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How to Pick Your Study Abroad Destination

Grace Lower | Dec 21, 2020

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They say the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step—and when it comes to studying abroad, a solid first step is deciding where to go. Depending on your finances, goals, and personal preferences, your dream destination might vary. But if you’re an indecisive traveler like me, it helps to consider a few different facets.

The Academic Side

One of the first things you’ll need to keep in mind is how your time abroad will impact your studies. Many universities offer credits for classes taken abroad, so a good place to start is looking into destinations and programs that your university has approved. Take some time to consider your academic goals and how many credits you can get from your time abroad. While travel is gratifying, you probably won’t want to choose a destination that will put you behind academically.

If you’re taking foreign language courses, studying abroad is an ideal way to hone those skills through immersion. In my own experience, I was able to complete my Spanish minor during my time in Granada, Spain—and I learned more conversational Spanish in those six months than I had in eight years of traditional classes. If you’re studying a widely spoken language like Spanish, French, or Arabic, you’ll have plenty of destinations to choose from. As you narrow down your options, be sure to take local dialects into account. If you’ve studied Brazilian Portuguese, for instance, the European Portuguese you’ll hear in Portugal may take some getting used to!


The Comfort Zone

It’s great to get out of your comfort zone when you travel, but you need to be realistic about where to draw the line. You’ll want to feel safe in your host country, and that definition can vary based on your sense of risk aversion. As you research destinations, ask yourself the following questions about each location:

  • Are there any social customs or cultural attitudes that might make you feel unsafe?
  • Are you comfortable in a country where your religion isn’t practiced?
  • Are you comfortable in a country with very conservative policies? What about one with very progressive policies?
  • How would you feel in a country with radically different gender roles?
  • Do you like your host country’s cuisine? Will you still like it after a few months?
  • If you have any allergies or food intolerances, will you be safely accommodated?
  • Do you have any health concerns that could limit where you travel?
  • What’s the crime rate in your potential host city?

As you choose your destination, you’ll want to research your options carefully. Being realistic about your own comfort is key in ensuring a safe—and genuinely fun—study abroad experience.


The Social Element
Another factor to consider is the social life you hope to have while you’re abroad. For some travelers, the idea of visiting a new destination with a large group of friends feels stifling; for others, it can be a great way to strengthen existing relationships. When planning your own travels, ask yourself if you’d rather go solo or have a few friends there as a safety net.

Beyond that, the destination you choose will have a significant impact on who you spend your time with and what you’ll be doing. If you decide to study abroad in a small fishing village, you’re bound to have different social activities than if you studied abroad in a capital city. Make sure you know what you’re getting into, then plan your social activities accordingly.


The Financial Aspect
While it’s important to dream big, you’ll want to stay realistic about your finances. First, you’ll need to do some basic research on your host-country’s cost of living. Websites like Numbeo have helpful breakdowns on items like rent, groceries, and restaurant prices. For more expensive countries like Singapore or Norway, you’ll need to save a little extra for housing, food, and recreation. Beyond that, you’ll want to be mindful of how much travel you’re hoping to do once you get there. For countries with limited railway systems (I’m looking at you, Spain), you may have to build more room into your budget in order to explore. As you prepare for your trip, consider using tools like this study abroad budget calculator from Yale University to build a detailed budget. It may feel like a bit of a wake-up call, but your finances will play a key role in determining what destinations are the best fit for you.

The Political Landscape
No matter where you are in the world, it’s impossible to divorce politics from daily life. As you decide on a destination, take the time to understand the political forces shaping your potential host country. What perception does the public have of its leaders? Is there significant corruption on a local or national scale? Is there any instability that may make the country unsafe for foreign guests? If the headlines from your host country have you worried about its stability, you may want to reconsider that country as a study abroad destination.

The “Pretty” Factor
It sounds surface-level, but when you’re picking a destination, it helps to take the aesthetic of the location into account. Of course, definitions of beauty can vary. If you’re a sucker for the great outdoors, try looking into destinations with easy access to mountains, beaches, or forests. If you’re drawn to architecture and design, consider major cities with thriving arts scenes. And trust me, this decision isn’t just about how many likes you’ll get on Instagram. There’s nothing better than exploring a place that energizes and inspires you, and the right study abroad destination can do just that.



About the Author

Grace Lower

Grace Lower is a recent college graduate with a love for writing and an incurable case of wanderlust. When she's not exploring new places, Grace enjoys teaching English as a Second Language, making terrible puns, and running incredibly long distances at incredibly slow speeds.

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