Academic/Language Focus.
England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales. Three weeks. High School Summer. Cultural Exchange Focus.
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With all my support,
Independent College Counselor
Co-Founder of Virtual College Counselors