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To Study or Not to Study — Abroad, That Is: High School Students’ Questions Answered

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The decision to study abroad in high school is a big one; it involves not only a significant investment of both time and money, but also requires a lot of foresight, logistical planning, and attention to detail. It also provokes endless questions from students: how, when, why, and where to do it can be unclear. In addition, if you’ve never done it before, you may not know what to look for in a potential program.


In this blog post, we’ve set out to demystify the idea of studying abroad. Read on for a basic description of what it means to study abroad and whether it’s the right decision for you.


What are the Benefits of Studying Abroad?

If you can afford to study abroad, by all means, you should! For several reasons, traveling to a foreign country can strengthen your college application, not to mention flesh out your resume, provide you with fodder for interviews, potentially inspire personal or supplemental essays, or — at the very least — give you something productive to do in your free time over the summer.


Studying abroad can make a great addition to your resume and college applications for several reasons. It brings all the benefits of travel, such as exposure to other cultures and an introduction to ways of life that are different from your own. What makes studying abroad in high school so unique is that you’re given all these benefits of recreational travel in an educational setting.


Studying abroad can allow you to learn new things in ways you’ve never previously experienced, participate in unique community service or research programs, and meet peers and instructors that can vastly broaden your perspective. It certainly takes a particular level of curiosity, open-mindedness, and bravery to travel abroad, all qualities that adcoms look for in applicants.


Not to mention, it introduces you to new people and ways of life that you never before considered. Often, programs will combine cultural immersion with community service, which allows students to both learn about what it’s like to live in a foreign country and culture while also opening your eyes to the different ways that you can help improve the world.


A religious program may open your eyes to the healing power of religion, while a community service trip can show you how powerful your own two hands can be in effecting change. If you’re interested in foreign policy, there are even programs that instruct you on the various ways that diplomatic relations are carried out in different countries.


Going Abroad During the School Year

In the latter half of high school, many students will consider studying abroad through exchange programs offered through their schools. These programs are usually designed to immerse participants in another country’s culture.


The typical structure of such cultural immersion programs involves a student from an American school who studies a particular foreign language, who is paired up with a foreign student from that language’s country of origin and who studies English. In these programs, American students will typically spend part of their school year living in the home of their exchange student with that student’s family.


Participants in these programs pursue schooling abroad for a semester of high school. Different schools will coordinate homework differently. Some will allow you to take classes abroad for transferable credit at your own high school. Others will require you to continue your studies remotely and keep up with the homework your usual classmates are doing while you are away. In either scenario, you should consider you schoolwork carefully when you’re making the decision to study abroad.


Many students who consider studying abroad during the school year ultimately decide that they feel it will be too stressful or stilted to fully immerse themselves in a foreign culture during the school year. If you are looking for a program abroad yet feel like you fall into this category, fear not. There are other options for you!


Study Abroad Options

There are plenty of opportunities to study abroad, both over the summer and during the school year. Below, we recommend a few, but there are plenty more fantastic ones, and we simply cannot list them all. You should do your own research before you make any decisions.


One great organization to start with is Rustic Pathways, which offers an impressively comprehensive list of study abroad programs for summers, spring breaks, and gap years. In 18 different countries, you can pursue community service, team building, sightseeing, language and cultural immersion, policy making education, and more.


These classes are not academic in nature, so you shouldn’t expect to be taking “classes” like you would in school; that said, they are rewarding and fulfilling, not to mention instructive and eye-opening. If you’re interested, you can request one of their beautiful brochures, or simply check out their website.


Another fantastic website to explore is that of CIEE Study Abroad, which offers programs for term-time, summer, and gap year study abroad. Their term-time offerings are a helpful resource for students who want to study abroad but whose schools do not have such programs. Meanwhile, they offer 3 different types of study abroad experiences in the summer — service and leadership,” “language and cultural immersion,” and “global discovery” — all outlined for you on the CIEE website.


If you’re interested in studying abroad during a gap year, you can check out this program link. And most exciting of all, CIEE has its own scholarships.


There are also study abroad programs that essentially function like summer school and give you an accurate, low-stress preview of what it’s like going to college. For something like this, you may be interested in the Oxbridge Programs in France, England, Spain, the United States, or Scotland.


Two other programs are Overland, which offers technology-free programs all over the United States and overseas in several categories like field studies and writing, and the Rassias language programs in France and Spain. These are strictly language and cultural immersion programs.


It’s also a great idea to see if your school has any more programs or opportunities. If you have a college guidance office, the teachers there will surely know a few programs with which to connect you.


If you don’t have a career or college guidance center at your high school, you can ask your teachers if they know of any opportunities. If this is the case, you might think strategically about what you want to do abroad before you ask for direction. If you’re looking for cultural immersion or language study, the foreign language teachers will probably be the most informative. If you’re looking to do research or study in a particular subject, you should ask your teacher in that area if they know of any summer programs abroad suited to your interests.


What if I Don’t Study Abroad?

We’ve spoken about Making Caring Common before — especially in the context of making summer plans and filling out the Additional Information section of the Common App — and it’s relevant here too.


If you’re not familiar with Making Caring Common, it is an initiative at Harvard that is working to better the college application and admissions process by recognizing that, very often, activities and accomplishments that are considered “impressive” on a college application are extremely expensive and thus unrealistic plans for many students. Studying abroad is a perfect example of this scenario, so you shouldn’t worry at all if it is not a financial possibility for you.


Making the Decision

Ultimately, the decision whether or not to study abroad is one only you can make. Hopefully, we’ve answered your questions about why it could look good on a college application or resume if you do choose to spend a summer or semester out of the country.


However, we acknowledge that studying abroad is usually a costly endeavor, and not necessarily of interest for every student. There are myriad other ways to spend your time that are equally as enjoyable, eye-opening, and valuable to your college applications, so if you’re not keen on leaving the country for any reason, you shouldn’t feel pressured to do so.


For more about extracurricular activities, check out these great CollegeVine posts:



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Lily Calcagnini
Senior Blogger

Short Bio
Lily is a History and Literature concentrator at Harvard University who is doing her darnedest to write a thesis about all of her favorite things at once: fashion, contemporary culture, art journalism, and Europe. A passionate learner, she cares deeply about helping high school students navigate the process of college admissions, whether it be through private essay tutoring or sharing advice on the CollegeVine blog.