9 Tips to Help You Survive a Student Exchange Programme

Group of teenagers holding globe

So you’ve decided to mix things up at university and spend a year or a semester studying abroad.

First things first – lucky you! Participating in a student exchange programme is one of the most interesting, unpredictable and life-affirming things that you will ever do.

It’s also a huge commitment, though, and it requires a lot of preparation, with a multitude of additional challenges to overcome once you’re at your exchange destination. Indeed, with so much to consider and arrange, it can be easy for that initial excitement to soon give way to stress and worry.

Luckily, we’ve compiled a handy list of tips to keep you on track so that you can spend more time planning that weekend in Rome and less time wondering what vitally important document you’re likely to forget; this is what you need to know…

1. Ensure your paperwork is correct

…Yes, we’re aware we’ve just managed to immediately stop your excitement in its tracks. But that’s nothing compared to what it will feel like when your entire stay abroad is ruined as a result of an incorrectly filled-out form.

Universities usually offer a range of international exchange options depending on their relationships with other institutions and, as a result, will give you a comprehensive guide of what documentation needs to be completed depending on your destination location. The important thing is to ask questions and clarify anything you don’t understand with your programme’s liaison officer and to ensure the information you submit is correct.

Don’t ignore the tedious tasks, like acquiring copies of your medical notes if you need to fill out medical insurance forms; be proactive and plan ahead of time. This gives you some breathing space if there are any problems, and putting the groundwork in now means you can relax further on down the line.

Don’t let the little things trip you up, either. Your passport might be in date when you leave, but if you’re going for a year and it expires in 10 months, then you’re going to have a problem.

2. Find the right kind of accommodation

As you’re going to be abroad for an extended period of time, you’re going to need to find somewhere to live. As an undergraduate student, you will likely be offered a room or a dormitory in the host university’s own student accommodation; these are not the only options you have, though.

Although you should clarify what is available with your liaison officer, everybody is different, and while partying it up in a rowdy block of dorms might be great for some, others may prefer something quieter and more remote. That said, exchange programmes are about taking you out of your comfort zone, so if you are naturally more introverted and shy, this might be a good opportunity to try and be more sociable. Either way, the generally accepted wisdom is that you should refrain from being insular and live somewhere where you can make new friends easily.

Alternatively, you might like to apply to live with a host family where you can really get a grasp of the local culture. If you have the means to, you might even want to find your own private accommodation – whatever you choose, the key is to find something that works for you.

3. Pack properly (and sensibly)

While it may be tempting to just throw a couple of dresses and a Jack Kerouac novel in your suitcase, you should remember that you are not going on holiday. You will be in your host country for an extended period of time and, as a result, the weather may be subject to change.

At the same time, you don’t want to be dragging 10 suitcases behind you with every eventuality meticulously prepared for; apply some common sense and just be aware of the climate where you’ll be going. When packing, don’t take up all your space with items that can be purchased cheaply when you’re there, such as toiletries; focus only on the essentials as you can always buy a pair of shorts or an extra hoodie further down the line.

Additionally, don’t skimp on a good pair of walking shoes. You’ll likely be doing a lot of exploring, so having a comfortable and durable pair of trainers is a very sound investment (you can thank us for this later).

4. Budget carefully and save religiously

As a student, you should already have some experience of living on a shoestring budget – unfortunately, things are unlikely to get any easier once you head overseas.

This can be frustrating, as you want to see and do as much as you possibly can; therefore, try to make things as easy for yourself as possible. Look into the possibility of obtaining scholarships or other exchange-specific grants and loans, both through your university and through external parties; Erasmus, for example, has a dedicated scholarship programme.

There is a wealth of student cards available online that offer vouchers and discounts, too; research these and cut down on costs wherever you can. Try to set yourself a budget and don’t fall into the habit of ignoring your bank balance – always be aware of how much you have and how much you will need. Also, don’t forget to notify your bank that you’re heading abroad; the last thing you need is your card getting cut off.

Finally, and most importantly, save. You will need a certain amount of cash in your account in order to obtain a student visa, anyway, but the more money that you can take with you, the more you will be able to enjoy and get the most out of your experience. As soon as you know you are going, be disciplined. Sure, that coat is nice, but in the long term what is more important to you: a jacket or dinner on the Champs-Élysées with your friends? You may have to make sacrifices now, but it will be worth it later.

5. Don’t forget to actually study

In amongst the shock of a new culture and all the attractions, distractions and novelties on offer, it can be easy to forget why you are actually there in the first place – to study. Remember: the grades you earn while abroad will count towards your overall qualification, so try not to neglect your work or let your standards slip.

If you are struggling – especially if some or all of your classes are being taught in a language that isn’t your first – then don’t hesitate to speak to your tutor or professor about it. This is a common issue for exchange students, so they will be sympathetic to your cause.

6. Travel whenever you can

Although studying is important, you will still get plenty of time off, too, especially during academic breaks; this is the perfect opportunity to explore the wider region! For example, if your host university is in Prague, don’t just restrict yourself to the city; its location is only a couple of hours away from the likes of Krakow, Budapest, Vienna and Munich. If you’re not from Europe, this could be the best chance you’ll ever have to see these places, so make the most of it.

Don’t plan out every single trip for the next six months, though. While it’s true that you can get cheaper transport fares if you book in advance, keep plenty of weekends free; you don’t know what else will come up further down the line, and sometimes it’s fun to just be spontaneous.

Finally, don’t be scared to head off on your own. For many people, travelling alone is an enormously liberating and rewarding experience; you can see, eat and stay whatever and wherever you want without having to appease anyone else, and it will give you a sense of true independence. Just make sure that wherever you choose to go, you are sensible and aware of your own safety.

7. Adapt to your host country

One of the most rewarding things about being a foreign exchange student is that you are exposed fully to every variant of a particular country’s culture. From the obvious, visible distinctions such as the food, religion and people, right down to the really subtle differences that you only notice after three or four months: embrace it all.

Unless you are already studying in it, this includes making an effort to learn the local language. It is markedly easier to pick up a language when you are surrounded by it 24/7, and the effects it will have on the positive nature of your stay are huge. It will serve you well when you enter the world of employment, too, so make the most of the opportunity.

Additionally, be sensitive – in both a cultural and legal sense – to your surroundings. As American author Clifton Fadiman once said: ‘A foreign country is not designed to make you comfortable; it is designed to make its own people comfortable’. Don’t be that person who gives your own country a bad name.

8. Make the most out of your experience

Once you arrive in your host country and become more accustomed to your surroundings, you will likely develop into a routine in much the same way as you would have back home. While this is understandable, try every single day to make the most out of what is a wonderful opportunity – after all, it will eventually come to an end. The following advice will hopefully help you to extract as much as you can from your experience:

  • Be open-minded: Say ‘yes’ as often as possible (within reason, of course); you’re here to experience new things, after all. Don’t retreat to the safety of McDonald’s just because you don’t know what anything on the menu is; take a risk. Get lost trying to navigate the subway. Embrace the local customs and make a mess of the language trying to order a coffee. Remember, if in doubt, always choose the option that will make for the most interesting story.
  • Mix with other nationalities – not just your own: While it’s nice to have someone from home who ‘understands’ you, make the effort to build relationships with other international students. It’s an invaluable chance to learn about another culture, although you’ll probably have a lot more in common than you realise. Besides, as exchange students, you’ll all in the same boat, and this group will likely make up the core of your social circle for the foreseeable future.
  • Document everything: Take as many pictures and videos as possible (although bear in mind that you don’t need to Instagram a picture of your dinner every night); simultaneously, keep a journal, too. Having a permanent record of your adventures as you were living them will be a priceless souvenir in the future.
  • Homesickness is OK but don’t let it consume you: No matter how much fun you are having, you’re bound to miss certain things about home; this is completely normal. Don’t let it take over what is a truly once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, though. If you’re spending three hours every night Skyping with your partner/friend/parent/cat, it won’t make things easier; in fact, it will likely make things worse.

9. Reap the rewards

Finally, when it all comes to an end and you reluctantly return home, make the most of everything you’ve brought back with you: the responsibility you’ve gained, the language skills you’ve picked up, the cultural awareness you’ve developed, the amazing people you’ve met and the incredible memories you have.

Remember: studying abroad isn’t just about attending lectures in another country. You will develop as a person and learn things about yourself; make sure you translate these qualities onto your CV after you graduate, as without realising it you will have become a more independent, ambitious and resourceful individual – all qualities that are highly sought-after by employers. Coupled with the memories you will make and the people you will have met, being part of a student exchange programme could be the most life-changing experience you’ll ever have.

Are you studying abroad or have you done so previously? Tell us your experiences in the comments below!