Top tips for that semester abroad

Rose Matheson had a bit of a culture shock when she spent a semester at a Canadian university. Reap the benefit of her experience

Click to follow
The Independent Online

The classic exchange student mantra is something like this: “I don’t need to study since I'm just here for the experience.”

That is partly true, but you still have to pass every course or be forced to say hello to another semester of university - and pay back any scholarship money!

At your orientation sessions you will be lectured on the effects of culture shock but these are often just novelties to students from Europe, in comparison to the shock you'll feel to your studying routine. Returning from a semester abroad in Canada, I can safely say that the academic culture shock was the biggest adjustment and I will briefly explain some of the the basic changes you might need to adapt to, or at least be aware of while studying across the globe.

I am known as a 'crammer' - I do all my revision the week before exams. It's not the most sensible technique, but alas it is still very popular within the student demographic. Canada is not very hospitable to crammers like me; there is no exam leave, only a single weekend before your final exam - and they also throw in midterms in the middle of the term alongside classes.

The last thing you want on exchange is to be overloaded with deadlines and stress but the silver lining of these stress-filled semesters is that they don't last long. Canadians don't have Easter holidays and so exams finish mid-April, weeks before your friends back home even begin! This gives you plenty of time to explore Canada, which is worthwhile after the mini ice age they call winter is over.

In the States, many universities follow the same system as Canada but some follow the 'quarter-system', which is similar to Europe: starting in September and ending mid-late May. Term times at institutions are generally the same in the Northern Hemisphere but the Southern Hemisphere is another story where you'll have to sacrifice summer holidays at home for a semester at university, but with undoubtedly more sunshine.

In North America you hear of people having 'minor' subjects, which allow students to take courses further afield from their chosen discipline well into the later years of their degree. This also applies to exchange students. You may have to take more modules per semester: around three to five, depending on the institution. Although this adds to the workload you get more freedom of subject choice and more general content. European and Australian universities use a different system, with fewer modules per semester which are tailored to the subject you are enrolled in.

Grading in Australia varies between universities as there is no general credit system like those in the UK. Australasian institutions generally have more assessments than we do, but North America is the worst for continuous assessments. Both regions focus more on participation and tutorials to stimulate discussion within the class whereas European, especially British universities, shy away from participation, meaning that teachers will sit and talk as if into into a video camera - very little interaction with the class. This difference in technique is due to the exam material being lecture-based because the prices of textbooks can be ridiculously high: it's cheaper to order them in from the UK and pay the delivery charges!

Due to the strong weighting on assessments, potentially as little as 10 per cent of your grade might come from the final exam - you may already have passed the course before you sit your final. With this system the majority of your workload will come at the start of the semester, making the transition into summer holidays an smoother experience.

After three years of training in high-speed essay writing for my final exams in Britain, you can imagine my glee when I sat a multiple choice exam while able to take in my textbook! Of course, this doesn't mean they will necessarily be easier, and although our exam technique has been perfected, multiple choice and searching through notes can catch us Brits off-guard.

There are perks and downsides to studying abroad and it's great fun until you realise you are meant to be there to study - but there are ways to make that part easier. Before you leave, it's a good idea to look up the teaching system of the university you will call home for the next semester so you know what is coming and can get a head-start.

Working out how the overall grades are distributed will allow you to work out when you can party and when you should actually take the wrapper off your textbook. Although it is important to pass the classes, ultimately it is important to remember that on exchange you learn more once you step outside of the library and see the country you are in.

Comments