5 Tips to Make the Most of Your Year Abroad

24 August 2015

How to enjoy and make the most of your experience living abroad, 5 tips and tricks.

From Erasmus, summer exchangs, semester or year long exchanges, to doing a year of masters study overseas, the opportunities to study abroad are aplenty.
When you choose to study abroad, one can safely assume a part of you has the desire to travel, have new experiences, meet new people and basically see the other side of the world.
Depending on the situation you're in, sometimes you get to go on an exchange with your friends, but more often than not, you don't.

In Singapore, doing a semester abroad is pretty common. People go with their uni course mates, make friends, form travel groups even before they leave the country, or even get to do an exchange with their significant other in the same city!
Unfortunately, for my course, the situation was largely different. I'm part of a uni programme that includes a full year abroad, and I could choose between 2 schools - Imperial College and UC Berkeley. I was the only one from my specialisation that chose Imperial (and i'd do it all over again!)

Looking out at the caldera in Fira, santorini

Out of 54 people in my class, there were 9 of us that went over to London, but we were all from different specializations, and I was the only one from mine. Since Imperial College doesn't have an official exchange with my home university, I didn't get to meet other Singaporeans from other courses, much less form a travel group of anything. But I still managed to have a great deal of experiences, especially when it came to traveling, without having to take money from my parents!

So here are some of my tips on how to make the best of your exchange experiences! 

1. Manage your expectations
Here's the hard truth. Right from the start.
A year abroad isn't going to be easy for everyone. 
Before my year abroad, I thought going on an exchange would be easy, fun, less academically strenuous. So many seniors and friends have shared with me how their exchange was all fun and play and that it was EXTREMELY EASY to pass or even score As. Upon arriving in Imperial, I was faced with a rude shock - IT WAS SO NOT EASY. 
Whilst my other friends doing their semester exchange in other parts of Europe could travel during the school week and had only 2 days of lessons, I was stuck with 3 hours of morning lab sessions almost every single day, followed by lectures in the afternoon.
You can clearly tell I was less than pleased. 

Fact: some people do have it easier. That doesn't mean you will.
My friends who did business or humanities courses rave about how much easier school was during their time abroad, but each to its own. 
Some business students have it difficult especially if the courses they take are intensive. I've met students who do their MBAs overseas and they will definitely say it isn't a smooth ride.
So, manage those "I'm gonna travel the world this year! Who cares about studies!!" expectations (else you'd be miserable like I was for about 3 months before you accept the fact). 
If you're in engineering or a science course, don't expect to have it easy. If you're taking 11 core courses in a year, don't expect it to be easy. If you're doing labs, don't expect to have loads of free time. That way, If you happen to have it easy, it's a bonus! 

Architecture in copenhagen


2. Know Your Priorities
Fact: You can't do everything. (As much as you want to)
I have friends who gave up traveling because they wanted to participate in different school actives. I on the other hand, gave up school activities to travel.  Some people prioritise learning certain skills, like cooking, baking or engaging in activities they never had a chance to before. But more often than not, people choose travel.
Well, everyone is different and as long as you set your own priorities up front, you do you, and just make the most of your exchange experience the way YOU want to.

The chain bridge in budapest + advice for year abroad

3. Ignore the Nay-sayers
Priorities for everyone will be different. For me, I never had the luxury of frequent traveling during holidays when I was younger. I probably went on 2 trips the entire of primary school and 1 in secondary school. And funded the rest of my travel experiences (excluding school trips) from my allowance savings post secondary school - which meant no way I could afford a ticket to Europe! 
So prior to leaving home, it was already set in my mind that TRAVEL will be a priority for my year abroad.

Fact: People WILL judge you. Be it in your new school or back at home. They will comment on how you're "rich" because you travel - NO. I'm not. Neither are my parents. And no they definitely did NOT give me money for my year abroad.

Basically, people start making remarks whenever you don't conform to the norm. As an exchange student, you're definitely not the norm. So go, experience the life of an exchange student. You deserve it.

tips for going on an exchange in europe - germany potsdam scenery in berlin

4. Don't be afraid to have experiences alone
Traveling alone or joining a school activity alone, if you want to experience something, go for it!
I had so many solo-travel experiences because my friends couldn't make it. Imagine if i'd only travel if they were available?! I would have missed our on SO MANY fun travel experiences.
I also joined the pole dancing club. In an asian culture, pole dancing is a little bit of a taboo. I have always wanted to try it, but never had the guts to when I was in Singapore.
Im so glad I went for a few lessons alone when I was in London. It was so enjoyable, I'm thinking of doing it regularly now that I'm back in Singapore.

Fact: Going on exchange with a group of people from your home country doesn't mean you have to do everything together. You DONT have to join the same activities and you DONT have to travel together.
If you want to go to Portugal, and no one else is available? Put on your big girl (or boy) pants, and just go for it! On your own. SOLO-POWER! The lessons you gain from traveling alone far outweighs the initial fear of stepping out of that comfort zone we all have.

Exchange in london tips plus picture from the sky garden

5. PLAN
Your academic calendar
Your travel calendar  
Your budget (this is probably the worst) 
All these NEED sufficient planning.
Im not advocating skipping lessons... but as an exchange student (IF your grades don't count into your GPA - like mine) I think the rule of attending all your lessons can be slackened.
Depending on the course and school you are in, there are different requirements. Some schools don't allow you to skip lessons, while others are more flexible. Make sure you attend the first lessons of all your modules so you have a gist of what the different modules are about. Also, to pick out important test dates, work submission dates, exam dates etc.
For me, I made sure I had a full solid month to study before examinations (and then pretty much travelled the rest of the time hahaha!) and I made sure I started my assignments as early as possible, and complete 90% at least 2 day before submission.
When you have your academic calendar sorted out, you can start planning your travel calendar  :) Thats the most exciting part!
Budget wise, I planned for every trip I take. Accom prices, how much money I'm taking, if i'd need transport. Pre-download maps. The usual drill.
Basically, Plan. FOR EVERYTHING.

tips for planning your exchange travel and academic + image of sunset in greece

There you have it. 5 Tips to have a more enjoyable and memorable year abroad!
These tips seem very easy and straightforward, but trust me, when you're caught up with the new high of being in a different country, or continent, all these go right out of your head. You'll probably be bursting with excitement from all the possible travelling opportunities, or you might be sitting alone in your new room feeling a tad bit homesick. Either way, just remember that you're so so so lucky to be doing an exchange/year abroad. Make the most of it!
Create wonderful memories where you can look back on years later and say, I'm glad I did that.
Create stories you can tell your kids and grandkids in the future!

Hope you found this useful, and all the best for your year/semester abroad  xx


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