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Study Abroad Advising Checklist

How to Set Up a Successful Timeline and Choose the Right Program

Study abroad at Oxford.
Planning your study abroad experience can lead to a year at Oxford.

When some people hear the term “study abroad,” they often imagine that the process goes as follows: take a plane, enroll in a few classes, and then take that the same plane back at its conclusion. In fact, most students associate studying abroad with a lighter course load, the opportunity to travel, and generally just having a good time. Few realize that studying abroad involves a long and complex planning process.

But the reality is that the key to ensuring the entire study abroad experience is successful involves extensive planning. While some schools may allow the occasional overachiever to go overseas during their senior year with only a short preparation period, this is a rare scenario. My experience testifies that planning ahead pays off in the long run, having studied, worked, interned, and volunteered abroad in various countries.

In our increasingly global society, we should all be aware of the importance of cross-cultural communication. Studying abroad is the ideal, if not essential, opportunity to immerse oneself in a foreign culture. The ensuing learning process is more than a mere resume-booster; if you study abroad “successfully” — and by that, I mean genuinely coming to know the local way of life and its language — the experience can be life-changing. It may even result in a never-ending desire to go abroad repeatedly.

The Student Advising Process

If you have never left the country, spending several months away from home, friends, and family may initially seem daunting. But no need to worry; as a student, countless resources are available to aid you in the entire process. The first should be the Study Abroad Office at your home university, specifically, a Study Abroad Advisor.

The first step here is simple: make an appointment. Ideally, your first meeting should occur in your first year since studying abroad requires ample preparation and planning. Assume you are a sophomore or even junior reading this. In that case, however, there is no need to turn away: it is not too late to initiate a meeting, but be aware that your options could be more limited.

Regardless of your current year in college, the following goes for all: research and come prepared. Even though your first meeting with the Study Abroad Advisor will be informal and general, it never hurts to have given the whole idea some thought.

To get you started, here are some questions you should ask yourself:

  • Do I Even Want to Go Abroad?
Always the essential question. No matter whether the answer is “Yes,” “No,” “Maybe,” or “I don’t know,” it is worth paying your study abroad office a visit. The advisors there will be able to provide you with helpful information no matter your first inclination. And who knows, they may even be able to steer an initial “No” towards an enthusiastic “Yes.”
  • Why? What are My Goals?
Establishing a clear set of objectives is essential. These can range from getting to know a foreign way of life to learning a new language to immersing oneself more fully in a culture that is part of one’s familial heritage. Remember that goals can change over time, so reflect on them occasionally, at least once abroad and once when you have returned. It may even help to write them down.
  • Where? Do I Need to Speak a Foreign Language?
The language component is, in most cases, a key to going abroad. Most study abroad programs will require a minimum number of semesters a student has already taken the language to study in the local system. Planning ahead is, therefore, crucial. For those wishing to learn English, look at programs in the U.K., Australia, and Scandinavia, where English is often the teaching language.
  • When? For How Long?
The experience abroad can range anywhere from a 2-week travel course to a summer, a semester, or even an entire academic year. What works best for you depends on your goals and the available programs your school accepts. For an in-depth discussion on the pros and cons of short versus long-term study abroad, see my related piece about the pros and cons.

Once you have given the above questions some thought, you can also discuss them with your advisor. In addition, they will be able to provide you more concrete information on such issues as:

  • Courses and Credits: The idea may be to go abroad, but what you study must also work within your degree program. So, ensure you know which classes will be available abroad and whether you will receive credit.

  • Application Process and Pre-Requisites: These will vary from school to school and program to program. Check whether you will need recommendations from professors, such as language teachers. Most schools also have a minimum GPA to maintain to go abroad. Language requirements also need to be met for programs in foreign countries.

  • Financial Aid / Cost of Living: Check whether your scholarships or grants will also apply while you are abroad, and if so, how the money will be transferred to you. Additional scholarships may be available specifically for study abroad. Finally, when choosing your location, remember that the cost of living is much higher in London than in Costa Rica.

  • Past Students and Evaluations. Getting a former student to give you advice on their study abroad experience can be beneficial. Ask your advisor for email addresses. Some schools will even have a mentoring program to sign up for.

You can even take the following sheet directly to the first meeting:

My Study Abroad Experience

Initial Questions and Answers

I would like to go abroad in:

  • Summer
  • Fall
  • Spring
  • Entire academic year
Combination of the above

I would like to go to:

  • Africa
  • Europe
  • Latin America
  • Asia
  • Former Soviet Block
  • Middle East
  • NZ/Australia
  • Pacific Islands

My goals for study abroad are:

  • learning/improving a language
  • travel
  • immersion in a foreign culture
  • internship
  • volunteer work
  • other
I speak / would like to learn the following language:  
I need to fulfill the following academic credits:  

Previous experience abroad:

  • I have been abroad before
  • When, where, for how long, doing what
  • I have been not been abroad before

My doubts and fears about study abroad:

For example, culture shock, finding friends, maintaining contact back home, housing, etc.

My next steps:

For example, researching different programs, contacting former participants, attending a study abroad fair, etc.

After the First Meeting

Once you have answered the initial vital questions, take a moment to reflect. Do some additional research; you may find out that the rainy season in Peru, for example, is in the fall, and therefore, decide to move your study abroad to the spring. Though weather should not ultimately be the deciding factor, there are countless others to consider.

For example, most schools offer a variety of study abroad programs. For those who are more adventurous, independent, and fluent in the language spoken by natives, enrolling directly in the local institution may be possible. A program at the Sorbonne is sure to be cheaper than enrolling in it via an American university. Whether or not you will receive the same amount of credit (if any) is an important question to discuss with your advisor. A decision like this also depends on how much of an (American) support network you seek while abroad; some students have no problem in a foreign environment, while others prefer a culturally similar base with whom to connect. Think honestly about what kind of person you are and make your choice accordingly.

Regarding your advisor, it may take some emailing back and forth, along with some additional meetings, to set up a clear strategy. Social media can also be helpful in the research process, but base your opinion on something other than where your Facebook friends are going. Ultimately, from your advisor to social media, comprehensive research should enable you to present a well-justified argument not only to your parents, professors, friends, and yourself.

Once you have decided on a select number of programs, apply. And when you do, be realistic about your goals — i.e., do not apply to a program in France that requires near-native fluency when you have not even passed the first semester of French. Finally, be sure to pay attention to deadlines!


Now, it is time to start with a bunch of organizational details. Visa, plane ticket, health insurance, preparation courses: all these things must be taken care of before going. Again, feel free. Your advisor will have experience guiding students through the process, but come prepared to do some work yourself. Check again with your Financial Aid Office and estimate a budget you will need abroad. Also, determine whether additional activities, such as internships, must be arranged beforehand or in-country.

Advising Abroad

Most students think that the relationship with the advisor ends when they are abroad. However, it can be helpful to keep in touch. They can answer questions about logistical matters, such as credits or insurance. Moreover, your advisor can tell you about interesting opportunities, such as photo contests, which could offer you some very appreciated pocket money for that trip to the south of Spain. Finally, if you are doing well, tell your advisor about that, too. A little thank you can go a long way.

Back Home

Returning to reality at your home institution can involve quite a reverse culture shock. Feel free to meet with your advisor to discuss how you are adapting. Take some time to reflect upon your overall experience. What did you like? What did you not like? What would you repeat? If so, your advisor can provide some helpful information on how you can go abroad again, whether with another study abroad or a post-graduate program overseas. Finally, do not let your learning experience become buried; share it with fellow students. Transitions Abroad will allow you to earn cash with a well-written Participant Report. Become a mentor and inspire others to study abroad as well!

For More Info

IEEPassport: A search engine helpful for finding study abroad programs worldwide.

Transitions Abroad Participant Stories: Search here to learn about another student’s experience on a particular program.

CIEE: Offers study abroad programs all over the globe. Also offers work, teaching, and internship options.

Related Articles
How to Fund Your Study Abroad
Study Abroad Increases Professional Job Prospects

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