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,


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