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How to Choose a Study Abroad Program

The draw of a new country, a new culture, and new experiences inspires many students to consider studying abroad. But, with thousands of study abroad programs worldwide, how can you go about picking one? Choosing a study abroad program can be as important of a decision as choosing a college, so you’ll want to consider your options carefully to find out which program will be best suited to you.

We talked to Spencer Mott, Senior Admissions Coordinator for the EF International Language Campuses. Mott works with both high school and college students, and advises them on choosing a program. He shared his advice on helping students find their study abroad best fit.

Location type and the “why”

Although specifics can vary, most students generally have similar goals in mind.

“Most of them really want to learn about a culture. Most of them want just to get away from the regular daily grind. [Students] really want to experience something new and open their eyes and their mind about the world,” said Mott.

With these goals in mind, students can start to narrow down what this may look like for them. To one student, this is a remote location in central Africa in a culture that is very different to what they know, while to another student, this is a famous city in Europe that they’ve only ever dreamed about. Just knowing the type of location you want to be in hugely narrows down your search.

Mott explained that when he first interacts with the students he advises, he attempts to get to know students as well as possible to determine certain personality traits and what the student’s needs may be so he can recommend general types of locations that may be best suited. For example, if a student is fairly shy, he may recommend a smaller city, while a student who is very athletic may be suited to an ocean location where there are many activities the student can participate in.

“We try to help them based on who they are and what they want out of the program,” said Mott.

Before picking a program

There are several things to take into account when looking for a program. Mott first recommends narrowing down programs based on what your goals are. For example, if your goal is to be a translator, consider a language program in a country that speaks the language you’d like to speak. If your goal is to work in upscale hospitality, consider a food and wine program. If you have an idea of what you want to do in the future, definitely take this into account, but if you do not, other goals you have are equally important. You may simple want more variety or to get out of your comfort zone, and these are other great benefits of studying abroad.

Mott stressed to consider personal goals as well as what your family has in mind and is comfortable with, especially if you’re in high school. Then, he recommended coming together and making a list of these goals. He used certain questions to prompt this list, which included “what do I hope to get out of this program? What can this program provide for me? And then, how will I benefit from that going forward?”

“An important aspect of a study abroad program for many students is transfer credit,” said Elizabeth Barry, Director of Marketing at Peterson’s.

Barry advised that if you want the classes you take abroad to count towards your major(s) or minor(s), to make sure the credits will transfer back to your home university. Your school may have a system for transferring abroad credits you can follow, or you can check this with your school’s registrar office or your academic advisor. Of course, you may choose to use your study abroad courses as election or general education credits, which is typically a simpler process. However, it’s still a good idea to check with your home university first. Whichever boat you are in, take credit transfers and academic goals into account when choosing a program.

You should also have a grasp on what your budget and financial ability is when it comes to studying abroad. You can have a very different experience financially depending on where you study. The global cost of living varies tremendously, so studying abroad in a city in say, northwestern Europe will be much more expensive than studying abroad in south Asia. Another thing to keep in mind are certain wardrobes that are expected in certain places. Some regions expect more formal dress than we see in the U.S., while other regions are much more conservative and it is inappropriate to, say, show your knees in public. Take this into account financially if you think you will need to buy new clothes.

If you have a lower budget for studying abroad, there are still many options for you and your goals. As mentioned, you can study in a region of the world that is not so expensive to live in, drastically cutting down your cost. Travel costs are also a factor, and studying in a country that is cheaper to fly to is an option.

Understanding what programs offer

Understanding what skills you will gain and what different programs can offer is another important factor in choosing a study abroad program. There are both general skills and experiences that the majority of students studying abroad will gain and experience, as well as program-specific attributes.

“In our case, a lot of our students are going to be between the ages of 16 and 20, so it’s really [about] developing and learning more about themselves and who they are, so the biggest take away that they get from the program is a bigger sense of self…a bigger sense of who they are within the world,” said Mott.

Other important learned skills Mott mentioned were communication and independence.

“Specifically [students] get better at communication. We see that time and time again that through traveling, through talking to different people, getting on a flight and getting to a certain place, they have to learn communication skills. Especially when you’re dealing with people from all over the world with different cultures,” said Mott.

Independence comes in both for high school and college students as they are doing things completely on their own for the first time. Even if a college student lives away from home, there is a greater sense of independence that comes with navigating a new culture and location that is foreign to them.

“That’s actually a skill that they really use,” said Mott in reference to student’s newfound independence. “Lots of times teachers will come back to us and say, ‘this student is miles ahead of the other students because they took a gap year, and we see that on their scores [and in] their personalities and involvement with academic programs because they come back and they take charge of that for themselves.”

A student can also gain specific skills depending on their program. Going back to the career examples, a food and wine program will of course, teach you about the business, history, and processes of food and wine.

Making the final cut

By this point, you should have a good sense of why you want to study abroad, a general idea of where, and a list of what your goals are and ways you hope to benefit from a program. Maybe you’ve even made a list of several possible programs.

Mott advises students to narrow this down based on four things: student’s interests, parent’s interests, finances, and country or region of the world they want to go to. Bring specific questions to someone like Mott or an adviser at your school who can speak to study abroad programs. From here, you should be able to narrow it down to three to five programs you want to apply to. These programs should be in the country, region, or location type you’ve chosen, have the living accommodations you’re looking for (apartment group style or home stay), and include any career-based or skill set specifications you’re after.

What if things don’t work out how you had hoped?

There’s always the anxiety that you’ll get to this new, strange place you thought you’d love, and it isn’t what you expected or something goes wrong. Knowing what the resources are and what you can do in these situations will calm your nerves.

“If [students] have any problems, we have lots of different staff that they can go to. If they have a problem with their academics or their housing or if they get sick, there are different people that can help them and make sure that they’re comfortable. And, if they’re really having a bad time, then we have different cities that they can go to,” said Mott.

Mott used France, specifically Nice and Paris, as an example for differing dynamics between locations where students may thrive in one over another. He used an example of a student who wasn’t a good fit for Nice as they didn’t feel challenged enough, and a big city was what the student needed. So, the student was able to switch programs and relocate to Paris, where they were a perfect fit. This option can be very helpful for students who get into a program that isn’t a good fit for them, but can turn their experience around to get the most out of their time abroad.

Having a good idea of what you’ll encounter in your chosen program is the most helpful way to avoid feeling like a fish out of water in your new location.

“I think a lot of students tend to get overwhelmed with something that they’re not expecting, so we do a good job of setting the right expectations and making sure that the student has that in mind.

Studying abroad is an incredible experience for many students. If you have the desire to go, you should do your best to make it happen. But, taking the time to fully think though choosing your program will help you have the best experience possible.

See also: Should I get a Master’s? The ROI of Grad School.

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