How to Pick a Program

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I know I want to go to London! Now what…?

If your university gives you choice in your study abroad options, picking a program can be extremely daunting. Not only did you have to narrow down your destination city, but now you have to pick a program based on factors you’re unsure of, seeing as how you’ve never been to London and can’t exactly travel to London to assess every program before you get there. So how do you make more of an educated choice and less of a shot in the dark?

If you have the option, I would always advise choosing (or start out with, in my case), your university’s sponsored program. For instance, the University of Pittsburgh offers a “Pitt in London” program in conjunction with CAPA, one of its most popular programs. Not only do credits usually transfer more easily, but your university has done this dozens of times before with previous students who have your background and understand what it takes for its students to thrive in London. It also gives them the opportunity to do orientations and allow you to meet people you’ll be living with beforehand.

But what if your university doesn’t have a specific program and the option is up to you? Most universities will limit it to just a few London options to make sure you go with a legitimate provider that will give you the necessary documents to transfer credits back home.

So, okay, you have 2 to 3 options, but how do you choose between them? If your university has allowed you to choose them, the basics are already covered in terms of safety and legitimacy. I would still do your research, of course, but unless your university is sending you to “Bob’s London College N Things” or something, you’ll probably be set.

Others Factors

Cost:

If you’re on a budget like I always was, cost may be the biggest factor, in which case your “pick a program” exercise is pretty simple. Not all programs are alike in cost (one year I was deciding between a 14,000 dollar program and a 19,000 dollar program, which was one of the easiest decisions of my life). Also check the ‘add-ons.’ Is it possible to buy your own flight and save money? Are there additional costs outside of what they’ve put down that you’ll be responsible for? One of my programs included a full London travelcard for the whole program, which is a huge cost that was worth having included.

Type of School:

If cost isn’t a factor, investigate where you’ll be studying. Study abroad program ‘providers’ can either have their own location (such as CAPA London), or they will act as your mentors while you are enrolled at another university (API London, for example). Will you be studying at a British University or at an American university with only other Americans (and this matters, but we’ll talk about that in a second). Is it nearby the major sights or is it an hour tube ride away? Does the school have a good reputation? You have to decide what your top factors are here because it’s going to be different for everyone. If you have options in your study abroad program, then it’s similar to the process you went through to find an American university. What fits you might not fit someone else—just pick somewhere you feel you’ll thrive.

British University vs. American University

This is one of the biggest differences in study abroad programs, and an important one to pay attention to. There are plenty of American universities in the UK, and many are specifically set up for study abroad students. My first study abroad experience was with CAPA, who had their own study center, professors, and classrooms for students. However, they weren’t a ‘university’ and you couldn’t sign up to attend CAPA as a ‘regular’ student. I also studied at Richmond, the American International University in London. This is a ‘regular’ university that takes both American and British students. However, they also play host to plenty of study abroad students through a study abroad program provider.
Then you have ‘direct enroll’ programs or exchange programs where you are enrolled at a British university just like any other British student. Some of these programs will provide you with some sort of American ‘assistants’ who live in London and organize events and will help if you need it. When you’re truly direct enrolled, of course, (for example if you decide to do a postgraduate program and apply independently as an international student), you may have an international adviser, but you won’t have any specific “American” support.

Why It Matters

The reason these distinctions are so important is because it can make or break your study abroad experience. Living and studying with only Americans is a much different atmosphere than living with studying with British students and other international students, and while there is no ‘right’ choice (notice a theme?), it’s something to consider.

Many students prefer to study with a large group of American students (at either an American or British university). There’s something about being in it “together” that makes study abroad an incredible bonding experience. One of my best friends was one of my roommates during my first term abroad, and many people have the same story. You have people around you who understand any culture shock you’re experiencing, and it’s comforting to know that you’re not alone.

On the other hand, does anyone really move to London to spend all of their time with Americans? You could do that so much cheaper in America! The benefit of a direct exchange or living with British students or international students is that you get the ‘real’ experience, not an insular version of what life in the UK is like.  This option pushes you out of your comfort zone and encourages you to make friends with people who have completely different backgrounds to you, which is what study abroad is all about.

As I’ve said, neither way is correct, and you really have to know your personality to know what you’ll prefer. My first program was with a large amount of American students, and my second program was a “direct exchange” where I was the only study abroad student on my floor. In hindsight, the reason I did a direct exchange for my second program was because I had gained a confidence in myself on the first. I would not have thrived as a direct enroll student my first time in London, as I would have felt lonely and had a difficult time making friends. But some people are just the opposite; living with Americans in a foreign country would be far too ‘safe’ for them, and they would thrive in a direct exchange environment. Know yourself, and don’t be afraid to choose the environment that you’ll feel most comfortable in while still giving you room to explore your new home culture and grow as a person.




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