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7 Steps to Securing a Study Abroad Semester

January 19, 2015

by Alina Tang

At the end of this month, I will be in Madrid, Spain for USC Marshall’s Spring 2015 International Exchange Program. The university I’ll be attending is Universidad Carlos III de Madrid—otherwise known as UC3M. While I only heard about UC3M last year, Spain has been my dream study abroad location ever since I took my first Spanish class back in 6th grade. Now that my dream is actually coming true very soon, I would love to share some advice about how to get your top study abroad choice.

While every school has a different application process for studying abroad, USC evaluates applicants on a variety of criteria beyond just academics. Essays, resumes, letters of recommendation, and a mandatory interview were all just as important if not more important than GPA when it came to selecting the most qualified candidates.

With that said, here are my tips for the application process:

1) Expand your global perspective beforehand.

Make sure you approach studying abroad with an open mind. You will certainly be evaluated on your ability to adapt and willingness to venture outside of your comfort zone. I remember clearly that my interviewer asked me to describe a time when I was immersed in a completely unfamiliar environment and what I did to embrace it.

Although I was able to borrow my experience working in Shanghai as an example, you can talk about any situation in which you grew to become more flexible or understanding of different people and different cultures.

2) Talk to professors, mentors, friends, older students—anyone who has study abroad experience.

When you applied for college, you probably sought the advice of dozens of other people. Choosing a study abroad location is a lot like choosing a university – you want to find out as much as possible about the place beyond facts and figures that can be researched online.

You want to find out what it’s like commuting to school or living in dorms, or how difficult it is finding nearby restaurants and living on a budget. These are things only someone who went through the same experience can tell you.

3) Do your research on not just the location, but the UNIVERSITY.

So many people forget that studying abroad is just as much about the school you’ll be attending as it is about the city you’ll be living in.

My interviewer told me that she heard a lot of students say they wanted to study abroad in [insert location] to learn about the culture or visit the tourist attractions there, but very few could name a single course when they were asked to discuss their interest in the university.

Remember that this is STUDY abroad, not play abroad, so knowing about the school’s campus, curriculum, and community is very important!

4) Be prepared with an updated resume, elevator pitch, and personal examples anytime.

As I mentioned before, chances are you will be evaluated on categories other than academics. Make sure you present yourself as a well-rounded individual who can be trusted to represent your school in a foreign country.

Besides preparing a solid resume, elevator pitch, and communication skills for your interview, I also recommend nurturing and maintaining close relationships with professors who can vouch for you when the time comes.

My GPA might not be the highest, but it isn’t the only indication of my drive to learn. I definitely think that my global leadership professor’s recommendation letter played a big role in helping me get Spain as my study abroad location.

5) Recognize challenges and acknowledge that studying abroad isn’t just a fairytale adventure.

It’s easy to get giddy and excited about studying abroad because you’ll be living in an exotic foreign place for several months and experiencing new things every day. But you also have to realize that it’s not always going to be rainbows and cupcakes because moving to an unfamiliar place is difficult.

You’ll get lonely. You’ll get frustrated. At times, you’ll probably even get overwhelmingly homesick. But seize this opportunity to grow and remind yourself how lucky you are to see the world in a new perspective.

6) Set yourself apart and sell your story.

Really take the time to answer why YOU want to study abroad. Obviously, it is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, but what can you, personally, gain from it?

For me, the prospect of improving my Spanish was the deal breaker because I think the best way to learn and master a foreign language is to surround yourself with it. Add on the fact that Madrid is the cultural and historic center of Spain, and I was all in.

7) Don’t rule out locations without a valid reason.

Finally, even if you don’t get your top choice, still give other places a chance. I know a friend who was set on Europe for studying abroad, but ended up getting the University of Melbourne in Australia.

Although he was hesitant to go there, he came back 6 months later telling me that it was the best decision he ever made, and if he could do it all over again, he would’ve picked Melbourne first with a heartbeat. 

I hope these tips help you with your study abroad application process. Best of luck and bon voyage!


Alina Tang will graduate from USC in 2016. She is majoring in business administration and plans to work in the Management Development Program at Mondelez International and gain more experience in global marketing.

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