How to Pick a Study Abroad Program

by Vanya Akraboff

Studying abroad is absolutely one of the best ways you can take advantage of the four (or more!) years spent in the pursuit of a degree. Might as well hit those books in Europe or Asia, or even lying on the beach in Costa Rica, right? By studying abroad, you get to take a break from your education while simultaneously advancing it. No matter what type of experience you choose or end up having, you will have an entirely new perspective on what you are doing back in your “real life” by the time you head home.

So how do you pick a study abroad program that will allow you to have fun and travel while getting you closer to graduation? It’s easy, or so it would seem. Finding a program that gives you all the things you want while, hopefully, pushing you out of your comfort zone, can get a little complex. The following guidelines should help get you started.

  1. Brainstorm: First things first, where do you want to go? Actually, more importantly, what do you want to accomplish? Whether it’s learning a language, studying your chosen subject at its source, or partying like a rock star, your objective in studying abroad should be the first step in determining where you want to go. If extra-curricular travel is part of your plan, where would you like to travel? Where are some of the best places in the world to indulge your hobbies? The bottom line is, if everything else in your program isn’t what you imagined you can still have a pretty amazing experience if you like where you’re studying.
  2. Research: Once you’ve decided on a specific country or area of the world, start researching what programs are out there. The aptly-named websites studyabroad.com, goabroad.com, and studyabroaddirectory.com are good places to start, as they mostly display links to programs in different countries. If your university has a study abroad office, you can head there next to pick up pamphlets on what programs your school offers. However, don’t depend on the study-abroad office to have all the information you need. Some study abroad offices can walk you through the whole process, others only have information about programs sponsored by the school, and some do little more than provide and file con-current enrollment forms. It’s a good resource to check out, but they might not have information on the best programs for you.
  3. Program Types: The next step is to choose which type of program you’d like to attend. What type of experience do you want to have while studying abroad? Do you want to live with a host family, be taught by professors from home, or go on planned excursions? How much on-site support do you want? Out of all the different program sponsors and providers, there are three basic program types.
    • Home university programs: These are programs that are directly sponsored by your home university. Whether the program is a sister school partnership with a foreign university or is made up entirely of home university faculty and students, these are generally the simplest programs to apply to and get credit for. Usually, there will be at least one faculty member or staff from your home university on-site, and you will be with many other students from your school.
    • Independent programs: These are the programs you see all the flyers for, such as CIEE, IFSA, and CEA. They either involve attending a foreign university with on-site program staff, or the program is entirely taught by faculty employed by the sponsoring organization. Often, independent programs are more expensive because you are paying for more support services and organized excursions. Even if the program isn’t directly affiliated with your school, independent programs are generally very organized and credit transfers shouldn’t be too much of a problem.
    • Direct-exchange: Applying to and attending a foreign university generally provides the most authentic experience of being a student in a foreign country. Although this is the best bet for learning a foreign language, there is usually little or no support staff for housing or health issues, and it can be more difficult to meet other students.
  4. Comparing Programs: Now that you’ve chosen a type of program and a country, it’s time to narrow down your choices. If you haven’t already, now you should visit your school’s study abroad office to gather info on financial aid, scholarships, and credit transfers. Compare the offered classes from similar programs, and check to make sure you meet the minimum language and class standing requirements. Also, it’s a good idea to contact the program sponsor and ask if it would be possible to talk to other students who have done the program you are considering – they’ll give you the information you won’t find on a website or in a pamphlet. Now is also the time to check in with your department and see how your study abroad plans fit in with your academic plans (if that’s something you’re concerned about).
  5. Making it work: Once you’ve decided on a program, or a few, it’s simply a matter of figuring out all the little stuff, such as when you’d like to go and for how long. Cost can help you make your final choice, but don’t let it be a deciding factor – almost every program offers some type of financial aid. Again, make your final decision based on where you want to go and what you want to do there. If you’ve gotten this far and realize your school doesn’t (yet) have a system in place for getting your credits transferred, be persistent and creative – don’t give up on your dream program. For every program at every school, there had to be the pioneer student who did it first!

original photos, top to bottom, by: UBC Library Graphics and Carlos Andres Restrepo