As you know, I am currently in Sweden studying abroad! It is such an exciting time in my life and has definitely been full of adventure! Since I am here I thought I could shed some light on what you should know before you embark!
One year pre-departure:
1. Start thinking about where you want to go.
At least a year before you leave, you should start thinking about where you want to go. Whether it be South America, Europe, Africa or Asia, there are so many amazing places that you can experience when studying abroad. Consider all of your options! You don’t have to settle for the first place you think of. Initially I was in love with the idea of studying in Rome. But after doing more research and considering more factors I ended up going to Sweden.
Some of the factors to consider are if your school has an agreement with any other schools, how much it will cost to fly/study/live in the place you decide, if you can take classes that apply to your major, etc. My home school has a partnership with the university in Sweden so I pay tuition to my home school and all of my scholarships still apply. Check and see if your school has anything like this because it saves a ton of money and might influence your decision when choosing where to go. Also consider how expensive it is to get to where you are going and how much it will cost to live there. In Sweden , I spend a lot more money on food that I usually do because the products here are in smaller quantities and cost the same as back home. Definitely factor this into your budget. Finally, see if you can take any classes that will apply to your major at the schools you are considering. This is a huge benefit because it allows you to keep progressing on your degree and also these classes tend to be more interesting to you. I was only able to take one class that applied toward my degree and ended up being really bored in my other classes!
2. Apply for scholarships:
Obviously studying abroad is expensive. However, there are always ways to save money, one of which is applying for scholarships. A quick google search will provide you with hundreds of scholarships for students studying across the world so take advantage of this! Some scholarships to consider are the Gilman award, the Boren award, or the Go Oversea’s website that provides access to many databases to search for scholarships and grants. It is good to apply for these early because as you get closer to leaving you will get much busier and most likely will not want to be writing essays for scholarships.
There are also other creative ways to raise money for your study abroad. You can ask family, friends or local businesses if they can assist you financially, try organizing a bake sale or car wash at your school (I know it sounds lame but it is an option), or even make a kickstarter. My best advice is to just go for it. The worst that can happen is people say no. I realize that it is intimidating asking people for money but if you give them a sense of who you are and why you are going abroad, they will be more likely to donate. Even if you only raise $35 you can be proud of yourself (and that will buy you overpriced food at the airport!).
Six months pre-departure:
3. Decide on a school.
Consider all the factors. How expensive is the school? Do your credits transfer? Do you know anyone who has studied there? Look at the reviews other international students have given the school. After you have weighed all your options, you will know where you ultimately want you go.
4. Apply for the school.
Every school has a different process for the application, so figure out what you need to do to start. Most likely your home university will assist you in this process and help you coordinate with the right people at your chosen school. Since my home university has an agreement with the school I am attending in Sweden, the application process was relatively simple. My home coordinator sent me the links to the application via email and all it required was filling in a few boxes. If possible, I recommend applying to your school of choice at least six months before you plan on leaving. This will allow you enough time to be accepted by the school and you can buy a plane ticket much earlier. I am studying for only the spring semester in Sweden, so I arrived here in January. The application for the school was not open until November 2014 and I did not get accepted until mid-December. This was SO STRESSFUL. Just over a month before I was supposed to leave, I still was not 100% sure if I was going. It was all up in the air. December is already busy with finals and the holidays, but I also was dealing with moving out of my apartment and studying for the MCAT, which I took just before I left.
Overall my advice is if you can, apply to your school as early as possible to avoid later stresses.
5. Apply for a student visa.
Once you are accepted into the school, you can apply for a student visa. YOU MUST RECEIVE A STUDENT VISA BEFORE YOU LEAVE! My advice is specific for students from the US. I have a story about my student visa, but I will try to keep it short….
Before I left for Sweden, my home university coordinator told me that I did not need to apply for my student visa and that the university in Sweden would assist me with this upon my arrival. Myself, being naive, thought “Ok, cool.” I didn’t even look at the papers required for a visa.
When I arrived in Sweden everything was great. I made it past immigration and to my university without a problem. After a week or so had past, I emailed my home coordinator and asked when I would be getting my visa, because I hadn’t heard anything about it at this point. He emailed the school I am attending and found out that I was supposed to apply months ago before I arrived. At this point I was panicking! I thought I was going to have to go back home or something. I ended up finding all the paperwork required for a student visa on the Swedish migration board website and had to take a bus to their office.
I was really nervous because I thought they would kick me out of the country right away because I didn’t have a residence permit (although I found out that I could stay in Sweden for 90 days without a permit). Anyways, they were actually very kind and understanding and helped me file my paperwork. Luckily for me, there were no other applications for student permits at the time, so they were able to start considering mine that day. However, in order to be considered for a student visa I could not be in Sweden. They told me I had to leave the country that day! I was freaking out because I had no idea where I would go or how I would get there or where I would stay.
I ended up taking a ferry the next day to Finland and spending a week there while my visa was being approved. It was the most stressful time of my life because they could not give me any information about my visa or how long it would take to process. They basically told me to stay in Finland until I get the OK to come back.
The moral of this story is apply for your visa before you go. I have heard that it usually takes three months to be approved in Sweden but often times can take longer.
6. Book your flight.
Booking early is always a good idea because you may be able to save money on your ticket. Also consider looking at different airlines. Obviously, it depends on where you are going, but if you are flying to Scandinavia consider Norwegian or SAS.
Another tip – if you are planing to travel at all during your study abroad in Europe, consider Ryanair for cheap flights. I haven’t actually flown with them but I have looked at their prices.
Also, you may want to buy only a one-way ticket. It may be more expensive buying two one way tickets than a round trip, but it allows you the freedom to travel more at the end of your study abroad. While you are away you will make friends and might plan trips with them, so it is nice having an open schedule.
Three months pre-departure:
7. Make sure your classes will transfer back to your home university
If you want credit for your classes or if you have scholarships that depend on being a full-time student, you want to speak with the registrar to make sure the classes you have chosen to take while aboard will transfer back to your home university for credit.
This process for me included getting a description of the course from the university website in Sweden and finding a similar course offered at my home university. I then had to email the department head that the course corresponded to to get approval for transfer. Then I had to have my advisor sign off saying that the classes I chose were ok (not sure why I had to do this but I did). And finally, I had to take all of these signature to the registrar and she approved the courses for transfer.
One month pre-departure:
8. Finalize your plans
At this point, hopefully you will have everything in place fore your trip. Make sure to double check that you have your visa, passport, letter of acceptance, and flight confirmations.
You will probably have meetings with your home university coordinator to discuss more about what you need to do and how you should behave abroad.
In the last couple of weeks before you leave you will be busy packing, hanging out with friends and family for the last time for a while and just enjoying the experience. The best advice I got before I left was that there are going to be problems. No matter how well you prepared or how experienced a traveler you are, something is going to go wrong. When it does, just take a breath and realize that you will get through it and have an interesting story to tell later.
Anyways, I hope this helps anyone who is thinking about going abroad and isn’t sure what to expect. Later I will post more specifics about my trip and what I packed. Let me know if you have any questions or want some advice about studying abroad!