At some point during your degree or studies you may decide you want to travel around and get some worldly exposure. Going global and getting out of your comfort zone to experience a new country and surroundings first hand is a great way to enhance your education, expand your horizons and gain a competitive edge in the eyes of employers.
Around this time last year, I decided I would do something different and turn my life right around 180. I started seeking ways to change myself and sought out opportunities for personal development. One of these ways, I decided, was to get out of the country more and try and travel and see as much of the world as I could. I was getting bored of falling into the same mundane routine of going to uni in the same one place and decided I needed to experience something new.
I combined my love of traveling with my thirst for adventure and readiness for change and decided I would put in an application to go on exchange. I’d been discussing with a friend of mine and we both decided to give it a shot and apply for the same host university and see where things would take us.
Eleven months on and here we are, the two of us ready to embark on our exchange program in a few days time! While I haven’t technically left the country yet, I’m pretty well versed in what happens pre-departure, but I’m looking to write more detailed posts in the near future about what to expect once you’re on exchange, so look forward to that!
Things went remarkably well for us but I’ll admit that the whole entire process was quite tedious and often went less smoothly than anticipated.
I’m going to give you guys a bit more of an idea of how the whole application process works so whether you’re interested in applying for exchange or are just curious to know, you can become familiarised with the process and requirements for studying abroad.
The first thing you should do if you want to study abroad, as with many other things, is to research extensively. First, write down a list of all the countries you are interested in studying in.
For me, it was very easy to narrow down a country – I had my eyes set on studying in the UK from the very beginning for two reasons:
- The UK legal system and laws are quite similar to those in Australia, since the latter was derived from and developed off the former. This meant it would be easier to match up units studied abroad with those at home than if I went to another country with a remarkably different legal system and different laws, e.g. the US.
- I had never been to the UK before, or Europe whatsoever. I decided exchange to the UK would be a great way to kill two birds with one stone and be able to experience both.
Next, it’s time to look at which university you want to study with.
Most universities will have a ‘Study Abroad’ tab somewhere on their website which will have a list of all partner universities within a given region. Partner universities are easier to apply to since your home university already has some form of affiliation with the university. This often means that your home university will be the main point of contact with your desired host university and will forward all relevant forms and your application to them directly.
If you want to apply for a university that is not partnered or on the list, you may need to follow a significantly more complex application process and contact the host university yourself.
I went with the partnered university route, since this seemed like a much better guarantee of securing an offer and was much more hassle free for someone who did not yet know the process very well. I ended up choosing to study Law – LL.B. with The University of Sheffield. I’ll be explaining throughout this post how I came to this decision.
Some universities will list a GPA or WAM requirement to be met in order to apply for an exchange program position. Make sure the host university you choose offers subjects in your faculty and check the semester dates to make sure they don’t clash with your those of your current home university. e.g. the academic year in the UK starts in late September, which is in the middle of semester 2 here in Australia. It meant that I would have an extended academic break from June-September whilst in Australia and I would then fly over to the UK from September until February – and come back home just in time to start uni again in Australia! (The academic year in Australia starts in March)
You will then need to decide on a university to study with. Things to help you in choosing:
- GPA/WAM requirements – see above. More elite universities will have a much higher WAM and will be significantly harder to get into. Most universities require at least a 70 WAM for acceptance in exchange programs.
- Semester dates and length of program – see above. Note also some faculties at some particular universities will require you to remain there to study for a certain length of time. For example: at some UK universities, such as the University of Warwick, I would have been required to stay the entire academic year for law. I decided against Warwick for this reason as I did not have the resources to support myself for an entire year and I would only stay abroad for a semester max.
- University rankings – This may or may not be important to you, but could be a consideration and a general and simple way to tell if the institution you are going to be studying in has a high standard of education. Sheffield Uni is a World Top 100 University and is internationally renowned for its research so I felt like it would be a good choice. I wasn’t too fussed with rankings overall.
- Facilities – Check out if your university has the facilities you need such as libraries, computer labs, food outlets and sports on their website. Some websites will have interactive 360 tours of the campus to help you get an idea of the general environment of the university.
- Student satisfaction – What previous years students think of the university may give you a good idea of the learning environment and how supportive the uni is towards students. Sheffield is one of the greenest and happiest cities in the UK and is ranked highly in student satisfaction and social life surveys by its students.
- Accomodation – You will most likely be staying in on-campus accomodation so have a look at the rental contract prices, reviews and amenities and whether accomodation is guaranteed. Sheffield has consistently ranked no.1 in the UK for accomodation so I know I didn’t need to worry.
- Location – You may want to see if your host university is close to other main cities that you want to also travel to. Is it close to other facilities like shopping, entertainment, and food?
- Funding – your home university may be able to partially fund you, depending on the certain partner university that you choose. Choosing a university that is closely partnered may mean you get more travel grants or scholarships to support you while abroad.
Exchange vs. study abroad
This might be a bit confusing, since I’m largely going to be using these two terms interchangeably in my writing, but exchange and study abroad are actually two different things.
Being an exchange student means that you are studying with a different host university for the duration of the program. It has stricter requirements than studying abroad.
Studying abroad means that you are studying with your home university in a different campus, e.g. my university also has campuses in Malaysia, Italy and South Africa. If I were to study abroad, I would still be with my university, but just in one of these other campuses. Study abroad has more lenient requirements and the application process is much shorter and it is easier to secure a spot. You may want to look into study abroad if you want less hassle and want your university to take care of most things for you.
PLEASE NOTE: Planning for an exchange program often takes a minimum of one year to plan and secure an offer in advance. You will often also need to apply and send in paperwork A YEAR before you start your exchange program. So get in early and be careful of closing dates and deadlines! (i.e. I had to start applying for my exchange program last year in October (2016), even though the program did not start until September this year (2017).
There are also some further requirements imposed by universities – e.g.
- Your university will probably require you to have successfully completed a certain number of units or credit points to apply – e.g. you might need to have passed all your units in first year to be eligible.
- Similarly, your university might require you to have a certain amount of credit points or unused electives left in your degree to go on an exchange program.
- Some universities will only allow you to use up electives when studying abroad and not core subjects.
- Some universities will also not allow you to study abroad if it would be your last semester before you graduate.
So you’ve decided on a country and university? Great!
Now comes the hard part – working on and sending in your application.
Contact your home university’s Study Abroad Department to get an application form for exchange. You might also be able to find one just by looking online on your university’s website.
The application form should more or less cover the following:
- Personal contact details – This is pretty straightforward
- Select a university – Fill in your first preference university and the country and put in the details of a second preference university in case
- Proposed study plan – You will need to select a number of units/subjects your are interested in and eligible to study whilst abroad at your host university. You must check the credit point system in your host country and work out an arrangement that adds up to an appropriate study load equivalent at home; e.g. in the UK, 60 credit points per semester (roughly 3 subjects) equates to a full time study load in Australia (24 credit points equates to a full study load here, roughly 4 subjects). Check the semester that the unit is offered in and make sure it corresponds with the semester you will be studying it in at your host university (not all units are offered every semester!)
- Statement of purpose – This is exactly what it sounds like – you write a short essay or personal statement explaining why you want to study abroad, what you seek to gain out of that experience, challenges and goals you have and what extracurricular involvement you have. You will also need to demonstrate in your statement that you are a capable student and would be a good ambassador for your home and host university.
- Financial plan – This is a rough breakdown of your expected expenses while studying abroad. Include costs such as airfare, accomodation, cost of visa and passport, living costs and other travel in your calculations. Some universities will cover study abroad students with an adequate insurance policy cover, but if your university does not cover this or you wish to take out more comprehensive insurance you may want to look for a quote and factor this into your calculations. The financial plan does not need to be exact, it is just a draft so you and the university can get an idea of how much you will be spending.
- Academic referees – My application form required me to look for two references, so I asked some lecturers and tutors from my faculty if they would be happy to be a reference which they agreed.
- Faculty approval – You will need to seek out approval from your faculty or faculties if you are studying a double degree and they will have a look through your study plan and see if it is appropriate or has any clashes with the completion of your degree
- Proof of finances – a recent bank statement or proof of student loan may need to be attached to your application (see next section)
You will need to show proof of your finances, often attached to your application. For my application, I was required to attach a recent bank statement to prove I could support myself while abroad.
Your home university will often have scholarships for travel, some unconditional and others conditional. Do some research on funding options and scholarships you could apply for on both your home and host university websites and get these in before the deadline.
Some people I’ve talked with try to make excuses that they can’t afford to study abroad. This is not true. At least not for students in my state. Victorian students can apply for an OS-HELP loan which is merely added onto your HECS student loan which you repay when you graduate and work full-time and start earning a certain amount of money pa. There are no interest rates but figures are adjusted for inflation. There is also the option to pay upfront if you do not want to take out a loan.
Don’t let money be a reason to hold you back from your dreams of studying abroad. Talk with an adviser to discuss funding options and take out a loan if necessary.
4. Be patient!
(Okay this part was also hard. Not from a technical point of view, but because it takes so LONG. I waited up to 6 months for a response, no joke)
After you have sent in your application, you will need to wait for it to be processed, first by your home university, and then by the host university. This can take a pretty long time, but don’t fret – they are probably just processing a high volume of applications and will get back to you eventually. Worse case scenario, just shoot a reminder or follow up email to your Study Abroad co-ordinator or the host university with your application no. and course details.
I got pretty impatient during this stage because there wasn’t much else that I could do. Once you’ve sent in your application, you need to be really patient. You should NOT go ahead and book any flights or apply for a visa BEFORE you receive a confirmation or acceptance letter.
Sit back, relax (or at least try to – I know I was constantly fretting over whether I got in or not) and be patient.
5. Accept! Or try again
If all goes well, you will eventually receive correspondence from your host university and an acceptance letter from your university. I remember how excited I was to finally receive mine after months of waiting.
Here’s what mine looked like, and it had me jumping for joy:
Notify your home university ASAP after receiving and accepting this offer. Your home university might require you to do certain tasks after acceptance – e.g. changing your enrolment records.
Shortly after, you should be sent details by your host university which will allow you to register online for a student account and email, so you can access their student portal and resources. Check emails regularly to keep up to date with any tasks you need to do before you arrive.
I haven’t spoken to anyone who has applied for exchange and hasn’t gotten an offer as of yet. However, if things did not go as planned, do not feel disheartened! Wait and see if you get an offer from your second preference uni or apply again next semester. Don’t give up!
6. Attend pre-departure information sessions and meet and greets
Your home university will probably host a pre-departure session for study abroad students where you will receive more information about things such as safety, insurance coverage and policy details and emergency contact numbers. Attendance might be a compulsory condition of your going on exchange so make sure to go – even if it isn’t compulsory its pretty helpful overall. We had a panel of former exchange students come into talk about their experiences and it was quite interesting and enlightening.
Your home university will also probably host a meet and greet with other students also going on an exchange program to your region – we had one for students going to the UK but I forgot to attend, whoops!
7. Apply for a visa!
You will likely need a student visa for the duration of the program and based on the region in which you will be studying in. Research on the types of visas available for you, requirements and cost and choose the most suitable one and start applying.
Some visas have different conditions attached to them – you will not be able to work or even volunteer under some visas and other visas might allow you to look for part time work and have other entitlements under them.
Ultimately I decided to apply for a short-term student visa for the duration of the stay in the UK, rather than get a Tier 4 student visa. The short term student visa means I will not be able to work or volunteer in the UK and will not be covered by NHS (I’ll need to seek out my own private health insurance where it isn’t covered by my home university’s insurance policy), but is much cheaper and easier to obtain than the T4 visa.
I went to the Gov.UK website and filled in an online application, then booked an appointment to send in important documents like all previous passports, offer letters, birth certificates and have my biometric information and photograph taken.
After a few weeks, the visa was ready for collection. You can also opt for courier or express service if you are in a hurry but this will incur additional charges.
It was my first time applying for a visa and I found the process a little bit intimidating but it was a worthwhile and interesting experience overall.
8. Travel cards vs. opening an overseas bank account
I am putting this step up here, because it might be easier for you to apply for an international travel card before you book trains and buses and pay for accomodation in your host country so you can avoid any additional charges and exchange rate costs.
You may want to open up a bank account once you are in your host country, but my preference was to apply for travel cards since I would only be in the UK for 5 months. Applying for a travel card also means that you can purchase and pay for things abroad before you arrive without incurring expensive international costs.
Research on a card that will allow you to make purchases and withdraw from ATMs while abroad without any additional costs. In my case, I applied for a Citibank Plus Debit Card and a 28 Degrees Mastercard which would allow me to book train tix and accomodation without a hassle and extra fees.
Allow a bit of time for the cards to be delivered to you via post and then its time to start buying *ahem* booking for your journey!
9. Make bookings – flights, trains, buses
Now it’s time to consider how to get there! Start researching for the cheapest flights that will get you to your host country. It is usually easier and cheaper to start looking as early as possible before spots fill up.
My host university city, Sheffield, actually does not have an airport. Instead I booked my flights to London Heathrow Airport (there is also the option of Manchester Airport, which is actually closer) and booked train tickets to get me there.
I am pretty unfamiliar with traveling long distances via train, so booking train tickets was quite confusing at first. I booked my tickets about a month in advance (it is common in the UK to book early) so that I could get a significantly cheaper fare than if I booked on the day. The annoying thing was that there was no option to print out train tickets online and I had to pay extra for them to be delivered via international post (yet another reason to book early to allow time for things to arrive in the post!)
Your host university may have an accomodation guarantee if you apply before a certain date. There is also the option to apply for private accomodation off-campus, which you will need to research on your own (I’m not going to cover this because I went for on-campus accomodation so I am unfamiliar with the process)
For me, I simply logged into my student portal and started an application for on-campus accomodation. You should review the accomodation contract carefully and check the dates and rental price are correct. Some items will be strictly prohibited for use in accomodation – e.g. candles, portable heating devices, etc.
You might be able to request to be allocated with a friend, to have same-sex accomodation, a room with extra furnishings or an ensuite in your application.
You should receive further details of your accomodation that you are allocated to a few weeks after the application closing date and a new postal address which you can use for the duration of your stay. Keep an eye out for key collection dates and times and notify an Accomodation Officer if you are arriving outside of these dates and during out-of-business hours.
11. Connect! Facebook groups and forums
Congratulations on reaching this step! It’s been a long journey to get to where you are now and you’ve made most preparations necessary before you arrive for your semester or year abroad. The final step is to join Facebook groups and forums for your university or accomodation so you can start connecting with other students before you arrive. Facebook groups and forums are also a great place to ask any questions you have and make new friends and know familiar faces when you arrive so you transition into your new university easier.
I know this post was much longer than my other posts, but I really hope this has helped you! I tried to put as much detail into it as I could so as to make your application and all things pre-departure run as smoothly as possible.
I’ve also just uploaded a video on my YouTube channel on how to pack for study abroad, which you can find here.
Let me know if this post was helpful and what I can improve upon! I would also love to hear about your own experiences.
Until next time,
Take care xx