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How to Pick a Study Abroad Program

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There are so many study abroad programs to pick from. Which is best for you? Well, it depends…

Do you want to learn a new language, improve a language you already speak, or experience another country where most people speak English? Speak French? Of course, you could go to France, but you could also go to a French-speaking country or area off the normal beaten path, such as Algeria or Quebec. Do check to make sure that the area you choose speaks a version close enough to the language you know that you can make yourself understood. You wouldn’t want to study Mandarin for 4 years just to travel to a part of China where everyone speaks Cantonese, for instance!

Once you pick a region or country, there’s still some fine-tuning to do. Do you want to be in a rural area, or an urban one? Somewhere in-between? If you do want to go to a large city, consider a large, cultured, but less-famous option, such as Valencia instead of Barcelona, Bruges instead of Amsterdam, or Guadalajara instead of Mexico City.

Whether you’ve picked a geographical area or still aren’t sure, your next step is to read the descriptions of all of the study abroad programs available through your school to see what grabs your fancy. If you just can’t find a program that fits from the study abroad catalogue, don’t be afraid to look elsewhere. There are a wide variety of other programs available, both independent from institutions and institution-sponsored. If you decide to take advantage of one of these, make absolutely sure that you have permission from your college to take time abroad and that they approve the program—otherwise, you might find yourself with a big handful of credits that won’t transfer. Another option is to enroll directly in a foreign school, in which case you should also check to make sure your credits will transfer.

After reviewing the available programs and fingering a likely prospect, it’s time to talk to program alumni. Nobody who runs a study abroad program should hesitate to offer references from former students (if they do, you should hesitate to pursue them further!) Get in touch with alumni and ask them some questions about their experience, including:

  • How did you like your living arrangements? Many study abroad programs put students with host families. While this can be a wonderful way to learn about culture and language, it can be a significant impairment to the kind of freedoms most college students are used to. Especially, er, overnight type freedoms. If the program houses students in a dorm, find out the specifics of the rooming situation and the amenities available.
  • Was it affordable? Travel abroad generally doesn’t come cheap, but cost of living varies widely across the globe. Consider whether meals and housing are included in the program.
  • How rigorous are the academics? Depending on your field of study and intended career path, you may wish to make the most of your classroom time abroad—or to keep it light enough to allow yourself lots of independent learning and fun.
  • What surprised you? And What was difficult? You might find the answers to these some of the most revealing of all.

After you’ve done all this, you should be armed with information to take with you on your journeys. All that’s left is to apply, pack and go. Bon Voyage!


Elisabeth Bailey+

Elisabeth Bailey is a freelance writer and editor with particular interests in academics, food,and sustainability . She is also the author of A Taste of the Maritimes: Local, Seasonal Recipes the Whole Year Round and writes regularly for Canadian Farmers’ Almanac and the National Wildlife Federation. Elisabeth and her family live and enjoy great local food in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia.

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