Find a doctor and ask him to tell you about medical school. Find a marine and ask her to tell you about boot camp. Find somebody who has done anything of some significance and see how complete a picture you get. Human beings have immense difficulty consolidating dramatic experiences.
For something at least physically non-painful like study abroad, this is intensified. In an almost cult-like fashion, students will sing the praises of hopping on a plane to have at it for a few months in another country. As someone who has just recently finished studying abroad, let me give you a bit of insider information.
You WILL get bored.
You’re still going to have to do your dishes, wash your clothes, and have a weekly routine. That cathedral you took awesome pictures of in August will be blocking your precious sunlight in late November as you battle the wind on the way to school. Things will become ordinary and it is up to you to find new things to do.
The people living in your host country do NOT know you are an exchange student.
I once thought that being an exchange student was a golden ticket into the hearts, minds, and homes of every person living in your host country. Wrong, wrong, WRONG I was! These people generally didn’t even look at me in the street. If you want people to know you are studying abroad, you have to TELL THEM! If you want to eat with them, YOU have to ask! The amount of initiative required to overcome the fact that these people are simply living their daily lives is ENORMOUS so sharpen your ax before you get there and get ready to get culturally cracking!
You have to make your own friends.
The staff at your host university is not going to tell you where all the best dance clubs are located. Also, most students are not going to be amazingly willing to drag lost, helpless foreigners along with them, either. Acquiring friends abroad is your number one and most difficult priority.
Classes are classes regardless of where you may be.
You’ll have something resembling a chair, something resembling a desk, and something resembling a professor. Don’t expect anything groundbreaking. School is school.
Avoiding English speakers or other international students to fully immerse yourself is impossible.
Say what you want before you get there, but watch what happens. Embrace the inevitable and try to find a compromise between yourself and these people that permits everybody to get the most out of their time abroad.
A summer program is better than a semester or a year abroad during your regular academic year.
Colleges are horribly picky about the credit they accept from abroad. Unless you have exact matches with courses and your academic adviser that approves your credit is having an affair with somebody at your host university, stick with the summer. Time spent during fall and spring semesters is incredibly valuable, and more and more companies are realizing that study abroad isn’t such an amazing resume-filler after all. An intensive summer program will be more than enough to do the job.
If you don’t live with a family, you may as well stay home.
I cannot stress this enough. Let me repeat it. FIND A HOST FAMILY, OR STAY HOME!!! Do you have that in your head? Do you realize how vital it is to live in the real environment every day to get anything worthwhile out of a study abroad experience? You get the customs, the food, the language, everything all in the same place you wake up and go to bed. Don’t settle for less than a home-stay just because you are itching to go abroad. Take your time and find a family. You owe it to yourself.