Her Campus Logo Her Campus Logo

4 Questions to Ask Before Deciding to Study Abroad

It may seem like this semester’s going to last forever, but with only a couple months left, it’s already time to start thinking about next year. With never-ending midterms, next year’s course enroll period, and the housing lottery ahead of us, it can be hard to get amped up for another semester of the same major, the same people, and the same stuffy dorm room or shabby apartment. But if you’re starting to go a little stir-crazy in your college town, why not switch it up a little? And no, we don’t mean by trying a new flavor of Yoplait Light—we’re talking about studying abroad. A semester or summer in a different country provides a totally amazing, and totally different, summer experience and a chance to travel and explore other cultures without a hectic school schedule in your way. You can use the time to earn major credit, volunteer overseas, explore a new career overseas, even learn the secrets to Italian cooking, while your friends trek to the library and drink Keystone at home.

But don’t hop on that plane just yet—before you study abroad, you have lots to consider. Her Campus talked to Dean Tsouvalas, Editor-in-Chief of StudentAdvisor.com, and to study abroad students around the world, about what to ask yourself—and your study abroad advisor—when planning your time overseas. Hit these five key questions and you’ll be ready to take off before you know it!

1. What kind of experience do I want?

Every city in the world offers a different cultural experience, and wherever you choose to study abroad will have a huge effect on the months ahead. As much as your time abroad will be about studying, working, or volunteering, it will be even more about exploring and fitting into a new environment and absorbing the culture around you. So when considering where to study, you should first ask yourself what kind of feel you want your abroad location to have. Do you want a big cosmopolitan city where you’ll be able to speak English? Consider London. Want more of a small town where you’ll be forced to speak Spanish all the time? Maybe Granada is more for you.  Samantha, a junior at Cornell, chose to study abroad in Seville, Spain, because of its unique college-town feel: “I’d visited Madrid, Barcelona and Seville a few years earlier and I thought the charm of Seville, the small town yet city feel, made me fall in love with the city.” Marlyse, another junior at Cornell studying abroad in Paris, wanted a totally different experience: “Paris is pretty wonderful and I knew I wouldn’t get bored…after living in a small town like Ithaca, NY (where Cornell is located) I needed a change.”

It’s also important to consider your city of choice’s location on a world map. As much as you may be dying to volunteer in Papua New Guinea, it may not be the most convenient place for weekend trips to France and Italy. Marlyse says she also picked Paris for its central location in Europe, making train and plane tickets cheap and easy for international travel. And don’t forget to look up the weather: when it’s summer in the States, it’s winter in the Southern Hemisphere, and vice versa—so Buenos Aires may be a better choice for a winter/spring abroad than for a summer stay.  Tsouvalas says weather can be a much more important consideration than you’d think: “While Australia, for example, is a really popular study abroad destination for spring and fall, it’s important to consider that it’s winter in Australia during the June-August, so you may not want to spend a summer abroad there.”

2. What are my goals for this trip?

If you don’t want or need to fulfill extra academic credits, you could use your time to intern, work, volunteer, teach English…the possibilities are endless. So once you pick a location, the next step is to figure out if you want to study, work, or volunteer during your time there. If you hope to get academic credit, talk to your study abroad advisor and explore accredited university programs that are approved by your school. Make sure you do your homework—summer study abroad programs, for example, are often not directly sponsored by your school, so you’ll need to research programs on your own through your school’s study abroad website and then ask your advisor if you’ll be able to get credit. Tsouvalas warns, “The types of credits that you get are probably more class-specific than an actual semester of work. You may get credit for your major for one or two classes you take, but you probably won’t be able to cover a traditional semester’s worth of credits during the summer.” Academic-year programs are usually easier to find and apply to your studies, since you’ll be there for a whole semester and will be able to take a full courseload.

If you want to study while abroad, don’t be afraid to call a program and university and ask questions, such as:

  • How many students typically participate in your program?
  • How many international students study at your school?
  • What language are the classes taught in?
  • Will my transcript come from an accredited college or university?
  • Is there a staff just for international students? Can I expect any support when I get there?

If the program seems like a good fit for you, go over the university’s course catalogue with your advisor and pick courses you may be interested in, then email them to your academic advisor to see if you’ll be able to get credit for them.

If you want to intern, work, or volunteer, make sure you thoroughly research the program and make sure it’s safe and approved by your advisor. If you want to get academic credit for an internship abroad, set up a meeting with your school’s career services BEFORE you sign up for the program to discuss your school’s policy.

And don’t be afraid to think outside the box! Sonia, a junior at Cornell, proposed doing something totally different and spending a summer teaching children English in rural Tibet. She loved it so much she returned two more summers, and although the program wasn’t originally recognized by her school, she started a club so that future Cornell students could do the same thing. As long as you do your homework and make sure everything checks out with your school, the world is your oyster! 


3. How are my language skills?

It might be tough to remember if you’re standing at the Eiffel Tower surrounded by tourists, but in most cases, traveling to a foreign country means encountering a new language. When choosing a location and program, it’s crucial you keep your language goals in mind. Do you want to leave the program fluent in the country’s tongue? Or are you looking to explore the city while working or studying in English? Before you commit to a program, find out their language requirements and see if they meet your goals and skill set, and then make sure it checks out with your school. Marlyse says that her school only allowed her to directly enroll in a French university and take all her classes in French: “I was really excited about that because I’d been taking French for years and wanted to become fluent while I was abroad, but a lot of my friends ended up not studying in Paris because their French wasn’t good enough. Cornell required we got to an advanced level of French before leaving and did all our work in French while we were there, so the program isn’t for everyone.” If you don’t speak the country’s language and want to enroll in an American or international school, check with your abroad advisor to make sure you can get academic credit—if not, you may want to consider an English-speaking country like England, Australia, Copenhagen or Switzerland (they have four official languages!). Tsouvalas points out that studying abroad during the summer, especially, gives you even less time to learn a language than during the school year, so if you feel really week in a language you may not want to overwhelm yourself with a foreign tongue for a short period of time. “You don’t want a language barrier to hinder your experience if you don’t have time to really practice,” he says.

If you do want to improve your language skills while abroad, keep that in consideration when choosing housing. Living in a Florence apartment with eight other American students may be fun, but it won’t give you much of a chance to practice your Italian. Samantha’s study-abroad program offered a home-stay as a housing option, and she took it to practice her Spanish. She’s happy with her choice: “I get the chance to speak Spanish with my host parents every day at meals, and I really feel like it’s helped. Doing a home-stay definitely has made my experience more authentic.”

4. Can I afford this?

A semester or summer abroad is an incredible experience—but it comes at a price. Often a pretty hefty price, as a matter of fact. You certainly won’t walk away from the experience with a hefty wad of cash like after a semester or summer at a mind-numbing hostessing, administrative or babysitting job (unless you score a paying internship or job while abroad, which is a Herculean feat). The summer is shorter than a school semester, cutting down on your overall expenses and housing costs, so it may be a more viable option if a semester overseas is too expensive. Also, if you only take a couple classes while abroad or participate in a volunteer program, you avoid the high price of tuition for the summer. If you normally receive financial aid there’s a chance you’ll be able to get assistance abroad, too, but make sure to talk to both your school’s study abroad and financial aid offices well in advance of applying. However, Tsouvalas warns that it can often be more difficult to receive financial aid for summer programs, especially for those receiving grants as opposed to loans. Talk to your school’s study abroad office well in advance of booking a program to discuss your options—even if you can’t get aid on tuition for the summer, you may able to score a housing grant or stipend if you’re working or volunteering overseas.

If you’re concerned about having enough money for food and other daily expenses, talk to your study abroad advisor about options for English tutoring or part-time jobs. If you’re staying in a country for only a few months you won’t be able to obtain a work visa, but some student visas allow international students to work part-time. Even if you don’t have a work visa, you may be able to get a babysitting or tutoring gig while abroad. Talk to former participants to see how much they spent while abroad and if they were able to work while overseas, and make sure you look into tuition, housing, and meal plans before you leave. Marlyse says she didn’t do enough research into how much things cost in Paris before going abroad, and she was shocked to find how expensive everything is: “I wish I’d been more prepared for how much everything costs here; it took me a while to really figure out how to budget while in such an expensive city.”

It may sound like a lot, but if you can answer all four of these questions before you decide to go abroad, you’ll be totally set for the most amazing semester or summer of your life. You chose the right location, you’re in the perfect program, you speak the language (or can learn to), and you’re set for money. Now all you’ve got to do is buy a couple guidebooks and get on the plane, and you’re off to distant shores. Just don’t forget about your fellow collegiettes™ while you’re off having an exotic experience abroad!

College students studying abroad around the world
Dean Tsouvalas, Editor in Chief of StudentAdvisor.com

Amanda First is a senior English major at Cornell University.  She is Life Editor of Her Campus, as well as founding editor of Her Campus Cornell. She has interned for Cornell Alumni Magazine, Harper's Bazaar, and Parents through ASME's internship program.  Some of her favorite things include high heels, browsing ShopBop, yoga, The O.C. reruns (but only before Marissa dies), and Tasti D-Lite. After college, she hopes to pursue a career in magazine journalism.