The Study Abroad Application Process From Start to Finish

I was asked to write this guide outlining the study abroad application process, but I got a little sidetracked and it ended up taking a lot longer than I expected. Sorry for the delay! All of this information is from my experience applying for the Osaka University Exchange, so it might not be applicable to all UW study abroad programs, but hopefully you still find it helpful.

Why Study Abroad?

Before talking about how to apply for a study abroad program, the first thing we have to talk about is why you should apply. If you’re someone who is interested in learning a language or visiting another country, you probably don’t need much convincing when it comes to this, but there are plenty of other great reasons to study abroad even if you don’t fall into this category.

One of the biggest reasons study abroad was a valuable experience for me was that it placed me in an environment where I was able to reflect upon and evaluate myself. When you’re in a foreign country with brand new people and a brand new day to day life, you’re able to contrast this new life with the one you’re used to. This gives you a certain appreciation for what you had, but it also helps you rethink yourself and your life. I would highly recommend study abroad to anyone who feels like they’re lacking direction, either in their education or in their life in general. In my case study abroad, definitely helped me in this regard.

For more convincing, there are about a thousand “Top 10 Reasons to Study Abroad” lists out there. Even if you’re not quite convinced, if you have the slightest interest in studying abroad, spend some time reading about some of the programs here. I was on the fence about study abroad for years before it occurred to me that I should read up on what programs were out there. When I finally did do some research, just reading about a few programs was all it took to convince me to apply.

Before Applying

Before applying, it’s important to think about how study abroad will fit into your academic calendar. In general I would say the more time you have left until graduation, the easier it is to study abroad without having to delay your graduation. Then again, if you feel the experience is important enough, you might want to consider delaying your graduation in favor of study abroad. In my case, I could have graduated about 2 quarters earlier if I didn’t study abroad, but the experience was well worth the delay in my graduation. It’s also worth mentioning that many programs require you to be at least a Junior, so the earlier you start planning for study abroad the better.

You also need to think about what sort of credits you can get from studying abroad. Typically, general electives are very easy to fulfill abroad, while core requirements are difficult or near impossible to take through a study abroad program. This is also the reason why planning ahead and applying early is important. If you apply after you have already taken care of all of your general electives, you might have a tougher time making the most out of your program; however, don’t feel discouraged if all you have left are core requirements. Many programs have open ended courses which satisfy core requirements and can be very easy to fulfill through a study abroad program. The worst case scenario is that the credits you take while abroad don’t help you at all towards completing your major, and while this isn’t ideal, I would still highly recommend study abroad even if this is the case.

After doing some research on these topics on your own, you will want to meet with advisors both in the study abroad department and in your major. To make an appointment with a UW Bothell advisor go here. It can also be useful to take a trip over to the Seattle study abroad office if you have any questions about specific programs. Definitely keep in touch with these advisors because you will be emailing them constantly throughout the application process!

The Application

The study abroad application can be daunting, but make sure to start it as early as possible. Each application is a little different, but most (all?) applications include a of statement of purpose. The prompt is usually something like this:

“Please write a statement (750-1,000 words) indicating your background and qualifications for studying and living abroad, your reasons for choosing this program or exchange, and the projected benefits of this experience to your course of study and long-term plans. Include any other information that you feel is relevant to your application.”

The statement of purpose is the most important part of your application and it is where you introduce yourself and your motivations. It is also where you convince the study abroad office that you really want to, and deserve to study abroad. The best advice I can give for writing a great statement of purpose is to emphasize your future goals and sell the fact that the study abroad program you have chosen will further these goals. Beyond that, you have all written several essays by this point so I won’t bother explaining how to write a good essay.

Some programs also require two letters of recommendation from professors or faculty members who know you well. Requesting a letter of recommendation is done directly through the application website, but make sure to contact the two professors beforehand so they aren’t caught off guard by an automated request from the study abroad application. This is also the most time consuming part of the application and you should allow at least two weeks from the time you start contacting professors to the time your second recommendation is submitted.

There are also a few other documents you need to fill out and submit before your application is considered complete. Once you have completed everything, all of the boxes on your application should be checked as “Received” and you should be all set.

Some programs also include a second application stage involving a group interview which takes place after the application deadline. The interview sounds serious, but it’s nothing to get nervous about. For my interview, about five or six other applicants and I sat around a table with a study abroad program advisor. We then took turns answering questions about our motivations, as well as parts of our application that needed clarification. It was interesting to talk to other applicants and hear about their motivations, and overall it was a pretty fun experience. It’s also worth mentioning that most of the time the other applicants are applying to completely different programs, so don’t worry about trying to compete with other people at the interview.

Pre-Departure Preparations

If all goes well you receive an email informing you that you have been accepted into the program. At this point, the first thing to do is to either accept or decline participation in the program. If I recall this is first done digitally through the application but even after accepting you can back out without penalty. Later on, you are required to sign a payment contract which initiates a financial commitment to the program. If you decide to leave the program after signing the financial agreement you have to pay a certain fee depending on how much time is left before the start of the program, so it’s important to make sure you are committed before you sign anything.

After committing to participate, there are a few more documents that you need to fill out and submit on the application website. Some exchanges also require a secondary application to the host university. This application is similar to the initial study abroad application and can require another statement of purpose and more letters of recommendation, though I found this application to be a little bit shorter.

You also now need to take care of applying for a passport if you haven’t already done so, applying for a visa in some cases, and purchasing your airline tickets, though I’m sure some of these things vary from program to program. You have a lot of time to get these things done but they are definitely not something to procrastinate on.

Funding Your Study Abroad

Study abroad is often viewed as an expensive endeavour, and many people are discouraged from participating at all due to the cost; however, there are a ton of ways to acquire funds for your trip.

If you already receive financial aid for normal tuition costs, often this financial aid can be applied to your study abroad trip. This depends on the program, but typically if you participate in an exchange you should receive financial aid as usual. There is also the Study Abroad Financial Aid Revision Request Form, which you can fill out in order to inform the school of your additional need for finances, and sometimes receive additional financial aid.

The real focus of this section is to talk about Study Abroad Scholarships which can be an extremely good source of funding if you choose to apply to them. The scholarships available to you depend on your financial aid status as well as your program, but every student should have at least one or two scholarships which they are eligible for. Applying for scholarships can be a lot of work, but if you are participating in study abroad do yourself a favor and apply to EVERYTHING! If you put the work in and apply to enough scholarships, even if you don’t receive all of them, there is the potential to fully fund your study abroad with scholarships.

Applying for scholarships is a lot like applying for study abroad programs in that most of them require a personal statement and a few letters of recommendation. For the personal statement I will reiterate the advice I gave above: sell the fact that your study abroad experience will further your future goals. Each scholarship is looking for something slightly different in a student so try to tailor your essays to each specific application. Lastly, sometimes you have to really convince yourself of your ambitions before you can write a convincing personal statement about your ambitions.

Here is a good place to start when applying for scholarships. SERIOUSLY THOUGH, APPLY TO EVERYTHING.

If all else fails, working part time to save up for your trip, or even working part time while abroad can be an extremely rewarding experience and is definitely worth the effort. Also, depending on your situation and which program you apply for, study abroad can actually be cheaper or the same price as living in the US and taking classes as normal. This is especially the case if you’re living by yourself and paying rent while here at the UW. In Osaka for example, the average rent in the dorms was something like $250 a month, and food was much cheaper than it is here in the US.

The Trip!

The study abroad application process is a massive endeavor, especially if you apply to scholarships, but I can’t even even describe how valuable the payoff is. I titled this section “The Trip” but I don’t think it’s accurate to just think of study abroad as travel. Study abroad to me was like a whole new life. While I was there, I wasn’t traveling, I was at home, and the US was some foreign country across the ocean.

As far as advice for going abroad, it depends on what you’re looking to achieve. If you want to learn a new language or improve one that you have been learning, the best advice I can give is to make friends native to the country you’re visiting. I made the mistake of hanging out with too many study abroad students and I rarely got the chance to practice my Japanese while in Japan. If you want to see as much of the country you visit as possible, I would recommend buying a bike and just going for random rides. I went on plenty of trips while in Japan to famous landmarks and other cities, but the most fun I had exploring the country was when I was just biking around. If you want to expand your experiences academically I would highly recommend joining some clubs or seeing if you can participate in any research while abroad.

Obviously these things are specific to my experience abroad, but I feel like they’re definitely applicable to many of the other study abroad programs. Also, don’t just take my word for it, read some of the other blogs!

If you have any information you would like me to add to this guide, or notice anything I wrote that is incorrect please let me know. Thanks for reading!

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