Studying abroad, which basically means studying in a country at an institution that is not in your home country, is a great way for college students to experience new cultures, lifestyles, and places while still having the opportunity to take courses to move closer to earning a college degree.
Before I even enrolled at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, I knew that studying abroad for a semester was something that I wanted to do. And luckily, I was able to find a program that fit my major and my needs, and ultimately make it happen!
In the spirit of optimism that COVID situations start to mitigate and consequently, study abroad programs resume, below you will find my guide, which answers the most common questions on studying abroad and on everything that you need to know to do it successfully.
Note: This Q/A and guide was written specifically from the perspective of a US resident/student relocating out of the US. If you are a non-US resident looking to study in the US, check out this post!
Junior year is the most popular year for college students to study abroad.
This definitely makes a lot of sense, considering you will probably spend your entire freshman year and at least part of your sophomore year taking general education classes. This means that by the time junior year rolls around, you will have not only likely completed most of your general credits, but you will also at that point have chosen a major, allowing you to get specific with the program and courses that you take while you’re abroad.
The other “pro” of studying abroad as a junior is that you have the first two years of college to get acclimated, spend time on campus, and go through the process of researching and preparing to actually go abroad.
Personally, I studied abroad during my second semester of junior year, and I think it was just the right time. I was beginning to take more classes that were specific to my major, and I had been on campus for just over two years, so a semester away studying in and exploring a different place sounded appealing.
Plus, the majority of my friends who were also planning on studying abroad were going during that semester, so it made sense because then we would all be away together and all come back together - much easier for coordinating leases and things like that!
Junior year isn’t the only year that you can study abroad, though. I have heard of students enrolling in programs during their senior year, sophomore year, and surprisingly, even for the first semester of their freshman year!
To me, the clear downside of studying abroad in your first or final year of school is that these are the semesters where you are respectively just getting used to and wrapping up your college experience. So, they are probably going to be the ones where it would be easier to be physically on campus so you can figure everything out.
Ultimately, the time (and semester) that you go abroad will likely become more clear for you once you have researched the programs that you are interested in and read more about how the courses that are offered will fit into your path for completing courses required to graduate.
Speaking of researching those programs...
This is a very valid question. I remember at the beginning of my first semester of sophomore year, I had started speaking with friends who were telling me that they were starting to look into program options for studying abroad the following spring.
And I was like, “Um, what? Where do I find this information?!”
Now that I am a veteran with the study abroad process, I can share with you the two main options you have in terms of finding study abroad programs to apply for.
Option one is to do research on the programs that are offered directly through your school. To find these, you can start with a simple Google search such as “[Insert School Name] + study abroad programs”.
For me, since I was in the business school, I knew that I wanted to look at study abroad options that were available directly through the UW-Madison School of Business. So, this is what my initial search looked like (and you can of course modify it to accommodate your major/area of study):
While studying abroad is an experience that will surely enrich your life in many ways outside of just academics, the most important thing that you will want to get squared away is finding a program that is a good fit for you in terms of offering the classes (or equivalents) that you will need to graduate.
The last thing you want is to go abroad for a semester, take a bunch of classes, only to return to find out that none of them translated into valuable credits to put towards your graduation!
One major upside of choosing a program that runs directly through your school (which is what I did) is that you can enroll with a higher level of certainty that the program (and its courses) will translate into valuable credits that you can add towards helping you graduate on time.
Notice though that I said “a higher level of certainty”. I want to be clear that there are programs that might be offered through your school that are not necessarily compatible with your specific area of study and course track.
So, even when you’re researching the programs that are offered through your school, you will need to do some additional research to make sure that the classes that are offered through that specific program will translate into credits that you can use.
If you’re not totally sure about the specifics of a program and whether it is the right fit for you academically/course-wise, my best suggestion is to reach out to the contact or person who is the representative for the program to inquire further.
Option two of places to look for study abroad programs are programs that are outside of your college or university. You can locate these types of programs by just googling “Study Abroad Programs + [insert your major or desired study location].
One example of an external study abroad program is Spanish Studies. They offer programs in Spanish-speaking countries like Spain, Puerto Rico, Cuba, and Argentina.
From my experience, the most common reason why students choose to go this route is when they know that they want to study in a specific location, but their school doesn’t offer its own program to send students there. So if, for example, you really want to study abroad in Argentina, but your school doesn’t have a program that goes there, this is where you would seek out Spanish Studies.
However, my advice if you go this route is to be aware of the extra legwork and potential risks that might come with ensuring that an external program aligns with your academic requirements.
The answer to the question of where you can study abroad is that it depends on which route you go in the section above.
Are you only interested in studying abroad through the programs that are offered by your institution? If so, then your options of where you can go will be limited to those destinations.
Keep in mind though that most school’s study abroad programs will have partnerships with universities in the most popular destinations. So, if you have your heart set on Florence, Italy, and you attend a school with a decently robust study abroad program, the odds are in your favor that you will be able to go there.
Back to the topic at hand! If, conversely, you're okay with researching programs and options that are offered outside of your school then the options are endless!
Now, the question of where you should go is a whole different ball game.
If I was pretending to be a college sophomore and approached anyone I know who studied abroad to ask their opinion of where I should go, chances are, they would say the name of the city that THEY studied in.
What I’m trying to say is that if you start asking around talking to students who have done certain programs, you will most definitely get some biased answers.
So, my advice on how to navigate this process is as follows:
From my experience, the places that were the most popular among the people I knew included England, Ireland, Italy, Spain, France, Australia, Germany, and Israel,
However, I also knew people who went to Argentina, South Africa, Japan, the Czech Republic, and the Netherlands.
I know that a little ways up the page, I told you that you should steer clear of choosing a study abroad destination based on someone else’s opinion because they will likely be biased for any number of reasons.
However, once you have narrowed your list and are looking to choose between a few places, this is a point in which I would actually recommend reaching out to anyone you may know who studied in those places.
When I was doing study abroad research myself, I got coffee with a mutual friend who had studied abroad in Copenhagen, to learn more about his experience living and attending school there, and to get insights on what was great and what wasn't.
In my opinion, there are quite a few benefits of studying abroad apart from the obvious pro of getting to take classes in a new and cool place.
Starting with some of the benefits that I personally can relate to…
When I went abroad to England (through a Wisconsin program), I had a few friends who were on it too, but no one who I was extremely close to. So, there were plenty of days on my program where I took it upon myself to go out solo and explore places that I wanted to see and experience.
If you have any experience using LinkedIn, or if you’ve read my eBook, you probably know about the alumni tool and how cool it is. Being able to add another school to your LinkedIn profile will help you to have a reason to connect with people who work at companies you’re interested in that also attended that school. Plus, if you are ever looking to move/work abroad, having previous abroad experience on your resume/LinkedIn can be helpful.
While I was abroad in London, which is arguably one of the most American-like abroad destinations (especially given that there is no language barrier) I still was able to learn about and adapt to a more European way of life while I was there and traveling around to various countries. I met people in classes who were also international students (but not from America) so that was another cool part of the experience.
Because I was abroad in London on a program that was specific to UW-Madison students, it gave me the opportunity to expand my friend group of people who were actually going to my school back home that I hadn’t even known! If you are like me and you go to a big school, this can be pretty funny and cool.
I know I already mentioned becoming more independent, but with this I mean that by being in a new place, I was more willing to try new foods, explore new places, and adopt new hobbies. Before I went abroad, I didn’t like shopping that much, but now I’m a big thrifter!
One POTENTIAL setback that you might encounter from studying abroad is if the classes that you take while you’re there don’t transfer easily back to your home institution. However, with enough careful research and double-checking, this is something that you can easily avoid.
On top of that, the only other possible setback to studying abroad is that it can be expensive. Similar to the cost of attendance for your home institution, you will have to pay tuition and fees and room and board.
But on top of that, it’s likely that while you’re studying abroad you will want to eat out at restaurants, take part in fun experiences and excursions, and travel around or outside of your country to visit the sites. Unfortunately, these things all cost extra money on top of the normal costs that you would have in a semester.
You definitely don’t want to fly all the way over somewhere only to then figure out that you don’t have any extra money budgeted to spend on enjoying yourself while you’re there. So, before you bite the bullet and sign up for a program, you will want to compare the different program’s costs so you can see which ones fit your budget best.
This leads me to the next common question...
You’ll find that some study abroad programs are more expensive than your home institution, some are cheaper, and some are just about the same. Depending on the amount that you currently pay in tuition, the cost of a program might surprise you in a good way or in a not-so-good way.
According to Education First, most study abroad programs cost between $10,000 and $15,000. However, this doesn’t include things such as flights to and from the destination, meals, and pocket money.
Luckily, to answer the second part of this question, YES! There are tons of scholarship opportunities of all kinds that are available for students who are looking for money to study abroad. A few of the most well-known scholarships that are specific to study abroad include the Boren Awards and The Gilman International Scholarship Program.
Another great source for study abroad scholarships of all kinds is the Fund for Education Abroad. The FEA provides scholarships to US undergraduate students who are least likely to study abroad.
In addition to the scholarships and resources I've already mentioned, there are so many more scholarships out there that you can find by searching through the Access Scholarships database, looking on Google, and of course, doing research on your school’s website to see what scholarships they offer for study abroad.
Overall, in my opinion, studying abroad is a great experience that has a ton of benefits in addition to giving you the opportunity to take classes and study in a different country. While the process itself may not always be straightforward, hopefully, this guide has cleared up some of the major questions that you may have been wondering about the process!
If you’re even slightly curious about or interested in potentially studying abroad at some point during your undergraduate academic career, I highly encourage you to just start by doing some research. This means going onto your school’s website, and reaching out to your academic advisor to see if you can make it align with your goals.