Written by Annie Rose Stathes, Edited by Laura Morrison, for GradSchools.com, March 2014
For some students, study abroad programs provide a 1-6 month opportunity to explore another culture, see another country, and have fun with cool new friends. For other students, study abroad programs provide an opportunity to do all of that and then some. Such students may be able to use their study abroad programs to enhance their chances of getting into graduate school. The following article provides recommendations for leveraging your study abroad experience to enhance your graduate school application.
1. Select a study abroad program that includes a professional or volunteering component
Select a study abroad program that allows you to develop professional skills and work in a position (whether professional or volunteer) that prepares you for the world outside of academia. Many graduate schools look for evidence that applicants have a developed capacity to work with others, take personal responsibility, and apply skills and theory to practice in real-world situations. Study abroad programs that give you an opportunity to work with other people on real issues in communities give you some of the practical experience graduate programs desire students to have.
2. Connect your study abroad to the field in which you plan to study and work
This advice is similar to the advice given above. However, the recommendation here is to select a program that not only provides professional or volunteer-based experience, but also connects directly to the field in which you plan to study and work. Graduate schools love to see that students have already stepped into their fields, especially in real-world situations.
3. Make connections with people who could write letters of recommendation
Keep in mind when you study abroad that every person with whom you work and interact could potentially serve as a reference. Treat people you meet with kindness, respect, and courtesy, and share with them your personal and professional goals for the future. Let people get to know you and connect with them in a meaningful way. The point is not to treat people well solely because you want them to write a recommendation, but rather to treat people well so that they can and would be willing to attest to the type of person you are. As you study abroad, network and otherwise build strong, professional, and mutually respectful relationships.
4. Create an online presence
During your study abroad program, write a blog and otherwise track your respectable adventures and endeavors in an online and public format. Some graduate school committee members might look for your online “personality” to help decipher whether or not you’re the right type of student for the school’s program. As you keep your blog, keep your future plans, hopes, and intentions in mind and write for an audience that includes potential selection committee members. Keep the tone of your writing professional, respectful, and considerate, without hesitating to show the multiple facets of your dynamic personality. Don’t hesitate, for example, to share your hardships and struggles, or to demonstrate that you’re also having fun—simply do so in a professional, respectful, and considerate way. Also remember that many “private” online formats are actually “public” and easily accessible to the majority of people. Keep your online presence consistent with the image you wish to portray to your selection committee.
5. Keep a journal
Believe it or not, you will forget many of the things that happen during your study abroad experience. Keep a journal so that your memories can remain fresh and detailed. Then, as you’re preparing your application or interviewing for a graduate program, select details from your trip that illustrate that you are the type of person and student the program is looking for. Use specific details and illustrate meaningful stories thoroughly; use your experience to paint a picture of the type of student you are and will be based on who you were during your study abroad program.
6. Consider what your future graduate school looks for in a student
Closely read the essay requirements of your graduate school application. Take note of what type of information the school wants and consider providing that information through the lens of your study abroad experience. Illustrate your skills in working within diverse communities, organizing and multi-tasking, and dealing with challenging and overwhelming experiences by telling stories of your experiences abroad, for example. Then, connect your stories from abroad to universal lessons you’ve learned and incorporated into your everyday life. Demonstrate to the selection committee that studying abroad prepared you for the challenges and adventures of graduate school, and that you have the personality necessary to make the most of your graduate-level education.
7. Don’t underestimate the power of studying abroad
It takes courage, organization, and open-mindedness to study abroad. Not everyone is cut out to do so. The fact that you are the type of person who would study abroad is a boon. Don’t hesitate to share your stories derived from studying abroad and to explain exactly how the experience contributed to who you are today. Your experiences studying abroad and how you dealt with adversity, challenge, and opportunity says a lot about who you will be in the face of graduate school.
About the Author: Annie Rose Stathes holds a B.A. in International Affairs and an M.A. in Political Science from the University of Colorado, Denver. She is currently an instructor of writing at Fort Lewis College in Durango Colorado.