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How to Choose a Study Abroad Program

Although you might think it was difficult just deciding that you want to study abroad, some might argue that choosing a program is even more difficult.  In fact, with so many places to travel around the world, the decision can certainly be mind-boggling.  However, even though choosing a study abroad program can be difficult, you want to make a careful and calculated decision in order to truly enjoy your time abroad.

While there are many different kinds of study abroad programs, you will want to make your decision by narrowing down your desired programs by using a few categories to guide you.  Once you have an idea of the type of program you want, you can start to make a list of advantages and disadvantages of each program.  Below is an example of ways you can categorize your study abroad programs:

1. Language – If your desire to learn a particular language or become more fluent in that language you will need to decide to what extent learning that language will be important.  Some programs encourage students to take classes with native students in whatever subject you desire.  However, other programs prefer students take literature or language courses with their fellow non-native students.  I would offer the advice that if you are more free spirited and really want to become fluent, it’s best that you take coursework with other native students and not be tied down to hang around other students who also speak the language poorly.

2. Housing – Some programs offer students the chance to live abroad with a host family.  Other programs offer students the chance to live in a dormitory, while others let you decide.  Again, if your goal is to become fluent in a language and make good use of your financial resources, you should opt to live with a family.  However, if your goal is to study abroad without much home life guidance and no restrictions, then off campus housing or staying in a student dormitory is for you.  

Note: When choosing a study dorm, be sure to check out whether the dormitory is a “foreigner’s dorm” or a regular dormitory for natives as well.  I once went on a study abroad program where they had us stay in a dorm that was exclusively for foreigners.  Although it was as nice as a hotel, I felt somewhat out of place with the local friends I made.

3. Coursework – If you desire to have your credits transfer back to your school then you will want to go on a program that allows you to take coursework for credit.  If you are less concerned about the coursework transferring or transferring with grades, be sure to check into this as well.  Some countries have universities that may have more or less challenging coursework your school offers.  If you want to go abroad and do coursework that’s not too serious, you may have to go on a program that won’t transfer back to your school.  If you want to go abroad and do coursework that is serious, you may have to investigate a little more and perhaps study abroad all on your own through an exchange program.

4. Social Life - This category can be extremely important.  If you know for example you are a bit shy about traveling alone, you probably would like a very well structured program that has an itinerary already made up of different locations to visit and histories to learn about.  However, if you are very adventurous and perhaps are going with a group of friends, you probably want a program that offers the flexibility of doing what you want in a less organized fashion.

Now, once you have decided on the type of program you would like to study, there are a few more things to settle out before actually choosing a study abroad program. 

First, you should find out how much the program costs and what they include.  Some programs will include the cost of the flight (roundtrip), tuition, room and board, and so on.  Other programs might exclude the flight and food expenses.  Keep in mind that programs sponsored through your school might be very expensive equally what you pay for tuition at your school.  However, if you decide to go on an exchange program you might pay the local tuition rate because your school isn’t paying its own professors to go abroad and teach.  The question in the end really is just how much do you have to spend?

Lastly, you should figure out how long you want to spend abroad.  Some people go abroad and never want to come back.  If you think you are one of these people, it might be best to go abroad your sophomore or junior year where you can decide randomly to spend an extra semester abroad without much penalty on academic planning for graduation.  Also, some programs offer short term study abroad programs that last just for the summer.  If you think you want to go abroad just for a vacation from the regular campus scene, a summer program would be ideal.  But again, if you want to become fluent in another language while abroad, it’s best to stay for a year.
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