Choosing When to Study Abroad
Traditionally, most students study abroad during their junior year because by that time, they've fulfilled most of their core requirements, chosen their major, and completed some coursework in that chosen major. For instance, at my undergraduate school about 33 percent of the junior class spends either a semester or the full year abroad. But just because this is the general rule doesn't mean that you have to follow it. With careful planning, you can study abroad during your freshman, sophomore, or senior year - it may even work better for you!
Some universities give you the option of deciding when you want to go abroad; others require you to go during a particular year or semester. Many factors influence when you want to go abroad, including your specific plans for a major, whether you want to write a thesis, whether you play a sport, whether you're active in various campus organizations, and whether your friends plan to go abroad. As you contemplate studying abroad, make sure your decision is the one you're most comfortable with, the one that's best for you (and not someone else).
Your home university's study abroad regulations are the primary determinant of when you can and can't go abroad. The other big factor that influences your decision is how you've constructed your four-year academic program. The following sections give you some general guidelines.
Shipping out your sophomore year
Your sophomore year is probably your first opportunity to study abroad and may be a good choice for a couple reasons. Typically, juniors and seniors are accorded more privileges and opportunities, such as early registration for classes and greater access to professors. Also, you may want to pursue campus leadership or internship positions that are typically reserved for upperclassmen. With all the privileges seniority brings, why would you want to hold off and wait until your junior or senior year to go abroad?
Or maybe your sophomore year seems too soon to leave a campus you just recently got familiar and comfortable with. Perhaps you're still exploring what you want to major in, and you still need to get to know some departments better at your home university. Or maybe you're working away on completing your core requirements or taking extensive language courses during this year — better go another year.
Statistically, sophomores who choose to study abroad usually choose the second semester or the summer between sophomore and junior year because by this time their academic plan is more clearly defined than it was in first semester.
Finding yourself somewhere else in the first semester
By the time the first semester of sophomore year rolls around, most sophomores have not completed enough core requirements or work in their major to enable them to study abroad. However, if you're one of the super-organized few who has all of your coursework in order at such an early stage, by all means, go! Also, if you discover that you're unhappy at your home university and are considering a transfer, sometimes studying abroad during the first semester of sophomore year can help you decide whether another school perhaps is better for you (if that option is even available). Going abroad at this time of uncertainty allows you to get some perspective — to see the "big picture" — so that you can get some distance from your troubling home institution and see whether you really want to make a change.