What’s your dream? Touring castles in Scotland? Walking on the Great Wall of China? Working to improve the lives of women in rural Uganda? If you’re thinking of studying abroad, there’s no end to the places you can go, things you can see, and subjects you can study. At many top schools, like Duke, Tufts or Brown, over a third of the junior class take the opportunity to complete part of their education out of the United States. Even if your school doesn’t have an extensive study abroad program, you can often get credit from a different school.
Multiple benefits accrue to those who spend significant time in another country, and a significant proportion of students see the experience as an important part of their college years. You’re likely to have fun. But if you’re also thinking about study abroad as a way to gain a critical career advantage, read on. You’ll find that all foreign experiences are not created equal in the minds of employers.
Employers are looking for graduates who can communicate well with others, both in person and in writing. They know the importance of cross-cultural understanding and an appreciation for different points of view. They gravitate towards students who demonstrate maturity, initiative and creativity. All of these assets can be demonstrated through your study abroad, but it’s going to be much harder to set yourself apart if you’ve taken the “easy route”.
It’s not hard to find the “easy route”: that’s the one where you go with your friends to another country; all the arrangements are made for you by the school—including the American-style apartment where you live with your classmates. In this scenario, it doesn’t matter which country you go to, because all your classes will be in English, possibly even taught by your American professors. You’ll undoubtedly have a somewhat different experience, but to do the “easy route” is to forego some of the major advantages of your time away.
Consider these ways of standing out from the applicant crowd and finding your “hook”.
- Study in the language of the country wherever possible, even though it makes for a tough first few weeks. (That’s assuming the native language of the country isn’t English!) You’ll smile when your potential employer realizes you really can conduct an interview in your fluent Spanish.
- Live with a family, rather than with fellow Americans. You’ll start to understand the nuances of culture and how things work: great for a question on cross cultural communications.
- Select courses that take advantage of your study abroad location, such as Art History in Florence, or a study of lemurs in their natural habitat of Madagascar.
- Seize the opportunity to do an internship, volunteer assignment or work in the place you’re studying abroad. You’ll get a completely different view of the country if you work with the local community. It may also make you want to come back after college!
- Experience things you’ve never done before, like joining a family for a religious celebration, or bargaining for a carpet in a souk in Morocco. Not every experience is a good one, but a certain level of discomfort or failure can make you more resilient.
- Explore, explore, explore. Make your own arrangements. Take trains and buses. Get off the beaten path. Find villages that are not on any tourist map. Talk to the local people in their own language—however bad your pronunciation.
Study abroad can be a welcome relief from the rest of your studies, or it can be the most formative experience of a lifetime. It can be just one more item on the resume, or it can provide the most colorful examples in your interview. If you take a few calculated risks, plan in advance and take advantage of all study abroad has to offer, you will become that “memorable candidate”—the one who truly gets the employer’s attention. In the process, you will have developed skills and attitudes that will stay with you for a lifetime.
First published in Going Global, Transitions Abroad, and the Duke University Study Abroad Guide