Guest post from YFU Alumna and Campus Ambassador Hollie Nusbaum
When considering studying abroad, something you need to think about is when you want to do it. There is, of course, not a time that is the “best” to study abroad for everybody; it depends on your personality and what you think will work best for you.
For most programs, sophomore year is the earliest you can spend a year abroad. There are a few major benefits to studying abroad in 10th grade. For starters, if you’re concerned about potentially missing major American high school events, this is a great time to go on exchange. Sophomore year in the US tends to be a less eventful year, when it comes to things like prom or standardized test prep, so you can go without the fear of missing out on the American experience. A potential drawback to going this year could be your age and how prepared you feel. As one student who went abroad during his sophomore year, Josiah Jarvenpaa, said, “I think that I was a little bit young and still nervous to be traveling, and as a result I wasn’t quite as confident about stepping up and trying new things in my host country as I probably would have been had I waited a year or two.” Josiah added that, while he felt a little less confident while abroad, by the time he came back he had become much more open to new experiences and was better about taking advantage of all the opportunities he could during the remainder of his high school experience back in the states.
What about going abroad junior year? Eleventh grade provides an option that’s a bit of a middle ground, since you wouldn’t be quite as young as a sophomore but also wouldn’t be missing any of the typical senior year events. The major concern for many, rather, is the fact that a large amount of college prep happens during your junior year. If doing well on standardized testing is extremely important to you, this would be something to consider. Deciding to go abroad your junior year doesn’t mean you have to forfeit your college prep, though. One possible way is to wait until you return home after your exchange and take the tests at the beginning of your senior year. Alternatively, you could get them done at the end of your sophomore year. Some people even decide to take the test in their host country. Lillian Hua, who studied abroad during her junior year, took two of these options. First, she took the ACT a few months before leaving home. Because of this, she was able to go into her exchange without worrying about the test. She decided to give it another shot while abroad, saying that during the year “I figured I may as well give National Merit a shot, so I signed up for an SAT administration near Munich and did a bit of prep beforehand.” By using her free time to study, Lillian managed to make her second standardized test just as stress-free. She is a great example of how even the worrying issue of these tests can be easily avoided if you plan ahead of time.
If neither sophomore nor junior year appeal to you, senior year might be something to consider. By this time, you’ll have had the opportunity to get much of your college prep done beforehand and likely may feel more prepared to navigate life as an exchange student. With some schools it’s even possible to double up on classes junior year and graduate early so you don’t have to worry about getting credit abroad. This does vary by school and host country though. This is a year that would be best for people who don’t feel as attached to high school traditions at home. Going abroad senior year might mean missing out on events like graduation and senior prom. Anyone considering going abroad senior year would have to decide if they are okay with missing these American traditions, or if they would rather go abroad another year. Another important factor to bear in mind if going abroad senior year, is that in some host countries, older exchange students are placed in lower grades since the older local students are focused mostly on preparing for university. This means that it’s possible you could end up being a year or two older than your classmates.
Maybe you don’t want to miss any school in the US but still want the full experience of a year abroad. In this case, a gap year might be your best option. With a gap year, you would study abroad during the year between your senior year of high school and your first year of college, bypassing many of the potential concerns of going on exchange during high school. You could already have your college preparation and applications out of the way, and you wouldn’t have to worry about missing any experiences abroad. Another benefit is that, having already graduated, you wouldn’t have to worry about earning credit for your high school back at home. Doing a gap year can also offer some unique options not typically available during a traditional school year. For instance, with YFU you can participate in a volunteer gap year in Thailand, where you’ll live with a local host family and spend your days volunteering in various community projects.
Doing a gap year does bring its own set of considerations. Just like with going abroad senior year, you would likely be the oldest in your classes overseas, which could be difficult depending on your personality. Doing a gap year could also limit your country options, since some host countries won’t accept students who have already graduated or are over a certain age. A gap year also means that you would have to accept that you will be putting yourself a year “behind” your American peers. Still, many large universities, even Harvard, recommend taking a gap year, and doing a gap year is gradually becoming more encouraged and accepted across the country. This is a great opportunity to think more about what your career path will be and what you might be interested in studying in college!
What if none of these options sound like what you want? You have a couple options. If missing school or taking a gap year is out of the question for you, a summer exchange could be what you’re looking for. There are a few options for summer exchanges, ranging from volunteer trips to language courses to even just a traditional academic experience on a smaller scale, depending on the host country. A student who studied abroad during the summer, Alana Hendy, said that there were several positives, such as how “you don’t have to worry about earning a grade that could potentially ruin your high school career”.. Going in the summer also means summer vacation in many countries, meaning you may have more free time than year-long exchange students to explore the area. Plus, the short stay likely means things like homesickness won’t be as much as an issue. Still, Alana pointed out that going for a shorter period of time means missing out on many things, since when you go on exchange for a year, “you get to learn the language more, will experience holidays and seasons, and you can build stronger relationships with your peers and host family.” Being abroad for a whole year also makes it easier to truly feel like a local.. You would certainly go back to school with the best summer stories in your class.
Another potential alternative would be taking a winter year, which means that rather than leaving in the summer, you would leave in the winter. Not all countries offer this option. This could be a good alternative if you want to avoid a gap year but none of the other school years sound like they would work well. For example, you could leave in the winter of your junior year and return in the winter of your senior year, meaning you could easily get standardized testing out of the way before you leave, yet return in time for events like prom and graduation. Similarly, you could leave in winter of sophomore year and come back in the middle of your junior year, just in time to start preparing for college. The possibility of this option depends on both your school at home and your host country. There is the aforementioned fact that only some countries offer the option of a winter year, so it would limit your choices. If your current school runs year-round classes, this might be a difficult option because you would leave and enter classes halfway through. Just like all the other options, it would be up to you to consider if this is the right choice for you.
In the end, there is no perfect year to study abroad. It’s up to you to weigh the options and decide what is best depending on your preferred host country, your personality, and your school at home. If you’re mature for your age, maybe you’d be better off going sophomore year. Alternatively, if you’d rather be older and don’t care a whole lot about things like graduation or prom, you might be better off going senior year. If you’re looking for something in between, you could try junior year. If none of those work for you, consider a gap year or one of the other alternatives. If you really weigh your options and do your research, you will be able to figure out what would work out best for you and have the time of your life abroad!
Visit yfuusa.org/study to learn more about studying abroad for the summer, semester or even an entire year!