Homesickness is the number one reason why exchange students choose to end their exchanges and go home early.
Nobody who’s experienced homesickness forgets what it’s like. Being separated from your home and your loved ones can hurt like crazy. The days drag. You want to go to bed early and wake up late. Difficult things – like speaking a foreign language, finding your way around a new city or interacting with strangers all day – start to seem impossible.
The good news is that there are things that everyone can do about being homesick. In fact, you only have to do a handful of key things to feel more positive, start to get rid of your homesickness for good, and begin loving life overseas.
In this article, I’ll show you how to beat homesickness. Here’s what to do:
Step 1: Don’t panic
Why do you feel homesick?
It’s simple. Homesickness occurs because you’ve left one situation – living at home – and moved to another, new and unfamiliar situation – living overseas. Being in the new situation makes you unhappy.
This is a totally normal human emotion. Almost everyone who leaves Situation A and goes to Situation B misses Situation A for a while.
Think about it. Someone who starts a new job will often feel nostalgic about his previous job for a little while. People who move houses usually don’t enjoy living in their new houses for the first few weeks, and miss their old homes. Kids who change schools usually miss their old schools for a month or two. But after a while, everybody adjusts to their new situations and begins to enjoy things.
You’ll adjust and start enjoying living overseas soon, too. Your homesickness is only temporary. It will most likely pass in a matter of weeks.
Remember this, stay cool, and don’t panic.
Step 2: Cut the cord
If you want to settle in overseas and stop missing home so much, you must cut yourself off from home and start standing on your own two feet.
Don’t talk to your Mom every night. Stop DMing everybody at home so much and replying to their DMs. Avoid obsessively checking your phone. Every time you do these things, you are making things hard for yourself. You are strengthening the bond to your home country, and weakening the bond to your host country.
Goal 1 of being on exchange is to live like a local. Goal 2 is to learn self-sufficiency. You can’t do either of those things until you get some independence from your home and the people you left behind. So cut them off, as politely and quickly as possible.
Step 3: Turn off the push notifications
Further to step 2: if your iPhone is pinging every five minutes, you’ll never stop picking it up. So turn off the push notifications. Instagram – off. Facebook – off. TikTok – off. Just turn them off and focus on living life.
Step 4: Attack the two things that make homesickness worse
The two biggest sources of unhappiness for people who move overseas are culture shock and the language barrier. You must focus relentlessly on beating these.
The cure for culture shock is to consume more of the local culture in your new country.
Watch more local TV, listen to more local music, eat more local food, do more local sightseeing, go to more local events. Your new home country will be full of incredible sights, culture, food and experiences. The more you get out and start experiencing these things, the more you’ll find to enjoy.
Also, pay close attention to the people in your new country. How do they dress? How do they conduct themselves? Are there any social norms or habits that you need to pick up? Then, adapt your behaviour so that you behave more like a local. If you want to feel less like a fish out of water, you need to start jumping into the water.
The remedy for the language barrier is just as simple, if less enjoyable. You need to work your ass off.
The only way to conquer a language is to spend as much time as possible learning it. Purchase a grammar book and do the exercises every day until you can’t stand it any more. Rote-learn vocabulary. Practise speaking the language, no matter how foolish you feel at first.
You need to become completely preoccupied with speaking the language of your host country as perfectly as you can. This will have two main benefits:
1. You’ll feel more confident, less inhibited, and happier, and
2. You’ll be able to converse with more people, and start connecting and making friends as a result.
Step 5: Work on improving your new life
Small victories and improvements add up. If you make a positive change every day which improves your life by just one per cent, your life will be 37 times better after a year.
One of the best ways to overcome homesickness is to make your life overseas even better than the life you had at home.
There were probably a few things about your life at home that you weren’t happy with. Bad sleeping habits, poor eating, too little exercise, bad relationships, and more.
All that stuff has gotta stop some time. Why not now? Moving overseas is a massively disruptive event. While you’re going through all that change, take the opportunity to get rid of some baggage, too.
You know that morning people are usually happier and more productive, right? So stop going to bed late. Turn in early every night so that you can get going earlier.
Do you drink a lot of alcohol? Stop it. You’ll feel much healthier and more positive living abroad if you never wake up hung-over.
Within a few days of arriving overseas, make a list of bad habits you’ve fallen into and other things that you want to change. Then, promise yourself that you’ll work on changing all of those things. Start right away. The more you change, the more you’ll enjoy your new life overseas, and the less homesick you will be. Try it.
Step 6: Learn to forgive yourself
Ask yourself honestly: do you have a big ego? Are you a proud person?
If so, you’ll soon encounter a problem. Exchange students and others who move overseas are constantly making mistakes, screwing things up, and looking foolish – especially at the start.
If you let them, all of these little mistakes will start to eat you up. They’ll make you feel miserable and homesick.
So, get into the habit of forgiving yourself when you make a mistake. Remember that living overseas is hard. Nobody is thinking less of you because you’re making mistakes. Let it go, and move on.
Step 7: Stay busy
Being in a foreign country and having too much time on your hands is a recipe for homesickness. The more free time you have, the more of it you’ll spend thinking about home.
So, fill that free time with as much activity as you can. Doing things with your host family, exercising, language learning, and so on. Even tidying your room or house is less likely to make you homesick than just sitting there doing nothing.
Homesickness is a huge problem for some exchange students. But it doesn’t need to be a problem at all for you. Take the steps outlined above, work hard, trust that things will get better, and they eventually will. You can do it!
Soon after I’d written it, about 200 people per week were logging on to get my advice on how to outperform the competition in their student exchange interviews.
This post aims to help those people even more, by giving 29 practice questions and answers of a kind that could be used in a student exchange interview.
Unfortunately, I can’t guarantee that the selection panel which interviews you will ask any of the questions which follow. Indeed, they might ask you a totally different bunch of questions.
What I can say is that these are the type of questions which a selection panel will probably ask you. Working your way through these questions will help you to think about the general topics which you’ll talk about in your interview.
I’ve set this page up in a kind of question and answer format. The questions are given in bold text. My notes about how to answer are below each question in normal text.
To train up for your interview, I suggest that you do the following:
Begin by finding a quiet and private space where you can talk aloud.
Then, interview yourself. First, read out each question to yourself aloud. Then, close your laptop or put down your phone and answer the question out loud, as you would in an interview.
Answer all of the questions. Talk in complete sentences and answer each question as fulsomely as possible. Answering all of the questions should take you at least a couple of hours. By the time you’ve answered all 29 questions, you should be exhausted.
Is interviewing yourself in this way kooky? Sure. However, for whatever reason, you usually perform better in an interview if you’ve previously answered the questions the panel is asking you. Interviewing yourself should make you more confident and relaxed going into the interview. Try it.
Here we go:
1 – Why are you interested in going on exchange?
Purpose: Mainly an ice-breaker to get you talking and ease your nerves, but could also be probing to ensure that you aren’t applying on a whim or under pressure from your parents.
Response: Be truthful and upfront about your reasons for applying.
2 – Please tell us about yourself.
Purpose: Ice-breaker and to get to know whether you’re the type of person whom the panel thinks would make a good exchange student
Response: Talk about your family, your school, and likes and dislikes. But don’t ramble – one or two minutes total should be fine.
3 – Have you lived overseas previously?
Purpose: Living overseas can be difficult due to homesickness, culture shock, feelings of isolation and so on. If you’ve already done it and lived to tell the tale, you most likely can do it again.
Response: If you’ve done it, tell the panel about it. It’s OK to admit that you were a bit homesick or had culture shock, provided that you explain and emphasise how you overcame those challenges.
4 – What is the longest period you’ve previously spent apart from your biological family? Did you suffer from any homesickness?
Purpose: Similar to question 3, the purpose of this question is to determine whether you can deal with being away from your family for extended periods.
Response: Again, if you’ve done it and had some homesickness, it’s OK to admit this, provided you can also talk about your strategies for dealing with the homesickness.
5 – What do you hope to get out of being an exchange student?
Purpose: Again, to determine whether you’re applying to go on exchange for good, positive reasons, and whether you’ve thought about the pluses and minuses of being on exchange.
Response: You most likely have a number of motivating factors, but try to focus on the ones which accord with the aims of the exchange program.
6 – Do you think you’d make a good exchange student? If so, why?
Purpose: To test your self-awareness and to give you an opportunity to “sell yourself” a bit, by talking about some of your positive attributes
Response: Generally, exchange organisations are looking for students who are resilient, motivated and willing to assimilate, so try to think of some situations in which you’ve demonstrated those qualities. Although you should talk about your positive qualities and why they’d make you a good candidate to go on exchange, be sure also to mention a new situation which you found difficult or which tested you, and what you did to overcome those difficulties.
7 – What are your greatest achievements? Please tell us about one.
Purpose: To find out some of your good qualities and what you’ve achieved in the past. Arguably, someone who has overcome a lot of challenges or achieved great things previously is more likely to be a successful exchange student
Response: If possible, try to think of an example in which you overcame a significant obstacle or really had to persevere and work hard to get an outcome, rather than something that you achieved because of natural talent. For example, being picked to play on the school football team is impressive, but a selection panel will likely be more impressed by the story about how you had a significant injury and had to really work hard to re-habilitate yourself, regain your fitness and be back on the team.
8 – What do you rate as your greatest personal strengths and weaknesses?
Purpose: To enable you to sell yourself, but also (more importantly) to let the panel see how self-aware and honest you are
Response: Don’t go too hard on your strengths, or you may come across as arrogant. Mention one or two of your weaknesses (to show that you’re aware of them) and what strategies you employ to overcome them. For example, say “I can sometimes be a bit shy around people I don’t know very well, but I make a really big effort to approach people and try to get to know them”.
9 – As an exchange student, you’d be an ambassador for your home country. Do you think you’d be a good ambassador for your home country? If yes, why?
Purpose: The “diplomacy” aspect of student exchange is very important. The panel wants to make sure that you’re aware of this aspect, and will be interested in hearing about any relevant previous experience.
Response: If you’ve previously lived overseas or had any “official” or representative role (school captain, sports team captain) mention this here.
10 – Have you ever broken the law? If yes, please give details.
Purpose: Breaking the laws of another country can have serious consequences, including imprisonment and (in the case of narcotics offenses in some countries) capital punishment. Exchange programs like to know that the people they are sending abroad are law-abiding.
Response: Answer honestly. If you have broken the law previously, be sure to talk about how regretful you are and how you’ve learned from the experience.
11 – What can you tell us about Rotary/AFS/the exchange organisation you’re applying for?
Purpose: To check whether you’ve done your homework and how motivated and interested you are to go on exchange with the relevant exchange organisation
Response: Mention a few key facts
12 – What is the capital of your intended host country?
Purpose: To find out your level of interest in your intended host country, as well as the depth of your general knowledge, overall.
13 – What is the name of the currency of your intended host country?
Purpose: As above
14 – Who is the governor of your state and the mayor of your home town?
Purpose: To find out the depth of your general knowledge and how interested you are in current / civic affairs
15 – Name three big companies who are headquartered in your home country and/or your local area.
Purpose: To find out the depth of your general knowledge about your home country and/or town. People overseas can often ask questions about the economic or social aspects of your home country; exchange organisations like to know that the people they are sponsoring to go on exchange have at least some knowledge of these issues.
Resilience and judgement
16 – Exchange students usually encounter a range of situations which test their resilience. Please share an example of where you were in a difficult situation. What did you do to cope with the situation and/or get out of it?
Purpose: To enable you to demonstrate your ability to come with, and overcome, adversity
Response: If possible, give an example about a situation where you couldn’t fall back on your family or close friends, to demonstrate you’re capable of overcoming adversity by yourself (as will be the case when you’re on exchange)
17 – If you had a problem with your host family, what could you do to resolve it?
Purpose: To test the appropriateness of your judgement and your ability to solve problems appropriately
Response: If it were a small, day-to-day matter (for example, a host sibling taking your things without asking), you could raise the issue with your host parent or with the sibling directly. If it were a bigger issue (for example, your host family breaking the law), you would need to talk to someone in your exchange organisation.
18 – What would you do if a teacher at school in your host country asked you to do something that you didn’t feel comfortable doing?
Purpose: Again, to check that you are able to act appropriately in a difficult situation, and understand the role that your host family will play
Response: Your first port of call in relation to school issues is your host family – mention that you would talk to your host parents first
19 – What would you do if your host brother or sister showed a romantic interest in you? Assume that you find him or her very attractive.
Purpose: To check your judgement in a difficult situation
Response: The best rule is never to have a romantic relationship with a host sibling until your exchange is over. The reason is that if the relationship goes bad, you will be living together with your ex boy- or girlfriend and his or her parents – who will never be on your side. Can you say “awkward”? So, you will always have to say no to any such attention from your host siblings.
20 – Assume that cannabis had been decriminalised in your intended host country. If your host brother offered to share a joint with you, would you agree?
Purpose: To check your judgement in respect of behaviour which is not illegal, but which may not be a good idea
Response: Just say no. Even if consuming cannabis is not illegal, you are more likely to have impaired judgement and act dangerously or in an offensive way if you are under the influence.
21 – Have you had any leadership roles at your current school?
22 – Are you involved in any co-curricular activities at school – for example, sport, band or debate club?
23 – What is your GPA/what are your grades like?
24 – What are your plans for life after school?
Purpose: These are all questions designed to find out information about your background and your suitability to be an exchange student. Generally, the more you can show that you are a diligent, good-citizen student who works hard, the more attractive you will be as a candidate.
Choice of host country
25 – Why are you interested in doing an exchange in your chosen country?
Purpose: To test your motivation for going to a particular country. Are there certain drivers or “pull factors” which make you interested in your first-choice country (for example, an interest in a particular language or part of that country’s culture)?
Response: Be honest. An exchange organisation may be slightly suspicious of a student who can’t say why he or she is interested in living in a particular country, so try to think of at least a couple of things which interest you about your intended host country
26 – Would you be willing to go to another country if you didn’t get an offer from this exchange organisation for your chosen country?
Purpose: Competition for certain countries (such as Spain and Germany) is typically very high. The purpose of this question is seeing whether you’d be open to going to another country if you don’t get your first choice.
Response: Be honest. If you have your heart set on going to Spain, don’t say that you’d be willing to go to Mexico – odds are that you’ll get sent to Mexico. It’s OK to say that you want to go to Spain, and if you aren’t offered Spain, you’ll try again with another organsation.
27 – Are you willing to learn the language which is spoken in your chosen host country? Have you already taken any steps to learn that language?
Purpose: Learning the language of your host country is a huge part of going on exchange. Every exchange organisation will want you to learn the language, and learn it well. Any steps you’ve already taken to learn a language should work in your favour.
Response: You need to confirm that you are willing to learn the language spoken in your host country, and that you will work hard at it.
28 – Would you have any problem with being placed in a small, isolated town in your host country, in a rural or remote area?
Purpose: Many people going on exchange imagine themselves going to, and living in, big cities. They imagine living in Los Angeles or New York in America, London in the UK, and Sydney in Australia. The truth is that you are more likely to be placed in a small town, which may be in a rural or isolated location. You need to understand and accept this before you progress too far through the application process.
Response: You need to confirm that you wouldn’t have any problems with this scenario.
29 – Do you have any plans to travel whilst you’re on exchange?
Purpose: Many intending exchange students believe that their times on exchange will be an opportunity to undertake a lot of independent travel. However, most high-school exchange students aren’t able to travel much at all. This is a bit of a trick question.
Response: You need to reply that you aren’t going overseas with the purpose of doing a lot of travel, but that if you have the opportunity to travel with your host family, it would be a nice bonus.
I wish you every success in your interview.
By the way – did you enjoy this article? Do you want more advice about how to prepare for your time on exchange, and hundreds of tips on how to succeed as a exchange student? My book How to have a Successful High School Exchange will help you to have the best exchange possible – and it only costs $3.99! Check it out here.
What’s the difference between a good student exchange and a great student exchange?
How can you have a great student exchange?
It’s a lot easier than you think. There are only a few key rules that you need to follow to make sure you have the best time possible. I’ve distilled these down to 20 rules, which are set out below. Follow these, and you’ll have a fantastic, rich and successful experience. And for even more tips about how to have a great exchange, check out my book.
1. Get used to making mistakes and forgive yourself for making them
People who play it safe in life never learn or achieve anything. That goes double for people on exchange. You have to put yourself out there. That means making a lot of mistakes. You’ll make mistakes when you try to speak the language. You may mispronounce people’s names. You’ll miss trains and buses. You may look foolish in front of your host family and school class. It’s no big deal and everyone will make allowances. Accept that you’ll make mistakes, and find a way to get over them quickly and move on.
2. Mix it up
You only get 6-12 months in your host country. In the context of your life, that’s an absurdly short time. You need to do new things every day in order to experience all the variety and richness of your host country. Talk to new people, try new sports, watch new TV shows, eat new foods. Not only does trying new things help you to discover your host country. It’s also one of the most effective ways of staving off boredom.
3. Search for good habits that you can adopt
Anyone who acts and thinks the same on the first and last days of his exchange has wasted a year. Being on exchange gives you the chance to observe other people and learn their good habits. This can be incredibly valuable. Look at how your host parents behave. What are their good habits that you can adopt yourself? Observe how the parents of your school friends act. What do they do which is different to what people at home do? Look at the population of your host country generally. What traits do they have that you can pick up and continue when you go home?
4. Be generous and kind
Many people are sacrificing and giving so much so that you can be on exchange. Don’t forget to repay this generosity. Be kind and helpful towards your host parents and host siblings. Be a good classmate to people at your school. Act as helpfully as you can towards other exchange students, especially those who’ve arrived more recently than you and who are struggling with homesickness and culture shock.
Writing is a healthy way to process the emotions you experience while you’re on exchange. Some of these emotions can feel overpowering at times. Keeping a diary, writing emails to friends and family, or writing a blog can help to keep things in perspective. Anything you write will also serve as a record of your time on exchange, which you and your family will enjoy revisiting in future.
6. When you learn a language, do the time
When it comes to language learning, you need to put in the time. There is simply no substitute for rote learning vocabulary and the rules of grammar. Do at least an hour a day. On the upside, you can usually walk outside and apply everything you’ve learned right away. Your efforts can pay off instantly. See my article on language learning here.
7. Suppress negativity
Everyone expects you to be homesick. They will make allowances for it. What people won’t appreciate is continuous complaining and negativity about your host country, school, classmates, and so on. You’re also not doing your mental health any good by dwelling on the bad things about your host country. Inevitably, some things about your host country will be worse than the equivalent things at home. The sooner you can make peace with that and move on, the better you’ll be.
8. Don’t fall into bad habits
Being on exchange can be hard. The easy path to dealing with those difficulties is to adopt bad habits – eating too much, drinking or doing drugs, spending too much time on social media, hanging out exclusively with other exchange students. Fight the temptation to do these things. The only good, effective way to meet the challenges of being on exchange is through hard work. No short-cuts.
9. Seek connections
Don’t retreat to your room and bury your head in your phone. Relying on social media to stay connected will only make you feel isolated. Instead, seek real connections with people in the real world. Spend some time every day interacting with your host family – even if it’s just sitting and watching sport on TV with them. Join a club or church group or other arrangement where people meet regularly in small groups. If your school offers after-school sport or band, do it. Surround yourself with people whom you can talk to and connect with.
10. Keep yourself fit and healthy
This is not up for discussion. For the sake of your physical and mental health, you must keep active and healthy while you’re on exchange. For the first half of my exchange, I did no sport. During the second half, I swam three times a week and rode mountain bike. The second half beat the first half hands down. I was happier, looked better, and was much more at peace with my situation. Whatever you do, make the time to stay active.
11. Remember that your reputation counts
Exchange students are minor celebrities. People notice and remember how they behave. For this reason, you need to cultivate a reputation as someone who is open, friendly and positive. Also, don’t forget that how you behave doesn’t just reflect on you personally. People will assume that everybody in your home country acts the way you do.
12. Don’t get too caught up in what’s going on back home
Want to know what’s going on back home while you’re on exchange? I’ll tell you: the same old people are doing the same old things and visiting the same old places. When you get home, you’ll be amazed at how little things have changed in your absence. While you may long for the familiarity of home, you’re usually not missing out on much. Focus on the here and now of your host country, rather than dwelling on the situation back home.
13. If you find it hard to be self-disciplined, use routines
You may find it hard to muster the energy you need to do everything. This is especially true at the start of your exchange. If so, try to automate as much as possible so that you don’t have to rely upon self-discipline to get things done. Set up a kind of timetable where you allocate time for language learning and time with your host family every day. Give yourself half an hour of phone time twice a day – maybe at the start and end of the day. Allocate time for exercise and writing. Like eating broccoli, schedule the boring or unpleasant things first, and then do the enjoyable stuff. Allocate time for the important things, and then make sure that those important things get done at the appointed times.
14. Build meaningful relationships with your host family
Things will go much better for you on exchange if you establish good and meaningful relationships with your host family. Don’t treat their house like a hotel. Respect and trust your host mother and father – they genuinely care about you and are invested in your happiness. Your host siblings want to get to know you and be your friend. Give them the satisfaction of attaining these things. Above all, make sure you spend time with your host family and play an active role in the life of the family.
15. Don’t give up unless you absolutely have to
The life of an exchange student is full of little struggles. Sometimes even getting out of bed in the morning to go to school can be a struggle. Whatever you do – whether it’s language learning or talking to strangers at school or saying no to another croissant – be as courageous and firm with yourself as you can. Aim to succeed in everything. If you give in and do what’s easy once, you are more likely to do it again. And because small surrenders add up, you’ll end up feeling demoralised and weak. Be firm and disciplined, and don’t give up unless you absolutely have to. You’ll be amazed at how strong you can be.
16. Aim big
Don’t settle for an average student exchange. The iPhone didn’t succeed because Steve Jobs wanted to make an average phone. It succeeded because he wanted to make a phone that would blow everything else away. You want to have the iPhone of exchanges. Learn the language until it’s as close to perfect as you can get it. Be the best exchange student which your school has ever hosted. Be on friendly terms with everyone – your classmates, every other exchange student in your program, your host family’s neighbours. Regularly examine every aspect of your life on exchange – especially the relationships you have – and improve things as much as you can.
17. Keep polarising opinions to yourself
Some things unite people. Other things divide people. The big divisive topics are politics and religion. If you have strong opinions about these topics, you need to keep them to yourself while you’re on exchange. Put bluntly, your host family and classmates don’t want to hear how about how much you do or don’t like Donald Trump. They don’t care about your views on Brexit. They don’t want to hear about how you do or don’t believe in God. When you make conversation with schoolmates and other people you meet, focus on things which bring people together – like music, food, travel, movies and sport. Keep it light and good-humoured.
18. Seek visceral experiences which activate your senses
The most pleasurable and memorable days of your exchange will be the ones you spend outside, in the sunshine. Swim in lakes. Spend a whole day riding your bike between villages. Go running in the woods without any headphones on. If your host family lives on a farm, help with chores like fencing, herding livestock or making hay. If your exchange is in a cold climate, spend plenty of time in the snow. In 20 years’ time, you’ll remember just one of those days with greater clarity than all of the 100 days you spent inside.
19. Let yourself be guided
One big objective of being on exchange is to learn how to think and solve problems independently. However, it’s necessary and also healthy to seek and act upon the advice of others. Regularly seek guidance and help from your host parents, school friends and other exchange students. Be humble enough to ask for their help when things go wrong. As well as helping you to have a better time, this will deepen your relationship with the people who help you.
20. Make plans for the future
Most people find the first year back at home following their student exchanges much more difficult than being on exchange. They get a kind of “reverse homesickness”. One tactic to avoid this is to spend some of your time on exchange planning your post-exchange life. Where do you want to live? What sort of career do you want to have? Do you want to start a business, and if yes, what kind of business? Do you want to have kids? Being overseas gives you the time and space to think about these really big issues with greater clarity and objectivity than if you were thinking about them at home. When you arrive home, having some clear ideas and plans about your future will give you something to work towards and keep you from missing your host country too much.
Students going on exchange to Germany have many things to
look forward to. On the whole, Germans are friendly, open-minded and
surprisingly funny. Germany itself is a land of great diversity, with
landscapes including alpine high country, deeply-wooded forests, and picturesque
valleys (such as the famous Rhine Valley). Germany also has many rich cultural
traditions, and in many ways is still at the cutting edge of music and the
In short, Germany is a great student exchange destination. I
liked it so much that I did two university exchanges there. Here’s what I
Germany’s official language is German. Germans speak a range
of different dialects. However, the purest German is known as “High German” (Hochdeutsch). High German is the dialect which is most
commonly used for TV and radio broadcasts, and should be the dialect which your
teachers used if you’ve previously taken German language lessons. Instruction
at your German school should also be in High German, even if the local dialect
The dialects spoken in some parts of Germany – particularly
in Bavaria, Baden, and the former states of East Germany – can be difficult to
understand at first. However, they aren’t radically different from High German,
and you’ll adjust to them quickly.
After returning from my exchange to Germany, I taught German to adults at night school for seven years. My number one tip for learning German is to spend as much time as possible learning the grammar, with the aid of a book like Schaum’s Outline of German Grammar. You’re welcome.
Like many other European nations, Germany streams high
school students depending upon students’ planned career paths. Usually the
different streams are as follows:
Students who intend studying at university go to
a type of school called a Gymnasium
Students who will undertake clerical careers –
working in banks, or in sales – attend a type of school known as a Realschule
Students who will study a trade or perform
manual work go to a type of school known as a Hauptschule
Depending upon your own future career plans and level of
German language proficiency, you’ll most likely attend a Gymnasium or a Realschule.
Incidentally, don’t feel that you’ve been short-changed if your exchange
organisation arranges for you to attend a Realschule.
The students there are typically more relaxed and should have more time to
socialise than students who attend a Gymnasium.
German high school students don’t usually wear school
uniforms or need to observe a school dress code. Note that, like many other
Europeans, German students typically dress in dark colours, especially in the
Some German schools offer co-curricular activities such as
team sports, band or choir. However, it’s more common for young Germans to
participate in those activities in local Vereine
(clubs), rather than as part of school. If you want to participate in such
activities while you’re on exchange, check with your host family when you
arrive and ask them to help you get organised.
Social etiquette (a.k.a. what Germans like, and what they don’t like)
Germans have a reputation for being stiff and formal. In my
experience, that reputation is ill-deserved. Young Germans, in particular, are
quite laid-back, have a good sense of humour, and are generous and open-minded.
World War 2
Germany’s actions in World War 2 – particularly its role in
perpetrating the Holocaust – are a continuing source of shame and embarrassment
for many modern Germans. Germans are determined not to forget Germany’s part in
Word War 2 and believe that being mindful of the past will prevent them from repeating
the same mistakes in future. However, this determination at times goes too far
and becomes a kind of morbid fixation on the past. As a result, many German
high-school students today still feel personally responsible for the Holocaust,
even though, in most cases, those events took place even before their
grandparents were born.
For a high-school exchange student in Germany, the safest
and most tactful approach when it comes to World War 2 is to avoid mentioning
it. If someone else brings it up in conversation, don’t dwell on it. Never,
ever joke about it. If someone asks
you your opinion on Germany’s role in the war, or what you think about Nazism,
just say that it was a long time ago, and that you find it hard to believe that
any modern German would do such things.
By Western standards, Germany is still a religious country. For example, many Germans still voluntarily donate 10 per cent of their wages to the Catholic or Protestant church. Most people still consider themselves religious, even if they don’t go to church regularly.
What this means in practice is that you will need to avoid exclamations such as “God!” or “Jesus!”, as these may offend people. If you aren’t religious yourself, avoid talking negatively or skeptically about religion, or religious holidays or practices.
Formal and informal
In common with many European languages, German has formal
and informal ways of addressing other people. Although people will make
allowances for someone who’s clearly a foreigner and unused to the language, addressing
someone informally, when you should be using formal language, can be considered
The basic rule of thumb when speaking German is that you
only address the following groups using informal (du) language:
In all other cases, you should use the formal (Sie). Where you aren’t sure about whether to address someone using formal or informal language – for example, because they’re an adult friend of your host family whom you’ve only just met – it’s safest to use formal language.
Neatness, order, hard
A final cultural note is that Germans value neatness and orderliness very highly. In practice, this means that your host parents may expect you to keep your room and belongings neater than you are used to at home. They may also be strict about things like ensuring that your dirty clothes are the right way out (not inside-out) when you put them out to be washed.
Germans also have a very strong work ethic. This may mean
that your host parents will expect you to demonstrate that you are working hard
at school and/or at learning German. Indeed, they may say something if they
don’t think you’re working hard enough. (Pro tip: doing your homework or
language learning at the kitchen table or other visible place in your host
family’s house is a good way to demonstrate that you are working hard).
Germany has a well-developed banking sector. There is
usually at least one bank in every town, and ATMs are widespread. Your host
parents will help you to sort out a bank account soon after your arrival.
In common with most other parts of Europe, Visa cards and Mastercards are widely accepted by German shops, as well as all post offices, train station ticket offices, and so on. Fewer shops accept American Express, Diners’ Club and other cards. So, if you are planning to take a credit card with you on exchange to Germany – which I recommend – go with a Visa or Mastercard.
Cost of living
When it comes to other expenses, you needn’t worry – by Western
European standards, Germany is an inexpensive place to live. Germany’s
post-World War 2 economic miracle was built on the back of fierce competition
between German firms trying to find better and more efficient ways to serve
their customers. As a result, it’s possible to live quite cheaply in Germany. Entertainment
items (music, DVDs, books) are reasonably priced. Name-brand clothing can be
harder to find than in the US or Australia, but is also usually well-priced
when you do track it down. Phone credit is relatively inexpensive in Germany.
Most German students get around using a combination of bike
and public transport, and it’s likely that you will, too. Because Germany is a
densely-populated country, this combination of bike, trains and buses should
enable you to see and experience a great range of things in your local area.
The German federal railways (Deutsche Bahn, or DB for short)
offer clean and efficient transport between major cities. No matter how small
your host town is, trains should go to the nearest big city at least once per
hour. Major rail hubs such as Munich, Frankfurt and Cologne have several
services daily to other major European cities. Be warned that it’s usually
mandatory to reserve a seat on long-distance trains.
Larger German cities usually have their own Stadtschnellbahn (S-Bahn) urban train networks,
with connections every few minutes to other parts of the network. It’s usually
possible to purchase a daily, weekly or monthly ticket giving you unlimited
travel on these networks. Your host family or exchange organisation may
subsidise or even fully fund the purchase of your monthly ticket.
German food has a reputation for being stodgy and heavy.
Things like sausages, potato and dumplings still form an important part of the
German diet. However, like everyone, Germans have embraced cuisine from all over
the world. Accordingly, it’s likely that your host family will serve pasta,
pizza, French fries, and many of the same foods you eat at home.
Vegetarianism and veganism are widely practised in Germany
and your host family should be able to cater for you if you don’t eat meat
and/or dairy products.
If you feel like eating out, you’ll find Chinese, Indian, Turkish
and Italian restaurants and take-aways pretty much everywhere. The usual
fast-food suspects (McDonalds, Burger King, Pizza Hut, Subway) also have a
presence in all major German cities.
If you’re out somewhere and need a snack or a cheap lunch, there
are a wide range of German supermarkets offering chocolate, baked goods, pre-packed
sandwiches and rolls, and so on, at rock-bottom prices. Aldi, Lidl and Penny
are the biggest discount chains. There are also bakeries all over the place –
Germans make great bread, croissants and pastries, so these are a good option.
Germans produce and listen to almost every kind of music you
can think of – from jazz, to hip-hop, to heavy metal, to classical. Germans also
basically invented “boy-band” music and techno. No matter what your taste in
music, you’ll be able to purchase it or see it live while you’re on exchange in
German free-to-air radio is also surprisingly good. Most of
the songs which are popular in the English-speaking world are also popular in
Germany, and German radio also plays some popular German, French and
Italian-language songs. As noted in my article on language learning, listening
to the radio is also an excellent, cheap way of improving your language skills.
Other fine arts
Germans value the other fine arts very highly. Consequently, even many smaller German towns have their own theatres, orchestras and art galleries. Your German high school may also offer theatre and art courses which you can participate in.
Sport plays a big part in German life. The most popular spectator
sports in Germany are soccer in the summer months, and snow sports in Winter. Germans
participate in virtually every sport possible, so if you currently play a sport
at home and want to keep it up while you’re on exchange, this should be
As a modern, affluent society, Germany has excellent
telecommunications infrastructure. Your host family should have access to fast
broadband and there should be no issue with you accessing their WiFi network. Your
host parents should also be able to help you organise a SIM card for your cell
phone upon your arrival in Germany. Cellular phone services in Germany are fast
and offer virtually universal coverage.
Where to go
Your exchange organisation may not enable you to choose
where in Germany you go on exchange. If you do have a choice, however, I recommend the Southern states –
Baden-Wuerttemberg and Bavaria. Generally, these are the warmest parts of
Germany, are very prosperous, and are centrally located within Europe. For
example, my former home town of Freiburg in Baden-Wuerttemberg is only two
hours by train from Zurich, an hour and a half from Strasbourg, and five hours
Having said that, there are great things about living in most
parts of Germany. Living in the Rhein-Ruhr region (around Cologne, Dusseldorf, Essen
and Dortmund) gives you access to dozens of major German cities (and consequently,
lots of museums, galleries, shops, concerts and sporting events), as well as easy
access to the Netherlands and Belgium. Living in the former states of East
Germany enables you to experience the history of those areas and witness their
If you’re planning to go to Germany as an exchange student, my book How to Have a Successful High School Exchange contains lessons and advice from my own time on exchange which will help to ensure that your exchange is a success.
Switzerland is a fantastic place to undertake a high school exchange. I know, because I did one there myself, in Lucerne, in 1996.
Although more than twenty years have passed since then, all the things that made Switzerland an ideal exchange destination in 1996 are still there today. Switzerland is still a wonderfully scenic country. The country is still safe, clean, efficient and well organised. Swiss people are still rational and sensible, but good-humoured and generous. (In fact, my Swiss host families contained some of the kindest and most caring people I’ve ever met).
If you are considering going on exchange, it’s hard to think of a better place to go than Switzerland.
Here’s everything you need to know if you’re planning to do a student exchange in Switzerland
One country, four languages
Switzerland has four official languages:
French – which is spoken in the Western third of the country
Italian – which is spoken in the southernmost canton (state), Ticino
Rhaeto-Romanic dialect – which is spoken by limited numbers of people in the canton Graubuenden, and
German – which is spoken in the rest of Switzerland
The majority of exchange students in Switzerland are hosted in cantons where either German or French is spoken.
If you’ve been learning French at school, there’s good news: the French spoken in Switzerland is very similar to the French spoken in France and which you’ve been learning in the classroom.
Some vocabulary is different – for example, the Swiss French word for eighty is huitante rather than the French word quatre-vingt. But you’ll quickly recognise words and phrases from your prior study.
If you’ve been learning German at school, there is mixed news: the situation in German-speaking cantons of Switzerland is more complex.
The mother tongue of Swiss living in these cantons is Swiss German, which is radically different from the German spoken in Germany and Austria (so-called “High German”). In fact, Germans and Austrians usually can’t understand Swiss German at all. Imagine the thickest Scottish brogue you’ve ever heard, double it, and you’ll be getting close to the way Swiss German sounds to speakers of High German.
As an exchange student in a German-speaking canton of Switzerland, you’ll be hearing Swiss German about 70% of the time. Your school lessons should be taught in High German, and news broadcasts are always in High German, but Swiss people talk to each other in Swiss German. When your host families and school friends speak to each other, and when they talk to strangers, they’ll speak Swiss German.
The fact that Swiss people converse in Swiss German, rather than High German, will make it more difficult for you to learn High German. That’s one of the very few drawbacks of undertaking an exchange in Switzerland.
High school in Switzerland
As an exchange student, you’ll attend a Swiss high school. Each of the 26 cantons in Switzerland has its own education system and there are subtle differences between all of those systems.
However, one common thread is that most cantons have streamed high schools – meaning that students go to different high schools depending upon whether they intend to study at university, or not. It’s most likely that you’ll attend high school attended by students who are bound for university – which are known as Gymnasiums or Kantonsschulen in the German-speaking parts of Switzerland, and lycees or colleges in French-speaking cantons.
High school students in Switzerland study a wide range of compulsory subjects. Even in the final two years of school, it’s normal to study 12 or 13 subjects, which can include multiple languages (including English and Latin), philosophy and multiple science subjects. Teachers teach to a high standard, and have high expectations of students.
As an exchange student, you may have some latitude to sit out some of these subjects, or to attend twice as many classes in particular subjects. If you’re particularly interested in art or music, for example, but haven’t studied philosophy before, you may be able to pick up an extra line of art or music while the rest of your class takes philosophy class.
Most schools in Switzerland don’t require their students to wear a uniform.
One interesting thing I noted was that most students tended to wear the same thing all week – they’d change their t-shirt but keep wearing the same jeans and sweater from Monday to Friday. So, don’t fret about the need to bring dozens of different outfits to wear to school – four or five sets of jeans and sweaters should be fine.
Swiss schools offer very few clubs, sports or other co-curricular activities. Instead, most people pursue such interests through local clubs which are known as Vereine in German. There are a large number of Vereine in most areas, offering everything from cycling to pistol shooting to choir singing, so it should be easy for your host family to help you find a Verein to suit your interests.
There is a bit of a social divide in Switzerland. In general, residents of the German-speaking cantons are more socially conservative, and people in the French-speaking cantons are more liberal.
However, there are a number of common social norms and etiquette that you need to be aware of, as follows:
Swiss people are proud to be Swiss and are protective of their culture and national identity. Take care to avoid criticising habits or things about the country you don’t like.
The Swiss are extremely punctual. It is considered rude to be late and especially rude to make other people late (for example, when you and your host family are invited to dinner at another family’s house, and you take so much time getting ready that you delay your host family’s departure and make them arrive late).
Don’t swear – particularly around your host parents, teachers, and other authority figures. People on exchange in the German speaking parts of Switzerland need to be wary of the word Scheisse. It’s milder than the equivalent English word – in fact, it’s probably closer to crap – and is used more often in daily conversation by native German speakers. However, it is still too impolite to use in front of your host parents or other authority figures.
Also, Swiss people are relatively devout, so avoid exclamations like “God!” or “Jesus!”, and avoid being flippant about religion or religious people.
In the German-speaking cantons of Switzerland, it’s considered polite to greet people with their names, if you know them. If you see your friend Urs in the street, for example, you need to say “Hoi Urs” (“Hi Urs”), rather than just saying “Hoi”. Some exchange students go for an entire year without realising this, but it’s enough to cause offence.
The three main languages in Switzerland – German, French and Italian – all have formal and informal ways of addressing other people. Make sure that you always use the formal when you’re addressing others, unless they are children, members of your immediate host family or schoolmates. Using informal language to address others, such as teachers, shop assistants or adult friends of your host family, can cause real offence.
Switzerland is famous for its banking sector, and Swiss retail banks are modern and well-organised. Your host parents or exchange organisation will organise a bank account for you.
ATMs are widespread throughout Switzerland, and all major banks offer internet banking. Most Swiss banks also offer accounts which have a Maestro card linked to them. Maestro – owned by MasterCard – is a payment method which works like a credit card, but allows you to use funds from your savings account to pay for purchases, rather than bank credit.
Cost of living in Switzerland
Switzerland is an expensive country in which to live. The cost of living in Switzerland is on par with Japan, Scandinavia and Australia, and is considerably more expensive than the cost of living in the remainder of Europe, North America and South Africa.
When you factor in exchange rates, Switzerland is a hugely expensive place to live.
Thankfully, your host family will help you meet most of your food expenses, and your exchange organisation may help you to meet some of your costs of living. For example, my sponsoring Rotary club in Switzerland used to pay for my monthly bus and train pass.
When you’re out and about, some basic foodstuffs are relatively cheap – such as milk, bread, cheese and chocolate. The two biggest supermarket chains in Switzerland – Migros and Coop – are a good place to grab lunch or a snack at a reasonable price.
Migros and Coop are also probably the best places to buy essentials like shampoo, toothpaste and deodorant. German discount supermarkets Aldi and Lidl have also recently opened in Switzerland, and are a good option for buying your food and toiletries.
What to bring
For some reason, name-brand clothing like Nike or Levis can be very hard to find in Switzerland. When you do find it, the eye-watering prices can put it out of your price-range, anyway. Likewise, cold-weather gear (such as long coats and thermal longs) can be expensive. Stock up on such items before you leave home, or be prepared to give your Amazon account a good workout.
Having said that, there is a mid-priced department store chain in Switzerland called Manor which is a great place to shop for (non-brand name) clothing. Manor sells its own brands and these are generally stylish, last very well, and (by Swiss standards) are reasonably priced. My wife has a pair of winter gloves and some socks which she bought at Manor in Lucerne in 2009, all of which are still going strong after years of wear.
Electronics (iPods, phones, cameras) are generally expensive in Switzerland. Again, you’re better off bringing your own electronic gear rather than planning to buy in Switzerland.
Most exchange students in Switzerland – like most Swiss people – travel using a combination of train and velo (bike).
The Swiss train system is legendary for being fast, clean, efficient, and punctual. Be warned – it is really punctual. If your train leaves at 11.02am, it will leave at 11.02am on the dot and not a second later. You need to be on board. The train network is extensive and will take you to nearly every corner of the country.
For the trip to school or other local journeys, your Swiss host family will probably provide you with a bike. Switzerland has a well-developed network of bike paths and secondary roads which make cycling quite safe and enjoyable. Although Switzerland has a relatively low crime rate, you need to lock your bike up at school and at the train station when you aren’t using it.
Swiss cuisine is delicious and readily palatable for people with Western tastes. As in many other European countries, lunch is the main meal of the day for Swiss people.
Main meals consist of foods such as pasta, schnitzels, pastries, potato dishes (including the noted national specialty, Roesti), and salads. Although Switzerland is most famous for its chocolate and cheese, the fresh bread and yogurt are just as addictive. You have been warned!
The Swiss participate in a wide variety of sports. In summer, cycling, swimming and tennis are very popular. Cycling in particular is an ideal sport for exchange students: it’s free, a great way to see Switzerland, and Switzerland has a huge network of safe, well-maintained and signposted bike paths.
In winter, nearly everyone in Switzerland heads to the alps for skiing and snowboarding. Nowhere in Switzerland is more than a couple of hours from a skiing area, and nearly every exchange student ends up going to the snow with his or her host family for at least a couple of days. If you do end up doing snow sports, your host family will be almost certain to have ski or snowboard gear which you can borrow, so there is no need to worry about bringing any of this from home.
Young Swiss people listen to the same kinds of music as audiences in most western nations. Basically, it’s a mix of pop, rock, R’n’B and hip-hop. Most of the songs which are popular in the US and UK will also make it to the radio in Switzerland. Swiss radio also plays German-language songs from Germany and Austria, and French-language music from France.
I found the live music scene to be a little under-developed when I lived in Switzerland. Hopefully, things have improved in the meantime.
Switzerland generally has outstanding internet infrastructure. It’s virtually certain that your host family or families will have a good, fast connection that you can use.
Switzerland also has excellent cell phone options – numerous providers offering full geographic coverage at low prices. Your host family should be able to help you get connected within your first couple of days in Switzerland.
Switzerland’s climate is similar to the Northeastern United States. Summers can be surprisingly hot and, due to the large number of lakes and rivers in the country, very humid.
Winter is relatively cold – with daytime temperatures close to zero for months on end – but with a small diurnal range. Nighttime temperatures in the Swiss winter are usually nowhere near as cold as, say, Canada or Scandinavia.
Something that takes some getting used to is a wintertime phenomenon called Hochnebel – basically, a layer of cloud which sits 7-800 metres above sea level and which persists for weeks and weeks on end without interruption. You can easily go for a month or more in Winter without seeing the sun.
Risks and hazards
Overall, Switzerland is a very safe country. Crime rates are extremely low – even by European standards – and there are relatively few natural hazards which you need to be wary of.
Even so, you need to exercise prudence and caution as you would in any other country. In particular:
Don’t hitchhike or walk alone by yourself by the side of the road at night time.
When heading out at night – and particularly when waiting at train stations – try to ensure that you’re with at least one other person at all times.
If you are going to be drinking alcohol – particularly larger amounts – make sure that you have a friend with you and a way of contacting your host parents if you get into trouble.
When riding your bike after dark – be it coming home from school in Winter, or travelling home from a party late at night – make sure to use a light, and keep off the road if possible.
If you have any questions about going on exchange to Switzerland, please leave them in the comments below. And if you’re planning to go to Switzerland as an exchange student, my book How to Have a Successful High School Exchange contains lessons and advice from my own time in Switzerland which will help to ensure that your exchange is a success.