February 2, 2011

Useful Tips to Help You Choose the Right Study Abroad Program

If you’re in college, you probably have a long list of study abroad programs to choose from. It can be overwhelming to decide among so many great opportunities, and it’s a lot of work to make sure you’re ready for the experience. But once you’ve gotten through the tough part, you’ll get all the benefits of studying abroad without the stress of trying to figure it out at the last minute. To help you plan ahead and enjoy the study abroad experience to its fullest, here are some tips that will jump-start your thought process. 

Study the Big Picture
To make sure your study abroad experience happens at the right time in your college career, it’s important to sit down with your academic advisor and plan out every semester of your studies. This can change if you need it to, but having a blueprint for your college years will help you determine how and when to study abroad. Start by planning when you’ll take courses that are absolutely necessary to complete your major. Some of these are offered in alternate years during only spring or fall semesters, so be careful that you don’t schedule your study abroad session during an important one-time opportunity to take a specific course. It’s also helpful to talk to your parents about studying abroad to see if you can get any help with the expenses and to take their thoughts into consideration. 

Know What You Need
If you’re planning to study a foreign language, you’ll need to make sure that the program you choose offers courses that are taught only in that language. Courses that are taught in English can disrupt your immersion experience and give you a crutch that you don’t need. However, this is only effective if you already have a working knowledge of the language you’d like to become fluent in. If it’s all new to you, you’ll need some classes that are taught in English. Talk to a foreign language professor at your current institution to see if you can arrange to take a placement test. 

After planning the classes you’ll take each semester during college, you’ll have a good idea of which courses you need to take in order to graduate. Make sure that you’ll be able to take classes that count toward your requirements while you’re abroad. The study abroad experience is priceless, but if you don’t earn any necessary credits while you’re away, you might have trouble graduating on time when you get back.  

Challenge Yourself
When you study abroad, you’re choosing to leave your comfort zone. Take it a little further by challenging yourself to do something new while you’re exploring a foreign country. Go to the study abroad office and check your school’s programs for extracurricular activities that might enhance your experience and teach you something valuable about yourself. Look for courses you wouldn’t be able to take anywhere else, such as classes that involve field trips, intensive language immersion classes, or something that’s completely unfamiliar to you. When you challenge yourself, you learn more about what you want to study, so this is a great way to use the study abroad experience in your personal and professional development.  

Know Your Housing Options
Many programs allow you to choose between student housing at the new institution and host families. In the majority of programs, host families are only allowed to support one or two students from a single institution, so you won’t spend as much time with students from other countries if you choose a host family. However, you’ll learn a lot about the culture by experiencing it alongside native speakers who can show you the best things about their country. If you choose to stay in student housing, you’ll be more likely to meet students from other countries and learn about other cultures that way. No matter what you decide, you’ll have an enriching experience, but it’s up to you to choose your “home” environment. 

Get Answers
Talk to someone at your study abroad office and see if you can get in contact with some students who have been through the programs you’re considering. They’ll be able to answer any questions you might have and their opinions will be well informed. Anything you’re not getting from the brochure or the program directors can be found out from previous participants, so take advantage of that opportunity to get the answers you need to make the right decision. 

This guest post is contributed by Maria Rainier. Maria Rainier is a freelance writer and blog junkie. She is currently a resident blogger at First in Education where recently she's been researching the highest paying college degrees versus some of the lowest paying college degrees. In her spare time, she enjoys square-foot gardening, swimming, and avoiding her laptop.

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