Your In-Depth Guide On How Long To Study Abroad
Fantastic! You’ve decided you want to study abroad. Maybe you aren’t sure of where or how long, but you know you want to invest in your education across borders. As a study abroad alumna, I can confirm that you are making a wonderful choice.
But wait. You know you want to go, but how exactly? My guess is you probably already have a specific location in mind. Your major and your language abilities usually have some influence on that. For me, I knew I wanted to focus on the United Kingdom because of my English Literature major and fascination with the culture. I also knew that I had little interest in language immersion, which would be my only other option seeing the number of credits I had left before I graduated.
Then came the hardest part (that I didn’t really realize would be all that difficult). How long did I want to stay there? In making my decision, and once I actually studied abroad, I realized a few pros and cons. Here’s my personal list of the benefits and drawbacks to every study abroad time length.
WINTER & SPRING BREAKS
If you’re only looking to spend a few weeks in another country, check out your options for winter and spring break. Many universities offer partnerships with various programs around the world during breaks in the academic year, including volunteering and other major opportunities catered to students. My home university offers “Alternative Service Break” trips within and outside of the United States, giving student volunteers the ability to spend their free time helping others and feeling like they did something valuable during their break. I also know many friends that traveled to London for an architecture specific program that overlapped spring break.
These trips are great because they provide you with opportunities to see and do a lot in a structured amount of time. Often your days are planned for you and your university or program tries to fill your days with as many activities as possible because, hey, you’re only there for two or three weeks! If you are on a tight track to graduate and your semesters don’t allow for a lot of wiggle room to travel or study abroad long term, these trips are a perfect short-term way to diversify your education.
While these are all great benefits, there are a few drawbacks that come to mind. First, they tend to be rather expensive. Most of these trips cost anywhere from $1,000 USD to $4,000 USD, depending on the program or intention of the trip. If you have scholarships that can cover that or you aren’t worried about expenses, that’s great! Also: if you want to go on a volunteer trip, you can fundraise the cost of the trip by asking family and friends to sponsor you through GoFundMe and other websites of the like. I did this for a summer program that I did through my church, and was able to raise $3,000 in two and a half months. If the cause is worth it, the work to get there will be rewarding.
Lastly, and in my mind most importantly, two or three weeks simply isn’t enough to truly experience a culture. Also, remember that the amount of money a program costs and how long you’re there for might not be worth it. Despite how much your program crams in, you won’t be able to develop relationships with locals or have a true grip on the area you’re in. There’s a difference between living somewhere and visiting. Take this into consideration when looking at short term winter/spring break programs!
In between academic years is a fantastic way to get an international education. What a better way to spend your summer? Like many winter/spring break options, many schools offer volunteer and program specific options for summer study abroad. Many of these programs have structured group time and tours built-in to the program but also allow for free time for you to explore your temporary home on your own. Note: the longer the program, the better!
Summer abroad programs allow you to see some of the beautiful sites of Europe, South America, Asia, and North America. Experience some of the best weather in many gorgeous places in the world. You also can earn college credits that apply towards your degree, whether they are general education or major specific. Depending on your program, you’ll most likely live with other international students or with a local family who has volunteered to take in an international student for the summer. Again, find a program that fits what you want out of your experience! There are thousands of study abroad programs available, and many of them are tailored for students who want to spend their summer breaks abroad.
Many places around the world have national or local holidays during the summer, providing insight and immersion of the native life. The United States has the Fourth of July, France has Bastille Day, and Scotland has Celtic Festivals! If you are particularly fascinated by a certain culture, look to see if they have a unique holiday that you know you just have to see.
Okay, time for the disadvantages to studying abroad during the summer. The first that comes to mind is time. Again, I am a huge advocate for longer experiences. Summer is great for exploring and getting to know your town, but not long enough to truly experience what it is like to live somewhere. Price tends to also influence what you get out of a program. Depending on the program, it can cost anywhere from $4,000-$8,000 USD. Which is quite a lot for only two months. If you feel like everything that is included in the program is worth the cost, go for it! But make sure to ask questions, like, is housing included? What is my meal plan, or how does the transportation work/cost?
If you tend to work during summers to earn money for the academic year, ask yourself if you can afford to spend money instead of making money, too. This was a major factor for why I chose not to study abroad during the summer. It seemed easier to work hard during the summer, save money, and then spend it during the following semester abroad.
Leading us to…
AKA the sweet spot of studying abroad. Also, the most popular of all the options! If you’re ready to commit to spending four months of your life truly living in another country, traveling on the weekends, and learning an entire semester in international universities, this one’s for you.
In my small (but experienced) opinion, this is a great option for those of you who have always wanted to study abroad. It’s especially great for those who are interested in moving abroad post-graduation or attending graduate school internationally. You get an opportunity to truly live in another country and see whether it’s something you’ve always wanted or something that you like but decide you miss home more. Four months is a great time length for people who are unsure of what their experience will be like.
When I say you truly get to live somewhere, here’s what I mean. You grocery shop at your local store, join a club at your new university, attend a religious service each week if you want, buy a monthly bus pass, and find your favorite pub (okay, this may be Scotland specific). It becomes a home, and that’s something that shorter study abroad options don’t offer. And, if you decide to study abroad in autumn in various places around the world, you get to experience the holidays in a different country, which was one of the best accidents that ended up happening to me during my time abroad. Four months is also ample time to get comfortable, something shorter term programs don’t often make you feel.
You also have the opportunity to get to know some new professors in your field outside of your home university. Don’t slack off in your classes, these are just as important as your ones at home. The temptation to slack is huge, but so is the payoff when one of your new professors offers to write a letter of recommendation for you should you ever need it.
Downsides to a semester? Expenses, as usual. Depending on the program you decide on, it can cost anywhere from $8,000-$20,000 USD. Just for a semester. Which, in comparison to my university’s tuition, is the cost of an entire year in one semester. However, it truly depends on where you decide to study as well. Even within specific areas, it can change. Scotland was the cheapest option in the United Kingdom, but it would have been even less expensive to have studied in Asia.
Also, take into consideration where the university is located and what kind of environment you’ll be in. Thankfully, I was in a small town where living expenses were relatively cheap. However, for my friends who lived in major cities, it was much more expensive. Again, know what your budget is and what you’re willing to spend on a semester abroad. Also, be mindful of any scholarship opportunities that may present themselves during these semesters, too, which can help immensely.
And, depending on your area of study, a semester may be not feasible to fit into your academic plan. For many of my STEM friends, it was simply impossible to fit a semester, let alone a year, into their four-year plan. If you want to spend a semester abroad and make it worth it, try and find classes that will fit into your degree at home. The worst scenario is that none of your credits transfer back and you’ll be stuck with great memories, but no academic payoff. Not so bad in the long run.
If you’re considering a year-long program abroad, consider yourself lucky! If it fits into your academic plan, you can afford it, and you’ve always wanted to explore the world, this is your best option. Studying abroad for a year is a huge commitment, but I assume you’ve already thought of that. You’ll be moving your life outside of your comfort zone for a year, and there’s a ton of benefits to that.
You’ll fully immerse yourself in a new country, a different culture, and perhaps a new language. Every benefit that I listed under studying abroad for a semester applies here, but think long term. There are more opportunities to truly build meaningful relationships with locals and fellow international students alike, more time to discover new things about yourself that you never know in your comfort zone, and more ways to find out what you want out of your lifestyle. If you have found a program that enhances your degree through two semesters worth of classes, do it. Your resume and skillset will stand out from many others who chose not to study abroad, and your expertise on the country and culture you’ve chosen will be far greater than those who simply study but haven’t experienced.
Your housing, food, and other lifestyle choices will play a huge influence on your experience. Make sure that you pick somewhere that not only fits your budget but your preferences. If you know you’d feel more comfortable with a local family for a year, commit to it! If you’d rather experience more independence, find out what university or local housing is offered to international students. You have many options to tailor your life abroad. Don’t always choose what’s convenient or easy, but rather, what’s right for you!
You probably already know all of the benefits of studying abroad because you’re considering a huge commitment of a year outside of your home. You also probably understand the drawbacks. Being away for a year will most definitely impact your relationships with your friends and family at home. Different time zones and your new, busy life can affect what your life at home is like. Know that it could show you which relationships in your life are meant to last. Even after a semester abroad, I came home and never reconnected with some friends that I had spent the last two years getting to know. Also, make sure that you’re up for the personal work that it will take to maintain two lives, one abroad and one at home.
The cost is also pretty drastic. Again, this all depends on your program. Don’t forget about the personal costs that will definitely be more prominent in your daily life than tuition. Food, housing, clothing, coffee, alcohol, train tickets, hostel stays, and more. Know your budget and stick to it. Make sure that you’re prepared to spend money when you commit to an entire year of study and travel. It’s a wonderful experience, but can definitely be expensive. Look up opportunities while abroad, too, ones that save you money or earn you money, too. A part-time job, a paid internship, the works.
WELL, WHAT’S BEST FOR ME?
The best advice I can give to you is this: know what you want out of a program. Many of the deciding factors include:
- Length of study
- Courses offered
- Time zone
- Cost of program
- Cost of living
- Campus life
- International student support
There are so many different things to consider when choosing a program. But don’t spend too much time being anxious or worried about finding the perfect one for you. Because you won’t. You can, however, find a program that is a good fit for you. And a huge influence on your experience will be your attitude and your understanding of yourself! Know what you can handle. If that means that you’re not quite ready to leave home for longer than a few weeks, that’s okay! Or if that means that you’re ready to move your life across the world for a year, go for it. Make the decision that’s right for you. Either way, when you study abroad, no matter how long, you’ll never regret it.
How long did you study abroad? Share your advice and experiences with us in the comments below.