Five exchange student “must haves”

I first went on exchange in 1996. For some reason, the planes of 1996 couldn’t carry very much luggage per passenger. (It was probably because it wasn’t all that long since the Wright brothers had invented flying). This meant that each of us was only allowed to take 20kg (44 pounds) of checked-in luggage.

I was going overseas for a whole year. As I was only able to take 20kg of clothes and other luggage with me, I needed to be smart about what I packed. Unfortunately, I was an 18-year old guy who’d never lived alone and had barely travelled overseas before. I was the opposite of smart. I filled my suitcase and carry on with all sorts of stuff, 90% of which I then never actually used while I was on exchange.

After I arrived overseas, I compounded my error by purchasing many books, CDs and other heavy items. I then had to schlepp all of this stuff with me as I moved between my four host families. Finally, I had to find a way to get it all back home at the end of my exchange.

In retrospect, I don’t actually think that you need much stuff to live overseas for a year. The secret is to take (and purchase) a few key items which you use over and over again. Even if planes have evolved since I was 18, meaning that you can now take unlimited luggage with you, you should still try to minimise the amount of stuff you take with you, and pick up along the way.

Here are five things that you must take with you or purchase when you go on exchange.

1. Black Polartec or polar fleece top

If you’re going on exchange to a place where it regularly snows or gets below 10 degrees Celsius, you need to take an overcoat or jacket of some kind. I took a long black trenchcoat, and a long-sleeved, quarter zip black Polartec jumper.

In no time, I ditched the trench coat and spent the rest of the year wearing the Polartec top. The main advantages of the Polartec were that it was light and was easy to wear when riding a bike, but very warm. The black colour was neutral and inconspicuous, so no-one noticed that I wore it every day. It went well with casual (school) wear, and didn’t look too bad over the top of more formal attire, like button-up shirts.

The trench coat, on the other hand, weighed a ton. It was terrible to ride in because of its length (and in fact it caught in the chain of my bike and ripped, twice). It was also a bit of a formal piece, which didn’t pair well with my usual school attire of jeans and sweaters.

Don’t repeat my mistake when selecting your outerwear to take overseas. Get something light, packable and neutral. My black Polartec was the perfect solution for me, and could be yours, too.

2. Grammar book and sensible dictionary

Books are heavy. Foolishly, I took a lot of them with me on exchange. As it turned out, I really only needed two – a grammar book and a dictionary.

As noted in my article on language learning, a grammar book is probably your single greatest asset when you’re learning a foreign language. You can use it when you start learning a language and need to learn the rules of grammar and then practise them. And you can use it as a reference book for the balance of your exchange. You’ll get a lot of use out of it.

You also need a dictionary. Get something sensible, like an A5-sized paperback dictionary published by Langenscheidt, Collins or Roget. You don’t need a hardcover, thousand-page boat anchor like the one I took with me. Keep it simple. Keep it light.

3. Radio of some kind

Your host family or families should provide you with access to a small stereo of some kind. If they don’t, it’s worth spending a couple of hundred dollars to purchase your own once you reach your host country.

Why do you need a sound system?

There are lots of reasons. For one, if you’re in a country where you’ll be learning a foreign language, listening to the radio is a great way to learn that language. Radio news broadcasts, foreign language music, and the banter of local DJs will all help you to learn the language faster.

Once you’ve obtained a stereo, it’ll also provide you with free entertainment. As an exchange student, you’ll probably have a fair bit more free time than you currently do at home. It’s also likely that you won’t be able to work and earn money while you’re overseas. This combination of lots of free time and not much money will require you to get creative about what you do in your spare time. On a per-hour basis, purchasing a small stereo and listening to music is one of the cheapest ways to entertain yourself.

4. A bike

OK, so this is something that you’ll definitely need to acquire once you get overseas, rather than taking it with you. But it’s such an essential and useful item that it should be right at the top of your exchange student bucket list.

Your host family should have an old bike that they can lend you. Otherwise, a decent second-hand bike will cost you a couple of hundred dollars up front.

Why are bikes so great? There are at least four reasons:

  • They give you mobility and freedom – It’s unlikely that you’ll be able to drive when you’re on exchange. However, a bike will be nearly as convenient as a car and will enable you to get to school, go shopping and visit friends when you want to (subject to your host family’s timetable, of course).
  • They are virtually free to operate – Once you have a bike, they cost virtually nothing to run. Unlike bus or train tickets, or travelling with a car, you can ride as far as you want, as often as you want, and it won’t cost you anything.
  • You can explore your host country – Unless your host family lives in the middle of the Australian desert, or somewhere in Siberia, there should be a few nearby towns that you can ride to and explore. If you find yourself in Europe, Japan, or another densely populated area, there will probably be dozens of new places that you can ride to easily.
  • Cycling – especially off-road – is a blast – Cycling is one of the world’s most popular pastimes for one main reason: it is a hell of a lot of fun. Riding on paved roads and bike paths is fun because of the speed involved. Even riding a bike at 20 km/h feels much faster than driving a car at the same speed. Mountain biking – riding at speed through forests and on trails – is even more fun. During the course of your time as an exchange student, riding a bike can go from being a means of transportation to being a genuine hobby.

5. A smartphone with a high-resolution camera

As part of your preparations for going on exchange, you may be tempted to spend a few hundred dollars on a new camera so that you can take photos of all of the new and interesting places you’ll visit.

On the one hand, you might consider spending up big on a new digital SLR camera, which will allow you to take super high-quality photos of your travels. On the other, you may consider that a compact, digital camera is the better way to go.

Actually, neither of these options is particularly good. The SLR will be too heavy and bulky to carry around with you on your travels. I’d also advise against spending big money on a camera which could easily get lost, stolen or damaged. A small digital camera will have its own limitations. Image quality is unlikely to be great, and you still run the risk that the camera will be lost or stolen. If it’s a while since you’ve downloaded your photos – for example, because you’re in the middle of a long holiday – your photos will be lost.

There is a better way. Instead of purchasing a new camera, I recommend spending $2-300 upgrading your mobile phone. The phone should have a camera with at least 12 megapixel quality, if not somewhere in the mid to high “teens”.

The picture quality most likely won’t be any worse than a comparably-priced compact camera, and the phone will most likely be smaller and lighter. The real advantage of using your phone’s camera is that you can set the phone to upload your photos to Google Drive, OneDrive, Instagram and so on, as soon as you take them. This means that if your phone gets lost or damaged – which unfortunately happens quite frequently while you’re travelling – all of the photos of your once-in-a-lifetime travels will be safely tucked away in the cloud.

Can you think of any other essential items for exchange students to take or acquire when they go on exchange? Please leave a comment below.

 

Good luck, Matt

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

Rotterdam
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,

Matt

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.

And:

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 WordPress.com 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,

Matt

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

11 Tips for a Successful Student Exchange Interview

If you want to totally dominate your exchange student interview, you’ll love this guide.

Let’s face it:

Being interviewed can be extremely stressful and nerve-wracking.

However, follow the step-by-step tips in this guide and I guarantee that you’ll go into your student exchange selection interview feeling well-prepared and ready for whatever the selection panel throws at you.

Exchange Student Interview
Sandsend Groynes, Yorkshire England (James Whitesmith/Flickr)

1. Calm your nerves by getting in the right headspace

Just about everyone experiences nerves and tension before and during an interview.

Here are three quick and easy ways to minimise those and have a positive attitude going into your exchange program interview.

Have a “Plan B”

A great way to take the pressure off yourself prior to your interview is to ask yourself this question:

If I don’t do well at this exchange program interview, and don’t get offered an exchange with this particular exchange program, what are my fallback options?

You most likely will have several different options open to you, including the following:

  • You can apply to go on exchange with another program
  • You can wait a year and apply to the same program next year
  • Later on, you can go on exchange to your chosen country as a university exchange student
  • You can go on an extended holiday to your chosen country

That’s the thing:

Even in the very unlikely case that you totally screw up your exchange student interview, it won’t be the end of the world – you’ll still have plenty of opportunities to get overseas to the country you are interested in.

Of course, you will try your best to be selected.

But, in the worst case scenario, there’ll always a “Plan B” open to you.

Understand that it’s not an exam

It’s easy to view your exchange student interview as a kind of oral examination, where you’ll be knocked out of contention if you give an incorrect answer.

That simply isn’t the case.

In fact, the main point of a student exchange interview is for the student exchange organisation to get to know you as a person and to assess whether you’d be a good fit as a foreign exchange student.

The interview is less like an oral examination, and more like a 20-30 minute discussion about yourself.

Can you talk about yourself for between 20 and 30 minutes? Of course!

You may be asked some general knowledge questions – see “Do your homework”, below – but overall, there will be very few right and wrong answers in your interview. So, try to relax.

Don’t over-estimate the competition

A common mistake people make in job interviews is over-estimating the quality of their competition, and under-estimating their own qualities as a candidate.

Don’t make the same mistake prior to your student exchange interview.

Here’s the truth:

You are a quality candidate with many strengths. If in doubt, take another look at all of the achievements you outlined in your student exchange application.

Furthermore, everyone else who is being interviewed and competing against you for the opportunity to go on exchange will be experiencing the same nerves as you.

Give yourself the best chance possible by going into your interview with a cool head.

2. Focus on, and optimise, things that you can control

There are aspects of your exchange student interview that will be within your control, and aspects that will be outside your control.

The key to good preparation is to perfect the things you can control, and prepare as well as possible for the things you can’t control.

In the “outside your control” box, I’d place the following:

  • the exact questions that the interview panel will ask you
  • the temperament or attitude of your interviewers
  • the strength of your competition (ie other students being interviewed for exchange)

Don’t get hung up on these things. The best you can do is prepare well for them, using the techniques and strategies I set out in the rest of this article.

There are plenty of other things that you can control about the interview that you should work on to maximise your chance of success. These will include the following:

  • your appearance (including how you are dressed and how generally neat and tidy you look)
  • how well-rested you are (make sure to have at least a week of long, restful nights before your interview)
  • punctuality (making sure that you arrive at the interview venue in plenty of time)
  • your general level of preparedness for the interview

Make a list of all the things about your interview that you can control. Then, resolve to improve or perfect those things as much as possible. Ultimately, you want all of the things you can control to be 100 per cent right.

Don’t obsess about things that you can’t control.

There are a huge number of things to do with your pre-exchange interview that you can control. Spend your time and energy getting those things right and you’ll give your chances of success a huge boost.

3. Boost your confidence and add credibility by reviewing and learning your written student exchange application

Exchange Student Interview
Venice, Los Angeles (Photo: La Citta Vita/Flickr)

Don’t make the critical mistake of submitting your written exchange application and then not re-reading it prior to your interview.

In fact, I recommend that you not only read it again before your interview, but study and learn it by heart before your interview.

Here’s why:

If you followed my previous advice, your written application will have been chock-full with high-quality, pertinent facts about experiences and skills that you could bring to a student exchange.

The people interviewing you will have read your written application and are going to ask you questions about what you’ve written. Unfortunately, there’s no knowing which of your claims the interviewers are going to ask you about.

That means that, in order to be credible, you need to be prepared to answer questions about every single fact or claim that you made in your written application.

The best preparation is to go through your written application line-by-line, reminding yourself about the evidence you gave and preparing yourself to answer questions on that evidence,

Say, for example, you mentioned in your written application that you’d had a leadership position in your school. Be prepared to answer the following questions about that position:

  • How did you get the position – for example, were you selected by school staff, or elected by your fellow students?
  • What were your duties while you were in that position?
  • Can you think of a particularly challenging situation which occurred while you were in the position, and how did you deal with it?

Keep in mind that your interviewers are trying to assess whether you will make a good exchange student. So, if possible, try to memorise details about your experience which demonstrate that you are:

  • capable of acting independently
  • able to get on well with strangers
  • able to adapt to new situations
  • academically diligent

4. Do some homework and be prepared for general knowledge questions

I almost guarantee that the interview panel will ask you some general knowledge questions at your student exchange interview.

The reason why this is almost inevitable is simple:

If you are successful and become a foreign exchange student, people you meet in your host country will be curious about where you come from. The people interviewing you will want to know that you are able to answer basic questions about your home country.

So, before your exchange program interview, be sure to brush up on general knowledge about your home country, including the following:

  • The approximate size of its population
  • The name of the president, prime minister, or other head of state
  • The number of levels of government (federal, state, municipal, and so on)
  • A few basic facts about the economy – for example, main exports, largest companies, main sectors of the economy in which people work

A good starting point for this research is the Wikipedia page for your home country. Specifically, look at the fact box on the right hand side of that page. The fact box for Australia looks like this:

Exchange Student Application

See that?

Wikipedia already gives you a neat little summary of facts about your home country. Learn those, and you’ll already be well set up with general knowledge for your interview.

If you want to go one step further and do some black-belt level preparation, check out the contents table on the left hand side of the Wikipedia page, which should look something like this:

Exchange Student Application

An even better way to prepare for interview questions about your home country would be to find out and memorise 5-6 facts about each of those facets of your home country listed in Wikipedia – its economic strengths and weaknesses, demographic facts and trends, and so on.

Either way, you’ll be well-prepared for any general-knowledge questions about your home country.

Bonus tip: Learn something about the exchange organisation

There’s a possibility that the interview panel will ask you a question about the exchange organisation you’re applying with – something like “What do you know about Rotary/AFS/YFU?”

Or, if you’re exchanging as part of a twin cities arrangement, you may be asked what you know about the twinned city which you’ll be exchanging to.

Virtually no-one will be able to answer that question well or in any detail.

No-one, that is, except you. =)

As part of your homework before your interview, make sure to read up about the exchange organisation or twin city, and commit five or six relevant facts to memory which you can use if required.

5. Conserve energy to maximise your performance in the interview

Student Exchange Interview
(Photo: Enid Martindale/Flickr)

When planning ahead for the day of your student exchange interview, you need to ensure that you organise the day so that you conserve your energy as much as possible until the time your interview starts.

Let me explain:

Everyone has a certain amount of mental and physical energy. Think about it like water in a drinking glass.

At the beginning of the day, most people’s glass of energy is full. When your glass is full, you are alert, can concentrate, and can think clearly.

Throughout the day, you take sips of energy from your glass. Sometimes the sips are small ones – like when you have a conversation with a teacher or friend, or sit in class. At other times, the sips are big ones – like when you have to give a presentation in front of your class, or have cross-country practice after school.

You can top up your energy glass by relaxing, having a meal or a nap. But, by the end of the day, your glass is usually empty.

Keep it topped up and full on the day of your interview

Now, on the day of your exchange interview, you need to ensure that your energy glass stays as full as possible right up until the time of your interview.

Here’s how to do it:

Step 1: Give yourself plenty of time

Stress is a big energy drain.

The last thing you need is to be panicking and rushing around.

Make sure that you allow plenty of time to get yourself ready, prepare, and travel to the venue where your interview is being held.

Step 2: Keep things as normal and calm as possible

Start your day in the same way as you would any other day. Shower, dress and have breakfast in the normal way.

Make sure it’s a good breakfast, too – you’ll need the energy later on.

If you want to have a brief look at your exchange application, that’s OK. But keep it to ten minutes or less. Spending too much time thinking about your application and the interview will cause you stress, draining your energy too quickly. Again, you need to conserve all your energy for the interview.

Step 3: Get someone to drive you to the interview venue

Even if you can already drive, you need to get someone to drive you to the interview.

If it’s a long drive, the driving will tire you out and use up valuable energy.

More importantly, having someone to talk to on the way will take your mind off the interview and stop you from worrying away all of the energy you’ll need to perform well.

Don’t get the other person to coach you or ask you pretend interview questions. That will stress you out and use up your valuable energy. Instead, talk about TV, or baseball, or shoes, or whatever else helps you to relax.

Step 4: Top up and conserve your energy at the interview venue

Take a snack along with you and eat it 10-15 minutes before your interview. If your stomach is empty you’ll be distracted and won’t have the energy to concentrate for the whole interview.

Take a quick – two or three minute – look at your application, but no more. Your learning and memorising should all be done.

Follow all of these steps, and you should go into the interview room feeling as fresh and relaxed as possible, with plenty of energy to focus on the interview.

6. Make sure you can focus during your interview by minimising distractions

Most people have one or two things that stop them from focussing and concentrating.

For example, until I’ve showered and brushed my teeth in the morning, I feel half asleep and barely functional. Before I’ve done those things, I am too irritable and distracted to achieve anything.

Most people have one or two such personal “irritations”. There are also a number of common irritations which make it hard for nearly everyone to concentrate, including the following:

  • Needing to use the bathroom
  • Feeling hungry or thirsty
  • Feeling too cold or (especially) too hot

You need to take steps to minimise both your personal and these general distractions during your student exchange interview so that you can pay proper attention to the questions the panel is asking you, and formulate good answers.

Visit the bathroom before you leave home, after you arrive at the interview venue, and as often as you need to before your interview.

Bring a snack and a bottle of water, and take the water into the interview room if you need to.

Plan to dress in layers, and remove and add layers as required to stay at a comfortable temperature.

Do whatever it takes for you to block out any “noise” during your exchange student interview and focus on answering the panel’s questions.

7. Make your first impression on the interview panel a good one

Exchange Student Interview
Houses in Barcelona (Photo: Bert Kaufmann/Flickr)

There’s a well-known flaw in the human brain that you can use to your advantage in your exchange interview.

The flaw works like this:

When you or I meet someone new, we observe how that person acts for the first minute or two, and then assume that that he or she acts that way all of the time.

The people conducting your pre-exchange interview will also suffer from this flaw. They’ll assume the way you conduct yourself in the first few minutes of your interview is the way you conduct yourself all of the time.

Is this a bad thing?

Not necessarily. In fact, here’s how you can make that flaw work for you:

If you come across as being professional and courteous during the first couple of minutes of your exchange interview, the interviewers will assume that you behave professionally and courteously all of the time.

You can make a great first impression on the interview panel by doing the following:

  • Dressing conservatively and well – Males should wear a button-up shirt and trousers (no jeans), and black leather shoes. Females should wear a skirt or dress.
  • Being punctual – Plan to arrive at least half an hour before your scheduled interview time, and phone in advance as soon as it becomes apparent that you are going to be late
  • Greeting them appropriately – Shake the hand of each person on the panel and calling each person on the panel “Mr X” or “Ms Y”, or “Sir” and “Madam” once they’ve introduced themselves
  • Smiling – It costs nothing, but makes a big difference to how people perceive you

8. Know what questions to expect, and how to answer them

You can’t anticipate every question that the interview panel is going to ask. However, it’s likely that the questions the panel will ask you will include the following:

“Why are you interested in going on exchange”?

  • Purpose – Usually, this will be a “warm-up” question which is intended to break the ice and help you settle into the interview
  • How to answer – There is no right or wrong answer, so answer as honestly as possible

“Tell us about yourself”

  • Purpose – This is another “warm up” question, although it can also help the panel to assess how you go with introducing yourself to strangers
  • How to answer – Don’t ramble or tell your life story – six or seven key facts about yourself is sufficient. If the panel hasn’t already asked you why you want to go on exchange, mention the reasons at the end.

“Why do you think you’d make a good exchange student?”

  • Purpose – To assess how well you understand the role and desirable traits of an exchange student
  • How to answer – Reiterate some of the facts from your written student exchange application which demonstrate why you’d make a good exchange student.

“Tell us about your strengths and weaknesses”

  • Purpose – To test your honesty, maturity and self-awareness. Generally speaking, the most successful exchange students all share these traits.
  • How to answer – Don’t brag about what you consider to be your strengths. When it comes to discussing weaknesses, mention one or two – no need to go overboard! – and discuss what you do to overcome those weaknesses

“Why have you applied to go to (country X)? If you miss out on selection for (country X), would you consider going on exchange to another country?”

  • Purpose – To uncover your motivations for going on exchange and simply to find out whether you’d be open to going on exchange to a country other than your first choice.
  • How to answer – You can and should be totally honest when answering this question. Don’t say that you’d be happy to go to France if your heart is really set on going to Spain – you may well be sent to France. If you are sitting in a Rotary interview, for example, it’s quite OK to say that if Rotary doesn’t offer you an exchange to Spain, you’ll consider applying to another exchange program.

“What would you do if you weren’t getting along with your host family?”

  • Purpose – To assess your judgement and knowledge of how to solve problems appropriately
  • How to answer – If you have an issue with your host family that you can’t resolve directly with the family, you need to contact your exchange program coordinator or counsellor.

“Can you give an example of a difficult situation you’ve been in, and talk about how you overcame the difficulties?”

  • Purpose – Again, the purpose is to assess your judgement and resourcefulness
  • How to answer – Try to think of a situation where you faced a challenge similar to those faced by exchange students – where you had to act without the support of your biological parents, or were in a different culture, or had to overcome communication difficulties. The focus of your answer should be on the solution you found, rather than the problem itself.

9. Answer all questions professionally

Exchange Student Interview
Boulder, Colorado (Photo: Pedro Szekely/Twitter)

Irrespective of the specific questions the exchange interview panel asks you, there are a few basic rules you need to follow when answering their questions in order to make a good, professional impression on the panel.

First of all, you are going to establish and maintain eye contact with the members of the panel while you answer each question. Many people find a lack of eye contact disrespectful and evasive. Conversely, making eye contact conveys an impression of confidence and certainty in your answers.

Then, you are going to use appropriate language to answer the panel’s questions. Remember, you aren’t talking to your school friends. You are talking to a group of 40- or 50-something adults who are most likely in the middle of a long and tiring day of interviews. You need to cater to your audience by:

  • saying “yes” and “no” instead of “yeah”, “yup” and “nope”
  • not using the word “like” unless you are expressing your affection for a particular thing
  • never, under any circumstances, swearing in your exchange student interview (even mild variants like “crap” are a no-no)

Also, try not to ramble. In general, you want to give “Goldilocks” answers, which are not too long, not too short, but just right. Two or three examples in support of each answer you give is plenty.

Within reason, you need to defer to the panel. In the event a panel member corrects you, or disagrees with something you say, just thank him or her by saying “Thank you, I wasn’t aware of that” or something similar. Arguing with a panel member about a particular fact or situation won’t get you the exchange you want.

10. Wrap it up well to leave the panel with a good final impression

When the interviewers from the exchange program have asked all their questions, you’ll most likely have a very strong urge to get out of the interview room.

Not so fast. There are still a couple of things to take care of.

Use your question to the panel to make one more positive impression

First of all, the panel may tell you that the interview is over and ask you if you have any questions before leaving. Most people are so keen to escape that they just say “no”. In doing so, they pass up a golden opportunity to make one final, good impression on the interview panel.

If the exchange interview panel asks you whether you have any questions, I recommend asking the following:

If my application with [Rotary/AFS/YFU/other program] is unsuccessful, is there anyone I can call to discuss the reasons why I wasn’t successful, and learn how I might do better next time?

This is a great question for a number of reasons:

  • It shows that you are humble enough to have considered the possibility that you won’t be successful
  • It demonstrates a willingness to learn from your mistakes
  • It lets the panel know that you are interested enough in going on exchange to consider re-applying if you aren’t successful the first time around

Try it.

Thank the panel members sincerely for their time

Don’t leave the interview room without saying thank you to your interviewers. They most likely are volunteers who have given up their weekend, evening or other spare time to interview you.

There is no need to go overboard – just say something like “thank you all for your time, it was good to meet you” in a way which shows that you mean it.

11. Don’t over-analyse the interview afterwards

Once your exchange student interview is over, the very best thing you can do is forget about it.

Think about it:

You can’t change anything once the interview is done.

There’s also no objective way of knowing whether you performed well or not. In fact, you are almost certain to believe that your interview went significantly worse than it actually did.

Also, a watched pot never boils. If you spend every waking minute obsessing about your interview and wondering how you went, the time until you find out the outcome will drag on and on.

So, let it go. Go back to your ordinary life. Focus on school and sports and music for a couple of weeks until you hear the outcome of the interview.

If you worry about the interview and your application in the meantime, just spend some time thinking about the Plan B I talked about under heading 1 above. There are always other options for you to explore.

Good luck,

Matt

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.

But:

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

Why?

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)

Look:

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.

to:

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.

Instead:

  • 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,

Matt