A Guide To Studying Abroad

Almost exactly two years ago today, I decided that I wanted to do a Year Abroad and honestly it was one of the best decisions of my life. Obviously, I know that everything regarding Erasmus+ programmes might change for the following generations; however, I thought that a guide to all exchange programmes might be of help to anyone who is interested but is unsure about applying. So I decided to write down everything I know about studying abroad, including information about applying, being abroad, returning to Durham, and things I wish I had known or wish I had taken more seriously before I applied.

Places to Go, Applications, And Requirements

Durham University offers its students three exchange programmes to choose from when applying to a Year Abroad. The conditions, applications, and requirements of all three are completely different so it’s important that you pay attention to which one you are eligible to, what the requirements are, and which one(s) you are interested in. 

MLAC Year Abroad

Modern Languages and Cultures students (including all students studying MLAC within a Combined Honours degree) have it a bit differently than everyone else. The MLAC Year Abroad is only available for MLAC students, as a YA is inherently included in their degrees. It logically follows that MLAC students will for sure go on a YA, which also means that the application process is in a way easier for them, than for others. However, before you start hating MLAC students, keep in mind that they have rather different goals than you do, so please don’t be mad.

MLAC students studying one European language (e.g. Spanish) spend a whole year in the European country where their language is spoken (e.g. Spain). MLAC students studying two European languages (e.g. Spanish and French) spend 6 months in one European country (e.g. Spain) and 6 months in another European country (e.g. France), where their languages are spoken. They can choose between various cities within the countries of their choice but they do have to apply to the ones they are interested in. (For more information about available places in European countries and YA plans for those studying two languages, one European and one non-European, please, contact your department.)

The requirements for MLAC students are also very different from the requirements for students applying to other YA Programmes. MLAC students study all or most of their subjects in the language(s) their degree is in at Durham. They can choose to take exams; however, they are not required to. At the beginning of Year 4, they have to write one or two Year Abroad Project(s) – again, depending on the number of languages they study. Whilst the project is compulsory and the grade does not count towards their degree, it might be taken into account when their overall (undergraduate) grades are discussed.

Overseas Year Abroad

The Overseas Exchange Programme is available for all Durham students (including MLAC students), and as the name implies it enables students to apply to Durham’s partner institutions, which are located outside of Europe. I think it is worth repeating, everyone is eligible to apply to these programmes, which means that an English Literature student will be up against Mathematics or Chemistry students, and vice versa. This means that these programmes are competitive, only about 33% of students succeed in getting into one of the placements. However, this should not encourage anyone, it is absolutely possible for anyone to get in. The key is receiving good grades in Year 1 (as long as your grade is a 2.1 or above, you should be fine), doing thorough research when applying to places, and having well-founded reasons for applying to those placements. ‘Well-founded’ in this context means giving sufficient reason how the modules you choose to study relate to your studies in Durham and will help your academic career when you come back.

When it comes to Overseas Year Abroad applications, students are required to fill out an application form, which entails personal details, university choices, module choices, some questions about the countries and/or towns one is planning to go to, and a personal statement. The application form has to be submitted to the International Office usually by the end of November (check the exact date on the website), alongside with an endorsement by the student’s department. A cross-Faculty selection panel reviews the personal statements, as well as the grades (from Year 1) of the applicants and informs them about the results around mid-December. (This also means that if you do not get in, you can still apply to an Erasmus Exchange Programme).

Students who were successful in securing a place to study overseas spend about 10 months in their chosen country. These students have to not only take all the exams in their host university but they also have to pass them. The grades they received whilst on a YA do not count towards their degree; however, their average might be taken into account when their overall (undergraduate) grades are decided.  If students fail to pass any exam, their degree name will not include the part about ‘with Year Abroad.’ In other words, it will seem like as if they did not do a Year Abroad in the first place. Finally, as opposed to MLAC students, students undertaking an Overseas Exchange Placement are not required to write a Year Abroad Project; once they receive their final transcript from the host university, they are officially done with their YA.

Erasmus Year Abroad

As for the Erasmus+ Exchange Programme, all partner institutions are located in Europe, including countries which are not part of the European Union. As opposed to the Overseas Programme, the Erasmus+ Exchange Programme is subject-specific, which means that instead of the university having partner institutions, it is the departments having connections with certain universities. In other words, you are only up against the students studying in your own department. This also means students from the ‘owning’ department are favoured over students not studying in that certain department. Combined Honours students are allowed to apply through any of their specific subjects, which means that they are allowed to choose any of their departments’ partner universities. For example, I am a Liberal Arts student, studying English Literature, Philosophy and Anthropology. Before applying I reviewed the options offered by all three of my subjects, and ultimately I chose to apply through the Philosophy department, as that was the only department having links with a university in the Netherlands.

The application process is similar to that of the Overseas Exchange Programme, students are required to fill out an application form, write a personal statement, receive departmental approval, and apply for funding. It is important to note for Combined Honours students that they need both of their departments’ approvals (e.g. in my case both the Liberal Arts and the Philosophy departments). The application form has to be submitted to your department by the departmental deadline, which is at the end of January. All applications are reviewed by the department and results are communicated around March. Erasmus+ applications are much less competitive than the Overseas Exchange Programmes, approximately 90% of applicants are successful.

Students who were successful in securing a place at one of the universities spend a maximum of 12 months in their chosen country. The language of education might be in the host country’s language, but most universities also have programmes taught in English. Similarly to Overseas Exchange Programmes, Erasmus+ students are required to take all the exams in their host university and they also have to pass them. The grades they received whilst on a YA do not count towards their degree; however, their average might be taken into account when their overall (undergraduate) grades are decided.  If students fail to pass any exam, their degree name will not include the part about ‘with Year Abroad.’ In other words, it will seem like as if they did not do a Year Abroad in the first place. Finally, as opposed to MLAC students, students undertaking an Overseas Exchange Placement are not required to write a Year Abroad Project; once they receive their final transcript from the host university, they are officially done with their YA.

General Advice

Before applying to any of the above-mentioned Exchange Programmes, you should definitely look into the opportunities that are available for you. In order to do so you should explore the university website (see above links) and you should contact your Academic Advisor and/or the Exchange Coordinator of your department. If in doubt, feel free to contact students who already attended a YA!

Studying abroad for a year is truly a unique opportunity, so have a look at your options and then apply!

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