If you’re wondering when you should study abroad, the short answer is that you should go when you’re ready. Personal and academic factors, like graduation requirements and family events, will undoubtedly affect which semester(s) you choose to travel. Only you, with help from your academic advisor, can decide the best timing for your study abroad experience, but there are some general pros and cons of studying abroad at each phase of your college career to consider.
Most colleges don’t allow freshmen to earn credit abroad, at least not until the summer after their first years, but a handful of schools are going against the grain. New York University, Syracuse University, and Florida State University, among a few others, have piloted study abroad programs for first-semester freshmen. These programs are aimed at students who develop international interests and goals before they graduate high school.
- Pros: This type of program might be for you if you’re looking to make a 180-degree turn away from high school life and quickly bond with peers who share similar interests. These programs encourage you to become a global citizen and may offer additional opportunities to study abroad later in your college career. If you’ve already decided to go abroad straight out of high school, you might be wavering between spending your freshman year abroad or taking a gap year. The former allows you to earn college credits to put toward a degree.
- Cons: Because study abroad programs for freshmen are few and far between, you must choose your college based on its options to study abroad. That narrows down your school search to just a few choices, and they might not suit you after your first year. If you head abroad straight out of high school, you also miss out on the typical college experience: move-in day, campus events, choosing advisors, etc. When you arrive on campus your sophomore year, you could feel stifled and bored, and you won’t have a fully developed support system yet.
- Pros: If you want to jump-start your language skills, sophomore year is the time to do so. It’s easier to learn a language through immersion than with a textbook. By studying abroad early, you’re setting yourself up to take more advanced language classes on campus as an upperclassman. Furthermore, you knocked out most of your general education requirements as a freshman, so when you return to campus, you can spend your last two years concentrating on classes for your major and choosing electives to take for fun.
- Cons: You’ll be in the minority if you choose to study abroad sophomore year. Only about 13% of sophomores did so during the 2014-2015 school year. Most students study abroad junior or senior year, which means that you and your college friends won’t be on campus at the same time for quite a while. When you come back your junior year, campus might feel empty.
- Pros: Take a breather before you get wrapped up in your thesis defense and your postgrad job applications. Junior year is by far the most common time to leave campus, so there’s no need to fear that you’re missing out on college life. And you’ll have already finished most of your degree requirements, so you’ll have few worries there.
- Cons: You finally have priority when it comes to registering for classes, and you won’t be on campus to take advantage of it. Similarly, you might lose out on newly available fieldwork and internship experiences that would bolster your résumé.
- Pros: If you have all of your requirements out of the way, take advantage of electives you’d never see listed in your home school’s course catalog: art history in Rome, Shakespeare in London, or economics in Dubai. When you get back to campus, you’ll only have to put in another semester—if anything—before you get to walk at graduation. Plus, you won’t be as alone as you think. While junior year is the most common time to leave campus, over a quarter of students who study abroad hold off until their last years of college.
- Cons: If you plan to study abroad senior year, be wary that something might come up last minute. Maybe you didn’t fulfill all of your requirements as planned, for example, so your trip falls through. If you do make it work, will you get the closure you need to finish up college? Senior year comes with plenty of perks, and you’ve earned those formals, concerts, and senior weeks. Will you feel left out when your friends start posting pictures of the memories they’ve been making? Can you interview for postgraduate jobs while you’re abroad?
Humans work hard to make time for what they love. If you’d love to mix study and travel, you can carve out time during any part of your college career to learn in the destination of your dreams. If you have any doubts, work with your academic advisor to draw up your four-year graduation plan and determine when would be the best time for you to leave campus.
Page last updated: 10/2017