Pre-Departure Logistics (Part 1)

Two years ago, around this time, I was applying for exchange. As you might have guessed from the creative title, I’ll be discussing the ins and outs of going abroad. Many of these experiences are directly related to the University of Toronto (UofT) and their Centre for International Experience (CIE). However, similar procedures are in place at different universities and exchange agencies. With that, here is my disclaimer to consult with your sources prior to departure.

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Trading in #viewsfromthe6ix. “Home is where the heart is”, as the saying goes.

  1. Research your program options

Like many things at the UofT, the international exchange program is organized. Early in October, I attended an international exchange event, where inbound students acted as ambassadors for potential outbound students. Previous exchange students of the program were also present to give a better overview of how they integrated during their semester. Going into the session, I already had an idea of continental Europe. I also did online research in various databases to narrow down which schools would best cater to my academic interests, but also cultural curiosity. When approaching program options, know which study options align with your overall academic goals, but also your personal growth. Pick a location in which you’re interested in, that way, you’ll be able to get the most out of your experience.

My piece of advice during this stage is creating a spreadsheet(!) with a list of priorities. Some of my criteria included the language of instruction, general location in Europe, strength in biochemistry research, standard of living, and national safety warnings. If you’re applying early on during your undergraduate studies, then you want to ask specifically about the language of instruction. Many courses taught at the bachelor’s level would be in the language of the home country. Unless you are majoring in languages, this could pose as a challenge. Not only will you have an additional language barrier, but also relating to your classmates, who will likely help you more during the class, would be difficult. However, many courses taught at a graduate level are standardized in English. These graduate courses require some knowledge in the subject matter before registration; so make sure you have a background in the field before pursuing these studies. This is especially true in Europe.

Another criteria that many people might consider are university rankings. Being completely honest, I immediately disregarded institutions that ranked lower than UofT on a global global or subject level. My reasoning was that I wanted to “trade up” in academic caliber and really challenge myself during my semester abroad. In hindsight, you’re not going to get a medal for working harder. Although I appreciated the rigour, there were instances were I highly envied all the free time my friends in Italy and France were having during their exchange. You’d think I’d learn from my experience after choosing UofT for undergraduate studies.

Finally, know the global environment prior to making your final choice. You cannot predict the exact situation in the future, but based on current events, you can factor in national safety. For example, I had some friends interested in studying in Turkey, but due to the proximity to the Middle East, their final choice changed. Some of my friends also faced challenges when choosing UK schools, over perhaps Ireland and Scotland. Due to terrorist attacks throughout 2015 and 2016, many of those students expressed concerns about their safety prior to departure. However, know that regardless of your destination, you should be cautious of your environment. For example, no one would have predicted the events that conspired in Sweden earlier in 2017. In general, watch out for your own safety as you would in any new place.

If you take anything away from this section, you should seriously consider the following criteria before deciding to go on exchange:

  • Exchange length (i.e., 4 months, 6 months, 1 year)
  • Semester dates (i.e., whether they overlap with your home school)
  • Academic requirements (i.e., GPA, certain level of study)
  • Finances (i.e., enough funding, scholarship opportunities)
  • Language (i.e., can you speak it and are you willing to learn)
  • Academic alignment (i.e., will this courses you take overseas be applicable and helpful in the grand scheme of things)
  • National safety (i.e., season for natural disasters, civil unrest, public safety)
  • Geographic location (i.e., will I be staying in one place and exploring in-depth vs. travelling to nearby places often)
  • Personal interest (i.e., genuinely interested in learning about a new culture)
  • Goals (i.e., personal growth, academic rigour, Instagram photos)
  1. Pick a final destination
University Location Ranking Requirements Language Finances Safety Reason
ETH Zürich Switzerland Above overall 3.2GPA German, English 1 5 Switzerland is honestly my favourite place in the world!
Karolinska Institutet Sweden Above medicine 3.0GPA Swedish, English 3 3 Visting Scandinavia for the first time!
University College London UK Above overall 3.4GPA English 2 1 Closer to good friend!
University of Manchester UK Below 2.7GPA English 4 2 Easy and don’t need to learn a new language.
National University of Singapore Singapore Same 3.0GPA English, Mandarin 5 4 Heard good reviews for this school.
* 1 = most, 5 = least

This was an example of the kind of spreadsheet that I used to make my final choice. As you can tell, there were a couple ties, especially between the Swedish and Swiss choices. However, some criteria were weighted more heavily than others and there was a certain threshold to ensure I proceeded with that choice. Anyone in commerce would tell you that this is a classic decision matrix. Who would have thought that I would unconsciously use one prior to my graduate studies!

Furthermore, this kind of layout also shows you back up options. Sometimes there are hard lines drawn before you’re accepted. I know for a fact that higher ranked institutions required a GPA cut off, so this kind of table allows you to compare on a linear level. You want to make a choice that would maximize your chances of being accepted so you can prepare early for your departure. Or in the opposite direction, you might realize that studying abroad might not be the best option for you during your undergraduate studies. Difficulties with credit transfers can pose a realistic threat towards timely graduation dates. Finances, often put on the back burner, can hinder your graduate funding. Perhaps the time that you’re away will overlap with possible interview seasons that would help secure your future job. However, if you are still adamant about going abroad, consider shorter programs, such as a summer course or internship. Or instead of staying overseas for a full year, just study for one semester. There are many options for Canadians to go abroad due to our amazing passport privileges!

  1. APPLY EARLY!

As much as I want to say once you made your decision, you still have a chance to change it – that is not the case. After picking your destination, that’s a commitment. Even with great Canadian passport perks, international studies take a lot of time to process due to borders. I applied one year prior to my intended year of study. For example, I applied in 2015 for the 2016 study year (although I didn’t leave until 2017 due to semester differences).

Another obvious reason to apply earlier is for document verification. Many applications require a personal statement, several short statements, academic transcripts, letters of reference, and quite possibly a résumé. It takes time to prepare everything, so starting early will ensure that you’ll have leeway at the end to submit a last minute section. Nothing ruins a good application than a poorly written personal statement, especially if it’s littered with spelling and grammatical errors.

Finally, most scholarships are reviewed on an ongoing basis. Be mindful of bursaries, which look at financial need. These applications will also require budget info, so do your research beforehand and request a reasonable amount. Review boards are quite stringent on the amount given away. Scholarships are often based on academic merits or extracurricular activities. In this case, highlight experiences that specifically cater to the scholarship target. For example, apply for funding that targets minority students that participate in exchange in X country.  If you’re looking for external funding, then applying early is your best bet to get some extra money.

  1. Play the (proactive) waiting game

Academic reasons aside, if you did your homework, you applied to a program that will have a 99% of acceptance (based on your track record). With those good chances, you can focus on other aspects of going abroad, such as connecting with previous students or preparing for departure. Heck, you could probably start looking at flights and applying for visas. There are so many things that will need to get done once you get your acceptance from the other side that preparing in advance would take away a lot of stress. The last thing you want is to stress about preparing for departure during your next set of exams.

Take a look below for a general timeline that might be helpful in putting everything into perspective:

Application 1 Flow Chart

General timeline according to UofT and CIE deadlines. Consult most recent dates for accurate information.

And with that, back to my accounting assignment! I’ll be writing more about pre-departure preparation in a later post. You can only imagine all of the logistics that might come with crossing borders, but it pertains more towards physically and mentally preparing yourself for moving to a new country! Post-departure information will also cover the nitty-gritty of seamlessly integrating into a new society. Streamlining the process is my ultimate goal, so please let me know if you found any of the things I talked about useful. Always looking forward to feedback. Until next time!

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