Top 5 Study Abroad Mistakes Every Student Makes

Written by Sophie November 6, 2015

Sunset over Venice, Italy

You never know what you'll see when you remember to look up (Florence, Italy)

Probably my favorite photo from Venice

The best part of Italy!

Piazza Vecchio, Florence, Italy

Everyone makes mistakes – it’s what makes us human.  Not every mistake is bad either.  In fact, some of our best learning experiences come from correcting the mistakes we’ve made.  Study abroad is full of learning experiences and you will make plenty of mistakes along the way.  I’d even go so far as to say that is one of the key components to making experiential learning so completely beneficial. That being said, there are a few mistakes I see time and time again from students that hinder their ability to have a positive study abroad experience.  As you prepare for you trip abroad, whether it’s your first time out of the country or just the next stop on your world tour, try to keep the following issues in mind so you don’t make these mistakes.

        1. Not getting started soon enough

Knowing how to start the study abroad process can be tricky.  Every school has a different system and different requirements so many of the specifics will depend on your home university or college. That being said, you can’t start this process too early. Some students know they want to study abroad immediately (I was definitely one of those). Other students have never even heard of study abroad before setting foot on a college campus or are unsure if the opportunity is right for them for any number of reasons (finances, graduation plan, travel experience, etc). Regardless of your level of experience, you MUST start this process during your freshman year. 

The reasons for this are three-fold.  First, starting early gives you plenty of time to figure out the system at your university. 

                • Who do you meet with?
                • When are the application deadlines?
                • What kind of scholarships are offered?
                • What signatures do I need?
                • What semester am I going abroad?
                • How does it fit into my degree plan?

There are a lot of factors to be considered when studying abroad and the later you start this process, the more stressful the entire thing is going to be.

Second, starting sooner allows you to plan ahead and make sure you’re not wasting a semester.  This is especially important if you have a major with a very strict timeline, like business or engineering.  If you don’t start the planning process until your junior year, you might find that there simply aren’t programs available with the upper level coursework you need. In fact, our engineering students have to study abroad with us the summer after their freshman year! After that, their major tracts become too specified for us to offer a useful curriculum for them.  My advice? During the fall of your freshman year, tell your advisor you’re thinking about studying abroad.  That way you can plan around the courses you’ll be able to take abroad so you don’t accidentally take them on your home campus before you do.

Third, you might find that you want to study abroad more than once.  Based on my observations, it’s always the students who decide a semester program would be too long or who wait until the last possible semester to go abroad who end up wishing they had made different decisions.  Drew, a fall 2015 CIMBA student from the University of Iowa, does a much better job of explaining the reasons for this than I ever could, so don’t take my word for it – take his.

        1. Looking for programs by language, rather than content

This one is obviously dependent on your major.  If your major is Spanish, then you really should ignore this advice and try to find a Spanish-language study abroad program (or at least a program in a Spanish-speaking country). The reason I say this though is because too often I see students walk right by my office because they assume not being able to speak a foreign language means they have to stick to English-speaking countries.  This is absolutely NOT true.  CIMBA might be based in Italy, but every single course is taught in English (not including our Intro to Italian Language course, obviously) and I know we’re not the only program to do this. In fact, most of our faculty are American faculty members from top US universities.  If you’re limiting yourself to Ireland and Australia as study abroad destinations when you’d really love to be living in Venice or Prague for a semester, then you’re really going to regret not having done better research.  The options are out there even if you don’t speak the language.

Also, referring back to point #1, if you have a timeline for your major and coursework you need to complete while abroad, you need to be looking for programs that offer what you need.  This is still part of your education and the academic decisions you make abroad will affect you (see point #5 below).

        1. Not creating a budget ahead of time

I’m pretty guilty of this one. Once you purchase the ticket and figure out where you’re living, it can be very easy to get caught up in the mindset that these expenses don’t count.  I frequently see students overspend during their time abroad because they don’t want to miss out on an experience or they’re not paying attention to just how much they spend on a regular basis – and I get it! You’re in a foreign country and this opportunity to explore may not come around again for a long time.  In fact, I’m a big advocate of making sure you make the most of your time abroad and seeing as much as possible. 

That being said, if you want to make sure you can do everything you want, I highly recommend coming up with a plan before you leave the US. Start by figuring out the following:

                • Where do I want to travel?
                • What is the exchange rate?
                • How much do I expect to spend per day?

These questions can only be answered by you because only you know your financial situation and your preferred travel style.  Once you have those questions answered, start prioritizing. Is it more important to get the most convenient (but more expensive) train ride or do you want to see the colosseum? Are you willing to compromise on the cheaper hostel in order to eat at that awesome restaurant you read about?

And of course, once you know your travel budget, stick to it!

There are plenty of resources available to help you create a travel budget.  All you have to do is look. (I even found a travel budget calculator!)

        1. Assuming it’ll be just like vacation

It’s pretty simple: your life is being uprooted for a fairly short time and you’re living out of a suitcase.  You’re in an unfamiliar environment and you’re definitely there to see as many sites and take as many pictures as possible.  Of course you’re in the vacation mindset!

Unfortunately (or fortunately?), study abroad is different.  To start with, you’re not going to be constantly on the move.  For a majority of the 3ish months you’ll be abroad, you’ll actually be living there – grocery shopping, doing homework, going for a daily run – and you’ll find that this lifestyle is very different than a vacation even if you are in a different country.  For one thing, it gives you a chance to see the not so amazing side of living abroad.  On vacation, you go to the places that are prepared for American tourists, see the sites, and move on before you can really experience the culture.  Once you settle into a lifestyle that allows you to observe some of the more subtle nuances of a new culture, you’ll start to learn what you do and don’t like about living in an unfamiliar setting. And trust me, there will be things you don’t like.  This isn’t to say that going abroad isn’t worth your time – there are aspects to every culture that are both good and bad – but the rose-colored glasses of vacation will quickly disappear during your study abroad experience.

This may not sound like a positive right now, but trust me, it is.  So try to enter your study abroad experience with a mindset that this is different than a vacation. You’ll find you’re more open to new ideas, you’ll be more prepared to combat culture shock, and it’ll even help you maintain your budget.

        1. Forgetting to go to class

I know this seems too obvious to write down, but you won’t believe how many students every semester forget that study abroad is still part of the real world. It’s an interesting mindset and one that is understandable from a certain angle. When nothing in your life is “normal,” it’s easy to start believing that the decisions you make are pretend as well, but trust me they’re not.  I sometimes refer to this as the “Disney World Mindset” – the money looks like monopoly money, your classes aren’t with your regular classmates or professors, and everything about your life is different – it’s easy to pretend that, like Disney World, you’re living in a fantasy that won’t impact your life back home.

But trust me, it will.  If you stop going to class and fail all of your courses, those transcripts will still make it back to your home university.  If you break the rules or fail to meet responsibilities while abroad, you can still be disciplined and face real consequences.  Without getting too preachy, just don’t forget that the country you’re living in is still part of the real world and your actions will still have real consequences.

You will make mistakes while you’re abroad and even if you make one of the mistakes listed above, there are workarounds.  Study abroad is about finding the balance between preparation and flexibility, and those who master those two factors will have a happy and impactful time abroad.