For many, studying abroad is two birds, one stone kind of situation: you take the classes you need, while also fulfilling your insatiable itch to travel and see new places. Deciding to embark on the adventure is easy; choosing when to go is another behemoth entirely and depends on numerous factors.
My first step in choosing when to go overseas was attending an information session that my school’s international studies office held. The advisors there broke down the logistics of going abroad during each year of college and specific factors to consider for each option. Because my degree program required two consecutive year-long courses over the course of four years, the best time for me to study abroad ended up falling during the first semester of my final year.
However, this varies for everyone, which is why choosing a time to study abroad can be so challenging. In this article, we'll break down each year of college or university, what it's like to study abroad then, and what the pros and cons are for each one. By the end of this article, you should know when the best time to study abroad is for you.
How to Choose the Right Time to Study Abroad
While it would be much easier if this were the case, there isn’t one single time that is right for everyone to study abroad. There are several factors to take into consideration, including:
- Timing: When does the school year start and end for the school you want to go to? Many schools in other parts of the world have academic calendars that may overlap your next school year at home.
- Duration: Do you want to go for one semester? If so, which semester? The full year? Six to eight weeks over the summer?
- Academics: Are there any prerequisites you should complete before you go abroad? Are there equivalencies for any course requirements you have yet to fulfill? Will going abroad at a certain time delay your graduation, and if so, is that something you’re willing to do? Make sure to meet with an advisor and discuss all of the courses you need and which ones you can earn equivalencies for.
Trying to balance all of those factors is hard! In the rest of this article, we'll break down each time when you might study abroad so you can get a quick sense of when the right time to study abroad is for you.
Studying Abroad in High School
While not all high schools offer international programs, if you happen to go to one that does, it’s certainly worth considering. Studying abroad in high school offers a myriad of advantages.
For one, gaining international experience at a younger age can set you up for success later in your studies and eventual career. Your time overseas will be a fantastic material for those tricky college admissions essays. If you’re considering applying to university in a foreign country and want to test it out before taking the leap, going abroad during high school can serve as a trial period.
However, there are also potential drawbacks to studying abroad during high school. Whether you or your parents are funding this excursion, going overseas during high school may mean that you won’t be able to pursue international opportunities in college without taking on additional loans.
If this is your first time living apart from your family for a long period, there’s a chance you may struggle with homesickness, loneliness, or culture shock, and have trouble adjusting without your usual support system.
Studying Abroad as a Freshman
If the college of your choice allows you to study abroad as a freshman, why not seize the opportunity? You’ll likely be leaving home for school anyway, so you may as well 'shoot for the moon' and go to a foreign country.
You’ll have plenty of opportunities to meet new people, just as you would have on campus at your home school, but you’ll have the added bonus of being somewhere entirely foreign. You’ll learn to manage issues on your own and attain a stronger sense of independence than you would at a school within driving distance from home.
For the same reasons studying abroad in high school may inspire homesickness, going overseas immediately upon enrolling in university may have a similar effect. You’ll also miss out on freshman orientation and other social activities that universities often organize to help you integrate better into the school community where you’ll be for the next four years.
It may also be disorienting for you to deal with transferring your credits straight off the bat, while you’re still learning the ropes of registering for courses and planning your own schedule.
Studying Abroad as a Sophomore
Most universities require that you declare a major by the end of your sophomore year. Studying abroad as a sophomore gives you the chance to experiment with your interests and take classes that normally wouldn’t have been available to you before you lock in your major.
You’ll also have two more years of school after you return to fulfill the remaining course requirements you need, so there’s not as much pressure to find the right combination of course equivalencies.
Personally, my second year of college was when I felt like I truly settled into university life and found the social and extracurricular groups that would stay with me beyond my studies. By going abroad during your sophomore year, you risk missing out on nurturing the friendships you began and cultivating the interests you began dabbling in as a freshman.
Studying Abroad as a Junior
Choosing to study abroad as a junior is the most popular time to study abroad in college, and many universities recommend taking this route. Because of this, schools often build their international programs to occur during students’ third year, making the process easier for you.
If you plan from your freshman year, you’ll have more time to get all your ducks in a row before you leave. In most cases, you’ll also have finished most of your general education requirements by your junior year and will have some more flexibility in the classes you can take while overseas.
With that in mind, that doesn’t mean you’ll be home-free with your college degree by the time you’ve reached junior year. You’ll still need to make sure that your host institution has course equivalencies for the credits you still require for your program. This process can be challenging and stressful, as foreign school systems validate credits differently, and it’s up to you to make sure that you’re taking all the classes you need while you’re away.
Studying Abroad as a Senior
Studying abroad as a senior is the choice I personally elected for, as it fit better with my program and schedule. By this time, you’ll have completed most of the requirements of your major and settled into a comfortable routine. (Some people are even so on top of it that they're able to study abroad as a second-semester senior!)
If you’re ready to shake things up and experience something new in your last year, this is your chance! It can also be a last hurrah of sorts before you graduate. Besides, going overseas that much closer to graduation gives you the chance to pad your resume with international experience that you can apply to work almost immediately.
That being said, there are still possible downsides to studying abroad in your last year. For example, writing a thesis while away can pose more challenges. Make sure to also take note of any limitations your school may impose on overseas opportunities in your last year and how those may affect graduation.
For me, my exchange program was constrained to the fall semester to ensure that I’d receive all my credits in time for graduation. If you are able to study abroad for the full year, that may mean missing out on senior year activities with your friends.
Studying Abroad Over the Summer
For some, studying abroad during the school year isn’t possible because of rigorous program requirements. Fortunately, most schools have international opportunities over the summer in addition to the school year. For many students, summer is the ideal time to wander the globe or find a summer gig to get some experience on their resume.
Studying abroad over the summer combines the best of both worlds, allowing you the chance to expand your knowledge while simultaneously exploring a new destination.
However, because of time constraints, summer study abroad programs are often abridged, concluding in a matter of weeks, as opposed to months when you go during the school year. This makes it harder to fully immerse yourself in a new culture or environment. Additionally, since the summer months are prime tourist season, travel is often significantly more expensive during this time.
Regardless of when you choose to study abroad, the most important thing is that you go if you have the opportunity. Studying abroad is beneficial in so many ways, beyond fluffing up your academic record or resume. My own experience studying abroad was full of learning experiences both inside and outside of the classroom that helped shape who I am today. The skills that I learned and the friends I’ve made during my time abroad will stay with me for life. You'll undoubtedly feel the same wherever you choose to study abroad.
This post was originally published in October 2013, and was updated in September 2019.