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How to Pick the Best Study Abroad Program for You

With such a large number of study abroad programs available to college students today, it can be difficult to know which is the best study abroad program for you. So what are some important aspects of personal preference to consider?

To help you in your research, consider these three essential questions to ask yourself about your study abroad preferences. This article will also highlight three major types of study abroad programs available to most college students, and will hopefully help narrow down your choices.

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Questions to ask

Why do you want to study abroad? – Knowing why you want to study abroad will help you identify the type of experience you are seeking, and what you’re hoping to gain overall from your time spent overseas. For example: Are you looking for a chance to travel with current friends within your college or department? Are you hoping to become completely immersed in another culture and become fluent in another language? Try to come up with 1-3 things that motivate you to study abroad; any reason you come up with is completely valid!

How long do you want to be abroad? – Program duration length is an important aspect to consider, so it’s a good idea to determine how long you think you’ll be able to be away from home. Think about personal obligations, external circumstances, or personal preferences, and come up with a realistic answer: One week? One month? One semester? A full academic year? If any length of time works for you, it’s great to be flexible, but if one specific time frame is your only option, that’s okay too.

How much independence do you desire overseas? – This question can be perhaps a little more challenging to answer. Many college students can consider themselves independent, living away from home for the first time. However, studying abroad requires a different level of independence on the student’s behalf, especially in the case of programs without on-site support from their home institution or direct connection with many other students from their same country. Take a moment to think about your desired level of independence in the context of a foreign or unfamiliar environment. For example: Do you prefer to be flexible and organize your own travels or do you prefer a structured travel itinerary organized by someone else? Do you wish to be completely immersed in the local culture or would you rather travel within a group of American students? Identifying your personal preferences in terms of independence will be very important when identifying the best study abroad program fit for you.

Types of programs

Now that you’ve answered a few questions, here’s a brief look at some of the major types of study abroad programs that are generally available to U.S. college students. Hopefully it will become clearer which of these programs you may want to consider, and which are not a good fit for you. It’s worth noting that each college and university may vary slightly in the types of programs available to its students, so consulting your campus’s study abroad or international education center to learn more about the specific programs you can apply to is a good idea.

Short-term faculty-led programs – Typically 1-4 weeks in duration, short-term faculty-led programs are facilitated by faculty of the student’s home university, and are usually made up of a small group of American students (sometimes including students from partner U.S. colleges or universities). They are typically linked with a specific course or department that allows students to directly apply their overseas experience to course material. Short-term faculty-led programs might be a good fit for you if:

  • Your preference for program duration is short-term (1-4 weeks)
  • You prefer to have your travel itineraries and excursions planned out for you, as opposed to planning things out yourself or “going with the flow”
  • You feel most comfortable being surrounded by a group of peers from your home country

Co-sponsored/affiliated programs – These are programs that are promoted and co-sponsored by the student’s home university, but are facilitated and organized by a separate institution or third-party study abroad organization. Programs vary in length, including semester/quarter and academic year programs. In co-sponsored/affiliated programs, students usually do not study at a college or university in the host country but at a center or institution run by the program’s organization. For this reason, these programs are comprised primarily of American students and are structured very similar to an American university. Co-sponsored/affiliated programs might be a good fit for you if:

  • You preference for program duration is longer-term (semester/quarter, or academic year)
  • You prefer to have your travels and excursions planned out for you, opposed to planning things out yourself or “going with the flow”
  • You feel most comfortable being surrounded by peers from your home country

Exchange/direct enrollment programs – These programs allow students to enroll directly in college or university courses in the host country, either through student exchange (and paying their home university’s tuition rate) or through direct enrollment in the host institution abroad. Program length is typically long-term (semester/quarter or academic year). While studying in an exchange/direct enrollment program, a student is completely immersed in the host country’s society and culture, interacting primarily with members of the local community, and has a high level of independence in travel planning and everyday decisions. Exchange/direct enrollment programs might be a good fit for you if:

  • You preference for program duration is longer-term (semester/quarter, or academic year)
  • You prefer to be completely immersed in the host country’s culture, society, and language
  • You prefer a high level of independence and to plan your travels and excursions yourself, and do not like to have plans and itineraries planned organized by someone else

Where to go from here?

Now that you’re well on your way to finding the best study abroad program for you, consider reading some of the articles posted on our study abroad page that can help you plan ahead!

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The Author

Dave Harriman

Dave Harriman

Dave Harriman, SHRM-CP, has a background in human resources, anthropology, and international education. His experience teaching English abroad during a gap year as an undergraduate student in Spain ignited his passion and advocacy for student travel. As a human resources professional, Dave is interested in helping students prepare for future career growth, and for helping facilitate social & cultural inclusion in the workplace.

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