American Students Studying Abroad—DO NOT Make These Stupid Mistakes

by Published

Any American studying abroad can tell you that it’s the best decision you can make as an undergraduate. In fact, we’re likely to bring it up a few hundred times. For me, it was the perfect time to immerse myself in a new culture, make lifelong friends, blah blah blah...you know the schtick. At this point, you probably don’t need anyone else telling you to study abroad. What might be more useful is learning about stupid mistakes to avoid when you finally do study abroad. 

Although mishaps are imminent and often hilarious, there’s a few mistakes made by US students studying abroad that are particularly stupid. Rather than spewing out the same mistakes found on countless listicles throughout the internet, I asked my friends, family, and social followers what their biggest mistakes abroad were. What followed was some very thoughtful reflections that can be applied to nearly every American studying abroad.

two girls with American flag draped over their shoulders

WE GET IT. YOU’RE AMERICANS.

We Repeat: American students studying abroad, DO NOT make these mistakes 

1. Basecamp neglect

Personally, one of the biggest mistakes I made during my semester abroad was treating continental Europe like a scratch ticket. I was strategically located in the Czech Republic meaning a new country was always a few hours away by plane, train, or bus; however, does 24 hours in Budapest really count as experiencing Hungary? Is spending every day off outside the city or country you claim to be studying in considered immersive?  

The answer is simply: no. It was one of the most common mistakes discussed among my group of friends yet too many US students studying abroad will knock out a new destination every weekend in lieu of exploring the one at their doorstep. Sure, spontaneous festival trips and fast-paced itineraries are going to happen, but you don’t want to find yourself scrambling to finally experience the country you’ve called home in your final weeks.

  • Recommended program: Interested in Prague? You should be! It's a haven of nightlife hidden in spellbinding history and architecture. CISAbroad has an incredible business program ideal for US students studying abroad.  
  • Related: Read CISAbroad reviews | Visit their site

2. Monolingual modesty

Although English is the most widely learned language in the world, you should never assume or expect someone to speak it. In fact, it’s one of the biggest pet peeves against US students studying abroad (especially among the French). Being in a country that speaks a different language is the perfect opportunity to stretch that comfort zone and talk the talk while you walk the walk (because studying abroad is like 80% walking just FYI). 

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girl taking photo with smartphone

Just, cool it with all the Instagram, okay? Take a breather, look up!

Unless you’re studying in an English speaking country like Australia or England, you should learn basic phrases in the native language at the very minimum. Not only will this ease day-to-day challenges like navigation, but it’ll also make the return to the United States less embarrassing when friends and family ask you to speak the language. 

3) A-Okay is not okay

Now you’ve probably heard some of these before, but I think it’s important for American students studying abroad to note so you don’t get in a fight, go to jail, or worse...expelled. Hand gestures and signals are not universal and to think otherwise is pretty stupid.  

Thumbs up are a big thumbs down for many countries in the Middle East and West Africa. Additionally, the “okay” gesture is highly offensive in Brazil. Imagine what would happen if a foreigner innocently pointed their middle finger at the wrong person in the United States? Do some research and learn what common American gestures or phrases can be offensive abroad. It’s that easy!

  • Recommended program: Already great at managing conflicts? You should consider pursuing conflict studies (or a variety of subjects) with CI Experience Brazil. Not only will you get to experience Brazil’s coastal cities and lush jungles, but you may just save a fellow American studying abroad from the dangers of gesturing incorrectly.   
  • Related: Read CI Experience Brazil | Visit their site 

4) Early arrivals 

You know how your Dad wants you to get to the airport six hours before your departing flight? Take him up on that by arriving to your gate about a month early. No, seriously. Your program’s start date should be considered as a loose suggestion and arriving right on time is a huge mistake. 

Looking out over the wing of a plane, with another commercial plane in the shot

You’re so busy jetsetting, you totally neglected your host country. Uncool, dude.

My program in Prague didn’t start until mid-February so I lazily hung around my parents house while all my friends went back to school. What I should have done was knock out some cities or gain familiarity in my new home. Orientation and acclimating to a new university is challenging enough for American students studying abroad and you’ll mitigate some of that stress by arriving early. Plus, you’ll probably enjoy the slower pace of travel before classes begin, anyway. 

  • Recommended program: Australia has a different academic year than the United States which makes it the perfect locale for an early arrival. ISA Study Abroad in Sydney is a leader in study abroad programs and has start dates in July and February - Gold Coast road trip, anyone?    
  • Related: Read ISA Reviews | Visit their site

5) Being too serious

One of my favorite admitted mistakes from an American studying abroad was an attempt to become too serious abroad. She was studying in southern France and put pressure on herself to be cool, stylish, and reserved just as the locals appeared to be. It didn’t last long.  

Although I completely believe that studying abroad is the perfect opportunity to reinvent, masking your true self with a facade of preconceived expectations is no way to travel. This problem is not just specific to southern France either. Trendy travel bloggers and instagrams are enforcing an unrealistic standard about how to act, eat, and dress abroad. #nofilter.

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Just as my friend realized it’s easier to connect with others when being authentic, you too will find it easier to travel once you acknowledge the best way to travel is by being yourself. Leave the beret at home, but go ahead and bring that floppy hat you’ve always wanted to wear.  

silhouette group of students on beach at sunset

As much fun as it is just chillin’ with your fellow star spangled homies, branch out a little!

6) The wolfpack-mindset 

The mere-exposure effect is the psychological concept behind DJ Khaled's single “No New Friends.” Basically, it’s the phenomenon by which people tend to prefer people or things they are familiar with which is why you’ll often see 10 drunk Americans from the same university running through the streets of Barcelona at 4:00 a.m. on a Tuesday. 

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. US students studying abroad tend to stick together as communication, interests, and opinions are likely to be similar—which is more comfortable; yet, comfort isn’t why you chose to study abroad, huh?

You should make a strong effort to befriend and immerse yourself with locals and other international students. This will broaden your global network and enhance your cultural perspectives. Plus, they know all the cool spots you won’t find on TripAdvisor.  

7) Plastic instead of paper

Ahh the credit card. My dearest friend and sworn enemy. For many Americans students studying abroad, failing to transition to a cash-based society is one of the stupidest mistakes you can make. Just ask my bank account circa June 2015. The amount of money I wasted swiping my card instead of exchanging bills could have paid for my return flight.

Credit cards usually have lofty international fees that sneak up on even the most budget-friendly traveler. Only use your credit or debit card if it has low international fees and try to withdraw lots of cash at once. Stick to a budget and remember these foreign notes may be plastic and brightly colored, but personal finance is no game. 

  • Recommended program: If you really want to make the most of your money abroad, consider studying finance. You’ll notice a ton of finance programs take place in China, the world’s fastest growing economy. USAC China offers firsthand insight into the financial environments of east Asia where you can test your knowledge exploring the colorful world of Shanghai.  
  • Related: Learn more about USAC China | Visit their site 
hang loose hand sign

Watch your hand gestures. You don’t want to shaka your host mother!

8) Failure to complete class work

Most US students studying abroad are a tad more excited about the abroad part than the studying. I certainly was! Although most professors at international universities recognize the many benefits of travel, you’re still expected to attend class and pass your exams. I know, ridiculous. 

[The Best International Travel Tips No One’s Ever Told You About]

Not attending class or falling behind on coursework was among one of the most common mistakes American students studying abroad can make. Although you may not regret ditching a few lectures to extend a weekend trip, failing a class is one of the stupidest mistakes you can make abroad. 

You cannot justify spending the time, money, and energy to go abroad only to fall behind on your degree requirements. Sadly, most American students studying abroad can tell you just how much this happens. You’ll have fun, but don’t put yourself in the academic position to pay for it later. That’s one student counselor conversation I would avoid. 

  • Recommended programs: If you think the travel bug will prove too distracting, just bring travel into the classroom! For those who know tourism is a vast, evolving discipline with a ton of opportunity, check out travel and tourism programs abroad. You’ll learn how travel is experienced while you do so yourself!
  • Related: Learn more about travel and tourism programs 

9) Leaving ;-)

Turns out that the most frequent mistake mentioned was leaving. Although it was comical how quickly everyone claimed that they wish they didn’t return home, maybe they were on to something... 

Your time abroad will undoubtedly introduce you to new friends, passions, and a way of life that you will grow very accustomed to. Despite homesickness and a craving for a proper burrito bowl, returning home can be a bit underwhelming. So don’t! Well, at least not immediately. 

Extend your time abroad with an internship. Tons of providers offer wonderful programs that’ll complement your studies abroad. Not only will you be applying what you’ve learned in a career-enhancing internship, but you’ll postpone the stress of packing back up. You’re welcome.          

  • Recommended programs: IES Internships offers hands-on, professional internships all over the world. With placements in a wide variety of fields, you will add a standout addition to an increasingly international resume with IES Internships.   
  • Related: Read IES Internships reviews | Visit their site

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pocket dictionary, cash, coffee, and camera 

At least *try* to pick up the language while you’re abroad. Don’t be that guy.

We’ll forgive a few travel mistakes...just not these

Everyone knows that in order to grow, you’re going to have to make mistakes. It’s pretty much Newton’s 4th law! Maybe that’s what makes studying abroad so impactful for American students studying abroad? All these screw ups and missteps which occur outside the comfort of the U.S. help you grow as a person! Although it’s rare for anyone to regret their decision to study abroad, there’s clearly some mistakes to avoid so keep these things in mind while you set out on the adventure of a lifetime. 

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Topic:  Before You Go