Adjusting academically to studying abroad

Sarah studied Comparative Literature at Queen Mary and studied abroad at Yale-NUS College in Singapore. She’s taken some time to reflect on the academic differences and challenges she experienced from her study abroad period and advises you on some top tips that she wishes she had known before departing on a study programme overseas.

If there is one thing I wish I had known before studying abroad, it is that adjusting to a new academic environment is hard.

It is not as if I did not know that adjustment would be difficult, or that I mistook studying abroad for a gap year. I knew that it would be difficult, but I was relatively confident in my academic abilities after having two years of university under my belt. As I would not be working during my time abroad, I figured I would be able to relax a little without the pressures of balancing work and study. Do not make the mistake I did in thinking this – studying abroad is not a break, and will probably be the hardest part of your degree.

I studied abroad at Yale-NUS College, a small liberal arts college in Singapore formed through a collaboration between Yale University and the National University of Singapore. Some of my classes had as few as 9 people in them, and my largest class had 18. Participation counted towards your grade, and engagement was high for all members of every class. Assignments were very frequent: one of my classes even required an assignment be submitted every day. This was a huge difference from the classes I had at Queen Mary, with large lectures, one or two assignments making up your final grade for a module and class participation not counting.

This resulted in many academic challenges. I often felt that I was two years behind my peers, who had been taking an entirely different curriculum to me for the last two years. Although I had learned a lot in my time at Queen Mary, it was difficult to express what I knew when it diverged so much from the curriculum at Yale-NUS, making class discussions difficult. Essay writing was also a huge challenge, as the style of essay I was expected to write was entirely different to that at Queen Mary. At one point, I felt so exhausted and knocked down by the academic adjustment, paired with all the other difficulties of adapting to a new environment, that I considered flying back to the UK.

However, if there’s another thing I wish I knew before studying abroad, it is that for all the difficulties one faces in adjusting academically, it is beyond worth it.

I grew on my year abroad, both as a person and academically. I stepped out of my comfort zone and developed new learning strategies to adapt, and ended up learning so, so much. I started going to office hours and seeking help from my peers, strategies which have made me a far better learner. I learned a new language and a new instrument, read books that changed my perspective on the world and took classes in areas outside my usual field. Being able to learn in different ways and in different areas helped me find my true passions, and I am now using many things I learned from my year abroad in my classes and in my dissertation.

If you’re considering studying abroad, I would advise that you keep these three things in mind when it comes to academics:

1- It will be a huge academic challenge, but you will make it through and it will be worth it.

2- Don’t be afraid to seek help! Office hours and the writers’ centre are there for a reason!

3- Be kind to yourself. Give yourself adequate rest, and don’t beat yourself up over a bad grade. Even the very best straight-A students will struggle with such a huge adjustment!

Yale-NUS College in Singapore

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