What’s It Really Like Studying Abroad? Expectations vs. Reality

Man standing on a rock in white mountains

Hi everyone – today I’d like to talk about studying abroad. Specifically, I want to talk about expectations versus reality.

I have come across many, many articles titled something along the lines of “10 reasons going abroad will absolutely, positutely change your life!!!!

There are literally dozens of posts online touting the benefits of overseas experience and the many life-altering things that will happen to you should you exercise your privilege to live internationally. (I promise this isn’t a rant). It’s not that I think going abroad won’t change your life (it definitely can). I’d just like everyone to set realistic expectations before they go.

I think people often neglect the fact that these things only happen if you make them happen. Your life doesn’t magically change because you put yourself in another country. Your life changes because you make it change.

So after scouring the many studying abroad posts on the internet, I have compiled a handful of the most common “expectations” and coupled them with a touch of reality. But you know me – I’m anything but a pessimist, so I’ve also included tips on how to make the most out of your study abroad experience.

My first experience studying abroad was in France. I spent 3 weeks here doing a summer school course and it was my first taste of independent international travel (France, 2016)

This post may contain affiliate links. If you make a purchase through one of these links, I may receive a small commission at no extra cost to you. Your support is much appreciated! You can learn more by reading my full disclosure.

My first experience studying abroad was in France. I spent 3 weeks here doing a summer school course and it was my first taste of independent international travel (France, 2016)

Expectation: You will make lifelong friends

Reality: You will meet a lot of new people, be they housemates or classmates or coworkers or anyone else you stumble upon. Some of them you will really like – but you will not automatically be lifelong friends.

Just like back home, lifelong friendships (and maintaining them when geography becomes unfavourable) take intention and effort. You will need to actively get out of your comfort zone to turn the people you meet into lifelong friends. There is definitely the possibility you will make amazing, wonderful lifelong friends.

Just don’t wait for it to happen – go make it happen for yourself! Also you will occasionally meet an absolutely terrible person (I definitely did). Don’t let them spoil the trip for you.

I spent my final semester of university in Dunedin, New Zealand. It was a wild experience, and I did make a few friends I’ll stay in touch with for a long time. (New Zealand, 2018)

Expectation: You’ll become bilingual

Reality: Let’s say you’re studying French literature and you do your study abroad in France. Okay, yes, you will probably improve your French and become bilingual and that really is awesome.

But typically, if you’re studying courses in English at your home university, your classes abroad are also going to have to be in English. At least that’s been the case for every single person I’ve ever spoken to. By default, that means your university will offer English classes, which means there will be plenty of English speakers around you.

In all honesty, not a single one of my friends came back home bilingual because they never really had to learn it. I have friends who picked up a few phrases in German or Spanish or even Mandarin. But they did not become bilingual because the people around them still spoke English.

The only way, I believe, you can become bilingual in a new place is if you are fully immersed in the language. I spent 5 weeks in a small French-speaking community in Quebec, Canada and literally no one (and I mean no one) spoke English. I learned more in those 5 weeks than I learned in 5 years of French classes at school (though I’ve lost a lot of that French skill now).

So if your purpose for going abroad is to learn a new language, studying at a university or living somewhere with a lot of English speakers isn’t your best option. 

Still have a lifelong goal to be fluent in French (France, 2016)

Expectation: You will suddenly have new hobbies and interests

Reality: This is sort of like a “new country, new you,” which I 100% expected when I moved to New Zealand.

Actually no, it wasn’t that I was going to be “new” Mikaela, I was suddenly going to be the absolute best version of myself. I was going to wake up early and run on the beach and go surfing. I’d be doing multi-day hikes every weekend and learning about a new culture.

I think my housemates and fellow international students had similar expectations. Want to know really happened? We still watched Netflix. We still went to class and had lazy Sundays at home. There were still days spent in bed hungover.

But you know what? Our Kiwi friends did all this too! We also hiked and surfed occasionally, but we were still the same people we were before we came to New Zealand. If you want to expand your hobbies and try new things, that’s absolutely great. Just know you must do so with intention! You won’t just stumble into it.

More often than not, people fall into the same hobbies and habits they have back home. That’s not to say you won’t try new things. But similar to with friendships, you have to actively make this happen.

experience studying abroad
I try new experiences whenever I travel somewhere new, but my previous interests, like hiking and kayaking, always seem to persist (New Zealand, 2018)

Expectation: It will strengthen job/grad school applications

Reality: This may well have been the case 10 years ago, but at this point, a lot of people (in North America at least) have some type of international experience. Or they have impressive volunteer or work experience, extracurriculars or something else.

Jobs these days are competitive! Now, of course, having an international experience doesn’t hurt and it gives you something to speak about in interviews, but don’t expect your job prospects to drastically improve just because you went abroad.

Quick piece of advice: knowing how to speak about international experiences (or any experiences for that matter) and how they relate to the job you’re interviewing for is more important than just having the experience. Always prepare ahead of time and be ready to speak about what you learned, what challenged you and what skills you now have and how it relates to the job position.

Experience Studying Abroad
Come at me, job prospects! I’m ready for you! (Iceland, 2018)

Expectation: You will discover yourself, find your purpose, etc

Reality: Out of all of them, I think this is the reality that most closely resembles expectations. Maybe not the “find your purpose part” but definitely discovering more about yourself. Personally, I learned a ton about myself (and not things I was expecting to learn either).

In New Zealand, I learned that you should never drive at night on roads that don’t have cell phone service. But I also experienced homesickness for the first time and had no idea how to deal with it. I learned so much about the convict history in Tasmania (low key, Tasmania is a super fascinating place) but the most profound thing I learned was that I don’t like living out of a backpack nearly as much as I thought I would.

I realized there were aspects of Canadian culture that I didn’t agree with, and I think I might actually settle in New Zealand (which was a crazy realization for me – I’d always assumed I’d find my way back to Canada).

I also think it’s difficult to visit a place completely different than your own and not experience some kind of reflection or self-examination. This happened to me several times during my two months in India.

However, I think where expectations conflict with reality is how that reflection or self-examination affects you after you leave the destination.

For example, even after seeing so much pollution in India, I still buy coffee even if I’ve forgotten my reusable cup. Despite witnessing so much poverty, I still get distracted by material wealth and possessions here in Canada.

Most shocking to me was how much happiness people could have even while living in such poverty. Basically, while I feel my perspective changed while I was in India, I haven’t necessarily actioned that change in my present life.

I know that’s not a great thing to admit, but I believe a lot of other travellers experience it but either doesn’t reflect on it or they don’t admit to it.

experience studying abroad
Life purpose comes from within! Cheesy but true. (New Zealand, 2018)

I hope this post hasn’t come off like a rant. I honestly loved my time studying abroad and I’m going to make more opportunities for myself to work abroad in the future. But I think people going abroad need to have realistic expectations for what it will be like.

Friends, experiences, memories – all that will happen if you make them happen. Don’t be passive in your travelling. As always, happy travelling and leave me your thoughts in the comments below. Have I been too harsh? Are there other expectations I’ve missed?


sportswear cardigan

Fleece Sweater

Maroon Arcteryx cerium LT for women

Down Jacket

Hiking boots of Merrell Moab vent

Hiking Boots

icebreaker tech lite women shirt

Hiking Shirt

deuter hiking bag

Back Pack

Hiking pants of the The north face

Hiking Pants

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *