Location, Location, Location
Would you be happier discussing globalization in Guangzhou or tracking turtles in Tahiti? Will your K'iche help you find a bathroom in Guatemala? How's the nightlife in Nairobi?
We can't answer these questions for you (except for the last one–it's wild). To pick a destination, you'll need to engage in a little self–reflection. Start thinking about what you're hoping to get out of your time abroad. A student looking for a challenging cultural experience or full immersion in a new language might choose a very different location than a student looking for great professors or a rigorous academic schedule.
Remember to keep an open mind and fully investigate your options. If you're a Francophile, you're probably drawn to Paris or Provence. But a program in a French–speaking African country could be stimulating in very different ways. Wherever you choose, it's always a good idea to speak to students who've studied in that country or area of the world before. Ask them about the good times and the bad.
Find Your Best Fit Study Abroad Program
As you begin to narrow down your locations, you'll also need to think about what type of study abroad program you'd like to attend. Your school may run its own abroad programs. If you attend one of these, you'll probably study with students and professors from your school. Another option is to attend a program run by another American college or university, or by a private company. The final option is to enroll directly in a foreign college or university. Some foreign schools establish special classes solely for Americans, while others allow you to matriculate and study alongside local students.
Your school will probably have a list of approved programs. Most colleges also have a process by which you can request permission to study at a program not on the list. Appeals like this can take time, so plan ahead.
Once you know the approved options, decide how much independence you need. Some programs arrange virtually everything for you, from group flight to medical services to credit transfers. At others, especially foreign schools in which you enroll directly, much of the initiative (and work) is left to you.
Unfortunately, there is no recognized standard of excellence for study abroad programs. Programs run by U.S. colleges or universities are likely to have high standards and accountability. There are many well-known study abroad programs run by private companies; still, standards can vary, so it's important to do your research. Foreign universities will probably treat you like one of their students, which can be a positive or a negative, depending on what you're looking for. Regardless, all good programs will readily put you in contact with their former participants.
Some programs are reserved for students with exceptional academic records, so keep those grades up! For example, you probably won't be able to study at Oxford with a 2.5 GPA. In addition, strong students are more likely to qualify for study abroad scholarships and grants.
Finally, remember that each student charts a different path. Your roommates' dream semester in Seville might be your nightmare semester. Make sure to find the location–and the study abroad program–that matches your interests and personality.