Want to Study Abroad in College? Here’s How It Can Help Your Career

A college student poses for a picture
Arielle Zimmerman poses for an Instagram photo to celebrate International Education Week during an education abroad fair at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg on November 6, 2018. Zimmerman is a junior. Chris Zuppa/The Penny Hoarder

In a career workshop focused on teaching University of South Florida (USF) students how to constructively talk about their study abroad experiences, some descriptions were banned from the discussion.

Amazing. Awesome. Life changing.

Studying abroad no doubt ticks all three boxes. So why were they banned?

“We want to see students dive in a little deeper,” says Chris Haynes, assistant director of student services at USF’s education abroad office.

By dive deeper, Haynes means that he wants students to articulate exactly how their study abroad experiences translate to tangible skills.

Whether applying for grad school or trying to land a good job right out of college, the experience of studying abroad prepares students for the future in several ways that might not seem wholly evident at first. But the benefits are certainly there to stay.

(If you’re worried about the price, we’ve already got you covered: Here’s how to study abroad cheap — or free.)

Distinguish Yourself From Other College Grads

A member of college faculty greets students
Chris Haynes greets students and faculty during an education abroad fair at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg on November 6, 2018. Haynes encourages students to talk about how study abroad translates into tangible experiences. Chris Zuppa/The Penny Hoarder

In today’s economy, employers are looking for experiences and competencies, which are difficult to obtain in college by just going to class and studying. It’s not that those are bad things — they are just not the only things that matter when preparing for the workforce.

Research shows that students who studied abroad had better GPAs, retention rates and graduation rates. The experience particularly motivated students who weren’t the best academics before going abroad.

Studying abroad also helps alumni stand out from their peers, as less than 9% of bachelor-degree seeking undergrads studied internationally in the 2016-2017 academic year, which is the latest data from the Institute of International Education (IIE).

“Employers look very positively upon study abroad,” said Lesa Shouse, director of the career center at USF’s St. Petersburg campus. “And I think it’s going to continue to grow.”

In October 2017, the Institute of International Education released a comprehensive study that examined the employability of 4,500 study abroad alumni.

Dr. Christine Farrugia, deputy head of research at IIE and author of the study, said there’s been an assumption in the higher education industry that studying abroad helps alumni land jobs. But she wanted to put that assumption to the test with empirical research.

The biggest takeaway?

“There is an association between studying abroad and positive career outcomes,” she said.

Some of the other findings were a little more surprising. STEM students who studied abroad felt that they particularly benefited. Farrugia explained that’s because their peers tend to focus too much on technical skills.

“What better way to stand out on a resume or in an interview?” Haynes said.

Develop and Sharpen Your Soft Skills

University of South Florida St. Petersburg freshmen Summer Devlin, 19, participates in a presentation about the Gillman Scholarship at the Nelson Poynter Memorial Library on Nov. 7, 2018. Devlin is planning to study Spanish and bioengineering in Madrid, Spain. She will study Spanish and bioengineering. Tina Russell/The Penny Hoarder

For a long time, there’s been a persistent narrative for college students: You need engineering, computer science or coding skills, and STEM jobs are the best paying and most in demand.

But that’s not really true.

The Washington Post reported in December 2017 on the findings of a Google experiment on its own hiring and promotion practices. Conventional wisdom would tell us that the best coders or computer scientists probably performed the best at the company, right?

Wrong. Google audited all of its recruitment data since 1998 and found that the top factors of career mobility within the company are all soft skills — problem solving, communication and insight into others.

And according to Dr. Farrugia’s research at IIE, study abroad alumni reported huge increases in those exact skills. In her research, she defines these skills as the “most desired by 21st century employers.

The National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) also defined the best career-readiness skills to have as a college graduate, which included:

  • Critical thinking and problem solving.
  • Oral and written communication.
  • Professionalism and work ethic.
  • Teamwork and collaboration.
  • Global and intercultural fluency.

In terms of career trajectory, these skills also happen to be highly desirable traits for managers.

Can you see where I’m going with this? Studying abroad is a singular way to strengthen or develop all of those skills simultaneously.

It helps you “prepare for long-term career planning as well as that immediate job post-graduation,” Shouse said.

“As your career progresses, and as you get into the working world,” Farrugia said, “you’re going to find that… technical skills are important but not enough.”

Use Study Abroad to Nail the Job Interview and Land Your Dream Job

Flags celebrating International Education Week frame students walking by at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg on November 7, 2018. Tina Russell/The Penny Hoarder

Recent college grads likely don’t have years of work experience, but study abroad experience can really set you apart. Being prepared to talk about it on your resume, in your cover letter and in the job interview is key.

“If you’re not prepared to talk about your study abroad,” Farrugia said, “the person interviewing you may not ask about it directly.”

Not all employers are on the same page about the benefits of studying abroad, Shouse said. While significant progress has been made in recent years, it’s still up to you as a job seeker to connect the dots for them.

The best way to bridge that gap is by preparing for the questions interviewers commonly ask.

“You’re going to have some kind of questions about how you deal with people that are different than you, or how you deal with difficult people,” Shouse said.

Bingo. Those kinds of questions are ripe for study-abroad anecdotes.

“It gives you those concrete examples that interviewers are looking for,” Shouse said. “You’re able to talk specifically about an experience and how you learned from it.”

So yes, studying abroad is amazing and awesome and life changing. But at the end of the day, it will also help you land a job.

“We’re not doing it just to send students to Spain,” Haynes said. “We’re trying to prepare them for the workforce.”

Adam Hardy is an editorial assistant at The Penny Hoarder. He studied abroad as a low-income, first-generation college student. That gave him the confidence to move to South Korea, where he taught grade-schoolers and North Korean refugees. Read his full bio, or say hi on Twitter @hardyjournalism.