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6 Questions To Ask Yourself Before Deciding To Study Abroad

Four young men sit on a ledge overlooking a view of a grassy mountain.

This post is from a student, parent, or professional contributor. The opinions expressed by the author are their own and do not necessarily reflect the positions, viewpoints, or policies of Niche.

So, you want to study abroad. Congratulations!

In our ever globalizing world, it’s easier than ever to get an international education. This blog will give you a guideline of ideas on how to tailor your study abroad experience directly to your wishes.

It is part one in a series about studying away at the university level and deals mainly with exploring and choosing the right program for your academic progress. It consists of the key questions you’ll want to ask yourself as you begin thinking about if you’d like studying abroad to be a part of your university experience. 

1. Do you want an American degree or an international one?

When making the decision to study abroad, it’s important to first decide whether you’d like to spend the full three to four years of earning your degree abroad, or if you’d like to attend an American university and study abroad as part of your time there. There are pros and cons to both of these options.

Earning your degree entirely at an international university can be a smart move if you plan on working in the country where your degree was earned after you graduate. Especially in specialized roles like healthcare, education, or government, it’s important to ensure you have the proper educational qualifications that are specific to the country you want to eventually work in.

If you don’t plan on working in the country where you’d like to study after graduation, but you are planning on getting a less specialized or liberal arts degree, earning a degree abroad can still be a worthwhile investment.

Some countries are well known for their academics in a certain area (such as Paris for art, for example), or if the career you want to pursue has a global aspect to it. This can show employers that you have the independence and self motivation to be self sufficient in a foreign country.

On the other hand, spending a full undergraduate experience abroad can be detrimental in certain circumstances. If you don’t have citizenship in the country where you wish to study, it is often much more expensive for international students to enroll in university and there are fewer opportunities for funding.

Obtaining a student visa can be a long and complicated process, and they usually limit the amount of hours you are able to work, making it difficult to be able to afford more expensive fees with less available hours to work. 

If you’d like an American degree, there are still plenty of options to spend a few weeks, a semester, a year, or even longer abroad. This is especially a great option if you want an American degree to begin with but are interested in the possibility of going to graduate school abroad.

It looks great on a resume, and it can be an all around rewarding experience. The rest of this blog will focus on studying abroad while completing a degree at an American university.

2. Does your home university have good study abroad options?

Look, I get it, there’s already so much that goes into building a college list, so worrying about one more thing can add to the stress. But if studying abroad during your time at university is really important to you, it is crucial to ensure you’re choosing a school with a study abroad program that suits your academic, financial, and personal wishes.

There are some key questions you should ask while researching your dream school. (Here’s a tip: if you do an interview as part of your application process and they ask you if you have any questions, this would be a fantastic time to ask about studying abroad while in that university!)

Does the university have campuses abroad? Some schools, such as NYU, have campuses in different countries across the world. This means during your time abroad, you’ll still be taking courses at your home American university.

Does the university have partner schools? Many schools have partner universities abroad, which is a great option to study abroad while not paying expensive international fees. Usually while attending a partner university, you will pay your tuition to your home university and your scholarships and financial aid will still apply. This is because partner universities usually send some students to your home university simultaneously, meaning nobody misses out on tuition fees. Strong partner universities are a fantastic option to look for while researching schools.

Is the university part of a consortium? Some schools have an agreement with other American universities to basically “share” study abroad programs. For example, if you’re enrolled in a State University of New York (SUNY) school, you’re able to enroll in a study abroad program that any SUNY school offers. This is a great option to look for if the university you’re interested in doesn’t have many programs that suit you and another school might.

Are there restrictions on who can study abroad? Some universities have strict curriculum for certain majors, such as engineering or pre-medicine students, leaving students no free schedule space to study abroad or at least very limited options on where they can go.

Does the school have a study abroad advisory team? If so, get in touch! These people have jobs dedicated to ensuring you are able to make the best choices in furthering your academic career by having opportunities abroad. Usually they’re willing to meet or email with potential students, and this is a great way to find out about more or upcoming options that may not be listed on a university’s website.

What do the students say? Try to get in touch with students who have studied abroad at universities you are interested in. Was their program organized? Were there any surprise costs? Do they have any recommendations? Students will be honest with you about their school’s help during their study abroad program, so they are a great resource.

Once you’ve enrolled in your school, already having asked these questions answered can make your future study abroad experience run much more smoothly.

While it is true that you can study abroad with other American universities, choosing a program that is not offered by your home campus can often be more expensive and at times might not transfer smoothly or even at all. 

How To Choose The Best Study Abroad Program

3. What type of program are you looking for?

As stated above, universities have many different types of study abroad programs. In some cases, you do American coursework while abroad, and in other cases you enroll in a completely foreign university as a student there. It’s important to determine which type of program you’re looking for.

Faculty Led: Faculty led programs are programs that usually run during summer or winter terms. Professors that teach at your home university may conduct research or teach classes abroad.

These are courses that do not have to be transferred back to your home university, because while abroad, they’re taught by professors from your home university. Most courses will go directly on your transcript with a letter grade.

These programs are great for students looking to do research, collect data, or even observe if their academic professors are in more technical roles. 

Campus/Facility Abroad: Sometimes universities will have extension schools abroad. For example, Webster University has campuses not only in Missouri, but also in Switzerland, Austria, Greece, China, Ghana, Central Asia, and even more. All of these schools are the U.S. accredited university Webster University; they’ve just been placed in different areas globally.

These programs are similar to faculty led in that the courses you take would not need to be transferred back to your home university campus, but they differ in that instead of short term programs where the professors return to your home campus at the end, these campuses are fully functioning schools in their own right with professors who live there full time.

These programs are good for students who want to experience living abroad and immersing themselves in a new culture personally, but academically would like to continue in an American university system completing American coursework.

They’re also good for locations where universities may teach primarily in a foreign language, and you’d like to experience the culture but do not have a high enough proficiency in the foreign language to enroll in a partner university there.

A university may not have a campus abroad but sometimes has another facility abroad. For example, a Stony Brook University professor founded Centre ValBio, which is a research facility in Madagascar. While technically not a campus, Centre ValBio offers students the opportunity to conduct research and enroll in Stony Brook courses while living in Madagascar.

Exchange Program: I am currently enrolled in an exchange program. I am studying in England at the University of Manchester, which is a partner university of my home university, so I am still enrolled in Stony Brook University.

This option was the best option for me. I am paying my tuition to Stony Brook, and my scholarships and financial aid are still applied. I pay accommodation fees to the University of Manchester.

I was fascinated by the University of Manchester’s course offerings and I completed paperwork at Stony Brook to ensure the courses I wanted to take would transfer back to my academic program without any problems.

Students like me who attend partner universities are interested in not only immersing themselves in the culture of a foreign country, but also in different academic systems.

Since I am looking to pursue a career in the international sphere, I knew it was important for me to show on my resume that I could learn from people all over the world. Stony Brook University and the University of Manchester have offered me very different but highly beneficial opportunities, and I’ve loved them both.

While here, I have lived as a British student would live. I live in a flat with British students and have had the opportunity to explore England in my spare time.

It was important to me to get a full immersive experience, and the best way for me to receive that was through an exchange program. The courses you take in an exchange partnership may not show up on your transcript with a letter grade; they may instead show up as a transfer elective.

If you have to have a letter grade in a course for major credit, it’s important to check on your school’s policy for taking required courses abroad. Even if the courses end up not having any bearing on your GPA, do not take that as an excuse to slack off.

You will be issued a transcript by your host university at the end of your program, and graduate schools usually request all transcripts when applying, meaning they’ll still see these grades. 

4. When do you want to go?

Study abroad programs run year round. You can go for a winter (usually three credits in three weeks), a summer (varies from about three to nine credits in three to eight weeks), during a semester, or for a full academic year.

Studying abroad during a semester or academic year will offer you the most immersive experience as you have far more time to live with locals and integrate into the culture.

Summer and winter programs are often geared towards students who are unable to interrupt their academic progress for a semester or longer (such as engineering or pre-med students).

That’s not to say it’s impossible to study abroad as an engineering or pre-med student. It could be a more complicated process ensuring the courses you need are available and accredited.

Short programs such as summer and winter programs are also beneficial if you are interested in conducting research or learning a language without taking other coursework. 

Most students study abroad in their second or third year in university. That way, they can still integrate into college as a freshman but benefit from all of the research and special programs that are usually reserved for seniors.

This is not a hard and fast rule, though, and there are many exceptions. Think about your course requirements for each academic semester. Are there any you particularly want to take at your home university? Best to avoid that semester then. 

5. Where do you want to go?

This is the big question. When asked, students usually either immediately have an answer or go with a general “anywhere.”

I get it, I do. I’ve been in both boats. This semester I was planning to go to Russia to study Slavic languages, but due to the ongoing conflict, the program was canceled.

After the program was canceled, I was one of the students who said “anywhere.” The University of Manchester had just extended the deadline to apply for their school and I was immediately fascinated by their courses, so I applied.

But it’s not always that simple. I have a flexible degree program where studying abroad at some point is expected, so I could go anywhere and be fine academically. I know that’s not always the case. So how do you decide where you want to go?

If you’re looking for pros and cons of specific study abroad locations, that’ll be a future blog post. For now, we will focus on the questions you should ask yourself as you take into account the different locations offered by your university.

Is the country or university I’m looking at prestigious in their field? This could be as obvious as maybe you’re studying the classics and want to study in Athens or Rome, but it could also be more subtle.

Are you a chemistry major who wants to specialize in art restoration? Maybe a semester in Italy would be good for you, as they have plentiful museums.

Are you inclined towards marine biology and conservation? Check out Australia’s Gold Coast. If your interests are inherently linked towards a location, that’s always a fantastic place to start. 

Do you speak the language? This is the question everybody dreads, so take note now: you do not necessarily have to speak the native language of a country to study abroad there!

Is it helpful? Yes. Necessary, though, not always. As stated previously, universities often have faculty-led programs in other countries that are conducted in English, but your options don’t end there.

A lot of major universities that have partnerships with American universities offer at least a few courses in English. Your options may be more limited than that of a native speaker, but they’re usually there.

In most countries you can even find entire schools that have English as their academic language, even if they’re not an American degree accrediting program. 

If you’d like to face the challenge and enroll in classes taught in a foreign language, be careful what you choose. Maybe you’ve taken Spanish for years and can hold a conversation with a local, but do you know complex scientific terms that would be common in a laboratory?

If you’re unsure, stick to less complex curriculums in Spanish and tackle your labs in your native language. 

What is the cost of living? If you’re torn between two countries, it’s a good idea to look at their cost of living. Groceries, fast food, public transportation costs, etc are all important to note.

Schools in Switzerland and Spain, for example, have fantastic partnerships with American universities, and while it may cost you the same amount to enroll in either one of the programs, living in Switzerland is much more expensive than living in Spain. Take into account your budget past paying for tuition and accommodation. 

Do you want to travel while abroad? Many students use the winter and spring breaks of their study abroad experiences to travel to neighboring regions or countries. If experiencing more than one location is important to you, it’s not always best to just choose by what’s closest.

Some countries may seem further removed from their neighbors, like England being an island, but offer large flight discounts for traveling within Europe. Student run organizations also often offer trips to interesting areas locally for discounted prices. 

Will you need a visa? For short term programs, American students usually do not need a visa to study in a foreign country. However, each country has a different requirement.

If you’d like to study in a foreign country for a year, it’s almost definite that you will need a visa. Some countries will even require it for a semester. The process of getting a visa can be complicated,  so when choosing between destinations, take note of which ones will require one. 

Are there current restrictions? The pandemic and international conflict led to many universities temporarily suspending their study abroad partnerships. While most countries have reopened completely, there are still a few that while accepting study abroad students, are still pretty locked down.

Check the requirements on vaccinations, quarantining, and traveling for each country. This is also a good time to take into account any medical restrictions you may have.

Some countries ban medications that are perfectly legal in the United States, especially certain mental health medications. Make sure that if you’re on any necessary medications that you will be able to bring them into your country of choice. 

6. Are there scholarships available?

Studying abroad can be an expensive affair. Some schools offer scholarships to students studying on specific programs or degree paths, and some offer scholarships simply for wanting to study abroad.

The government also offers scholarships to students who have the potential to make a difference in issues of international cooperation or national defense. Make sure you explore all these options before making your payments as they could save you a lot of money. 

Studying abroad is an exceptionally rewarding experience that not only looks great on a resume, but also leaves you with memories that will last for a lifetime.

If you’re applying to schools, think about the study abroad programs of the schools you’re applying to and see if they’re right for you. If you’re already a university student, check out your school’s study abroad office and see if any of the programs look intriguing. It could be one of the most exciting decisions you’ll ever make. 

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Author: Zoe Bussewitz

Hello! I am a sophomore at Stony Brook University currently studying abroad at the University of Manchester. I study Journalism and Social Sciences (politics, psychology, linguistics). I worked in Stony Brook’s Study Abroad office for a year and am passionate about sharing global educational experiences with you all! In my spare time I enjoy filmmaking, playing folk and fiddle music, and traveling anywhere and everywhere.