If you love travel like we do and happen to be going to Uni, then you’ve probably already dreamed about and perhaps planned a study-abroad semester or year. There are a lot of hoops to jump through and important decisions to make. Bigger universities don’t always feel the need to explain things in detail. I’ve put together a few step-by-step tips, based on my own experience in going to Hungary plus some stories from friends of mine who have recently studied abroad.

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1) Decide whether to go through your school or not

For those receiving financial aid or who absolutely need the units to transfer, this is probably your only option. I decided to go outside of my school’s study program because I pay a high out-of-state tuition rate, which would continue in addition to paying for new tuition at a foreign school. I withdrew from my university for a semester, applied directly to my university in Hungary as an exchange student and planned everything else on my own. My advisor in Hungary was supportive and answered questions the best she could, but I still had a lot to tackle.

2) Decide how long to go

Your choices are usually either a semester or a year. Many argue that a semester isn’t really enough time to get comfortable in a place, but your faculty may have on-campus requirements that really only allow you to be gone for a short time. Many programs will let you extend your studies once you’ve arrived, so don’t stress too much about this.

3) Pick a place that has significance to you

Unfortunately, some of my peers found our classes abroad to be under-stimulating. Though this isn’t always the case, it’s nice to have some other interest to fall back on, to make your time abroad worth while. Do you want to perfect your Spanish? Connect to your grandma’s Egyptian roots? Are you interested in Swedish architecture movements? Even if your classes are a let-down, you’ll still have that amazing experience of connecting with something that excites you. I guess this also is a matter of choosing your intentions for the trip. Are you very focused on academics and want to work with a specific professor you know of already? Or are you more interested in a certain culture? Perhaps you just want to be somewhere new for a little while. It’s good to know what you want out of the experience so you can pick a school and program that fits your needs and go out and grab it if things aren’t living up to your expectations! Another good thing to consider is the size of the town or city you’ll be studying in, and what sort of social life will be accessible, whether you’ll be able to mingle with non-students and so on.

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4) Make sure you understand what the program does and doesn’t offer

Some mandate that you live in special student housing, others provide intensive language courses, and still others offer absolutely nothing. Make sure you understand what things you are obligated to be a part of and what things you’re going to have to handle on your own.

5) Start early

I can’t tell you how many semesters I almost went abroad but didn’t because I started planning too late. There is often a lot of paperwork and a lot of dead time waiting to hear back from people involved in applying. An early start will perhaps give you a higher priority to study abroad, reps at your university and will save you stress later.

6) Remember deadlines!

Especially if you are planning yourself, there may not always be someone to remind you when to hand in forms and get your vaccinations. You may even be given wrong information. It took me months to find out how I should go about getting my Hungarian visa. I finally had to drive to the consulate in San Jose only to have her tell me I could just wait until my arrival in the country. When I got to Hungary, everyone was saying we had 90 days to go get our visa. This was information for EU citizens only, and it turned out as an American, I had only 30 days. If I hadn’t found this out on my own, I may have gone too late and been refused a visa and not allowed to remain and study. Find out information from multiple sources and stay on top of deadlines!

7) Take advantage of your partner student

Many universities assign a local partner student to help you out should you have any questions.  They often receive units or volunteer credits for this and so are eager to help. Though you might not necessarily get along with them or want to be best friends, they can give you advice and help with translating issues. Asking pointed questions like, “Where can I find local bands playing?” rather than, “What is cool to do around here?” and you will get advice more suited to your personal tastes. You often will be connected to them before leaving your home country, so you can talk with them a little bit online first.

8) Utilize facebook and other social networking sites

My school in Hungary took very little responsibility for helping us find housing. But the exchange student organization started a facebook group and there were regular postings by people looking to share flats or rent to students. It was really helpful, as renting is actually fairly uncommon in Budapest (most people buy apartments). You can also chat with others from your program and discuss your concerns or excitement.

Of course there are many more tips I could give about getting used to the new country, making friends, and so on, but I consider preparation to be the most important as it can be so complicated and poorly explained by universities. Perhaps some of those other topics might be a great subject for another post…

What are your experiences with preparing to study abroad? Let us know in the comments!

post by Jackie Clark