Study Abroad 101: The Ultimate FAQ (Part One)

There are 20.5 million college students in the United States, yet fewer than 300,000 studied abroad last year. Just about every college-bound student dreams of studying abroad — so what's wrong?

If you want to study abroad somewhere but aren’t sure where to begin, we’ve created this FAQ to simplify many of the complex considerations associated with a semester overseas.

Why should I study abroad?

Reasons for studying abroad are different for every student. Most students wish to push their individual boundaries by exploring a new culture and learning new things, both academically and personally.

Here are a few other reasons collected from other students. Maybe one will resonate with you:

  • Real-world preparedness: "I gained so much confidence and independence from my travels that I feel a lot more prepared to enter the real world."

  • Global perspective: "I learned that the world is a much bigger and smaller place all at the same time. This program made me realize that my life dream of traveling the world is possible, and we are all more interconnected than we think."

  • Personal growth: "I feel that I gained an immeasurable amount of patience from the experience, both in dealing with a country completely different from my own and dealing with the different kinds of students [who] show up."

  • Unique opportunities: "I got to see some of the most beautiful places and got to experience things I never thought I would. I also pushed my limits and faced fears."

What should I look for in a study abroad program?

Students come in all shapes and sizes; study abroad programs do, too. First and foremost, seek programs which will benefit your personal and academic goals. Confirm that your home school or university will accept the academic credits you would earn through the program(s) you are considering.

Read the fine print. Once you have a found a program with a strong academic fit, research the support offered while abroad (such as health care, emergency and crisis support, and counseling services). Read student reviews from sources other than the program's website (Abroad101 has a comprehensive list of independent student reviews).

Is studying abroad affordable?

Although the sticker price might shock you, there are many ways to make study abroad experiences affordable. Research what options you have at your school or university — many schools offer financial aid for study abroad programs; others will cover the program's cost as part of your tuition. You can also apply for grants and scholarships from outside sources (you can find these online, such as at StudyAbroad.com or through your school's abroad office) to help pay your way.

Additionally, consider the length of programs offered. Shorter programs (such as those offered during the summer) are usually less expensive than semester-long programs. Think outside the box (or globe). Unusual study abroad locations — such as China, Costa Rica, Africa, and South Korea — offer significantly less expensive programs than those in Australia, Western Europe, or the U.K. The less-common country choices tend to have a lower cost of living, so your dollar will go very far.

Are all programs a semester long?

Nope! Although many students choose to attend semester-long programs, there are, as mentioned, a number of summer programs, as well as other short-term programs (usually in January or May). For students with rigorous majors or specific academic requirements, short-term programs offer a great way to experience a culture abroad without interfering with studies at home. Alternately, many programs also offer the option to study for an entire year. Consider your academic goals, and talk to your advisor at your home university to see which length program is best for you.

What if I can't speak another language?

Many students begin an experience abroad with little or no knowledge of the language, but leave with proficient communication skills. Most programs will offer linguistic resources for students so no one feels lost at the start. Some programs do, however, have a language requirement, so do your research. Alternatively, there are plenty of English-speaking countries with great abroad programs.

Whom should I talk to before studying abroad?

Everyone! Define your goals for studying abroad, and collect advice by talking to your advisor, your professors, your parents, your best friend, your barista, and the guy who sits across from you in history class. Call the program or the university in consideration and ask questions. Read student reviews, and contact alumni — they are great resources.

Remember: the decision to study abroad is ultimately yours; don't let anyone talk you out of it!

Where are the safest places to study abroad?

No matter where your program is, the best way to stay safe is to be smart and prepared. Visitors are often perceived as targets, so don't wander too far alone. Review and know what resources and support are available to you in case of an emergency. Don't be afraid to ask questions before you go! Although many assume that western countries are the safest places to study abroad, this is not always the case. Consider programs with host families or home stays; we have read many reports about local communities and families taking the role of host very seriously, providing an additional source of protection and support for their guest students.

Will studying abroad help me get a job?

Studying abroad can be a strong addition to a resume — spending a semester overseas demonstrates independence and proactivity. Of course, much depends on what you gain from your study-abroad experience and how you present it. Think of ways to engage with your experience beyond coursework: volunteer in your new community, start a blog to write about your semester, or use your travels to inspire a creative project or academic thesis upon your return.

Happy traveling!