How exchange students can make a good first impression

Abraham Lincoln noted that a reputation is like fine china – once broken, it is very hard to repair.

The same is true of first impressions. Once you’ve made a bad impression on someone else, it can take a lot of time and effort to undo that damage and change the way he or she thinks about you. Make a good first impression, however, and that person will usually remember and think about you in a positive way – even if you subsequently have a few “off” days.

Why do you need to make a good first impression?

How exchange students can make a good first impression
Flickr/Quinn Dombrowski

As an exchange student, you’ll meet many new people during the course of your exchange.

You need to make a good first impression on every one of those people.


Well, for starters, you’re basically starting your life from scratch in a new country, and will have no friends to start with. People will generally only want to hang out with you if you seem like a good person to hang out with. If you come across as friendly, uncomplicated and open, you’ll attract new friends. If you come across as unpleasant, self-centred and negative, you won’t. Unless you want your friend counter to be stuck on zero for twelve months, you have to prove to others that you are worthy of their friendship.

Second, the number of people you’ll be seeing on a regular basis and who are potential friends is actually quite small – maybe in the vicinity of 50 or 60 people. You’ll see your host family or families, your class mates, other exchange students, and that’ll be about it. No work friends. Probably very few sport or co-curricular friends. Not as many friends-of-friends or extended family members as you may be used to at home. The bottom line is that your pool of potential friends is quite limited. You can’t afford to turn too many of them off by acting badly, simply because there aren’t that many of them to start with.

Third, the blunt truth is that being friends with an exchange student is harder than being friends with a normal person. People need to speak slower so that you can understand them. You’re only going to be there for a limited time. Because everything is new to you, you may need a bit of hand-holding, even in relation to simple things like buying a bus ticket. People need to be assured that the extra effort they’ll make in being your friend is worth it. That may sound mercenary, but it’s true.

General tips for making a good first impression

First impressions Norway
Flickr/Vidar Flak

Having gone on at length about how your exchange is doomed if you don’t make a good first impression on others, it’s my sad duty to tell you that most people aren’t very good at it.

I sure wasn’t before I went on exchange.

However, here’s the good news:

Making a positive first impression on others is actually a skill that you can practise and become proficient at. You just need to understand a few basics.


People tend to read a lot into the way you greet them. They can take offence at things that seem trivial if you aren’t aware of them, like the firmness of your handshake.

So, play it safe, and do all of the following when greeting someone for the first time:

  • Be sure to smile. If you don’t feel like smiling – for example, because you’re stepping off a 24-hour flight from Sydney – fake it till you make it, and smile anyway.
  • Shake hands if appropriate and make eye contact while doing so.
  • Be sure to introduce yourself, ask the person you are meeting his or her name, and tell that person that you are pleased to meet him or her.
  • If the person you are meeting for the first time is older than you, consider addressing him or her with the title “Mr” or “Mrs” or their foreign-language equivalents.
  • If you are on exchange to a country in which a foreign language with a formal and informal voice is spoken, don’t forget to use the formal voice when addressing that person – for example, vous in French or Sie in German.


Something else to remember is that it is generally considered polite to address someone using their name, including people you’ve just met.

In certain countries, including Switzerland, it is considered rude to greet your acquaintances without using their names. If you see your friend Thomas in Switzerland, you need to greet him with “Hi Thomas” instead of just saying “Hi”.

Even if you aren’t in a host country with such a cultural rule, if you know someone’s name, including where you have just been told that name, use it when greeting him or her.

One of my colleagues at law school had a reputation for being a friendly and outgoing person. He seemed to have a prodigious ability to remember the names of people he’d met. I eventually learned that he had a notebook that he used to carry around. Every time he met someone new, he’d write down their name and a few key details, and commit those to memory.

Was that kooky?

Sure. But he kept it a secret, so no-one knew. What people did know was that he remembered the names and something about nearly every one of his 300 classmates, and was extremely likeable as a result.

If you aren’t great at remembering names, or just want to make a good impression, I recommend his kooky-but-effective notebook method.

Making conversation

Exchange students - making conversation
Flickr/Moyan Brenn

You can make a good first impression by being an easy and enjoyable person to talk to. If people like talking to you the first time, they’ll most likely want to talk to you again.

Don’t worry if you aren’t a natural conversationalist. Probably only 10% of people are. Again, the rest of us are faking it until we make it.

The truth is that making conversation is a skill that you can easily learn. There are really only four things you need to remember:

  1. People love talking about themselves. If you keep the conversation focussed on the other person, and don’t talk about yourself too much, the other person will most likely enjoy talking to you, and want to talk to you again. Keeping the conversation focused on the person you’re talking to is also very easy: just ask that person lots of questions, and show genuine interest in his or her answers. Don’t ask questions in a stalkerish, third-degree kind of way, but in a way which shows that you are interested in what the other person has to say
  2. There are some things that nearly everyone is interested in. You can default to those if you can’t think of anything else to talk about. For example, nearly everyone likes music of some kind. Nearly everyone is interested in travelling. Nearly everyone has been to the movies in the last month or so. Nearly every male has some interest in sport and cars. And so on.
  3. Steer clear of discussions about politics, religion, or money. If music, sport and travel bring people together, money, religion and (especially) politics drive people apart. Those topics polarise people and you can easily make others think you’re pushing a political or religious agenda. Avoid them if you can.
  4. Keep things light-hearted and positive. Don’t dwell on the negatives of your host country, or make unfavourable comparisons between your host country and your home nation.

As an exchange student, you’ll find that you develop a little “getting to know you” conversation routine because of the sheer number of new people you’ll be meeting all the time. As an exchange student, my unwritten routine of questions when meeting a new person looked something like this:

  • I would introduce myself and find out the other person’s name
  • The other person would usually ask where I was from, and I would tell them I was Australian
  • I would ask whether they had been to Australia, or travelled abroad, themselves. If we had both travelled to the same country, I would ask where and ask how the person had liked certain places or experiences.
  • I would ask where the other person was from – ie, whether they were born in the area or whether they had moved there from elsewhere in the host country.
  • I would ask what the other person did in his or her free time.
  • I would ask the other person whether he or she followed any sports.
  • I would ask the other person what sort of music he or she liked.

Your routine, when you develop it, will probably look quite similar.

Dress – the “adding one level of neatness” rule

People you meet for the first time whilst on exchange will think better of you if you’re dressed well and your appearance is neat and tidy.

A small hack to make a good first impression based upon your appearance is to dress one level “neater” than everyone around you. For example, if people at the school you attend in your host country generally wear jeans and a t-shirt to school in summer, wear jeans and a polo. If they wear jeans and a polo, wear jeans and a button-up shirt. By only taking it up one level of neatness, you won’t look too preppy. But you will look well-dressed, and make a good impression.

There is also a range of situations in which you will need to dress more conservatively in order to make the right first impression. These are:

  • Situations where the people you’ll be meeting are mostly aged in their 50s and above
  • Any time where you are giving a speech or presentation in front of a group
  • Times when you are meeting with high-ranking or important people – for example, your school principal, senior people within your exchange organisation, your local mayor or politicians from the area in which you’re being hosted

Making a good first impression on your host family

Exchange Students - Making a good impression on your host family
Flickr/Malte Kopfer

Your relationship with your host family is easily the most important relationship you’ll have as an exchange student. You need to get that relationship off to the best possible start.

Show that you’re willing and ready to fit in

You can make a good first impression with your host family by showing that you are ready to fit in as a member of the family. This means:

  • asking – preferably on day one – about your host family’s household routine. What time do they get up in the morning? What time do they go to bed at night? What are their arrangements for laundry, cleaning, ironing, and so on? Is there anything you can do to help around the home? Once you know the answer to these questions, try to fit in with that routine like any other member of the family.
  • finding out about your host family’s rules regarding lights-out time, the time they expect you home at night, internet use, use of their land-line phone, alcohol consumption, and whether you can have friends over to visit, and then abiding by those rules, from day one. These are some of the top “friction” points between host families and exchange students, and you need to learn your host family’s rules, and stick with them, from day one.
  • accepting invitations from your host family to go out, participating in family activities, and generally going along with the family’s agenda and movements. The deal with being an exchange student is that you will integrate into your family’s existing routine, rather than your family adjusting that routine to suit you.
  • limiting the amount of time you spend by yourself in your bedroom, and maximising the time you spend around your host family. Even sitting watching TV or reading a book in the family room while the family circulates around is a better way to build a relationship with them than holing yourself up in your room, alone.

Show that you’re serious about your exchange

Your host family will have an emotional stake in the success of your exchange. If you do well as an exchange student, your host family will feel that they have contributed to that success. If you don’t do well as an exchange student, they will feel partly responsible for your failure.

From the outset, then, you can make a good impression on your host family by demonstrating that you know what you need to do to have a successful exchange, and are prepared to do it. You can do this by:

  • Taking school seriously – including by attending full time, doing your homework, and otherwise participating in school life enthusiastically
  • Diligently studying the language of your host country, if you are in a country where you’re required to learn a new language
  • Showing from the outset that you are willing to adapt the culture and customs of your host country, and
  • Meeting any requirements of your exchange program

For more information on what will be expected of you as an exchange student, see my article on what you can expect as an exchange student.

Show that you are interested in building a relationship with your host family

Most of all, the members of your host family will be looking for early confirmation that you are prepared to establish a meaningful relationship with them.

Your host family is opening its house to you and wants to welcome you as a member of the family. Your host parents have volunteered to be your guardians and closest adults for the duration of your exchange; your host siblings are prepared to be your de facto brothers or sisters. They have all probably been looking forward to your arrival.

From discussions with former host families, I know that it causes a great deal of pain and disappointment to a host family when an exchange student arrives and seems uninterested in spending time with them.

Building a meaningful, deep relationship with your host family is straightforward. Mostly, it’s a simple matter of spending time with them. That means accepting their invitations, spending plenty of time in the common areas of their house, chatting to them about their day at mealtimes, helping your host siblings with their homework if required, and helping your host parents with minor chores if asked.

Things that will get in the way of you establishing a good relationship with your host family include:

  • you spending too much time on the internet, social media or being preoccupied with your smartphone
  • you spending a lot of time on the phone or otherwise communicating with your family and friends at home
  • you spending a lot of time alone in your bedroom – especially with the door closed
  • you spending the majority of your time with other exchange students, and
  • you not learning the language of your host country

Take note of these “do”s and “don’t”s, and be sure to work on your relationship with your host family, from the outset.

Making a good first impression on your classmates

Exchange students - making a good first impression - school mates

It’s also important to make a good first impression on your school classmates. After all, school is where you’ll be spending the majority of your time each day. You will make a good impression at school if your attitude, demeanour and behaviour make clear to people that:

  1. You want to meet, and make friends with, as many people as possible, and
  2. You want to fit in and be a normal member of your class and school communities

Meeting and befriending people at school

There will be multiple opportunities for you to meet your schoolmates during your first few weeks at school. You can get to know them whilst travelling to school if you are walking, riding a bike, or using public transport. You can get to know them in class and between classes. You can get to know them through school-based sport and co-curricular activities.

Make a big effort to go above and beyond these obvious opportunities. Once you make friends with someone, try to get to know that person’s friends, too. If you can do extra sport at lunchtime, or extra classes which will help you to mix with different people from your classmates, do that, too. Make it your mission to meet, and become friendly with, as many people as possible.

If you get invited to spend time with people – at lunchtime or after hours – accept the invitation. Be sure to smile and ask plenty of questions when you’re with those people, and thank them sincerely for inviting you. If your behaviour turns people off, you are unlikely to get a second invitation. Remember what Abe Lincoln said. You’ll only get one chance to make a good impression on these folks, so make it count.

Fitting in with your classmates

When you first arrive at your new school, you may be a bit of a celebrity.

As well as being a new student – which in itself usually makes people curious – the fact that you come from another country will give you added novelty value. People will most likely want to ask questions about your home country, comment about your accent, and generally make a bit of a deal about having someone from overseas at school with them.

This attention can be enjoyable. However, it is superficial and won’t last.

The best thing is for you to try to blend in with your classmates as quickly as possible. You’ll earn their respect and acceptance by attending every class with them – no cutting class – sitting up, paying attention and participating in lessons as much as possible.

If there is a way you can help your class – for example, by helping them in a subject in which you have particular expertise – you should do it.

Try to get a feel for the culture of your class, find out what your classmates are interested in, and generally get to know how everyone else ticks. Be chatty, positive and open.

The message you want to be sending to your school mates at all times is that you like them and that you want to be a part of the school, rather than someone who stands out.

Other exchange students

Making a good first impression - other exchange students
Flickr/Agus Sutanto

Finally, you should try to make as good a first impression as possible on other exchange students.

It’s in your interests to have as many friends as possible amongst your fellow exchange students. The friendships you make with them are likely to be one of the most enduring legacies of your exchange. Also, the reputation you earn amongst your exchange student peers will attach to your home country. You need to be a good ambassador for your home country whenever possible.

Be a good friend

Students in US Army schools have traditionally adopted the unofficial motto “cooperate and graduate”. Those students know that the more they help and support one another throughout the rigours of army training, the more likely they are to graduate successfully.

The golden rule amongst exchange students should be “help each other and thrive”. The truth is that being an exchange student can be very hard at times. Like those army officers in the US, the more exchange students help and support one another, the better their chances are of having a successful exchange.

Certainly, if there’s one thing you should do in respect of your fellow exchange students, it’s to be as helpful as possible. When it comes to new exchange students, share as much of your accumulated wisdom as possible. Help them with language issues, reassure them about any cultural or language problems, listen patiently to their gripes about school and host family – the usual things which are hardest to adjust to – and forgive any naïve behaviour. Encourage them to call you if they need a hand or someone to chat to. Call them for a talk every now and then, to make sure they are settling in OK.

The same goes for your more experienced fellow exchange students. Even exchange students who’ve overcome teething problems and know their way around appreciate having a confidante and friend who is experiencing the same things as them. Show that you’re willing to be such a friend.

Good luck,




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