Counting Down: Your Pre-Exchange “To-Do” List

So, it happened:

You came home from school one day and there was a letter from the exchange program waiting for you, telling you that your application had been successful. In about six months’ time, you’ll be heading off overseas to live as a foreign exchange student.

That means two things:

You life is about to get a whole lot more interesting.


You have a lot of organising to do and many things to take care of in a short period of time.

Don’t fret, though – this handy, pre-exchange “to do” list will ensure that you don’t forget anything and will be ready to go when it’s time to get on the plane.

Read on…

Six months before departure

Exchange Student - To Do List
New Orleans (Photo: Faungg’s Photos/Flickr)

Your exchange program should notify you that you’ve been successful about six months before your departure date.

Here’s what you need to do straight away:

1. See your doctor

Make an appointment with your doctor once you’ve been accepted to your exchange program.

The main reason for seeing your doctor is to obtain advice about any vaccinations you’ll need before leaving, and to arrange those in a timely manner. For example, if you’ll be travelling to a country where Hepatitis A & B are a problem, the vaccination against those diseases consists of three doses of medicine administered over a six-month period.

Your doctor will usually also be able to provide you with information about any infectious diseases which exist in your future host country, and how to deal with those. Ask him or her to provide you with written information which you can take home and familiarise yourself with.

Finally, if you have any medication which you take on a regular basis, get advice from your doctor about whether that medication will be available in your host country, or whether you’ll need to purchase a big supply and take it with you.

2. Apply for a passport

If you don’t already have a passport, or if your current passport expires during the period when you’re scheduled to be on exchange, you’ll need to arrange a new one.

It’s worth doing this early, for a number of reasons.

Principally, you’ll need your passport in order to apply for a visa for your host country. The process of applying for both a passport and visa are bureaucratic processes which can take a couple of months each. So, don’t delay!

3. Make a start on language learning

If you’re going to be learning a new language in your host country, it pays to get started early on your language learning.

Let me be totally blunt:

No matter how much prior knowledge you have, you most likely will struggle when you arrive in your host country.

However, every little bit helps.

Every concept and piece of vocabulary you learn and can understand before you arrive in your host country is gold and will save you misunderstanding and embarrassment.

The earlier you start your language studies, the more vocabulary you’ll be able to rote learn and absorb and the more time you’ll allow for key concepts to sink in.

So, find a language class or course close to you. Or, if none is available, start learning via an online course. In any case, get going as soon as you can.

Five months before departure

Exchange Student - Pre-exchange
Christchurch, New Zealand (Photo: Bernard Spragg/Flickr)

4. Arrange your visa

As soon as your passport is ready to go, call your future host country’s embassy or consulate and ask about the type of visa you’ll need for your exchange year. You might need to visit the embassy or consulate. If so, take along your letter of offer from the exchange program.

The embassy may also want to know where you’ll be located while you’re on exchange. Those details usually won’t be available for a couple of months, so it may be necessary to delay applying for a visa until you’ve received notice of your host family’s address from the exchange program.

5. Stock up on cold-weather gear

If your host country or city is located in a cold-climate area – for example, in Canada or in non-Mediterranean Europe – you may need to stock up on cold weather gear.

The best time to do this is at the end of winter in your home country, when ski wear and other cold-weather clothing will be on sale. So, stock up now.

Gloves are by far the most useful cold weather item for exchange students, as they are essential when riding a bike in cold weather.

Thermal tights (long underwear) are also very useful in cold climates, and it is likely you’ll wear them under your jeans, chinos or pants every day during winter. So grab a couple of pairs.

6. Discuss academics with your school

If you’ll be returning to your school after your time on exchange, five months out is also the perfect time to discuss any academic requirements your home school might have.

Will you need to study any particular subjects in your host country? Will the school recognise any of the study you do overseas and give you credit for that study?

If you’re going on exchange to a country where you’ll be learning a language which is taught at your home school, you should also ask whether you’ll be able to enrol in an advanced-level language course upon your return, which could get you extra credit for college.

Four months before departure

Exchange Student - Pre-Exchange
Valais, Switzerland (Photo: Dennis Kleine/Flickr)

7. Get your travel sorted out

Some time during the fourth month before your departure date, your exchange program should advise you the name of the city or town where you’ll be going on exchange to, and give you indicative start and finish dates for your exchange.

Many exchange organisations will arrange travel for their students. However, there’s a chance that you may need to organise travel to your host country yourself. If this is the case, you need to book your travel as soon as you know your departure and arrival dates.

Booking your travel as early as possible will usually allow you to save some money on your tickets. Importantly, it should also enable you to choose the shortest flight or allow you to minimise the number of times you need to change aircraft.

Don’t forget to purchase travel insurance at the same time you’re purchasing your flights. Things can and do happen while you’re overseas – including costly medical emergencies – and travel insurance can save you literally thousands of dollars in case something does go wrong.

8. Set up a blog

As an exchange student, you need a blog. Here’s why:

A blog is the quickest and easiest way to stay in touch with people during your student exchange.

Like Instagram and Facebook, it allows you to share pictures and short movies with your friends and family at home, as well as people you meet during your exchange.

Unlike those platforms, however, a blog allows you to write longer updates about things you’ve done, and gives readers some depth of insight as to what you’re doing and experiencing.

If you don’t already have a blog, I recommend setting one up at least four months out, as that’s the time you’ll start meeting people in connection with your exchange – for example, other outbound students from your area.

Most bloggers prefer hosted (paid) blogging solutions, but for your exchange blog, a free blog from Blogger or will be perfectly fine.

At this stage, all you really need to do is set up an “About Me” page, and fill it in with 2-300 words introducing yourself and a recent picture of yourself. You can add the real content – blog posts about your travels and other things which happen during your exchange year – later on.

9. Get business cards printed up

During your time on exchange, you’ll meet literally hundreds of new people, many of whom you’ll want to stay in touch with. Business cards are an inexpensive and convenient way of sharing your contact details with those people.

You can order business cards cheaply using online services such as Vistaprint. Alternatively, your local Kinko’s or other “big box” office supplies store should be able to print you a couple of hundred cards at a reasonable price. Get at least 200, and preferably 300, printed up.

Your business cards should contain the following information:

  • Your name (in large or bold print)
  • The name of your exchange program and the period during which you’ll be on exchange (eg: “Rotary Exchange Student 2020-21”)
  • Your email address
  • The address of your personal blog or website
  • Any other personal contact details you wish to add (eg Facebook page, Instagram account ID)

You’ll most likely get a new cell phone number when you move to your host country, so don’t bother getting your current number put on your business cards. Instead, handwrite your new cell phone number on the back of each business card once you’ve arrived in your host country.

Three months before departure

Exchange Student - Pre-Departure
Glasshouse Mountains, Australia (Photo: Paul Balfe/Flickr)

10. Get in contact with your host family

Some time in the third month before your departure, you should receive the name, address and other contact details of your first or only host family. They may write to you introducing themselves.

In any case, you should write to your host family once you have their contact details. Just a short letter or email should suffice. You should introduce yourself and give details of:

  • Your own family at home (composition of your family, what your parents do, number and ages of your siblings)
  • Sports, hobbies or pastimes you enjoy (mentioning any that you would like to continue while you’re on exchange, if possible)
  • If a different language is spoken in your host country, whether you have any prior knowledge of that language and/or any courses you are doing to learn the language

If you’ve set up a blog (see step 8 above) you can direct your host family to your blog and the autobiographical content it contains.

11. Arrange a credit or debit card to cover any emergencies

Your host parents or exchange organisation will set up a bank account for you either just before or just after your arrival in your host country. That account will be your primary bank account during your time as an exchange student.

Before your departure, I recommend that you visit your usual bank in your home country and also organise either:

  • a credit card which is linked to your parents’ credit card account, or
  • a Visa or MasterCard debit card which is linked to a separate account with at least $1000 in it

This is your “go to hell” card. It’s one that you will use in case of emergencies when you need to purchase something fast.

Here’s the truth:

Unforeseen things are going to happen while you’re on exchange. The airline will lose your bag with all your clothes in it. Or, you will lose your train ticket. Or, you will have some other kind of emergency which will require you to pay money straight away.

In such situations, your credit card will be a vital safety net. Don’t leave home without it.

12. Stock up on gifts for your host family or families, and other people you meet

It’s traditional, and expected, for exchange students to give their host family or families a small gift upon departure.

Three months out is the perfect time to start thinking about presents from your home country that you can take with you and give to your hosts. Try to think of a present for your host family or families which is:

  • Relatively unique to your home country – that is, it is only produced in your home country and/or hard to purchase elsewhere, or
  • Something for which your home country is famous, or
  • Something which isn’t necessarily unique to your home country, but which reflects you or your personality and which your host family can remember you by

Don’t forget that you’ll need to carry the gift or gifts with you on the plane and that you may want to conceal them to maintain the surprise. A top-shelf bottle of California wine is a great gift idea if you’re from California, but may prove too heavy and impractical to take with you overseas.

As a rough value guide, if you’ll only have one host family, something to the value of about US$100 would be fine. If you’ll have more than one host family, something valued at US$50-60 would be appropriate. However, value is secondary to how thoughtful the gift is.

I also recommend picking up a few smaller gifts for people you meet during your exchange year, including other exchange students and close school friends.

Two months before departure

Exchange Student - Pre-Departure
Shinkansen (Bullet Train), Japan (Photo: Martin Abegglen/Flickr)

13. Check that your mobile phone will work in your host country

If you’re planning to take your existing mobile (cell) phone on exchange with you, you’ll need to ensure that it’s compatible with the operating frequency bands of mobile networks in your host country.

You can check this at sites like GSM Arena.

If your existing handset isn’t compatible, investigate whether you can purchase a compatible one in your home country before departure, or whether you’ll need to set some money aside to purchase a new one when you arrive in your host country.

14. Organise travellers’ cheques or a bank cheque as some “start-up” money to help get you going

Two months out, take another trip to the bank to organise some money that you can deposit into your bank account in your host country when you arrive. A couple of hundred dollars’ worth of travellers’ checks, or a bank check for the same amount, should be enough.

You are bound to have a few start-up costs when you arrive in your host country – for example, toiletries, school textbooks, or unforeseen clothing expenses.

It’s helpful to have a bit of a “float” to cover these expenses, as well as any “non-emergency” expenses you encounter as your year progresses.

15. Make a pre-departure visit to your dentist and doctor

Seeing as it’ll be up to a year until you see your regular dentist and doctor again, it pays to have one last check-up with each of them before you depart.

Schedule this visit for your second-last month at home, so that there’s time to make a follow-up appointment in case your dentist or doctor finds something that he or she wants to investigate further.

16. Intensify your language learning

If possible, try to organise three or four sessions of one-on-one language tutoring before your departure overseas.

The benefits of this type of intensive, in-person learning include the following:

  • the tutor should be able to clarify and explain anything you’ve learned in your language studies to date which hasn’t made sense, or which you haven’t grasped 100 per cent
  • you can try making some basic conversation with your tutor, in a lower-pressure environment than your host family’s home or school in your host country
  • you can learn two or three more times per hour in one-on-one tuition than you can in a classroom environment

Your language teacher may be able to offer you some one-on-one tutoring, or be able to point you in the direction of someone who can tutor you.

Final month before departure

Exchange Student - Pre-departure
Murano Glass Tulips, Venice (Photo: Chris/Flickr)

17. Rest up

Be warned:

The first few weeks in your host country are going to be extremely tiring.

All at the same time, you’ll be:

  • dealing with culture shock
  • experiencing jet lag, and
  • meeting dozens of new people and adapting to your new environment.

Being immersed in a new language and spending all day, every day trying to understand what people are saying and attempting to communicate back to them are also exhausting.

The last thing you need when you get on the plane is to be in sleep deficit.

So, make sure you get plenty of rest in at least the two weeks before your departure date. Get all of your farewell parties, dinners and nights out done early this month, and ensure that you have at least two clear weeks of early nights and sleep-ins prior to departure.

18. Trial pack at least two weeks out

You also need to start the process of packing your suitcase for exchange a couple of weeks out. Packing the night before departure is a recipe for forgetting things and/or panicking because things don’t fit.

Make sure that everything actually fits in your suitcase, and that your packed suitcase falls within any applicable weight and size restrictions.

As an aside, you should also make sure that everything you’re taking overseas is in good order. Your clothing should fit well and be mended (no holes in socks or permanent marks on t-shirts). Your electronic devices should work and be fitted with fresh batteries or fully charged up. Don’t waste valuable packing space on items which you’ll need to dispose of when you arrive overseas.

19. Send a final confirmation message to your host family

Airlines can and do re-schedule flights at short notice.

For this reason, you need to send your host family a quick email a couple of days before you leave, which re-confirms your flight details and your expected arrival time.


So, that’s it. Follow these steps and you’ll be organised and ready to embark on your big adventure when your date of departure arrives.

Good luck,


Are there any additional pre-departure steps you can think of? Please add them in the comments below. 

Encouragement for your first months on exchange

Most exchange students find the first and second months on exchange to be the toughest ones. This can be the period when:

  • Their homesickness is at its worst
  • They are having the most difficulties with language
  • They are suffering from culture shock
  • They most feel like giving up and going home

These feelings usually pass in time. Still, your first two months on exchange might really test your toughness and mental fortitude.


London (Herry Lawford/Flickr)

Recently, I went looking online for the Winston Churchill speech containing his famous “never give in – never, never, never” quote.

Churchill gave the speech in 1942 as an address to students at his old school. When I found it, the part which caught my eye wasn’t that famous quote. It was another part of the speech, where Churchill discussed a proposed amendment to the school’s traditional song. The amendment would have added a reference to the “darker days” of World War 2. Churchill said:

Do not let us speak of darker days: let us speak rather of sterner days. These are not dark days; these are great days – the greatest days our country has ever lived; and we must all thank God that we have been allowed, each of us according to our stations, to play a part in making these days memorable in the history of our race.

Churchill was correct. Greatness – true greatness – doesn’t occur when things are easy. Greatness always comes from people rising to a challenge and overcoming great odds to succeed.

Metallica frontman James Hetfield’s greatest hour wasn’t in 1991, when he was the already rich and famous musician who wrote the seminal riff for “Enter Sandman”. Hetfield’s greatest moment happened ten years earlier, when he was an orphaned nineteen-year-old working at a sticker factory in Los Angeles and sitting in his truck during lunch breaks writing songs.

Jon Hamm’s greatest hour didn’t occur on the set of Mad Men. It took place during the many years in which he waited tables in LA, toiling to keep his head above water while he worked on his dream of being a Hollywood actor.

LeBron James’ greatest moment didn’t happen during any of his three NBA championship seasons. It occurred when he was in high school, training hard to reach the NBA despite his upbringing as the son of a teen mother and absentee father.

Your own moment of greatness

(Alan Wu/Flickr)

Your own moment of greatness won’t come at the end of your exchange, when you’ve got everything sorted out and under control. Your moment of greatness is happening right now.

Getting out of bed every day and going to your new school is heroic.

Hitting the books hard and rote-learning vocabulary and grammar to the point of exhaustion is one of the hardest mental challenges for anyone.

Persevering despite the hardships and occasional embarrassments you encounter as a newly arrived exchange student is incredibly courageous.

Slowly, your own strength and perseverance will enable you to climb the mountain which is in front of you. There will be some days when you feel like you’re moving backwards or sideways instead of progressing. But as long as you keep working hard and maintain a good attitude, you will keep on moving forward. Things will get a little easier every day.

There may be times when you feel weak, or embarrassed, or overwhelmed. All of those feelings are totally normal for an exchange student. They are unpleasant and can be difficult to deal with. However, you can deal with these feelings, and succeed in spite of them.

Don’t forget that there are many people around you who want you to succeed. Although your success ultimately depends upon your own courage and effort, your host family and exchange organisation will help you in any way they can.

At the end of your exchange, and for many years into the future, you are going to look back on this time. You’ll marvel at the grit you showed and the strength you were able to find within yourself. When times are tough – for example, at work or in a relationship – you can remind yourself of this time. You’ll know that the strength you showed as an exchange student can also get you through virtually any other challenge in life.


(Ryan Treadwell/Flickr)

In another famous speech, President Theodore Roosevelt said:

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

As an exchange student, you are well and truly “in the arena” every day. Keep on working and doing your best, and the triumph of high achievement which Roosevelt talks about will be yours.

Student Exchange Application: 9 Powerful (and Easy!) Steps to a Great Application

Here’s the thing:

Finding an exchange student program and choosing a host country are easy.


Actually getting onto the program you want, and being selected to go to your first-choice country, is very hard.


In a word, the problem is competition.

When you apply to be a foreign exchange student, you’ll be competing against high achievers – well-rounded, good citizen-type students, who are highly motivated, above average academically and with great credentials.

They may be current school captains or class presidents, or captains of the school debate team.

They may even be former exchange students, or already fluent in the language of the country they want to exchange to.

From the perspective of a student exchange program, those are all big pluses.

How do you beat those guys?

Don’t fear. I have nine simple yet extremely powerful tips which are going to help you write a student exchange application that will blow them all away.

1. Make your written student exchange application irresistible by focussing on personal characteristics that the exchange program is looking for

Student Exchange Application
Laguna Miscanti, Chile (Photo: Dimitry B/Flickr)


Most people trip up because they treat their written student exchange application as an opportunity to write a long essay about themselves.

They write about their interests and skills and hopes as an exchange student.

What should they really be doing?

Focussing on the exchange program and the kinds of students the program wants to send overseas.  

Think about it.

In the mind of the person reading your application, your goals or hobbies or expectations are secondary considerations.

What that person really wants to know is whether you have the personal qualities that the exchange program thinks are important for exchange students to have.

So, when you’re writing your application, you need to keep those desirable personal qualities front and centre.

Now, here’s some good news:

Exchange organisations usually tell you the very qualities they are looking for, in very explicit terms, on their websites.

For example, the AFS Australia website states as follows:

AFS Student Exchange ideal personality

See that?

The AFS website actually tells you very directly that AFS is looking for people who are flexible, self-confident and able to mix well with others.

If you were applying for an exchange with AFS, you’d know exactly what personal qualities to focus on in your written application, wouldn’t you?

You’d give them what they wanted and talk about how you possess all of those qualities, thereby demonstrating that you are exactly the kind of person AFS likes to send overseas, and a better candidate than your competitors.

In a similar vein, the global website for Rotary youth exchange states the following:

Rotary Student Exchange ideal student

Again, it’s virtually laid out on a platter:

Anyone interested in applying for a student exchange with Rotary needs to demonstrate through his or her written application that he or she is:

  • a leader,
  • flexible,
  • open to different cultures, and
  • able to serve as an ambassador

Before you start writing your application, be sure to find out the kind of student your exchange program is aiming to recruit, and make sure that your application demonstrates that you meet that profile.

2. Start your answers with strong, positive statements which send the message that you meet the exchange program’s requirements exactly

Student Exchange Application
Nyhaven, Copenhagen

In high school, you’ve probably learned that the correct way to format every paragraph in an essay is to:

  1. Start the paragraph with a firm statement or proposition, and then
  2. Provide relevant evidence or other detail which supports that statement or proposition

The same rule applies with your student exchange application.

You need to start each answer with a strong, positive statement which directly addresses the question you’ve been asked and leaves no doubt that you meet each criterion set by the exchange program.

For example, your application might have the following question:

Exchange students constantly encounter new people and situations and need to be flexible and open to change. Describe a situation in which you displayed flexibility and a willingness to change.

A good way to start your answer to that question would be as follows:

I am a flexible person who has displayed a willingness to adapt to changing circumstances.

Why is that sentence so powerful?

Because it borrows key language from the question – the words “flexible”, “willingness” and “change” –  and therefore addresses the question directly.

It’s also a strong statement because it starts using the very strong statement “I am” – rather than “I consider myself” or “I aim to be” or some other weaker formulation.

In other words, that sentence sends the message that you are exactly the person the program is looking for.

Make sure that you begin your answer to each question on your application form with a sentence that:

  • includes words and phrases from the question, and
  • uses strong and definitive “I am” language

3. Supercharge your opening statements using the most persuasive word in the English language

Student Exchange Application
London, England (Photo: Pedro Szekeley/Flickr)

Here’s how to go one better and make the opening statements in your student exchange application virtually unstoppable:

Work the word “because” into each of your statements.

In his best-selling book Influence – The Psychology of Persuasion, Dr Robert Cialdini identifies the word “because” as the most persuasive word known to man. For some reason, people are very easily persuaded by sentences and questions containing the word “because”.

What does this mean for you?

You need to capture the strong, almost hypnotic power of the word “because” and put it to work in your application.

Specifically, try to work the word “because” into each of your strong statements in order to make the reasons and statements that follow seem more convincing.

So, the introductory words we looked at earlier would change from:

I am a flexible person who has displayed a willingness to adapt to changing circumstances.


I am a flexible person because I have displayed a willingness to adapt to changing circumstances

It’s just a small linguistic change, but one which should have a big impact on the effectiveness of your application.

4. Make your application the best of the bunch by supporting your statements with facts, and only facts

Exchange Student Application
Tokyo (Photo: Moyan Brenn/Flickr)

Now, let me help you avoid making a big mistake.

Once you’ve made your bold statement to begin each answer in your student exchange application, you need hard evidence to back it up.

There are several kinds of evidence you could use to support the statements you make in your application, such as:

  • Facts – for example, “I have studied German for five years” or “I am the editor of my high school’s yearbook”
  • Intentions – for example, “I plan to take an intensive German course this spring” or “I will be volunteering at a Camp Kesem camp this summer”
  • Interests – for example, “I have always been interested in German history” or “I am passionate about European politics”
  • Opinions – for example, “German would be a very useful language for me to learn” and “I believe that I would make a good host daughter”

The strongest of those options by an absolute mile is facts.

In fact, if you want to knock your competitors out of the ballpark, you should only use facts to back up the statements in your application.

Why are facts so powerful?

Because they are indisputable and verifiable.

In other words, they are evidence of what you have done. That is far more valuable and credible than evidence about things you would like to do or are planning to do.

Furthermore, if you only use facts in your application, you won’t sound like you’re bragging or big-noting yourself. All you’re doing is talking about factual events that have already happened.

I almost guarantee that your competitors will be using all the other, weaker types of evidence, and submitting far weaker applications as a result.

Don’t make the same mistake.

Stay gold, and stick to the facts.

5. Gather your ammunition

Exchange Student Application
Passo dello Stelvio, Italy (Photo: Jussarian/Flickr)

Here’s a useful exercise you can use to maximise the number of strong, convincing facts in your student exchange application.

Before you even start writing your application, sit down with a blank piece of paper.

Spend half an hour writing down every single positive fact you can think of which may be relevant to your exchange application, including:

  • leadership positions you’ve held
  • academic successes you’ve had (for example, a high GPA or any academic awards)
  • evidence that you are a good citizen (such as previous volunteer work, participation in things like scouts, and even regular blood donations)
  • prior relevant experience such as previous short-stay exchanges
  • any language experience – not necessarily in the language of the country you’d like to exchange to
  • anything showing your adaptability
  • anything demonstrating your coolness under pressure

And so on.

Don’t stop writing until you’ve filled up the whole page, then go away for 24 hours.

The next day, sit down with your list and add anything else you’ve thought about in the meantime.

You want to capture absolutely any and every positive fact about yourself.

Then, when you sit down to write your application, you’ll have a ready-made stash of hard, factual evidence you can use to support your strong statements.

Then, you can move on to step 6.

6. Make sure you finish on top by playing your trump card

Student Exchange Application
Montreal, Canada (Photo: Pedro Szekeley/Flickr)

So, by now you have some very strong and positive statements written, and a mountain of factual evidence to support those statements.

Here’s how to seal the deal.

You need a trump card – something you’ve done which no-one else has, which makes you stand out and tells the exchange program that you are willing to go further than your competitors.

Even if everyone else is giving 100% effort, your trump card will push you to 110%. And I virtually guarantee that an exchange program will choose 110% over 100% any day of the week.

Let me show you exactly what I mean.

Case study: how I got beaten fair and square by a trump card

When I applied to go on exchange, my first choice country was Germany.

Germany is always a popular exchange destination because so many people learn German at school.

However, I thought I was in with a good chance for the following reasons:

  • I was the current vice-captain (vice president) of my high school, which was one of the best schools in the region
  • I was on the school debate team, editor of the school yearbook, and had a stack of other leadership and community service credentials
  • I had a strong academic record, which included five years of studying German

My written application was very strong, and I thought I had a great interview with representatives from the exchange program.

I thought I had Germany in the bag.

Then, I got trumped: I got my second choice country, Switzerland, and a girl called Jessica was chosen to go on exchange to Germany.

(Switzerland turned out great, by the way, but that’s another story).

What did Jessica do that gave her the edge over me?

Like me, she was well-credentialed, had good academics and had previously studied German.

Like me, she evidently also had a strong application and made a good impression at her interview.

Unlike me, however, Jessica had undertaken an unpaid internship at her city’s German chamber of commerce and gotten a letter of recommendation from the head of the chamber. She forwarded that letter along with her application.

That was an extremely smart and strong trump card, which sent the message that Jessica was super-serious about going to Germany. It was enough to push her in front of me and everyone else wanting to go to Germany.

Jessica thought outside the box and was rewarded with her first choice of country to exchange to.

Now let me tell you how to get your own trump card.

Four trump card ideas

Jessica’s trump card idea of working at her local German chamber of commerce was a good one, because it demonstrated how committed she was to exchanging to Germany.

If you have a few months before your application is due, you can try to arrange something similar, depending upon the organisations and groups located in your area.

For example, where we live, there is:

  • a nursing home for elderly Italian people
  • a chapter of the American-Australian association
  • a twin cities association managing the relationship with our twin city Versailles, in France, and
  • a German language library and resources centre which is staffed by volunteers

Some unpaid volunteer work at any of those institutions would combine charity work and a country-specific trump card that would be hard for any exchange organisation to resist.

Think about similar opportunities which exist in your city or region, and turn one into a great trump card.

Short-notice trump card

You might have a problem:

Internships and volunteer work take time to organise and undertake.

What can you do if you’re in the throes of writing your application and need a trump card within the next week or two?

Here’s a quickly actionable trump card idea that you can deploy if you’re short of time (or no other suitable trump cards seem to be available in your area):

Get a letter of recommendation from your local mayor or congressman

Politicians are nearly always big on diplomacy and promoting the region they represent.

They also love it when one of their constituents receives an award or recognition of some kind, because it reflects well on them.

Here’s how to use these traits to your advantage:

Try making an appointment with your local mayor or congressman.

Explain that you are applying for an exchange program and spend half an hour outlining some of your credentials to him or her.

Then, very politely ask him or her for a letter of recommendation, on official letterhead.

In exchange, offer to make yourself available for a photo opportunity if you are chosen to go on exchange, and be sure to keep that promise if you are successful.

His or her answer will nearly certainly be “yes”.

A letter of recommendation from a recognised political figure can open a surprising number of doors.

The exchange program may figure that if you’ve met and made a good impression on your congressman or mayor, you’ll make a good impression on people that you’ll meet overseas.

Try it.

7. For maximum impact, put your strongest evidence first

Student Exchange Application
Montevideo, Uruguay (Photo: Jimmy Baikovicius/Flickr)

Here’s a strange little fact:

The average adult now has an attention span of only 8.25 seconds.

Furthermore, according to a study cited by Forbes magazine, the average adult reads at a speed of about 300 words per minute.

What does this mean for you?

The person reading your student exchange application will probably only focus on the first 40-45 words of each answer you give before starting to lose focus.

That, in turn, means that you need to do two things:

First, use your strongest evidence first. Once you’ve made your strong statement for each answer, follow up with the strongest fact or evidence you have to support that statement. Because you’ve only got one or two sentences before your audience starts to lose attention, you need to fill those first few sentences with your best stuff.

Second, keep your sentences short. From a readability perspective, it’s already good practice to keep your sentences to a length of around 20 words each. Keeping your sentences short and to the point – and not filling them with unnecessary things like adjectives – will also help you to maximise the amount of information you get across in your application before the person reading it loses concentration.

8. Use these three tools to make your student exchange application a pleasure to read

Exchange Student Application
Amsterdam, Netherlands (Photo: Moyan Brenn/Flickr)

The person reading your student exchange application may have dozens of written applications to read.

How do you make yours stand out?

You may be surprised to hear that one of the easiest ways to make a good impression through your application is to make it easy to read.

Here are three tools that will make your application an easy and pleasurable read:

Tool 1: Short sentences

By all means, use as many facts to support your application as you feel are relevant.

But, be sure to keep your sentences short when describing those facts.

The reason for doing this is simple:

Long sentences are tiring for a reader and can result in your core messages getting lost.

Make sure you don’t bury your high-quality content under lots of unnecessary verbiage.


  • minimise your use of colons and semi-colons
  • don’t use connecting words like “which” and “that” unless you absolutely have to
  • aim for one sentence per idea or example you wish to make, and
  • try to keep your sentences shorter than 20 words, and no longer than 30 words

Tool 2: A font which is easy and pleasant to read

If your student exchange application is typed rather than hand-written, and you can control the font, make it more readable by applying the following font rules.

Use at least 13-point font, and preferably 14-point. The default on many word processors is 12-point which is too low and can cause eye fatigue.

Use 1.5 point line spacing, to increase the gap between lines and make them easier and more pleasant to read.

Use a plain, no-nonsense typeface like Times New Roman or Arial, which won’t distract or annoy the person reading your application, and let them focus on your content.

Tool 3: Use the active voice, and minimise the passive voice

Write as much of your student exchange application in the active voice as possible, and avoid writing in the passive voice.

What’s the difference?

A sentence written in the passive voice has no subject – that is, no person doing the verb.

For example, the following sentence is in the passive voice:

I was voted class president last year.

Now here’s the same sentence in the active voice:

My classmates voted me class president last year.

In the first sentence, it isn’t immediately apparent who voted for the narrator to be class president. The second – active voice – sentence contains the subject “my classmates”, which makes this clear.

You need to avoid writing in the passive voice, and write your entire student exchange application in the active voice instead, because:

  • Readers tire when they have to read a lot of sentences written in the passive voice
  • The person reading your application may recognise your use of the passive voice – particularly if they are older than about 45, or have a lot of experience with linguistics or learning languages – and mark you down for writing incorrectly
  • The active voice helps to minimise any ambiguity

If you already have great content, applying these three tools will help your application make an even more positive impression and increase your chances of success.

9. Make your student exchange application twice as strong by getting not one, but TWO experts to read it

Student Exchange Application
Lake Zurich, Switzerland (Photo: Fred Mancosu/Flickr)

This may be the most important tip on this page:

Once your exchange program application is written, you need to ask two very specific people to proof-read and evaluate it for you.

“But wait,” you say. “I’ve already lined up my mom/dad/best friend to read my application and make suggestions”.

Unfortunately, that won’t work. Here’s why:

  • your family and friends are unlikely to give you honest feedback – that is, they will tell you what you want to hear, rather than what you need to hear, in order to spare your feelings
  • they won’t necessarily have any insight into what the exchange program will be looking for, and
  • they are unlikely to have the technical expertise to make your answers read well

Here’s a better idea:

Get two people with specific, relevant experience and skills to review and make comments on your application.

Expert 1 – A trusted teacher at your school

First of all, you need to ask a teacher at your school who you know well and are friendly with to take a look at your student exchange application.

Why a teacher?

Firstly, because teachers spend a good part of each day evaluating work that their students have written. They are practised at reviewing documents and providing honest but constructive feedback.

In other words, the teacher you ask will most likely give you genuine, actionable tips on how to improve your application.

The second reason is that the teacher will know you and be familiar with your personality, and may be able to suggest additional information that will enhance the content of your application.

The final reason is that teachers generally have a practised eye for spelling mistakes, grammatical errors and the like. Your teacher should be able to ensure that your application contains no errors which will detract from the effectiveness of the content.

Expert 2 – A former exchange student

The second person you need to show your student exchange application to is a former exchange student at your school who you know and are friendly with.

It doesn’t matter which exchange student program he or she travelled with, or which country he or she went to.

The reason for asking this person to look at your application is simple:

He or she will know what it takes to be a successful exchange student, and should be able to offer advice on the contents of your application which will make it more appealing to the exchange organisation.

The student should also be able to coach and advise you on the application process generally, including the application interview, which I’ll also deal with in my next post.

If you have any further tips or questions about filling out an exchange program application, you can leave them in the comments below.

Good luck,


How to choose a host country

If you’re interested in being an exchange student, you probably already have an idea about where you’d like to go on exchange.

For example, you may be interested in going to Italy because you have Italian ancestry.

Or, you may be interested in exchanging to South America because you love soccer.

I was into heavy metal music as a teenager. I considered undertaking an exchange year in the USA, which is the home of that kind of music.

Choose a host country with your heart AND your head

By all means, follow your interests when choosing a host country.

But don’t forget to ask the additional, extremely important question of whether the country in question will be a good country for you to live in.

Political correctness warning

Make no mistake, there are good and bad countries to live in.

Is it politically incorrect to name the bad ones?


Am I going to name them here?

You bet. Here’s why:

I am trying to help readers of this website, not impress them with how open-minded and tolerant I am. I would much rather tell the truth and appear intolerant than put the safety and health of my readers at risk.

What makes a good host country?

Imagine a target or bullseye with three concentric circles.

The target represents an ideal exchange destination, with three objective criteria that need to be fulfilled.

You need to find an exchange destination which meets all three of the criteria.

Exchange student in Florence
Flickr/Artur Staszewski

1. The country must be safe

The innermost circle on the target, and the most important consideration, is your personal safety.

If you want to avoid getting killed or seriously injured, take heed of the following tip:

You must only consider undertaking a student exchange in countries where you are likely to be safe, and the possibility of you being hurt or killed is low.

Do not consider applying to countries where there is a high chance of injury or death.

Does that sound melodramatic?

Sure. But here’s the truth:

The majority of countries on earth are not particularly safe places.

For example, people in many countries violently dislike anglo-saxons in general, and Americans in particular.

In other countries, people target Jews and Christians and places where they congregate.

There are also many countries which are not safe because:

  • there is either no government, or the government in place is ineffective or corrupt;
  • there is a civil war taking place or an insurgency;
  • there is social unrest or other factors resulting in large numbers of displaced or disaffected people living in that country; or
  • minorities are oppressed and/or discriminated against (women, gays, minority religions, certain ethnic groups).

If you want a good idea of which countries are safe for you to live in as an exchange student, the foreign ministries of Australia, the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and New Zealand each have websites listing risks and dangers for foreigners in virtually every country on earth.

Although those websites are tailored for tourists and other visitors, they will also give you an idea of which countries will be safe enough for you to live in, and which countries you should avoid.

For me, the requirement to choose a safe country as an exchange destination rules out virtually the entire Middle East, virtually the whole of Africa (especially the Maghreb countries of northern Africa), Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, the Philippines outside Manila, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, Mexico and Venezuela.

Lofoten, Norway
Flickr/Jakob Nilsson-Ehle

2. The country must have a first-world health system

After ensuring your personal safety, your second priority is your health.

Accordingly, the second concentric ring outwards from the centre of your hypothetical target is healthcare.

The chances of you falling seriously ill during your exchange may be low.

However, you need to ensure that if you do get sick, you will receive proper, safe, first-world medical care.

You must choose a host country with a Western-standard medical system. This means competent doctors, sanitary and well-equipped hospitals, and access to high-quality drugs.

The experience of one of my outbound exchange cohort illustrates this starkly. My colleague fell gravely ill soon after she arrived in her Scandinavian host country. She was unable to fly home, and had to undergo open-heart surgery in that country. Thankfully, the host country in question was an affluent nation with excellent health care. The surgery was a success and she was able to return to full health and complete her exchange year.

The availability of a first-world health system probably played a big role in saving my friend’s life. We tend to take such medical care for granted. The reality is that people die of relatively mild ailments like asthma even in relatively affluent countries such as those in Eastern Europe.

If you suffer from a pre-existing condition such as epilepsy or severe asthma or haemophilia, it is even more important that you choose a host country with an excellent health system. Failure to do so could literally cost you your life.

Which countries which weren’t eliminated in Step 1 have inadequate health systems? Those in Eastern Europe, many countries in South-East Asia, many parts of South and Central America, Pacific Island nations, India and China.

3. The country should not be experiencing mass social unrest, or have a high degree of inequality

The third circle in your imaginary target is stability. Specifically, you need to avoid choosing a host country in which there is a large gap between rich and poor, or a large group of disempowered or marginalised citizens, or an oppressive political or economic system.

In every such country, there is a large group of disaffected people, which typically resents the elite. As an exchange student, your host family and school friends will almost certainly come from the elite and you will form a part of that elite. As such, you will become a target for the disaffected elements of society.

Consequences of living in such a society include:

  • increased likelihood of being robbed or being a victim of other petty crime
  • “no go” zones in large cities which are unsafe for foreigners or members of the elite.
  • witnessing, or being an unintended victim of, police brutality

Which remaining countries suffer from this problem? Traditionally, countries such as Brazil, most other South American countries, the Philippines and South Africa.

Other pertinent factors

Other things to consider when considering which host country to choose include the following:

  • generally, the more affluent your host country is, the more physically comfortable your stay will be
  • people will usually be more welcoming towards you in countries which traditionally have welcomed immigrants (such as Australia, New Zealand and the United States) than in non-“immigration” countries
  • generally, the higher a country’s rank on the UN’s Human Development Index, the better it will be as a host country

Can’t choose your host city

Also, note that while you can choose which country you’d like to exchange to, you will usually not be able to choose exactly where in that country you will live. When you choose a country to be hosted in, you need to be prepared to be placed anywhere in that country.

In other words, don’t apply to go on exchange to the USA because you are interested in living in New York City. There’s a good chance you’ll actually end up in Sticksville, population 3000 and may never even have the opportunity to visit New York City.

If you are interested in living in a particular city for a while, a university exchange would be a better way to do it.

What about learning a foreign language?

Should the possibility of learning a foreign language sway your decision? In other words, if you have an equal degree of interest in exchanging to a country where people speak your mother tongue and one where they speak a foreign language, do the benefits of learning a foreign language mean that you should choose the country where you’ll learn a foreign language?

In such a situation, unless the foreign language in question is English, the answer almost certainly is no.

Learning a foreign language is extremely difficult, and the benefits to your career are overrated and extremely limited. Specifically:

  • there is a very narrow range of jobs in which a foreign language will be useful. The most common such job – translation – is unspeakably tedious, and
  • no matter how well you learn a foreign language, the ubiquity of English means that there will always be thousands of native speakers of that foreign language whose skill at speaking English far exceeds your skill at speaking their mother tongue.

I spent many years and countless hours learning German. I don’t regret any of that time. However, I have never used the German I learned professionally. It has helped me to stay in touch with my host families and when travelling, but otherwise has not been particularly beneficial.

Mt Fuji

The best host countries are…

Taking all of the above into account, which potential host countries appear to be the best ones to live in?

In order of alphabet, not merit, they are as follows:

  • Australia
  • Canada
  • Chile
  • Denmark
  • Finland
  • Germany
  • Ireland
  • Italy
  • Japan
  • New Zealand
  • Norway
  • Singapore
  • Spain
  • Switzerland
  • Uruguay
  • United States
  • United Kingdom

That list is quite limited. Notable omissions include the following:

  • France and Belgium – at the time of writing (July 2016), these countries have suffered from a string of terrorist attacks. I don’t recommend them because they currently violate my safety rule.
  • Germany and Sweden – because of recent demographic changes and associated events to date, I don’t recommend these because they have the potential to become like France and Belgium.

You’ll also note that the countries I’ve recommended above are ones that nearly every exchange program offers exchanges to. That’s not a coincidence. Major exchange organisations such as Rotary and AFS have decades of experience in sending students overseas, and know which countries are the best ones for students to visit. They are also acutely aware of risk and won’t send students to countries in which their health or safety will be jeopardised.

Another useful proxy for how good a country will be as a host country is its placement on the United Nations’ Human Development Index. Generally speaking, the higher a country is ranked on that index, the better it will be as a place to go on exchange.

Whatever choice you make regarding your future host country, please ensure that it’s a safe and well-researched one.

Good luck,


How to become a foreign exchange student – your 7-step guide

Rotterdam, Netherlands (Photo: Kristoffer Trolle/Flickr)

Think that you’d like to become an exchange student, but not sure how to go about it?

Relax. This easy 7-step guide will show you what you need to do to apply successfully and be on your way.

Step 1 – Ask yourself – “do I really want to do this?”

“Look before you leap” is great advice – particularly when you’re deciding how to spend a whole year of your life.

The fact is that being a foreign exchange student isn’t always easy. In fact, most people who go on exchange find it to be one of the most challenging things they’ve ever done.

There are far easier ways to spend a year.

Before you take the plunge and put yourself and your parents through the process of applying to be a foreign exchange student, take the time to find out what is involved in a student exchange, and think very carefully and hard about whether you want to do it.

Visit my guide on what to expect as a foreign exchange student.

Talk to former exchange students about their experiences overseas.

Visit the home pages of a few student exchange organisations, and learn about their expectations and rules.

Above all, make sure that your decision to become a foreign exchange student is an informed one.

Step 2 – Choose a host country

Once you’ve decided to take the big step and apply for a student exchange, you need to think about where you’d like to exchange to.

There are hundreds of countries on earth, but probably only a couple of dozen which are safe and pleasant to live in. You need to be sure that you choose one of the good ones.

Get advice on choosing a safe, rewarding exchange destination at my choosing a host country page.

Also, look at the UN’s Human Development Index. Generally, the countries at the top of that table are the best places to go on exchange to. The countries that score well on the HDI all have stable societies, good healthcare, low crime, and affluent, good-citizen populations. Those are exactly the same features that make a good host country.

Step 3 – Decide on an exchange organization

Once you’ve decided on a destination country, you need to find a reliable, well-run exchange organisation to undertake your exchange with in that country.

Again, there are probably hundreds of student exchange organisations around the world – good, bad and ugly. You need to think very carefully about which one you go with.

The reason is that if something goes wrong – such as a bad host family or a problem with the school you attend – a good student exchange organisation will have the experience and mechanisms to help you deal with the problem quickly and get on with your exchange. They’ll get you settled with a new host family, or moved to a new school.

Do your research. Check out my page on choosing an exchange program for hints and tips on how to find the best exchange organisation to undertake your exchange with.

Step 4 – Write your exchange application

Make no mistake:

There are lots of people want to go on exchange with the best exchange organisations.

There are also lots of people who want to go to the most popular exchange destinations.

If you’re going to get the exchange you want, you need to beat all of those people. And the most important thing you can do to give yourself a chance of beating them is to write a great exchange application.

How do you write a killer written exchange application? My page on writing an exchange application has loads of inside tips for how to write an application that will blow your competition away and help you to go exactly where you want to go. Check it out.

Step 5 – Undertake your exchange interview

The second step to winning your dream exchange is delivering a great student exchange interview.

Let’s face it: nobody likes being interviewed. Even people who’ve been through dozens of job interviews still find it intimidating.

However, there are many things you can do to prepare yourself for your exchange interview. Some of them are mechanical – like being well-rested and arriving at the interview venue in plenty of time. Others require you to undertake research and preparation. With a little forethought and inside knowledge, you can also anticipate some of the questions the interview panel will ask you.

As part of your preparation for your student exchange interview, be sure to visit my detailed article on preparing for your interview.

Step 6 – Prepare for your departure

Been selected to go on exchange? Congratulations.

While that’s great news, the work isn’t over yet. In fact, it’s really only just begun.

There are a huge number of  things that you need to take care of before your departure date. You need to organise travel insurance. You need to get your passport, visa and other paperwork sorted out. Booking flights, making contact with your host family…the list goes on and on.

Your exchange organisation will help you to get organised and should provide you with a checklist of things to take care of. I’ve also prepared a comprehensive “to-do” list discussing all the things you need to think about doing prior to departure, and the order you should do them in. Go take a look.

Step 7 – Get off to a great start

You know that first impressions really matter. But the odds are that you’ve also never been an exchange student before. How do you make a good first impression and get off to a good start with your host family and school colleagues?

There are a number of things you can do during your first weeks as an exchange student that will help you set a solid foundation for the remainder of your exchange. With some care and thought, you can make a great first impression on your classmates and host family that will pay big dividends later on.

My page on making a good first impression is full of actionable tips to help you manage the transition to being an exchange student, and help you make friends and fit in during your first couple of weeks.

Good luck,