Studying abroad can be an invaluable and stimulating substitute for traditional schooling, but finding a program to perfectly suit your tastes and educational goals can take time and effort. Whether you want a culturally diverse program in a historically rich location, or an easy going semester-long vacation, these 5 simple steps will help you uncover a study abroad program that is guaranteed to change your life.

Step 1: Get the Ball Rolling- Start thinking about where you would like to spend a semester, or a year studying abroad. Your choice of location could be based of many things, such as your heritage or cultural background, your major, minor, or a language you would like to learn, locations with historical significance or famous landmarks, or exotic places you have dreamed of visiting. Your options are nearly as endless as your imagination, so really take some time to brainstorm. Don’t be afraid to step outside of your comfort zone, and explore options that are not typical, as your study abroad experience should be unique unto you. You also need to decide how long you are willing to be away from your home institution. Program lengths vary from just a few weeks during a holiday or summer break, all the way up to a year. When choosing a program length, keep in mind any obligations you may have here at home, and be sure you can properly arrange for any absences you will incur while abroad.

Step 2: Meet Your Advisor- Make an appointment with your school’s study abroad advisor to express your interest in studying abroad. The knowledge and experience advisors have to offer can be invaluable resources to you while you are planning your trip, and their advice is well worth heeding. However, they will not do your work for you.  During your first appointment, tell your advisor your motives for studying abroad, and where you are interested in going. From there, they should be able to offer you a wide range of options. Return to your advisor periodically to inform him or her of any decisions or progress you have made, so they may continue to guide you in the right direction. Your advisor can be an ally, and a friend, at home and while you are abroad.

Step 3: Gather Information- Start collecting pamphlets and informational booklets for programs that are located in the places you picked out in step 1. Chances are, you left your advisor’s office with a whole slew of brochures, but there are many other resources available to help you find other options.

Check with the associations or societies that you hold membership with, as they oftentimes offer study abroad programs. The National Society of Collegiate Scholars, for example, offers summer programs to both Thailand, and Australia. Organizations like these usually offer scholarships, as well, so they are definitely worth looking in to. Doing an Internet search is another good way to discover study abroad opportunities. Try to find a wide variety of programs, and keep an open mind. You may find some great programs that your advisor was unaware of, or overlooked.

Print out all of the information you find, to make it easier to sort through in the next step.

Step 4: Get Organized- Sort through the plethora of pamphlets and printed brochures and toss out any programs whose deadlines or eligibility criteria you cannot meet. There is no use fussing over dead end options. Just don’t forget to recycle those booklets! Organize the rest of the programs into a 3-ring binder or folder, and fill out one of the easy Q&A charts (Word Docx Download Below) for each one, using the +/- column to note your feeling about each detail of the program. Though the chart takes a bit of effort to fill out, you will thank yourself for being thorough. At the bottom of the page I’ve added a PDF example chart analyzing the NSCS Academy Abroad – Thailand Program as a guide.

Step 5: Weigh Your Options- Compare and contrast your completed Q&A charts. It will become rather obvious that not all programs are created equal, and you will be able to make quick work of pairing down your options. If you get stuck, don’t be afraid to ask for your advisor’s guidance. Your family can also play an intricate role in helping you choose, especially if they are helping you finance the trip. With that said, don’t let money be your deciding factor. There are numerous financial aid options for students studying abroad! If you still can’t decide between two programs in the end, don’t fret. As long as you can swing the application fees, you can apply to both and decide once you hear back.

Finding an ideal study abroad program can be intimidating, but it is my hope that, in following these steps, you can discover the one that is right for you. If you have any questions or comments regarding this article, or anything else, feel free to leave a comment in the space below, and keep an eye out for Real Life Advice For Study Abroad Part 3: Where to Look for Financial Aid,” coming soon.

Happy hunting!

Example Q&A Chart

Q&A Chart

“Self-proclaimed “Francophile” Jessica Longshore is a sophomore French major at Western Illinois University. On Campus, her involvement includes being a member of NSCS, a Centennial Honors College member, and Vice President of Western’s Ambassadors for Study Abroad (WASA). During her free time, she likes to cook, do her nails, and write. She is also looking forward to studying abroad in Cannes, France this coming fall, and blogging about her travels.”