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.

Slipping away during second semester

Most sophomores who study abroad do so during the second semester. At this point, you more than likely have carefully thought out your plans to study abroad by completing core requirements and starting coursework toward your major, and thus going away is more feasible. Spending time abroad during your sophomore year may suit you for any of the following reasons:

  • You want to complete a considerable amount of advanced coursework in your major, which requires you to stay at your home university during your junior and senior years.
  • You want to take advantage of opportunities when you become a junior that are available to upperclassmen, such as independent research, internships, and leadership positions in campus organizations.
  • You want to quickly improve your foreign language skills.
  • You want to go away during the off-season semester because you're an athlete who competes and trains during only one semester. In fact, you may even want to go away during two off-seasons semesters (in other words fall sophomore year and fall junior year if you're a baseball or softball player).
  • You want to go away to two different places each for a semester thus spreading your studies abroad over two academic years.

Cascading across continents as a junior

Junior year is the most popular year to go abroad. Some universities allow their students to go away only during the junior year for a variety of reasons.

  • You've finished four consecutive semesters of language study, making you proficient through the intermediate level, and now you're ready for total immersion into the language to increase your fluency.
  • You plan to write a thesis during your senior year, so you certainly cannot go away then. Furthermore, if you've determined your thesis topic and decided a semester away in a country that's relevant to your topic will benefit your research, you need to go before senior year.
  • Your home university requires you to spend the final two semesters at home, which makes study abroad during your junior year an obvious choice.
  • Many overseas universities and study abroad programs require study abroad students to be juniors.

Some reasons why you, personally, may find junior year a great year to study away from home could include:

  • After two years at your home university, you've matured enough to venture out on your own, away from family, friends, and everything familiar.
  • Many of your friends also are studying away at the same time, which means that you will have plenty of people to visit and free floors to sleep on!
  • You're well established at your home university. You have professors and advisers who know you. Your social group is set, you know all the ins and outs of college life, and you won't be returning to any unexpected situations as a senior.
  • You must apply to graduate school or for postgraduation jobs during your senior year.

Savoring a senior-year sojourn

Most universities require you to spend your final undergraduate semester at your home university because you'll likely need to finish one or two requirements at that time. Therefore, your last chance to spend one of your undergraduate semesters abroad is probably during the first semester of your senior year.

Most students who go abroad this late in the game usually do so because they realize that they'd be passing up an amazing opportunity by not studying abroad during their undergraduate years. Or in some cases, students decide not to write a thesis, finish satisfying their core and major requirements, and then find some time and flexibility in their schedules that they didn't originally think they'd have. Perhaps courses that you desperately wanted to take were offered during your junior year, and after having taken them, you created space in your schedule to go abroad.

If you're writing a senior thesis, you can't go away. If you have too many credits to complete, you can't go away. If you want to apply for graduate schools and fellowships or participate in on-campus job fairs, being away is a handicap.

Studying abroad during summer

When you plan out your entire undergraduate academic program and realize spending a semester abroad just isn't possible, a summer program may be just the thing for you. Studying abroad often becomes difficult whenever you're majoring in two subjects, delaying declaring a major, needing to take a particular sequence of courses before taking an exam (like the Medical College Admissions Test), or applying to graduate school.

At many universities, course scheduling for majors such as science and engineering can be so tight that a semester abroad is simply not possible. For these students, summer study abroad can provide the opportunity to experience another culture, if only for a few weeks, without delaying graduation or missing important classes.

Or maybe you just have too much to accomplish, too many interesting courses are offered at home, or you're too afraid of missing out on all that your home university has to offer. If you can't bear to spend a semester away from school but still want to see a different part of the world and experience a different culture, a summer study abroad program is your best bet.

Many programs offer summer study options; however, you need to realize a few things before deciding to pursue study abroad plans during summer months:

  • You lose your chance to have a summer job. If you usually depend on summer income to make money for school, this option may not work. And chances are you won't be allowed to work in a foreign country.
  • Financial aid and scholarships for summer study may be limited or unavailable altogether.
  • Some summer study abroad programs are watered down and glorified tours, so not much actual studying is going on. Be careful which programs you choose. If you want to receive academic credit at your home university for summer courses, you need to investigate which summer programs your school recommends.
  • Most summer programs offer a small selection of courses, and most of these courses are in the humanities, fine arts, or even pop culture. You may have a hard time finding science, engineering, or social science courses in a summer program.
  • You may need to petition your school for academic credit for summer courses because they may not be as structured as courses are during the regular academic year. Home universities may even impose a limit on the number of credits you can transfer from summer courses.
  • Some universities abroad completely shut down or may not even offer undergraduate study during summer months. Often, the only students at school in summer are postgraduates conducting research and international students (mostly Americans) attending summer study abroad programs.
  • In many countries, the majority of native students are away from university during summer months, which limits the number of courses available and the amount of contact you have with the country's culture. You can wind up on a mostly American program with few opportunities to meet and mingle with natives.
  • Some summer programs offer research and internship opportunities, which may be valuable. However, your home university may not grant you credit for them.
  • Consider the climate and weather. If you plan on studying close to the equator, be aware that some places can be very hot and without air conditioning. And if you want to study in the Southern Hemisphere, remember that our summer is their winter.
  • When you're planning to study away from your home university during the summer between your junior and senior years, consider your postcollege plans. If you're are planning to apply to graduate school and end up away from home that summer, you may miss an important opportunity to study for graduate school exams or start filing applications.
  • When you study during the summer, you may not be giving yourself enough of a break from school and can return to your home university in the fall more burned out than when you left.