How do I choose a study abroad program?

One of the biggest challenges of selecting a study abroad program from a range of choices is that, unlike when you are choosing a university as a high schooler, you can’t visit the different options and get a feel for which one you like best.

My decision of where to study abroad almost felt more important than my decision of where to attend college. My home university was half an hour away from where I grew up. My friends and family were all nearby. It didn’t seem like it would make much difference whether I studied at one Midwest state school or another. Studying abroad, on the other hand, meant traveling thousands of miles away for a semester (and for some, a full year). I could go anywhere in the world, pursue any number of internship or academic opportunities. I was convinced that my experience abroad would impact the course of my life…that’s a lot of pressure.

When I was trying to decide where to study, I couldn’t get recommendations from my friends and family, as they hadn’t traveled very much. I did reach out to a girl who had done the program in England that I ended up choosing, and she gave it a thumbs up. But I still had no idea what it would actually be like to live anywhere other than Minnesota.

If you’re in the same situation, here are some suggestions to help you make your decision.


This was my number-one consideration. If you don’t have to worry about cost as much, that’s awesome and definitely take advantage of it. If you are attending a private school, your normal tuition cost is a lot higher than mine was at a public state school, so you can look at programs with a higher fee (they might even end up being cheaper than a semester back home!). Some friends from other countries that I met abroad said all their programs were the same cost, so they had a pretty wide range of options to choose from without worrying about the price of each one.

Cost limited my options a lot. While my savings and scholarships could cover a more expensive program, I would be left with minimal spending money. I didn’t want there to even be a possibility of running out of money while I was overseas, so I did a lot of research into cheaper exchange programs.

Think about your budget. How much do you spend on tuition now? How much money do you have access to, through savings, scholarships, or loans, every semester? That determines how much you can spend on a program abroad. Your study abroad center or website should list the expected costs for each program, so make sure those totals line up with the amount you are able to spend.

If cost rules out a top choice, that’s okay. Trust me—it’s better to be financially secure in a second-choice program than constantly stressing about money in your dream location or having lots of extra debt when you get home.

Choose a region that matters to you

My middle and high school education was “classical”—we studied Greece, Rome, and Western civilization in depth. I was passionate about Western literature and history—I was an English major with an emphasis in medieval studies—so it made the most sense for me to study somewhere in Europe, where I could visit the places I had spent years learning about. Understanding my interests helped me decide to look only at exchanges in Europe; after I made that decision, I had to use other criteria to narrow my choices down further.

Another of my passions is learning Japanese, so outside of Europe, Japan was my second choice. If that was my top passion, it would have made the most sense for me to study in Japan so I could improve my language skills.

If you get excited about your family’s ancestry, study in the region your family was originally from. If you feel like you could live in any country but know you love experiencing big cities, choose a program in a major city, or even one that allows you to move around between several over the course of a semester. If you love architecture, go to a country known for its architecture.

Decide which of your passions is most important to you, and use it to narrow down your options.

Be honest about your goals for studying abroad

I definitely wrote in my scholarship essays that I wanted to study abroad for the academics, but I knew that what I really wanted was to travel. If you are looking for high caliber academics, go somewhere known for that, like Oxford (the school I studied at in England was known for 1) its creative writing program and 2) being a bit of a party school. Probably not the best bet for focusing on academics alone). Or if your goal is to become an international businessperson, find a program that will best help you learn another language or do a business internship.

Define your most important goals for your time abroad and make sure your program matches them. I had already had internships back home, so I didn’t feel like I needed to prioritize that. I wasn’t sure I would feel comfortable going to a country that primarily spoke another language (a semester of college Italian taught me that languages were not my strength). Mostly, I was burned out after three years of taking 20+ credits every semester, and I just wanted a break before jumping into the working world. At the university I chose in England, I only had to take three classes; most of my week was free time. I got a month off for spring break. Most importantly, unlike a program I looked at in Oslo, Norway, it was super cheap to fly from London to other countries in Europe. My program ticked the boxes for my goals of relaxing and traveling as much as possible.

Be open to options outside your top choice

Studying in Italy was my lifelong dream, but it was too expensive.

Honestly, I wasn’t excited about going to England. I resigned myself to it because it was what I could afford, and it sounded better than Oslo or Amsterdam, my other two options. I thought England would be rainy and cold and that people would talk about the queen and Doctor Who all the time.

Well, it was rainy and cold sometimes, but less than I expected. And the people I met were just like the ones back home, with varied backgrounds and interests (I didn’t have a single conversation about Doctor Who the entire time I was there). The landscape in England was beautiful and so very green. I ended up loving the UK and would move there permanently if I could.

Now that I’ve been to the Netherlands and Scandinavia, I think Oslo or Amsterdam would have been just fine as well. I wasn’t excited about Amsterdam before I visited it, but when I was there, I absolutely loved it. Any place has its pros and cons, so don’t rule out a location just because it doesn’t look or sound as appealing to you at first.

A little alarming to me was actually my reaction to Italy, the country I had wanted to live in so badly. There were parts of Italy that I adored, but overall it didn’t meet my high expectations. It was more run-down and overcrowded with tourists than I had anticipated. And even though most people in the bigger cities spoke English, I was still low-key stressed about the language barrier the entire time I was there. After spending two weeks traveling around Italy, I was grateful I had decided to study in England instead.

So how are you supposed to choose a location if the one you think you want might not actually be that great and the one you don’t want might end up being your favorite place ever?

Before my program, I was so bummed that my financial situation wouldn’t allow me to study in Italy. But I learned that there are great things to do, see, and experience no matter where you go. You can have a great time abroad even if you don’t end up in the location you thought you would. The program in England fit the criteria I talked about above: it was within my budget, it was in the region I wanted (Europe), and it helped me achieve my travel goals. So in the end it was just right for me, even though it was not my first choice.


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