An Expert Study Abroad Plan (Part One: Getting Started)

When most people think of study abroad, they think of places — London, Rome, Buenos Aires, Tokyo — but to make it happen, you need to focus your thoughts on the FAFSA, course waivers, pre-approval forms, health insurance, and student visas.

There's a lot to consider before you start worrying if your cell phone plan can handle texting overseas. The process will seem daunting, but by all accounts, it's worthwhile. To make this easier for you, we've prepared this step-by-step plan to walk you through the search for the ideal study abroad opportunity. Here are the major decisions you need to make:

Academic Year or Off-Season?

The first major decision to make is when to study abroad. If you are considering study abroad during the academic year, the process is more difficult than if you choose to study during summer, when you are not normally enrolled in classes. If you go during the academic year, you will need to get formal approval and file for a leave of absence in order to maintain your full-time student status. If you study abroad in the off-season, you don't have to formally request time off as the school assume you are on break. These off-season programs include:

  • January Sessions or "J-Terms" are mini-semesters of three or four weeks, designed to squeeze a single course into the end of your Christmas break.
  • May or "Maymester" is composed of a single course taken over three or four weeks, following spring finals and finishing before the usual summer sessions.
  • Summer Sessions are programs between four and ten weeks which usually offer between one and three academic courses, sometimes broken into two sessions ("Summer One" and "Summer Two")

Full, Partial or No Academic Credit?

After you decide when to go, you should next consider how your study abroad experience will be reflected in your transcript or academic record. Ask yourself, "Is this just for fun? Do I want some credit for this? Do I need to fulfill certain course requirements within my major?"

As with any academic credits, those coming from your home university are easily processed and can be tied to a specified plan for your degree progression. If you bring outside credits to your university registrar, they will need a course equivalency and the grade for those courses will only transfer as pass/fail. That means if you are looking to push up your GPA with an "easy A" from study abroad, you are going to have to take a course from your home university. If you think a certain elective is going to be a problem at home, then the pass/fail transfer credit option may be ideal.

Tied to the decision about academic credits is a further look at what you will want to study and how it would be tied to your major. In some highly structured academic majors, like Engineering, Accounting, or Law, the curriculum is tightly coordinated with little room for deviation during the academic year. For example, a Part One course may be offered only in the fall and a Part Two course only offered in the spring. If you leave campus to study abroad in spring, you may not get to take that Part Two course for another year. The following year, your course of study may then assume that you had the Part Two course and offer Part Three, meaning you lost a full year of progression in that subject area. If other, related courses also assume you had Part Two, you've now got a problem in your degree progression. Studying abroad for another semester or changing majors is possible, but just prepare yourself for potential disruption if you choose this path. You can also take a full year abroad, which was the most common study abroad option a generation ago. If your university offers these courses and you can stay on track, then much of your work has already been done and you're a great candidate for study abroad. Remember, if you discover that academic year course juggling is a problem, there are still the off-season (summer, mini-terms) options. Search for Summer Study Abroad Programs here

University Rules and Regulations

Your home university may have an active study abroad office with advisors, planning workshops, and a formal application process. Some will even have a list of programs that have been pre-approved for credit and are known to your academic advisors and university registrar. Check with them first; understand their rules and limitations. Ask lots of questions!

In addition to the rules and processing of your academic year enrollment status, most universities will have clear policies on transfer credit. You should investigate how transferring credit differs for study abroad programs versus domestic summer school or transfer-student admissions. This is especially important if you attend a university that is not very supportive of study abroad. You might have to check with the Registrar (possibly even the Provost's office) for these rules. We offer this advice so you earn credit for your experience. The experience will be priceless, and a little advance work ensures that the results are recognized in your graduation transcript.

Plan before you shop

Think of this phase as a microcosm of your college search because, believe it or not, you have to apply to be admitted to a study abroad program. Depending on the rigor of the program, you may discover that your GPA in college may limit your options or may open doors for you. You may need letters of recommendation and may need to be interviewed. As we keep mentioning, it all depends — every home university is a little different, and every study abroad program is a little different.

Before picking out your ideal study abroad program, you must make sure you meet all the program requirements.

This guide should help frame your search and get you started. In Part Two, we will take a deeper look at the different types of programs, who operates them, and how you might be able to pay for them.