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The Top 5 Things to Consider Before Studying Abroad

If study abroad is in your future, here's how to determine what program to choose, where to go and for how long, what you'll need to pay for, and more.

Study abroad may be one of the most common college bucket-list items. As more and more students decide to take a few weeks, an entire year, or somewhere in between exploring another corner of the globe, options have grown exponentially. Having choices is great, but so many can make your decision process complicated. Where do you want to go? For how long? And how much will it cost? Here’s what you need to consider before studying abroad.

1. Type of program

Depending on what you want to do abroad, you have several different types of programs to choose from. First, many study abroad programs are run by large organizations such as Education First (EF) and International Studies Abroad (ISA). Organizations like these manage programs all across the globe, but there may not be programs specifically in the country or city you want to live in. Don't limit yourself if you can't find a program you like from a bigger organization. There may also be programs that your school's study abroad office can recommend. If you're looking for a trip abroad without the studying, there are many companies that cater specifically to students and young professionals, such as EF, Topdeck, and Contiki. You can also volunteer or intern abroad. Programs range from working on farms to small businesses, adding something extra to your résumé to wow employers in future job interviews. Regarding traditional study abroad, if you can't find a program through your school or an organization that fits your needs, you can usually apply as an international student at a foreign university for just a semester.

Related: Benefits of a Global Education: 3 Common Ways to Study Abroad

2. Program costs

One of the first things many students wonder when researching study abroad is, "Can I afford it?" And rightfully so. When planning my own study abroad trip, one of the first things I did was have a conversation with the financial aid office at my school, and I still ended up having to iron things out later. The one thing you should do before you make any concrete plans or commitments is make a budget. Don’t scare yourself into abandoning your wanderlust because of the number on your bank statement—but be realistic. Study abroad is often expensive, but it can be more manageable when you know what you're dealing with up front. Here are the major things to include in your potential study abroad budget: 

  • Plane tickets: These are a big chunk of your costs, so consider flying at weird times of the day or week to find lower fares. Use tools like Google Flights to help you compare airlines and flight times, and use incognito mode in your browser so the prices don't get jacked up the next time you search.
  • Housing: Depending on where you go, you may have more choices in this category. You might live in a dorm, with a family, with other students, or in an apartment, and costs can vary widely.
  • Tuition: Some schools partner with others abroad to offer tuition rates similar to what you pay at home, study abroad may be included in your tuition, or scholarships you already have may apply to these costs. So be sure to check with your school's study abroad office and financial aid offices.
  • Transportation: Will you have time to travel to other parts of the country or continent while you’re abroad? Even if you don't make definitive plans early on, be sure to set some money aside if this is something you know you'll want to do.
  • Fun: Just like at home, entertainment can suck up your money faster than you realize. And you're less likely to reign yourself in with the justification of your once-in-a-lifetime experience. A little planning will help make sure you're not broke when you get home.
  • Travel insurance: Insurance for your trip can cover lost luggage and changes in plans. You may also need to pay extra for medical insurance abroad. Some schools or programs require it, so be sure to double check.
  • Food: Chances are you'll eat out more abroad than you do at home to sample all the foreign food choices. And if you aren't living on a college campus, you probably won't have a meal plan, so you’ll have to grocery shop on your own.
  • Visas and passport: If you'll be enrolled in school abroad, you'll most likely need a student visa, and if you're staying for longer and working (and getting paid), you'll need even more paperwork. And regardless of where you go, you'll need a passport. Be sure to apply for all of these things with plenty of time, as processing can take weeks or even months.

Before you panic about how much this experience could cost, consider the help of scholarships and other aid. While you might not get enough to cover your entire bill, scholarships you already receive for school may apply, and there are lots of study abroad–specific scholarships out there to help offset costs.

3. Program duration

Now that we have the scary part out of the way, it's time to decide what you'll actually be doing abroad and for how long. When most people think of study abroad, they usually imagine taking classes at a foreign campus for a whole semester—but if that isn't your cup of tea, don't worry! There are lots of other options. If you're looking for something short term, many universities offer programs where you take a class on campus then take a short trip, usually over a scheduled break, with other students and professors. There are even some programs where you forego the class and any learning comes purely from experiencing another culture firsthand for a week or two. If you're looking for something even less academic, there are lots of companies that lead trips designed specifically for college students and young adults. All of these options are great if you don't have a huge budget or are nervous about spending a long time away from home.

In the vein of more traditional study abroad, there is always the tried-and-true option of taking classes on a foreign college campus during fall or spring semester. The main catch here can be devoting an entire semester, making sure you can still graduate on time, figuring out which classes will transfer back to your home university, and/or keeping any financial aid. If you don’t want to be away from campus during the school year, spending a summer abroad is another option. Finally, if a semester doesn't sound like enough time away, there's always the gap year option for the truly adventurous. This choice is great if you're about to graduate and can't fit anything in before you leave campus. It can also be a nice buffer between college and the "real world."

Related: College Search Tips for Students Wanting to Study Abroad

4. Degree progress

Since the whole point of college is (mostly) to get an education, it's vital to keep your degree program at your home university in mind when making decisions about study abroad. Does the school you're looking at have similar programs and classes to the one at home? Will your classes transfer back? Will you stay on track to graduate when you plan to? It might be a little less overwhelming if you talk to your academic advisor, who will most likely have experience working with students who have studied abroad. If your classes won't fit perfectly with your home university, you might be able to take classes over the summer or winter breaks to make up for missing credits. If you aren't able to fit a study abroad experience into your undergrad program requirements, some students choose to get their master's degree abroad when schedules can often be more flexible.

5. Foreign language

Another logistical hurdle is the possible language barrier. If you’re a Language or International Studies major, you may want to immerse yourself in another language. But if you're not, this idea may terrify you. Personally, I took my semester abroad in Ireland, where everyone speaks English, but I have the greatest respect for those who choose to live, work, and learn where the primary language is not their own. So when deciding where to go abroad, here’s another question to consider: Do you know enough of a foreign language to get along, or are you willing to dive in head first and learn as you go?

There are many places where you might be able to survive without much knowledge of the native language, but if you're not satisfied with just English, you have several options to consider. You could take foreign language classes before you go, or you can try brushing up on essential phrases like "please," "thank you," and "where's the bathroom?" with online services like Duolingo. There are also organizations that offer language-intensive programs either before you leave or while you're abroad, creating a more immersive experience. It's worth keeping in mind that there are many places with large populations of near-fluent English speakers. However, be sure to talk with someone who's been there before or your school's study abroad coordinator, as hoping that people in a foreign country will speak your language is a lot to rely on. 

Related: Lost in Translation: How to Overcome Language Barriers for Study Abroad

The decision to study abroad is a big one in anyone’s college career. Students often have infinite questions, but I hope I've answered some here and given you a few more to think about. Regardless of where, when, and how you study abroad, one of the most important things to remember is to push yourself out of your comfort zone—not so much that you feel in over your head, but you're your own best judge on this one. It's the best way to learn and grow from any study abroad experience!

There's a lot more advice where this came from! Check out Our Best Advice on Studying Abroad in College for help getting through the process from beginning to end. 

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