What should students think about when considering the options for study abroad? Length of time is very important, as it affects the student’s entire course of study. The most common times for study abroad are an academic semester or an academic year.
Typically, academic semester programs range from about three to five months, and academic year programs range from eight to even ten months. What are the pros and cons of a semester abroad, and what are the pros and cons of a year abroad?
Pros of a Semester Abroad
A semester abroad has several advantages, including:
- The opportunity to take classes in the home country necessary for a student’s course of study, but not available at the university abroad
- Less time away from family and friends at home
- More time to save money for the trip, especially if it’s in the spring of the junior year
Also, some students may feel more motivated to speak a foreign language and take advantage of cultural opportunities, as there is less time in which to do it.
Cons of a Semester Abroad
While a semester abroad can be a great experience, there are a few disadvantages associated with spending a shorter amount of time away from home:
- Less time to gain language fluency and adjust to the foreign culture
- Less time to make friends
- Less time to travel
- Fewer opportunities to take courses not available at the home university
- Less time to feel at home in the foreign country
Pros of a Year Abroad
And for those seriously considering a year abroad, but unable to make the final decision just yet, here are a few advantages of living overseas for a year rather than a semester:
More time to gain language fluency and immerse oneself in the culture
More time to travel to new destinations in and around the foreign country
More opportunities to take classes not available at the home university
More time to make friends and keep them
A year abroad is not for everyone. If any of the following seems especially unappealing, a semester abroad may be the better choice:
Cons of a Year Abroad
- More time away from home
- More juggling might be needed with regard to the program of study
- Less time to save money prior to departure
There is also less of a time crunch for learning a language, experiencing new things, and meeting new people, so for some students, the motivation due to a lack of available time may not be there.
Students should think about the above information when it comes time to decide what sort of program length is preferred and better for the overall academic career. Regardless of whether a student chooses a semester or a year, studying abroad will be a beneficial and memorable experience.
Semester, Year, or Summer Abroad?
Once a university student makes the decision to study abroad, the next step in the process is to find a program that suits his or her interests. But when choosing that program, the time of year and length of program are crucial factors to think about. College major, country, individual preference, and other practical considerations determine the ideal time period for living in another country as a student.
The Role of the College Major in Studying Abroad
Some majors have a strict, structured curriculum. Is there a required course only offered in, for instance, the fall semester? If so, spring would be a better option. Or, for those students whose area of study requires extensive, mostly on-campus research (science and/or premed students in particular often face this dilemma), summer may be a more viable option if the academic program will not allow for much flexibility during the school year.
Foreign Language Preparation for Study Overseas
Language ability is something else to think about: “Will I be ready?” is a question students should ask themselves when deciding when to go overseas. While sometime during the junior year is most common, some students choose to go earlier, such as the spring – or even the fall – of the sophomore year, and should consult with the appropriate academic department for advice.
Some schools require students to have attained a certain level of language proficiency – for example, completed the minimum number of semesters for a core curriculum language requirement – before traveling to a country where English is not the native language.
Taking the Destination’s Academic System into Account
When is the best time to study in the destination country? The semester system elsewhere is sometimes different from the home country, and may or may not conflict with the schedule at a student’s home university.
Take Germany as an example: Universities in the United States most often offer two study abroad program options for Germany, full year or spring. This is because semesters in German universities (with the exception of independent study abroad organizations such as IES Abroad) run approximately from October through February (winter semester), then April through July (summer semester). The winter semester in this instance conflicts with the common American system of September-December for the fall semester, and January-May for the spring semester.
Many European universities, to continue with this example, do not begin classes until October, so study abroad programs may also include a language refresher course or some sort of orientation for international students. In short, researching the host country’s university system is a vital step in the process of choosing a study abroad program length.
Personal Preference: Time Away from Home
It seems like a fairly simple question: “How long can I handle being away from home?” But unless a student has already experienced something similar, like a gap year after high school or attending college far from home, the exact answer is tough to gauge. There is quite a difference between a three- or four-month semester or summer program and an eight- to ten-month academic year program. For longer programs, students may want to consider whether visiting home (or having family/friends come visit) is a possibility if they are not comfortable with being away from loved ones for such an extended period.
In order to determine the best time of year and how long to study abroad, students should learn about academic options at their own university and potential destination universities, as well as prepare for any language requirements. Most importantly, however, they should make the decision based on what will be best for them not only academically but personally.