If you’re thinking about doing a study abroad program, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by all of the different choices. Where do you want to go? What do you want to study? And, most importantly, will you enjoy the program you choose? With all of the different options out there, you should definitely think about what kind of program you want before jumping in and applying, lest you find out too late that you chose wrong. Here are 5 warning signs you picked the wrong study abroad program:
1. The language class is either way too easy or way too hard.
Most study abroad programs require you to take a foreign language class while you’re abroad, to help you solidify the language skills you’ll be using every day while you’re there. On the surface, this is a great idea: by having a daily dose of grammar and vocabulary from an “official” source, you guard against developing bad habits and have a safe space where you can ask questions about things you hear outside the classroom.
The problem is that some study abroad programs are so small, they only offer one class, which groups all of the students into the same level. So what do you do if the class is way too easy or way too hard?
If the class is too easy, ask if you can be exempt from taking it because you’ve already taken a class at that level. Be prepared to show coursework from your other language class to prove you’ve been there, done that, and ask if you can try taking the class’s final exam to test out. Point out that this will free up some time (and course credits) to take an extra class in the local university or to do an independent study with one of the program’s professors.
If the class is too hard, you probably haven’t had enough exposure to the language before studying abroad, or maybe your classmates are exceptionally advanced. Before you get in over your head, ask your teacher if you can borrow a copy of the course workbook’s previous level, and use it to catch up. Most programs use one particular series of language books, and you can use the previous level’s book to brush up on certain grammar concepts before doing your own homework. Most French classes, for example, use Grammaire Progressive du Français, which comes in four levels and sells answer keys. If vocabulary is the problem, it’s going to be harder to catch up, since vocabulary generally comes with time.
2. You’re pressured into taking classes you don’t want or don’t need to take.
Different study abroad programs have different requirements for the number of classes you need to take in their program and in the local university. While some programs encourage you to take as many classes as possible outside of the program, others limit students to one or two classes outside of their own, instead requiring students to take the classes they offer. While one of these will undoubtedly be a language class, other program offerings can vary widely, and you can end up having to take a class that doesn’t interest you out of necessity.
Before you pick a study abroad program, make sure you’re clear on what your course load will be, and how your courses will be distributed. If you’re not confident in your language skills, don’t pick a program that requires you to take most of your courses at the local university; instead, choose a program that allows you take one class there and offers tutoring sessions and support so you’re able to succeed. Similarly, if your goal is to perfect your language skills and make friends with locals, don’t pick a program that limits the number of local university classes you can take, or requires you to take most of your classes with their professors.
3. Your program organizes way too many or way too few cultural activities.
When you study abroad, you want a program that strikes a balance between providing you with opportunities to get to know the local culture and encouraging you to get out and meet people and visit places on your own. Too much togetherness with your fellow program participants discourages you from making friends with local students and speaking the local language, keeping you in your Anglophone bubble, but when homesickness strikes, you don’t want to be completely isolated and independent from your classmates, either.
When you’re applying for study abroad, look for programs that offer a variety of cultural activities, but don’t make participation in all activities mandatory. Bonus points to programs that foster relationships with local student groups within their partner universities, and encourage students to go out and meet local students. Once you arrive, sign up for the activities that interest you, and ask the student life coordinator to help you find local activities that mesh with some of your interests – human rights activism, writing, art, dance, sports – most universities have a broad spectrum of groups to join for free or for a very low fee. In many cases, participation may even be included if you’re registered to take a class at that school. Balancing your activity participation between your program’s offerings and independent pursuits with locals will allow you to make friends in your program and in your host city, giving you the best of both worlds.
4. Your advisor is too busy or disinterested to help you deal with administrative, academic, or cultural questions.
In a study abroad program, a big part of the program administrator’s job is to help students navigate living in a foreign country. Not only are they there to help you get your student visa and enroll in university classes, they’re also there to provide academic and emotional support as you experience culture shock, homesickness, frustration, and generally have questions about how things work in your host country. The best program administrators will not only be aware of what typically frustrates or surprises students, they’ll anticipate these reactions and try to help you understand them ahead of time.
Unfortunately, with budget cuts in recent years, many study abroad programs have been letting go of staff, even as more students study abroad than ever before. The result is that administrators are busier than ever, enrolling students in classes, designing curriculum, organizing student activities, and even grading papers and tutoring students.
Before you enroll, talk to other students who have participated in that program, and ask about which administrators were particularly helpful, most accessible, easiest to talk to, and who gave the best advice. While personalities can certainly play a role in determining who you find most helpful, other students’ opinions can certainly give you an idea of the overall climate of the program.
5. Your program offers limited housing options (and not the ones you want).
Living apart from Mom and Dad is one of the biggest advantages of going to college, and if you’re going to go back to having a family and a curfew during study abroad, it should at least be a conscious choice. But many undergraduate study abroad programs require students to live with a host family, severely limiting options for independence during study abroad. Others offer the option to live in an apartment, alone or with other program participants, and some programs reserve rooms in local dorms, where you’ll be surrounded by other international students and students from your host country.
When you’re considering study abroad programs, think carefully about the type of housing you want for your 6-month or 10-month stretch abroad, and consider how important choosing your own housing is to you before picking a program. Make sure you’re clear on what your options are before you apply, so you’re not unhappily surprised at being placed in a host family when you wanted to live in a dorm or vice versa.
Allison Lounes, of Paris Unraveled, is the author of three books on studying abroad in Paris, and lives in France with her husband and her cat. You can follow her on Twitter at @parisunraveled or on Facebook at Study Abroad in France, or sign up for her newsletter at parisunraveled.com to get a free copy of her e-book, The Study Abroad Workbook.