Thinking of studying abroad? Then this guide is for you. Learn how I moved to the UK and everything I think you need to know about studying abroad.
A bit about me
I thought I would talk briefly about me so you can get to know me a little more and it might help.
My name is Clarissa, I am 23 years old and I attended the University of New South Wales (Sydney, Australia). I have since graduated but I studied abroad via the university exchange program at The University of Nottingham in Nottingham, United Kingdom. I was 21 at the time and in my fourth year of uni (Yes, I was an old fart).
I wasn’t particularly involved at uni because I worked a lot (saving for that exchange baby!). I was never really in any uni societies or events and I felt I definitely was missing something and I didn’t want to graduate feeling disappointed and regretful. Studying abroad was always at the back of my mind but when I started my third year, I found out a lot of people were doing it and I guess it was the FOMO and I took the plunge and applied at the end of my third year.
I can wholeheartedly say almost 2 years later, I have absolutely no regrets applying to study abroad. It has shaped my entire life and me as a person for the better.
People say all the time that going on exchange/study abroad and travelling is amazing and the best thing they ever did but it actually was the best thing I ever did. I have so many unforgettable memories. I know with the COVID-19 pandemic, many people studying abroad had their plans unfortunately cut short or cancelled which is incredibly upsetting because it is genuinely something a lot of people look forward to.
Save for Later (this is a long post)
Things to Consider
Think about study abroad at least a YEAR IN ADVANCE
The application process from when you apply and when you go study abroad is approximately one year. The process isn’t difficult or time-consuming but it is also not something you think about on a whim either. Think about where you see yourself in a year. If you’re adamant on going save up now. To get ahead, plan ahead.
Are you in your final year?
Please read your university’s rules regarding exchange very carefully. Many will not allow you to go on your final year/semester. If this is the case, please plan ahead to avoid disappointment.
As I will mention later, if you are an Australian citizen (and go to an Australian uni duh!), you will receive approximately $6,000 (OS Help) as a financial loan (that will go to your student debt after you graduate). I received this and it was incredibly helpful but it is not eligible for students who want to study abroad in their final semester. Another thing to consider- especially if you are not very financially well-off. Studying abroad is a HUGE expense.
So where do I start?
The Application Process
An exchange program is essentially swapping you (at your home uni) with another student (at your chosen uni). This means that there are limited places and everything is by demand. The process is different across all universities but generally- you will need to fill out an application listing your details and a list of unis you want to go to (in preference order).
Most of the work was actually going through all the unis and seeing which ones I liked. The main factors I used where: location, reputation of the uni, if it was a good fit for my course and social life.
Get Good Grades
You need to generally have at least a credit average to even be considered for exchange. For me this was a huge incentive to buckle up and work even harder in my third year of uni if I was going to study abroad the following year.
The running joke at uni is that P’s get Degrees (P meaning Pass – probably equivalent to a 3rd in the UK or D in the US). They do but this simply isn’t good enough. Sorry for the tough love.
Going earlier in your uni degree (i.e. in your second or third year) helps a lot because it means you have more flexibility and options in terms of course modules. You’re also more likely to get higher marks the earlier you’re in your degree. The program is mainly (for my uni @ UNSW it was solely) determined by your grades so good grades means you become more competitive. If you’re thinking of going on exchange work hard.
For my readers in the UK, I know your first year technically doesn’t count towards your final grades (super jealous!) but if you are considering studying abroad during your degree, don’t get too relaxed- you need to study and do well. Put the hard work in and I promise it will pay off when you have an absolute blast at a uni you love living your best life abroad.
As I mentioned, the exchange program is determined by demand. Your uni should give you a list of all unis that they work with (this is why ‘good’ unis are better because they have ties with more prestigious, reputable unis around the world which is a determining factor for many people). It should also show the entry requirement for the foreign uni across multiple semesters. This varies because determining who gets into which uni depends on demand for that semester. Some years, the uni is more popular and the entry requirement increases accordingly and in some cases, the uni cutoff might be much lower due to lower demand.
This is why American universities have much harder grade requirements because they are more popular and competitive.
Sidenote: UNSW stupidly has trimesters now but back in the day, going in Semester 2 was the most popular choice (that’s what I did). This is because in Europe, Asia and America the semester will start in August/September which coincides with our Sem 2. However, this also means that Sem 2 cutoffs for exchange are generally higher than Sem 1 since more people apply for exchange for Sem 2 for the equivalent fall/autumn semester in their foreign uni so that’s something to keep in mind.
For anyone who is considering Australia for exchange, study abroad for your winter semester. This is summer in Australia.
The hardest part was definitely course matching. From your preferred unis, you need to match up courses that exist at your home uni with courses that exist at your chosen uni.
Your uni should have a guide on which combinations have been accepted in the past (super helpful) and your course matches have to be approved by your course co-ordinator. Hopefully it’s a 1:1 match but some unis have different course unit weightings making it really difficult (i.e. two courses done at your foreign uni equates to 1 course at your home uni). Doing this process is important because it ensures your courses will be transferred credit. Really spend a lot of time on this process and don’t short-cut.
The worst thing that can happen, is you will do a course overseas and then struggle to have it credited back at your home uni. Make sure you look carefully at the courses offered at your foreign unis as not all courses are offered in all semesters.
Get Advice from Friends, Family, Exchange Advisors and Most Importantly, Returning Students
I chose a lot of my uni preferences based on the experiences of my friends or people who I knew. Get as much inspiration as you can. I always knew I wanted to study in the UK and the University of Nottingham and Leeds are probably the two most popular options offered by my uni. Every year, I knew several people who went to either of these unis and it seemed like they had an amazing time on study abroad. I wanted to go to a uni in Europe because I really wanted to travel around Europe as well.
Pick a university because you want to go to the country and uni as opposed to picking a university based on reputation and grades.
I seriously can’t stress this enough. I had a talk with an exchange advisor at my home uni and this gave me ease to put ‘less competitive’ unis at the top of my preference with Leeds and Nottingham over McGill in Canada. Leeds definitely has a ‘party atmosphere’ and is more prestigious compared to Nottingham which is why I ranked this first. As you can see, I did not get into Leeds.
Your uni should also give you questionnaires that have been filled by returning students that are super helpful and give you an insight to their experiences at the foreign uni. Things like what they wish they knew, what they enjoyed, what they didn’t enjoy, what the uni was like. This is all really important information that can help determine which unis you’re interested in.
Make Every Preference Count
There could be a possibility (unlikely) where your 5th and 6th universities are considered. Make every preference count. Really take your time in choosing which unis you want to go to. The worst thing would be putting a uni as an afterthought and then get in and be really disappointed. I actually knew someone who did this and she was pretty upset she got her last preferred uni.
However, you don’t want to waste an option either (e.g. nominating UCLA when you know you have no shot). Choose uni preferences that are reflective of your marks. In saying that, aim high. Since the selection is entirely subjected to demand, if your dream is to go to UCLA put that down because if demand is low in the semester you’re going in, the entry requirement will be lower and who knows. Think of it this way. If you don’t put it down, you have 0% chance. If you did put it down, you at least have more than 0% of a chance even if it’s 0.01%.
My point is to include safe options (that you will be happy with of course). For me, I looked at the entry requirements for Nottingham over the last few years and they always ranged in the low 70s. This meant the entry requirements were unlikely to deviate very far. With my marks at the time, I was very confident I could get into Nottingham.
Sidenote: Business Students Have It Harder
Many universities may have a business school. Think University of Pennsylvania and the Wharton School of Business. Whilst UPenn is probably one of the hardest unis to get into, Wharton is 2981% worse. Take this into consideration if you’re a business student because there’s good chance the entry requirement for study abroad will be higher than other faculties (I know it sucks). This mostly affects American and Canadian universities.
Some notorious examples include: McGill University (Canada), University of British Columbia- UBC (Canada), University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (United States), University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill (United States) and University of Texas, Austin (United States).
For the purposes of this study abroad guide, it’s not really important but as a business student myself, I felt this statistic was really interesting and it is something to be mindful of.
Apply Before the Deadline and Sit Back and Wait
Finally, you need to rank these unis. After hours and hours and weeks of research I finalised my list (in that order) to:
United Kingdom- University of Leeds
United Kingdom- University of Nottingham
Canada- McGill University
The Netherlands- Erasmus University of Rotterdam
United Kingdom- University of Exeter
United Kingdom- University of Glasgow
Like I said, the application process is the hardest process so take your time. Pay the application fee and submit it and wait. Well done! Celebrate with some drinks!
You Got an Offer BUT Don’t Forget the Admin Work
When I got my offer at the University of Nottingham I was so stoked!! Whilst some people may decide to cancel their exchange (usually involving work/graduate program), this is a really surreal moment and all I could say was ‘Wow I actually am doing this.’
You’ll be asked to register at your nominated university and fill out all your details- all that admin stuff. I will say from experience- The UK in general is horrible with this. Nottingham was HORRENDOUS. Their admin system had changed from the previous year which was causing a lot of complications (don’t think it excuses them though) and I had many a rant and cry.
To give context- I was not given my official letter from UoN until JULY when I was meant to start in SEPTEMBER. This was ridiculously late notice. I had friends who were leaving in early June/July and I was thinking what on earth is going on….
The reason for the slowness is probably because semesters in the UK usually run later than most other mainland European unis and American unis. Like Europe and the States are on top of their sh*t. So there were moments when I was really angry at how slow and unresponsive the admin team was and I was comparing myself to other people going on exchange because I felt I did not have my sh*t together.
My advice- everything WILL work out. I promise. Take a deep breath and stay calm. Also send those emails, call the admin team- BE PROACTIVE. I was mindful that the UK was 9 hours behind but I was making those phone calls and ensuring that I had everything ready.
Visas and Paperwork
This will entirely depend on
- where your exchange is taken place
- how long your exchange is
I was going for ONE semester in the UK/Europe. This meant I did not need a study visa and an acceptance letter and proof of living was sufficient enough when entering the border. You will need a study visa if you are going for more than 6 months. Read here to find out more about the Tier 4 Student Visa. The fee will be around $600 or £348.
My Advice- be as organised as you can. Figure out what you need because things like visas can take time to process. DON’T LEAVE ANYTHING UNTIL THE LAST MINUTE.
Expenses and Funding from Your University
As I mentioned earlier, the tuition is paid by your university and you still pay as if you were back home. So don’t stress if you’re thinking about heading to the States but aren’t willing to fork out the hefty price tag of US tuition.
Funding from Your University
For everyone except people in their final semester (Australian domestic students only), you can apply for an OS Help Loan of up to $6,913 (this is $8,295 if you are planning on studying in Asia). This is such a great financial aid for all students on helping them fund their exchange. I am sure countries all over the world also offer financial aid for study abroad students so do check it out. This is so incredibly helpful and the loan basically paid off my accomodation which was such a relief.
YOU are responsible for funding your exchange | How Much to Save
Whilst the uni does help with financial relief YOU ultimately are the one who needs to fund your exchange. I think the recommended is to budget at least $3,000 for every month you’re abroad. However, you probably want to travel whilst you’re overseas and experience as much as possible meaning spending more money. I would recommend budgeting at least $20,000 AUD for your exchange.
This is around $14,000 USD or £11,000 GBP. If you spend a bit less, you have a little extra cash to play with but I will say this is the minimum. This is also for a ONE SEMESTER study abroad. If you plan doing a year abroad, you need to save up much more.
This probably will give you quite a nice exchange. it’s not too luxurious but you also aren’t like living off instant noodles every meal. Don’t cheapen out too much when you’re studying abroad. This is an opportunity of a life time.
I’ll also list important expenses to consider (that you will want to cheapen on):
This is probably the most important expense to consider because this WILL SHAPE YOUR STUDY ABROAD EXPERIENCE. In the UK, you generally have two options:
There are many pros and cons of the two so do A LOT OF RESEARCH. UoN gave guides on which accomodation to choose including room tours by students to really give a feel of what living on campus would be like. I will summarise to the biggest differences I found between the two:
Both catered and self-catered provide excellent opportunities to socialise. Catered involves a massive dining hall in true Hogwarts style where you can eat with your friends every day in a cafeteria style format (everything is done for you) but the biggest limitation is the hours of the dining hall are set so it can feel really inflexible (I also felt really crap when I missed meals because I was out because I felt like I was wasting money). Also the food was generally very bland and repetitive so …
Self-catered involves eating in a flat-style kitchen and it feels a lot more authentic and personal and you can eat whenever you want.
Both halls cater to social gatherings with fancy dinners and balls. There will be a common room where most people come together before heading out but people generally socialise in other people’s rooms. Both provide opportunities for meeting people but since self-catered means you have a designated flat- it feels like you have a tighter circle and more chances for tighter friendships.
Self-catered rooms are CHEAPER but there will be more expenses you have to pay- especially regarding the kitchen area. Looking back, I feel I should probably have chosen self-catered purely because I travelled a lot and so my bed had many sleepless nights. Looking back, I would have saved money on accomodation and splurged more on experiences and things I would enjoy.
Another thing to note, is if you are an international student in the UK on exchange, you are likely to be put in a flat with other international students. This is because of your contract and is a pro and con. You meet a wide-range of people with similar goals and objectives but you lack learning about local culture and this segregation was something I didn’t really like. I found this was VERY COMMON IN THE UK AND EUROPE. Regardless, if you decide to live on university campus, you may find everyone is a first year (fresher) which can also be a weird experience especially if you are a lot older.
I definitely felt weird living with so many first years but I was able to find my exchange friends in the hall. We all had similar experiences of alienation and segregation but we formed the best of girl pals. They lived all over the world including the US and Canada.
Consider living off campus. It probably will be even cheaper.
I will say the US is probably the best in the accomodation department. I’ve heard nothing but good things and sometimes it really is like the movies.
Cost of Living
This is another thing to be mindful of. I had many friends who studied abroad in more expensive places such as Sweden and Denmark so this is definitely something to be mindful. In general, I found the cost of living in the UK quite similar to Australia. I did find food a bit pricier in the UK both grocery shopping and eating out.
Just be wary of how much you’re spending especially as you will be overseas for a long period of time.
Transport and Travel
If you are going on exchange to the UK, I can not highly recommend enough the 16-25 railcard!! Please get this. It costs £30 but it lasts a whole year and you get a third of rail fare. This is so helpful to save money in the long-run and travel in luxury via train and it saves so much time.
You can catch coaches across major cities but whilst they are CHEAP, they are also LONG and not as comfortable.
If you are in Europe, take advantage of how CHEAP airfare is. Get on Ryanair or Easyjet and pay £10 for a weekend international getaway trip. Definitely find ways to minimise your travelling expenses to allow yourself to spend money to actually explore the place.
Ryanair if you can look past the service and quality is SO CHEAP.
Travelling to Copenhagen from Brussels and Budapest from Berlin cost around $24 or £13 or $16 USD.
PS. Budapest and Copenhagen are AMAZING! Some of my favourite places I visited and I think they are both very underrated.
For example, flying from Sydney to Melbourne is usually $80-100 one-way for roughly the same distance. You can fly so cheaply in Europe, I am so jealous.
I would highly recommend Airbnbs or hostels to stay in as opposed to hotels. Hostels are also a great opportunity to meet other people. Since I spent a large chunk of my exchange during winter, hostels were even cheaper as there is much lower demand during the European winter.
In saying that, do not cheapen out too much. I remember the hostel I stayed at in Prague was really dingy and I’m still convinced that I woke up after my first night seeing half-naked men and a couple shagging. I am not kidding. This was January 2019. It still bothers me to this day.
Classes, Assessments and Social Life
The learning environment in the UK is definitely more self-learnt than what I’m used to in Australia. Whilst there were still lectures every week, tutorials only ran twice or thrice a semester which was SO WEIRD. The tutorial sizes were similar to back home (20-30 students) and not very interactive.
For two of my economics modules, the tutorials were purely for presentations so you can f*ck off with the idea you’ll make friends in your classes. YOU WON’T. I did meet a few people here and there and it was pretty cool to meet people my age. It was refreshing!
I actually met someone in my economics class who actually studied abroad at my university (he kept wearing the uni jumper) which made for good conversation.
This was also weird for me too. The assessment structure is heavily weighted towards the final exam. For one of my modules- the course was 100% graded on the final exam.
All my other modules had a 75% final exam weighting with 1 individual essay or 1 group presentation. The assessments were not too intensive which was great meaning I really had the opportunity to immerse in my social life and travelling.
The UK LOVES TO GO CLUBBING. I can’t say this enough. Like every weekday, there was a different club to go to. I had a lot of fun but it was an interesting experience and it took some time to get used to it. I felt like I was too old for this sh*t. I go to bars a lot but nightclubs ain’t my scene.
Nottingham (as well as many places in the UK) has a great nightlife. Whilst, we would go clubbing once in a while, there were also so many places to have a night out and feel a bit classy and more mature and refined. Like I said, I love a good bar. Some of my faves include:
- Coco Tang (pictured)
- Pitcher & Piano
- The Hockley Arts Club
- The Bodega
I think visiting Nottingham gave me a greater appreciation for bars and the arts. I kind of miss the freedom of doing whatever we wanted and party on any day we wanted to.
Australian Uni Students- Exchange Units are Graded on Pass/Fail Only i.e. PARTY HARD
At least in Australia, all you need to do is pass your exchange courses. Your actual marks are irrelevant and only a Pass/Fail is shown on your transcript. Take this as an opportunity to get rid of the pressure- choose subjects you’re interested in. If you’re studying at a Scottish uni, maybe take an intro class to Scottish history and culture. The world is your oyster!
It is also a good opportunity to take harder subjects overseas if you want to complete the equivalent core or elective course at home.
Since I was going on exchange, I could pick finance electives that weren’t even offered at home. I took Risk Management and I knew absolutely no one. I forgot to attend the second tutorial because I happened to be on a plane to Dublin, Ireland. Ok- I forgot alright. No regrets.
More importantly, you have no excuse to make the most of every opportunity and live up your new life abroad. If this means massive frat and sorority parties in the States or clubbing till 3am 3 times a week in Europe- make the most of the social life both at uni and in your new cities and countries. You have absolutely no reason to hit the books all day. But remember you do need to study every now and again.
Advice I Wish I Knew
I always want to help people and whilst I think we shouldn’t regret what we did or did not do- it is always important to reflect. I truly believe study abroad me changed as a person and made me become a better person. So the whole ‘travelling to find myself’ mantra is 100% TRUE.
Make the Most of Every Opportunity Because Exchange is So Short
Go on exchange with a mindset of ‘no regrets’. Say yes to as much as you can to really get the most out of it. If you say ‘no’, you will end up wishing you said ‘yes’. 6 months goes ridiculously fast and unfortunately things will come to an end. You want to end your exchange feeling really happy with everything you achieved and accomplished!!
Set Some Goals On What You Want to Achieve When You Study Abroad
I love being spontaneous but set some goals on what you want to accomplish on exchange. This will make you evaluate what you want to get out of your study abroad. Then you can tick them off if you’ve done them and you will be satisfied ie. no regrets.
Your goals could be absolutely anything. It could be that you want to attend a certain party or do at least one road trip or visit certain cities or countries.
Get Out of Your Comfort Zone
I was really scared to go on exchange. I was flying solo, didn’t really know anyone else going to my uni but I realised that travelling solo actually makes me so happy and despite not knowing anyone, I came out with a bunch of friends who I still talk to this day because I pushed myself. You only will get something out of studying abroad if YOU PUT EFFORT.
Sounds dumb but you don’t need 5 different sweaters. Pack light so you can buy things overseas. Also packing is painful! I left my packing last minute just before the semester break and I was STRESSING trying to cram everything in 2 suitcases. As Marie Kondo would say- ask yourself if this item sparks joy. If not, don’t bring it.
Research on Cards to Use Overseas and Consider Travel Insurance
You don’t want to be hit with huge transaction fees and exchange rate fees. I used Citibank (everyday plus) and I loved it immensely. There were no transaction fees when using an ATM overseas and the exchange rate is a lot kinder than if you used your normal card.
Your university will probably give you travel insurance but consider getting additional insurance for things the uni won’t cover you like if you lose your laptop and other valuables.
Congrats! You’ve Made It to the End. Get excited about study abroad!
Thank you for reading this far! I can not recommend enough how amazing studying abroad and will highly recommend you to consider it. Not only do you move to a new country (away from the parents am I right?), travel and meet amazing people, you learn so much about yourself. I think this is the most important gift of all.
Whilst I learnt a lot about the sesh, English guys and amazing, loyal friends, I also learnt how valuable it was to challenge myself and grow as a person and take responsibility of my life. I came back a much happier and more fulfilled person (and also 5 kg heavier).
Feel Free to Contact and Ask Me Anything
I really enjoyed writing this and I hope you enjoyed reading it. I definitely want to write more pieces related to my study abroad in future.
If you are curious about study abroad or the UK, UoN/UNSW or Australia or anything, feel free to contact me by commenting below or through my social media links. My Instagram is @clarissazhu_.