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!

Looking Back

It’s been just over a month since returning from my semester abroad at Osaka University. Looking back it almost feels like I was never there at all. Over the past month I’ve been slowly re-adjusting to my life here in the US, and I thought I would take some time to reflect on my experiences in Japan.

When I first arrived in Japan in April, it felt very much as if my life was starting over from scratch. I was in a completely new place, meeting completely new people, and doing completely different things on a daily basis. Because I lived in a dormitory full of other study abroad students, all of the people around me were experiencing the same thing, and I think everyone had the idea that this was their opportunity to reinvent themselves. Over time, I slowly began to forget about my life before studying abroad, and eventually it felt like I had always been there and would always be there. Of course, I knew in the back of my mind it would eventually end, but I made a point of living in the now and I tried not to think about it.

While there, I visited several famous places, some of which I mentioned in my previous posts, and I made a point of exploring as much as I could. I even took my commute to school as an opportunity to explore the area, and I would often take out of the way routes just to see more of Japan. Though, even after travelling around Japan, the places I loved the most were the ones within a biking distance of where I lived. I think if I ever decide to go back, there’s nowhere else I’d rather be than Osaka. It really feels like my second hometown, and I would love to go back if ever given the chance.

I also experienced a lot of interesting things, I think the most notable of which was the culture in Japan. I don’t think the culture there was drastically different from that of the US, but there were definitely a few things that stood out to me. Unlike the US, where we are used to living with people from all over the world, foreigners in Japan are a rare sight. Literally rare enough for people to stare whenever I was walking down the street. People there also make the unfortunate assumption that only other Japanese people speak Japanese. This made practicing my Japanese very difficult, and even some of my exchange friends who were fluent in Japanese had trouble communicating. I think my favorite way of describing Japan is “welcoming, but not accepting”. People were nothing but respectful, and I think a tourist wouldn’t really notice anything different. But after living there for an extended period of time, you start to feel excluded. Though, I don’t think this would keep me from going back.

Eventually, I did slowly start to get homesick, and I think when it was time to head home I was ready. My time there has definitely left a lasting impression. In addition to the experiences I have gained through my studies, Japan influenced several areas of my character which I have been noticing since my return. For example, I often catch myself walking on the left side, which sometimes leads to awkward moments when encountering someone walking from the other direction. Now that I’m back, all I have left of Japan are my experiences, and the friends I was able to make while there. My experience in Japan was easily the greatest five months of my life, and the experiences I gained while there will no doubt continue to define me.

Thanks for reading.

My Research at Osaka University

Hey UW Bothell! It’s been quite some time since I have been able to post anything. Over the past two months I have been extremely busy finishing up my research and wrapping up my studies here at Osaka University. Now I finally have some time to relax, and with just a week left in Japan I figured I would write about what I’ve been up to.

Over the past five months I have been working in the Department of Intelligent Media at Osaka University, which specializes in computer vision. The key focus of my laboratory is gait recognition, which is a biometric identification method used to identify people based on the way they walk. We each walk in our own unique way, and much like our fingerprints and irises, our gait is unique enough to be used to identify us. Gait identification is especially useful in the field of law enforcement because it is possible to identify someone’s gait regardless of whether that person is cooperative. For example, a criminal might hide their face or wear gloves to cover their fingerprints, but there is no real way for them to cover up their gait.

While most of my lab mates focused on human gait recognition, I was assigned the peculiar task of researching cow gait recognition. You might be asking, why would we need to identify cows? Well, an accurate means of identifying cows could lead to fully automated beef and dairy farms. With beef one of the largest enterprises in the agricultural sector, successful automation could completely change the industry and benefit both farmers and consumers alike.

Unfortunately, current gait recognition techniques achieve unsatisfactory success rates when applied to cows. Technologies like Gait Energy Image (GEI) comparison achieve a success rate of just 60% when attempted on cows, which is nowhere near enough for any sort of automation. One possible reason these methods did not work as well on cows as they did on humans, was because of some of the features of a cow’s walk cycle. Cows tend to move their heads and tails a lot during their gait, which we felt wasn’t particularly useful for identification.

Here is a picture of the difference between two GEIs for the same cow, which illustrates the problems that the cow’s head can cause for gait identification. The red areas are areas that do not match, and as you can see there is a lot of red around the head of the cow despite the two GEIs belonging to the same cow. This difference in the head area could lead to a false identification if not handled correctly.

Based on this, my job was to develop an algorithm which improved identification success rates by eliminating the effects of the motion in a cow’s head and tail. I won’t bore you with too many details, but my algorithm involved splitting the GEIs into subsections and weighing each section based on a probability density function which was retrieved during training. This allowed us to dampen the effects of unhelpful areas of the GEI while enforcing the effects of more helpful areas, thus improving success rates. In the end I was able to improve success rates by about 13% and learn a bunch of things about a cow’s gait that we had not considered. For example, it seems like the torso of the cow would be an excellent area for identification, but our tests showed that this area was in fact the worst area in terms of success rates.

A couple of weeks ago I presented my research alongside other study abroad students in the Frontier Lab program, and I submitted my final report just a few days ago. All that’s left now is to document my final code for any future students who are interested in continuing this work. The experience as a whole was a ton of work, but I learned a lot about working in a research environment, and I was able to pick up some great techniques for various aspects of research which will no doubt help me in my future career.

Thanks for reading!

Fish and Deer

It’s been just over one month since arriving in Japan and I can safely say I’ve settled down completely. School is in full swing and I haven’t had as much free time as I had hoped, but I still managed to travel to a few new places since my last post.

A few weeks ago I visited Osaka Aquarium, which is one of the largest aquariums in the world. The only other aquarium I had been to before then was the Seattle Aquarium, so I was in for a real surprise. Osaka Aquarium was absolutely massive, and had an amazing selection of sea life. My favorite was the sunfish which, though beautiful, was not particularly bright. While I was there it managed to swim face first into the glass at full speed.

Last week I visited Nara, which is one of my favorite places in Japan. Much like Kyoto, Nara is home to many of Japan’s famous historical sites. Nara Park contains a number of beautiful temples but what really make it stand out are the locals. Nara is home to more than a thousand spotted deer, which roam the park freely and are very accustomed to people. Vendors throughout the park sell biscuits which you can then feed to the deer, but if you’re not careful they will sometimes eat your clothes, paper, or even your money! The deer will often let you pet them, and some will even bow before being given a treat. Here is a family of deer panhandling outside a souvenir shop for some tasty biscuits:

Though it seems the deer aren’t always fun and games:

My first month in Japan has been an absolute blast, but it truly saddens me that a whole month has already gone by. My goal is to make the next month even better by exploring even more of Japan, and I will continue to share my stories when I get a chance.

Thanks for reading.

Settling Down in Osaka

It’s been a little more than a week since arriving in Osaka, Japan, and I’ve finally settled down enough to write about my experiences over the past ten or so days.

I left Seattle on March 31st and caught my flight to San Francisco where I was supposed to catch a connecting flight to my final destination in Osaka. Unfortunately, there was a weather delay and I ended up missing my flight out of San Francisco by about five minutes. All of the flights from San Francisco to Osaka were booked for the next two days so I had no choice but to be rerouted to Seoul later that day from where I was finally able to catch my flight to Osaka. I arrived at Osaka around 10pm but the problem was the check in hours for my dorm were between 1 and 7pm, meaning I had no choice but to wait in the airport until the next day. After very little sleep on my flight over, and even less sleep in the airport, I was finally able to make it to my dorm a full day later than I expected. Ironically, a mere five minutes ended up costing me a full day.

After making it to my dorm, I was given the key to my room as well as a welcome pack containing a description of a handful of things I had to do immediately after arriving. These tasks ended up being very complicated and involved registering with the city office and filling out some paperwork. Thankfully, I was able to make some friends in my dorm soon after arriving and they helped me through the process. Without them I probably would not have been able to figure anything out. I also did some shopping and purchased some necessities including food, some cooking utensils, as well as some general household products.

After buying everything I needed, I decided it was time to explore Osaka and a few friends and I made a trip to Osaka Castle. The weather that day was fairly wet, but we decided we had to visit the castle as soon as possible while the cherry blossoms were still in bloom. This ended up being a great decision and seeing Osaka Castle surrounded by pink was truly a pleasure.

School has just started and there are still a few things I need to do to settle down completely, but after that I will be able to focus on my studies. Hopefully, over the next five months I will be able to explore Osaka and Japan a lot more, and I’ll make sure to write about any interesting experiences I have.

Thanks for reading.

Why Study Abroad?

March 23rd, 2015, Blog by Muhammed Saleh, Computer Science and Software Engineering, Osaka University Exchange

On March 31st I will be catching my flight to begin my semester abroad at Osaka University in Japan. With my trip just a week away, I thought I would share what lead to me to pursue study abroad and why I chose to study at Osaka University.

In high school I began studying Japanese, and I developed an interest in the language and culture; however, I quickly learned that language learning in a classroom setting has its limitations. I dreamed of becoming fluent in Japanese, but I knew I would never be able to do so without spending some time studying the language in Japan. In order to achieve fluency in Japanese, study abroad was always something I wanted to try, but it was also something I never truly believed I would have time for. I feel like there’s a general misconception that study abroad is a waste of time, and initially I didn’t think I could fit it into my academic schedule. Eventually, after years of doubting the possibility of studying abroad, I finally worked up the courage to pursue the opportunity, and here I am!

Picking what country I wanted to study abroad in was easy, but there were a number of options in terms of where in Japan I wanted to study. As a senior in the CSSE department, I knew I needed to find a study abroad program that would allow me to study computer science while abroad. This helped me narrow my choices down to two schools: Tokyo Institute of Technology and Osaka University. The reason I eventually decided to attend Osaka University was because of the Frontier Lab program which allows international students to perform research in a STEM laboratory. The Frontier Lab offered the perfect opportunity for me to make the most of my study abroad experience, and it made picking Osaka University a no-brainer.

Over the next week I have a mountain tasks I need to complete in preparation for my trip. I’m sure five months abroad will go by faster than I would like, but it’s a very long time to be away, and I need to make sure I have taken care of everything before I go. I still can’t believe there’s only a week left. I am brimming with excitement and just a little bit of worry.


Thanks for reading!