Where or What?
The first thing you’ll need to do is decide whether where you study or what you study is more important to you.
If you’re already enrolled at a university in the United States or Canada, you’re probably on some sort of degree track, which means that if you want to graduate on time (whatever that means for you), you’ll have to take certain courses which will count for credit toward your degree. Fortunately, this doesn’t have to limit you too much as to your choices of where you’ll study abroad since with a little research, you can probably find a program that works with your degree in almost any major city in France.
Of course, if you’re really dead set on experiencing Bordeaux or Paris or Strasbourg for themselves, you could just take an extended vacation there, but often your best bet in this sort of situation is to take French language classes since they will almost always count toward a degree back home.
You’ll then have to decide on a program– whether faculty led, independent study, third-party provider, reciprocal exchange… The options can be overwhelming, so your study abroad office on your home university’s campus should be your first stop to gathering information about the programs available to you.
Many times, American universities will have well-established programs with partner institutions abroad, or they will have good working relationships with third-party companies like CEA who provide their own academic programs. For the first time traveler, a program led by a faculty member from your home university or a third-party program provider is a good bet, since they tend to provide more onsite support and planning (CEA, for example, offers all-encompassing package programs for a lump sum which includes pre-departure advising, housing, airport pickup, onsite staff, and more).
For the more seasoned globetrotter, a reciprocal exchange or independent study program will likely give you a more fulfilling experience and can save a lot of money by cutting out services and amenities you may not need if you already know how to live abroad.
Whatever you decide, you’ll need to start applying at least a semester in advance of when you want to study abroad, and you will need to visit your academic advisor at some point in order to get his/her approval for the courses you will take while abroad.
French Press TIP: Be sure to get more classes approved than you will actually take since course schedules can conflict with each other, classes can be dropped based on student interest or professor availability, or other unexpected changes. This will ensure that what you are able to take will still count for credit at home.
The time it takes to plan a semester abroad takes just as much time as you will spend in France once you’re there, so get going early, and brace yourself: it involves a fair amount of legwork, but the rewards are definitely worth it.
Next up: Everything you ever wanted to know about student visas for France