Semester abroad – Where, when, why and how to prepare

One of the most interesting experiences that I’ve had so far has been my semester abroad. There are a lot of things that are important factors when making the decision whether or not you would like to do a foreign semester, when you want to do it and then of course where. I hope by giving you an insight into my thought process and some things I’ve seen friends and other students go through, I can help you with your decision-making process regarding whether, when and where you’d like to do your semester abroad. I’ve even created a small checklist for questions when it comes to the application process and added some points on how to prepare for the experience overall.

  • Does it make sense for me to do a foreign semester? Is it worth it?
  • When is the best time to do it?
  • Where should I go?
  • How do I apply?
  • What do I need to look out for before I head off?

I’ve done my best to try and give you some clarity on these topics and maybe even help you see things from a new perspective. In general, you should always try and think about what short-term and long-term effects there could be and what the relevant to-dos are. Thinking like that can help make some of these decisions easier.

Does it make sense to do a foreign semester? / Is it worth it?

On the one hand, the answer to the first question is dependent on what you’re studying and where. On the other hand, it always makes sense to do a foreign semester to a certain extent. Some subjects highly recommend taking a semester or two to experience studying somewhere else in the world. I study communication science and psychology at the LMU in Munich and that meant that one subject recommended it while the other was slightly indifferent. Communication science is taught differently all over the world and so they try and encourage us to take international classes and try and compare the communication methods and history around the world. Whereas for psychology they suggest focusing on research but generally aren’t opposed to the idea of a foreign semester. I’d recommend for you to talk to your faculty advisor/s about what your university and/or your faculty and professors allow and advise. However, even if you need to take time off for a semester or so, it can still be more than worth it. A semester abroad is a worthwhile experience on so many levels. It’s a chance to experience the life and culture in a different country and all of this during a time in your life where you’re probably still flexible and don’t have too many fixed long-term responsibilities at home. Regarding if it’s worth it or not is quite simply, yes. Any experience you go on to help yourself grow and learn new things – especially in a new environment – will pretty much always be worth it. You’ll have the opportunity to meet people you maybe never would have met, see things and places you may never have seen and learn things about yourself, others and new places that you probably didn’t know before. You’ll be able to do all that and more in the rather safe environment of a university programme. So in short, yes it makes sense to do a foreign semester and it is most certainly worth it.

When is the best time to do a semester abroad?

When the best time is for your international semester totally depends on your study plan and your personal circumstances. When talking to your faculty advisor about whether or not they recommend doing a foreign semester, it can be worth asking them if there’s a specific semester in your study plans that they recommend for it. Generally, any time is better than no time. As with many things in life, there may never be a perfect time to do it but sometimes you may have to adapt. It’s obviously best to try and make it as convenient as possible but some things from your regular day to day life may have to adjust or be adjusted to make your foreign semester doable. 
When it comes to your work, it can be a good idea to ask your employer if you could work from abroad and continue earning. This is an option more and more nowadays as many companies have adapted to working remotely and at different times due to the COVID-19 regulations that have been in place in the past. You should definitely think about if you even want to work while you’re on your foreign semester and if you decide that you do, you should try and think about how much and why. I worked fewer and more flexible hours to keep earning and keep saving but I would certainly not have wanted to work any more hours than I did as that would have disrupted the experience a lot more.
Thinking about relationships, friends and family is also something you shouldn’t forget. I wrote an article on family and friends while travelling that could be helpful when it comes to this subject. Make sure you’re on the same page with anyone who you’re in a relationship with or are very close to. This is one way to try and avoid problems during your trip and generally a good idea to avoid issues in the future.

Where to go for your foreign semester?

The decision of where to go for your foreign semester is a pretty important but also really fun one. Some of the things to consider are similar or the same as when planning where to go on holiday but some are a bit more specific. The first thing you should ask yourself is why are you doing a foreign semester. The most common answers for this question are things like, to participate in courses in a certain subject somewhere else or to explore a new culture and its people or to experience something generally different to get away from the norm you know. Each of these thought processes has its own advantages and issues but whatever you go for will be what was right for you.

If you want to participate in certain courses or generally attend classes in a specific subject, you should start by asking which university your faculty advisor suggests and thinks would be suited to your level and interests. It’s important to make sure you have the appropriate language skills to make the most of the course wherever it may be. A lot of courses will be on offer in English, but especially Spanish speaking countries sometimes only offer courses in the local language. Make sure you check this before applying and then make sure that you have the appropriate skills and feel confident enough to attend the courses if this is your main goal. Each university, even within the same country will have different approaches to the same subject. So, if your goal is to attend certain types of courses, make sure you read the university’s course plans and agreements with your exchange programme to check that you can attend the types of courses you’d like. Some universities for example may not let foreign students do research unless this is agreed upon beforehand.

When your goal is to explore a new culture then there are a few ways to go about choosing where exactly you’d like to go. The first thing you should ask yourself is how far away from home you’re comfortable being. If you’re not sure you’d be comfortable being too far away, then pick somewhere close but not too close. This means maybe reachable by train within a day or less than a two- or three-hour flight. Then you should ask the language question again. Would you like to learn something new, use skills that you have or maybe even specifically improve? It’s a really important question as this can make or break your trip. Communication is something we often underestimate but something that is extremely important and relevant in day-to-day things. If your goal is mainly to explore the culture, I think it’s fair to let the university course work come second. You don’t have to neglect it completely, but it may be worth prioritizing cultural experiences and adventures over getting the best grades at university.

If your aim is to experience something generally different and to get away from the familiarity of home, then I would definitely recommend choosing somewhere further away and with no or only little connection to your previous experiences. You can challenge yourself by going somewhere where you don’t or barely speak the language or somewhere you’ve never been and maybe previously didn’t think you’d ever go. The main thing to look out for when planning a foreign semester like this is that you should avoid places you’ve already been to, places too close to home or countries with cultures too similar to your own. These kinds of experiences are often tougher than others, but they are also the ones that inspire a lot of personal growth and new experiences. 

Every kind of semester abroad will be an adventure in its own way, and you can never plan everything in advance but whatever you do, make it your own and take as much away from the experience as you can.

What to think about when applying for a semester abroad?

This is one of the less fun parts about the whole semester abroad process but it’s something that has to be done. When applying for a semester abroad there will be certain things you need to sort out. Each organisation, each university, each faculty and even each application process within the faculty will have different requirements. The main things to look out for are:

  • Are there any language requirements? And if so, do you have them or how can you get them in time? (E.g. TOEFL English test)
  • Is there a minimum (or maximum depending on your system) grade level that you must have to apply?
  • Do you need recommendation letters from teachers, professors or employers?
  • Do you need to write a motivational letter and if so, are there specific requirements for this? Or what kind of information do they recommend you include in this?
  • Do you need to hand in a CV?
  • Does your university or organisation have specific forms that you must fill out?
  • Where do you need to send all the required documents and what language should they be in?
  • What format should the documents be that you’re handing in, and can they be separate files, all in one file or printed out?
  • Most importantly: When is the deadline to hand everything in?

Remember that there’s no shame in having someone else check all the documents and letters that you’re handing in. You want to make a good impression and that means handing in forms where there are ideally no or only few mistakes, and the content should be appealing and impressive. Make sure you give yourself enough time to prepare all the documents and keep a close eye on the deadlines for each step.

Important things to remember when preparing for your international semester

One of the first things to sort out is your visa. As you may know from my Russian student visa article, this was a pretty difficult process for me so I hope I can help make yours a little easier. Most visas will require a valid passport, a form from your university at home, a form from the university that you’ll be visiting and a biometric passport photo. Depending on where you’re from and where you’re going the requirements will be a little different. The important thing is that you need to find out on time what you need and by when because the last thing you want is to go somewhere for your foreign semester and not have the correct visa when you arrive. Be sure to inform everyone who needs to know that you’re leaving that you won’t be in the country for a certain amount of time. This includes sports teams, family and friends and of course your work. Depending on your living situation, you should also look into sub-letting your living space, moving out preparing your room or living space appropriately. If you want to sub-let, you need to make sure that you’re allowed to do so and think about what price you should be putting it up for. Moving out may be your best option if you’re not living where you’d ideally want to anyway and could possibly find somewhere better when you get back. If you’re neither sub-letting or moving out but still leaving where you live for a while, be sure to get rid of anything that can rot or smell and generally leave it in a tidy acceptable state.

My semester abroad was one of the best adventures that I’ve been on so far and I’d highly recommend for everyone who can to do one. I went for the “experience something different and escape the norm” option and did my foreign semester in Moscow. The friends I’ve made are now people I love having in my life, the cultural experiences that I had there have shaped the way I view things in the long term and the skills I learned from living in such a different country with a totally different language and society have helped me grow so much in my day-to-day and work life back home. Taking a chance on an adventure like a foreign semester to somewhere totally new will always be a big risk but those are the opportunities that we should look out for to expand our horizon and push ourselves into evolving into an even better and more advanced version of who we think we can be.

If you’re interested in more travel and packing tips or more information on different destinations, then check out some of my other Meg’s Places articles and stay tuned for more! In case your questions aren’t answered here, or you have any comments or personal experiences you’d like to share, don’t be afraid to get in touch, comment and let me know. 

You can also follow me @megsplaces on Instagram, TikTok and Facebook to follow my travels and get regular updates, pictures, story polls and video clips!

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