Study Abroad: Semester or Academic Year?

Everyone knows that deciding to study abroad in high school is a big decision. However, what some people don’t realize is that there are a multitude of smaller decisions that accompany this first one including what country to go to, what year of high school to spend away, and how long to spend studying abroad.

For students trying to decide how long to spend in their host country, there are two main options: semester and academic year exchanges. There are arguments for both, and, if you just can’t decide, you can always squeeze two exchanges into those short high school years and try one of each– take it from me, it’s a blast!

smiling girl with backpack and suitcase

But I realize that’s not for everyone. Having personally experienced the pros and cons of both semester and academic year exchanges, I can’t say that one is definitively better, but I can spell out the differences and hope that helps make the decision-making process easier. 

My exchange experiences were very different from each other in every way. My first exchange was fall semester of 2009. I studied abroad for five months in Muscat, Oman. I arrived in mid-August, when days were over 115 degrees Fahrenheit and nights dipped down into the 90s. Only a few weeks into my exchange, Ramadan, the Islamic holy month of fasting, started. It was just chance that I was in Oman for Ramadan, but I was so grateful to have such a rich cultural experience with my host family. While I absorbed an immense amount of cultural knowledge, my Arabic language skills made only baby steps as everyone reverted to speaking in English--Oman’s second official language--as opposed to speaking Arabic with me.

Muscat, Oman

While my time in Oman was very rewarding and insightful, it was also challenging and I felt like I left just as some of my friendships were starting to deepen. Two years later, I spent 11 months in Germany and had a very different but equally rewarding experience.

Germany’s traditions are more similar to those I’m familiar with at home (Christmas, not Eid, is the most celebrated holiday) yet the culture was still unique, providing many opportunities for me to learn and experience new things. Staying for 11 months meant that I experienced nearly all of Germany’s holidays over the course of the year.

German Christmas market

One of the highlights of this experience were my two young host brothers who spoke no English and became my personal German tutors. Their patience and consistent willingness to correct me was instrumental in my ever-growing German skills, which went from nonexistent to nearly fluent in that short period. Those language skills enabled me to cultivate deep friendships as well, especially in the final months of my exchange as I became more proficient in German. My progress became clear to me when I reflected on the fact that six friends attended my birthday party in February, while over twenty came to my farewell party in June!

I will admit that I was hesitant to spend my senior year abroad and give up opportunities like Student Body President, senior dances, and, of course, graduation. However, reflecting back on my decision a decade later, I can see how valuable my exchange was, and I have no regrets.

With my experiences in mind, here are the main differences I see between semester and academic year exchanges:


Perhaps the most objective of the factors, but something to consider nevertheless. Semester exchanges are shorter and therefore less expensive. That being said, they are more than half the price of academic year exchanges, so if it’s the dollar amount you’re looking at, semester exchanges come out on top, but if it’s bang for your buck, academic year programs win out. 

world map, calculator, and toy airplane


Academic year exchanges have a huge leg up on semester exchanges here. Students who learn language through immersion often say that they begin feeling truly comfortable in their host language around the 7-month mark – shortly after the semester students have gone home. If you view language learning like a snowball, those final months produce the most knowledge gain and make the early, challenging months feel worthwhile.


Similar to the language point, many exchange students say that their friendships in their host country really solidified around the 7-month mark, likely due, at least in part, to the newfound language skills. The friendships forged during semester exchanges are not likely to last as long, simply due to the fact that they had half the amount of time to grow deep. Personally, I remain in touch with far more friends and family from the year in Germany than from my semester in the Middle East. I think this point is especially true if a language barrier exists at the beginning of the exchange, and less true of students who were fluent in their host language on day one.

four teens holding a smiling teen girl
High school involvement

For many high school students, the thought of leaving home for an entire year of high school deters them from exchange. Whether you’re an athlete that doesn’t want to miss a season or a senior who wants to graduate with your class, semester exchanges can provide the valuable and exciting exchange experience without the sacrifice of an entire year. 


Different countries observe different holidays and traditions. The longer you are in country, the more you will be able to experience. If you are set on a semester exchange, look at what holidays and events will be happening in your host country during the fall vs. the spring to help you get the most out of your experience. An academic year exchange will always allow for a greater understanding of the host country and culture, but don’t underestimate how much can be absorbed in one short semester!

two Japanese women with lanterns behind

Exchange is valuable, exciting, and unforgettable, no matter the length, and there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to an exchange experience. I hope that whatever you decide, you are able to soak up the richness of your host culture and make the most of every moment along the way!


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Tags: Cultural Exchange, Study Abroad, Youth Exchange

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