7 Things that Separate GREAT High School Study Abroad Programs from Average Programs

by Laura Jelich

Studying abroad at an earlier age is becoming more and more commonplace and the increased demand is reflected by a generous upcropping of available programs. Because venturing away from home for the first time can be stressful, let alone journeying across the globe, choosing a high school study abroad program may easily become an overwhelming process. So when it comes time to commit, how can one distinguish quality among the quantity of choices available?









Comforting hand hold

A supportive and overall awesome staff makes a big difference.

Here are a seven hints to help students separate the GREAT from the average high school study abroad programs:

1. It employs responsive, supportive, and overall awesome staff.

The people making up your study abroad organization hold strong influence over the type of experience you can expect from participating in their program. There are just some questions that require a timely response, some tricky situations that can quickly turn from joke-about-it-later to emergency status, and specific paperwork processes that can easily become a nightmare and added burden without the proper support from the study abroad staff.

Don’t make excuses for poor communication from the get-go, since it is very likely an indicator of how things are run throughout the organization. Luckily, it should be pretty easy to tell whether they are just punching a timecard or are genuinely passionate about meaningful travel and international education. GREAT staff members will be evident by their responsiveness, wealth of helpful information, and overall awesome vibe that excites students to be a part of what they offer.

2. It includes credits that will actually and accurately transfer.

I know. You mean the school part of study abroad actually matters? Yes, yes it does. It seems obvious that the work you put in should transfer for credits upon your return home, but nevertheless, double-check. It would definitely stink to put time and effort into a class that isn’t recognized for credit upon completion! So even if your school already has a pre-existing relationship with the study abroad program in question, ensure you understand exactly how everything carries over and how it will affect your GPA ahead of time.

Similarly, because grading scales are not universal, your study abroad country may very well award percentages, points, and grades in a very different manner than your school back home.  If there is no conversion calculation in place to convert an A abroad to an A in your report card, your GPA can seriously suffer. Likewise, if your credits operate on a pass or fail basis, make sure you know where the cutoff is.









Man eating dinner with host family at table

Homestay options are beneficial for cultural immersion.

3. It offers a host family placement option.

Staying with a host family may as well be the icing on the study abroad experience cake - it adds an element to a student’s time abroad that nothing else can quite fill. Living with a local family provides high school students with a home away from home, comfort, an inside look at authentic living, increased opportunity for language learning (if applicable), and overall allows one to feel like a member of the community instead of an outsider or tourist.

While admittedly not for everyone for 100% of the time, offering at least the option to spend some duration in a host home should be a prerequisite for any program to achieve “GREAT” status.

4. It covers more than just the cliche hotspots and tours. 

Your study abroad program should go above, beyond, and outside of the activities and sites you could easily check off your list if touring abroad on your own time. While there’s nothing wrong with hitting up must-see freebies or hotspots, your program should not treat such outing offices as babysitters, but instead coordinate special events available only to study abroad participants (not all tourists). Not only will students get a special experience, but taking the initiative to go beyond the basics is just another tangible way to know that a program genuinely cares about the experience of their students.

GREAT study abroad programs will also generally include more in-depth elements to experiences such as community involvement or service learning. The point of meaningful travel is to become part of your host country and connect on a deeper level than can be achieved by passing through solely as a visitor. This means that giving back is just as important as what one gets out of their time abroad.









Dirt path in forest

There’s potential to explore off-the-beaten-track places.

5. It incorporates genuine community involvement.

Going along with the previous point, community involvement applies not only to outside activities, but especially to the schooling system itself. What is the point in traveling across the globe only to end up in a classroom of kids who might as well live down the street from you back home?

Some programs actually boast about their international-student geared agenda, and while special accommodation may seem nice or even be necessary at times, the truly GREAT programs are the ones that focus on integrating the outside students into the local system. You don’t get a truly authentic and impactful experience if you aren’t allowed to step outside your comfort zone of homeboy buddies long enough to appreciate actually being in a new and exciting culture.

**BONUS TIP** The one aspect to watch out for, however, is the language that classes are taught in. And this one is tricky because it will largely upon your personal linguistic ability as well as a bit of a judgement call in deciding which programs best incorporate community involvement while still meeting your foreigner-status needs.

Generally speaking, programs that involve classes taught in the native tongue are programs that integrate international students directly into the local schooling system. Therefore, increased proficiency requirements often reflect higher expectations and a more integrated experience, making it a good indicator of a GREAT program. However, there are always exceptions - don’t assume proficiency is always directly correlated with quality. For example, it could indicate lack of effort and accommodation of foreigners. Similarly, if it will obviously make your studies suffer to attempt a Finnish-speaking calculus class without knowing a lick of the language, some special treatment may actually be more beneficial.









Circle of people with their hands in the grass

Community involvement incorporated students into local networks.

6. It directly benefits local businesses and enterprises.

Another easily-spotted indicator of a GREAT study abroad program is that they will utilize local tours, guides, and services whenever possible. Not only will local guides and services usually provide a more personal, authentic experience, but it really shows the quality character and local connectivity of a program when they consciously choose to support their surrounding businesses.

Many popular destinations actually depend upon tourism to boost their economy so it is always a major bummer and missed opportunity when programs opt for outside corporate companies. 

7. It is recognized for its excellent by rave reviews, certifications, and awards.

Before buying anything I haven’t seen or touched for myself, I always read the online user reviews. The same goes for high school study abroad programs. It’s the company’s job to sell their product (program) so of course they promise nothing but the best, better than everyone else. Reading reviews by those who have completed your specific study abroad program-in-mind is an excellent resource for getting honest feedback to incorporate into your realm of information.

Likewise, awards, certificates, and official recognition by those whose job it is to know about such things can prove very helpful when struggling to sort between authentic and fabricated fluff of information. 

Now…confidently choose the high school study abroad program that is BEST for you!

Now that you know better, don’t fall for the phony self-proclaimed great programs. You have already taken the initiative to pursue what is sure to be a life-changing, eye-opening, thrilling, and captivating experience, so set yourself up for a supported, successful, in-depth experience that will allow you make the most of your time spent studying abroad in high school