Preparing for College

College Admissions Impact of Senior Semester Abroad?

Question: Given that there is so much emphasis on first-semester senior year grades, how do colleges view a student who chooses to spend the semester as an exchange student in a Third World country?

That's a good question. In most cases, colleges will be far more intrigued by a student who has spent a semester on exchange than one who is doing the same ol' stuff at home, no matter how successfully. This is especially true if the semester is spent in a Third World nation or anywhere that's off the beaten year-abroad path.

Obviously, if possible, the student should submit an essay (either supplementary or primary) about his or her exchange semester. Often, an essay that focuses on a very specific topic or on one particular unusual experience carries more clout than a generic treatise on "My Four Amazing Months in [Country]."

Students who study abroad in their senior year should encounter few barriers when it comes to college admission (other than the complications of completing applications from afar. Those without Internet access will be far more handicapped than those who can get online, even if it's not 24/7). They will generally find that admission officials--while admittedly increasingly jaded by the huge volume of today's applicants who have logged time on foreign soil--still do have extra respect for those who go on exchange for an entire semester or year, rather than merely spending a weekend in Montreal with the high school French Club. In fact, potential problems more often crop up at the student's high school than at target colleges. Prospective exchangees, for instance, should make sure they won't be shy a mandatory English credit--or any other--that the home high school demands. They should also find out how grades earned overseas will affect class rank--if at all. Aspiring valedictorians, in particular, might want to check into how their exchange-semester transcripts will be evaluated when the final ranking is done. SAT or ACT testing may be possible while abroad, but ideally it should be completed in the spring (or possibly in January, depending on the student's return date and application deadlines). Seniors who head abroad may also have to turn down school leadership roles, if they won't be around to wield their gavels.

Overall, if your child is willing to pass up the final Homecoming dance, heading the Debate Society, or other traditional senior activities, then spending the first semester away could be a valuable experience and one that might enhance admission odds and certainly not diminish them.