Does your student REALLY want to study abroad?

We’ve all been there. You’re busy trying to get your students into local colleges and universities when a wide-eyed kid pops into your office and says, “I want to study in Italy.” You could substitute any nation for Italy and the result is often the same for most guidance counsellors: a quick scratch of the head and the old, “I’m not sure I can help you.” But maybe there’s a simple strategy to help you overcome the surrender strategy and steer your student in the right direction. 

Preparing a partnership

Before diving into a lot of research, a guidance counsellor will want to work with the student to see if they are well-suited for a study abroad option. Whether they want to go to France or Australia, a guidance counsellor can help a student understand what the study abroad experience entails and, if they still want to go down that road, show them where to gather the information to do what needs to be done. If they decide to go ahead, a study abroad decision becomes a partnership where the counsellor and the student work together to make the experience become a reality. 

Step One: The informal interview

Step one is really an informal interview with the student about the nature of leaving home and going far away to study. Here are a few guiding questions to gage the seriousness of the student:

  • What would you like to study? 
  • How long would you feel comfortable being away from your family? 
  • Are you interested in an English-speaking country or a non-English speaking country? 
  • Are you willing to do the research required to find a program that suits your needs? Are you also willing to do the research required to find scholarship and financial aid options to help you deal with the costs of studying abroad? 

These preliminary questions will lead to either a baffled expression staring back at you or a look of determination that suggests, “Let’s do this.”

Step Two: Digging a little deeper

Assuming the student wants to proceed, it’s time to move to step two: where the counsellor digs a little deeper to see if the student is truly prepared for a study abroad experience. There are a few essential skills that a student looking to study away from home will need to have:

Organization – Studying abroad is not a whimsical adventure. It requires careful planning and research. A successful study abroad student is one who understands deadlines and pays thorough attention to details. There are a myriad of things to consider beyond the application to a program. There are visas, travel itineraries, language issues, cultural considerations and accommodations that need to be set in place by the student and their cooperating program. If a student isn’t organized, the travel abroad experience could be a personal disaster. 

Independence – choosing to go to school in another nation is not the same as going to school in the next county. Study abroad students are far away from home and need to be aware that, if they get homesick, getting home is no easy task. They also need to be willing to spend a bit of time on their own getting acclimated to new situations. It takes time and a confident sense of self to uproot and attend school in a foreign land. A study abroad student possesses a quality of independence that both allows them to persevere through challenging situations and welcome new, unfamiliar situations. 

Resilience – Characterized by the ability to adapt to and manage oneself in a crisis, resilience is an important character trait of the study abroad student. Not every day is a good day, and it is incumbent upon the student to find ways to manage both the good and the bad. Maybe they will do this by fostering friendships or using resources provided by the school or program in which they are enrolled. A study abroad student knows when they need help—and when and how to ask for help. Whether a student is outwardly shy or confident, they need to have a degree of personal resilience to make the study abroad experience work. 

Open mindedness – Students who choose to study abroad need to be open to new experiences that expose the nuances of different people and different cultures. If a student has a rigid or narrow perspective when it comes to the world, the study abroad experience is not for them. Overall, students who see the world with an open mind and accept people’s differences manage to approach the study abroad opportunity with a spirit of adventure and curiosity. 

Patience – Preparing to study abroad does not happen overnight. It takes time to prepare and process university/program and study visa applications. It takes time to book transportation and arrange accommodations. It takes time to meet with you, their guidance counsellor, and coordinate important items with their parents. Beyond these logistical issues, the successful study abroad student needs to be patient with themselves as they adapt to their new environment and just as patient as they build a brand-new peer group. Patience is probably the most under-estimated character trait of the study abroad student. 

Step Three: Picking a program

The first two steps in this process are in no way designed to dissuade a student from engaging in a study abroad experience. Instead, they should act as a wakeup call that tells the student what they’re dealing with. Assuming the student is prepared to pursue a course of study far away from home, it is time to present them with their options. You can start with an online resource that matches a student’s preferences to a program (see: QS Top Universities:, Go Overseas:, GoAbroad: Next, discuss these options:

Study abroad options 
  • Through a local college or university
  • duration: months to years.
  • reciprocal agreements mean the student’s home university will recognize any credits they earn.
Through a third-party provider 
  • duration: months to years
  • there are many companies that offer study abroad experiences, some in partnership with school and many on their own. 
  • buyer beware: make sure the student and their parent’s read the fine print to make sure the study program they select fits the bill. Also, find reviews to see how students who have used the third-party programs have enjoyed their experience. By and large, these companies are excellent, but there are a few that are not as good. 
Apply directly to a university
  • duration: months or years
  • if a student finds a college or university they would like to experience (i.e., Cambridge University in England or the Universidad de Costa Rica in Costa Rica), they can enroll directly to that university.
  • Students can also wait until they are already in college or university to participate in study abroad opportunities. Here are a few options:
Through a global independent study program
  • duration: months
  • the student can find a faculty sponsor and spend a semester completing an in-depth study program.
Enroll in a field research program
  • duration: months
  • archeology is famous for the summer research experience in places like Egypt. Other areas of study have followed suit with their own version of the field research study experience.
Find an internship
  • if the student’s degree requires an internship, see if there is a study abroad option they can pursue.
Through a student exchange program
  • see if the student’s home college or university has a student exchange program with schools overseas.

A decision in favour of wonder and opportunities

Clearly, the choice to study abroad is full of wonder and possibilities. While the information provided here demonstrates the commitment required to study away from home, it is important to remind the student applying for a study abroad program of the feelings that brought them to the process in the first place. Studying in a place where history was made, in a nation on the cutting edge of innovation, in a country whose language and culture have changed the world are all compelling reasons to study abroad. There’s also the fact that the overwhelming majority of students who study abroad report live changing experiences, vivid memories of great times and friendships that transcend boundaries. This is the main reason why so many students choose to leave the nest and go abroad in pursuit of higher learning. And guidance counsellors are lucky enough to be partners at the beginning of this journey.