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Should You Study Abroad Short- or Long-Term?

How to Decide

Study abroad decision
Making a decision about how long to study abroad can require a lot of thought and financial planning.

You have made the first step: you decided to study abroad. As a conscientious student, you are now approaching the study abroad office for your first appointment. While an agenda of items to be considered will naturally differ for every student, there is one question that will come up for all: how long do you want to study abroad? 

Time Terminology

“Short” versus “long-term” is relative. For one student, “short” may mean a 2-week summer program, while for another it means “only” a semester abroad, as opposed to a whole year. There is also the option of doing your entire undergraduate or graduate degree abroad. This latter possibility would be termed a long-term commitment, though some may no longer see it as a conventional “study abroad,” which tends to be a finite period abroad within a “home university” program. In the end, however, what “short” and “long-term” means to you is entirely individual, as is the decision to commit to either.

Shorter-Term Study Abroad Options

Whether or not “short” means a summer or a single semester to you, going abroad for a limited time has its benefits and drawbacks. In general, keeping it short is a good option for first-timers. Going abroad always carries with it inherent challenges, whether it be culture shock, homesickness, or merely jet lag for the first couple of days. If you have never studied abroad, or even been abroad before, the first experience in a foreign country can be difficult at times, and perhaps even overwhelming. Restricting your time abroad can help you see the challenge as temporary; you would be surprised, homesickness will not feel as bad if you know you have only a week to go.

The summer months can often be used to test the waters. The majority of U.S. universities offer summer classes not only on their home campus, but also accept credits from courses taken abroad, whether at another university’s campus abroad or their own. Check with your study abroad advisor on restrictions; some universities may only accept credits from their own campus abroad.

A couple weeks in the summer can be the ideal opportunity to explore an entirely different culture. In most cases, summer programs tend to be less intensive than a full semester, and it is likely that you will have free time to experience the local way of life. Keep in mind that your professors want you to take advantage and learn about the host country, and spending time at local venues — as opposed to the classroom — is part of the deal. The fact the weather is generally sunny in most parts of the northern hemisphere also helps, though it should not be the primary reason for you to spend a summer abroad in Spain!

Study Abroad Longer-Term

More adventurous students may tend towards going abroad for a longer period of time. Again, whether this means a year abroad or doing an entire degree program in a foreign country is up to you. Just remember to be realistic about your plans; are you really ready to be away from your “protected bubble” for that length of time? While the answer to this question will only truly reveal itself once you are actually in-country, there are others that can be addressed beforehand. 

Questions to Ask Your Study Abroad Advisor

Regardless of whether you are going abroad long or short-term, be sure to address the following agenda items with your study abroad advisor:

  • Will I receive enough credit for courses taken abroad?

  • Which preparatory courses do I need to take before going abroad?

  • Is a certain language level required?

  • Where will classes be held? At a local university or a U.S. campus abroad?

  • How much does it cost and how will I afford my study abroad?

  • If applicable, how will an extended stay affect my financial aid package?

  • What extra-curricular options are available abroad?

  • Is credit given for internships?

The last two questions are particularly pertinent to longer-term study abroad. Companies offering internships usually prefer that their interns stay longer, and may even require a minimum time commitment. While this may vary from company to company, it is advantageous for both parties; on the one hand, the company does not have to train a new intern every two weeks, and on the other, the intern is likely to be given more important responsibilities. Additionally, if the internship is conducted in the local language, a student may need some initial time to adapt before being ready for productive work.

Learning a Language Abroad

Learning a language is perhaps the main reason most students go abroad, and while there are certainly countless short-term programs to do so, a longer stay will allow for more substantial immersion. It is only natural that you will learn more in three months than two weeks. Typically, it is also the case that programs at local universities are only offered during the academic year, as opposed to the summer. Studying at a local university with local students can work miracles with respect to language and cultural immersion. Keep this in mind when you choose a program that is right for you.

When Short- and Long-Term Study Multiplies

While the first flight may seem daunting, going abroad can become an addiction. Among fellow classmates at Columbia were many who first went abroad for a summer in France and then returned for yet another semester in Paris. My experience was quite similar. As an undergraduate, I studied abroad through Middlebury College in Madrid. I then studied at Middlebury College’s graduate program, which is also located in Spain. Whether for the summer, a semester, or a year, your time abroad will be a life-changing experience!

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