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What I wish I knew before studying abroad

Choosing the right subjects can set up a student for life. Make sure your child starts the IB on the right foot by speaking with an EIB Consultant to pick the perfect subjects.

This articles was written to help prospective international students have a better, and perhaps more honest, understanding of what it’s like to study abroad. It was written with the hope that it might help students prepare for their degree abroad, and not in the slightest to discourage students from leaving for their studies! Please note that the opinions expressed in this piece are the author’s only, and that not everyone will feel this way.

Studying abroad is indisputably a valuable and enriching experience (Photo: Pang Yuhao)

Studying abroad is something that many IB students go on to do after graduating, especially IB students from non-UK schools. It can be an absolutely fantastic and fulfilling experience – but there are some things I wish I’d known before I left.

I finished my IB in Geneva in 2014, before taking a gap year and travelling around Spanish-speaking countries to learn the language. I hadn’t applied to university during my IB, because I knew I’d be taking a gap year, so that was also the time when I had to sit down and actually make some decisions.

I had no idea where to start – which continent, even, to study on! I eventually settled on applying for Geography in the UK, mainly, I think, because it was expected of me. Having done the IB and having scored highly, I was not expected to stay in Geneva and go to my local university, or indeed attend an Haute Ecole (a more hands-on university). It didn’t even occur to me that I could stay! When I think back to that decision, I have mixed emotions: what would have happened if I had stayed in Switzerland? How would my life be different today? These questions are, of course, impossible to answer, but if I were to make that decision again, these are the things I would have liked to know. Please note that I didn’t write this to scare anyone away from studying abroad – to the contrary! I’d like to make international students’ life a bit easier by sharing some of the harder parts of the experience so that they can be best prepared to overcome them.

Culture Shock

You wouldn’t expect it to be a problem, having studied in an international school and having an English mum. But it was. When I arrived in Cambridge, I was so confused by what was going on around me and how people interacted! I learnt that even between relatively similar cultures, socialising can be very different. I didn’t quite understand the codes and it took me a while to settle in. I do believe that this was made worse by the university I attended – Cambridge isn’t exactly the standard English experience. However, I was taken aback by how much of an outsider I felt, and I would have liked to be warned beforehand that I might feel that way.

The contrast between Geneva and Cambridge was very stark! (Photos: Tim Trad; Deccan Herald)

Going home

Another thing that I learnt with time is that, whilst you have been away for a few months discovering an entirely new way of life and meeting new people, your local friends have been having a totally ‘normal’ time in your home city. When you get back home, you might feel as if you’ve been away for a really long time, and expect your friends to rush to try and meet up with you. However, the perceptions of those who have stayed at home are quite different – it might not seem like such a long time to them, and they might have made other plans! Don’t be upset if you feel like you deserve more of a fanfare the first time you come home – your experiences may just not line up, and you’ll get used to it fast enough…

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You will adapt

One of the great things about studying abroad is that you get used to, and settle into, an entirely new culture. Even if some things feel alien or strange at first, I can guarantee that after a few months, maybe one year, you will have settled down. This will really come in handy later in life; the ability to deal with new situations, handle obstacles and overcome them is a real plus!

Studying abroad is indisputably a valuable and enriching experience. Most people will love it, but it’s also normal to have small ‘down’ moments during your time away! Whatever you choose to do, I wish you all the best in your studies and hope you have a fantastic time after you graduate.

Should you have any questions about studying abroad, or about any other aspects of applying to university, please contact us at and we will be delighted to guide you through any aspects of your applications.

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Timothy Hoffmann