How Studying Abroad Taught Me to Write Essays

wing-221526_960_720.jpgI studied abroad twice as an undergraduate. After graduating, I spent a year in Germany with a Fulbright scholarshipwhich was administered by the Council for International Exchange of Scholars, a division of the Institute of International EducationAs a Ph.D. student, I spent another year in Germany researching for my dissertation. As an instructor, I advised many students in selecting a study-abroad programme and making the most of the opportunity to live and study in another country. And I met my wife when she was studying abroad at the University of British Columbia (UBC) in Vancouver.

All of this is to say: I am a supporter and advocate of studying abroad.

The opportunities I had to study abroad were invaluable in my intellectual development; they were foundational experiences in my professional career as well as my personal life. 


It’s not hard to find explanations of why studying abroad is so enriching.

  • According to UBC Student Services“[i]ntroducing yourself to the culture of another region by living, studying and working abroad builds independence, initiative and adaptability – important traits that employers are constantly on the lookout for.”
  • The Study Abroad office at the University of California, Berkeley, strikes a similar note: “We believe that knowledge, skills and experiences gained through academic and cultural immersion offered by studying and living abroad enrich the intellectual preparation of our students and fundamentally enhance the relevance of a Berkeley education.”
  • University College Dublin offers five answers to the question of why to go on a study exchange: adventure and travel; quality of learning; your career; communications; friendship; new learning environment; and having fun. 

My time studying abroad provided all of the advantages and met all of the expectations promised by these institutions. But studying abroad also imparted very specific skills. I learned how to research and write an essay and how to contribute to scholarly conversations.

I’d written plenty of essays for university courses before I arrived at Oxford University in the spring of 2000. As a history student with a minor in African studies, I had to write research essays in almost every class I took. Most of these papers were good. Some were merely good enough. One was in a third category. What they all had in common was the process: I’d do research; take notes; ask what story my sources and evidence could tell; advance and support an argument; hand in the essay; and then … wait. 

Weeks (or months!) later, I’d receive my essay back with a mark and comments. The form of the written comments ranged from a few scribbled words to multiple pages of in-depth, helpful criticism and suggestions. I remember one paper for a British history course on opposition to World War I in Wales. In his written evaluation, the professor expressed his surprise that I hadn’t addressed organised labour’s opposition to the war. He was right to point out this omission. It’s central to understanding the issue and I hadn’t mentioned it at all.

I read that comment alone in my residence. I didn’t have to justify my choices, respond to the professor’s critique or speak to the role of Welsh trade unions as a source of opposition to the British government’s war efforts. I had my mark. I had the comments to apply to my future work. I moved on. 


At Oxford, things worked very differently.

study-2208047_960_720.jpgFirst, we had tutorials. Not the North American kind of tutorials where fifteen students meet to discuss readings and course material, but rather weekly sessions with faculty in groups of two or three students.

We had essays due in tutorial every two weeks. And we didn’t hand them in and then wait a week or two to find out the paper’s strengths and weaknesses. Instead, we read the essays out loud and then responded, on the spot, to questions, challenges and critiques from both the tutor and our fellow students.

Had I produced a paper on opposition to World War I that failed to take organised labour into account in this environment, I would have been immediately asked about this facet of the issue. I would have had to describe the relevance of labour and explain its absence from my essay. I also had to engage with challenges to the interpretations and analyses that I included in the paper. Could a given source be read differently or a piece of evidence interpreted in another way? Why did I give so much weight to certain examples and not to this or that counterexample? Might another comparison be more illuminating than the one I drew in the essay?

The experience of discussing my essays and debating my conclusions changed the way I approached written assignments. Good enough was no longer good enough. Immediate feedback meant that I had to think through and be able to justify every component of the essay—what was included as well as what was omitted. Through this experience, my essays became the culmination of a process of thinking through a topic, question or problem rather than an exercise in marshalling convincing arguments until the word count was reached. I began to research more widely and pay more attention to counter-arguments. Most importantly, I came to see scholarship as a conversation and conceptualise my essays as contributions to ongoing debates.

This understanding of individual essays as building blocks in a larger edifice of knowledge informs EssayJack’s platform, which is grounded in interrogative methodolgies and prompts students to engage with other scholars, provide background on the academic discussion of their topic and incorporate counterpoints that complicate their arguments.

My semester abroad had a profound influence on my subsequent academic path. When I returned for my final year of study at my home university, I began work on a senior honours thesis. This was a full-year research project under the supervision of a professor with the goal of producing a thesis of about 100 pages. The process culminated in an oral defence. (Writing an undergraduate thesis will be the subject of a future blog post.)

The professor I approached to supervise this project was skeptical of whether undergraduates had the skills and discipline to undertake so much independent research and produce a thesis that maintained analytical focus. My experience with self-directed research at Oxford helped convince him that I was up to the task. Having discussed my essays in tutorials served me well at the oral defence, as I was prepared to see it as an opportunity to discuss my ideas with scholars and not get defensive. That in turn confirmed my desire to go to graduate school, gave me the confidence to apply and prepared me to succeed.


 All of this is to say that studying abroad, if you are lucky enough to do so, can give you many things:

  • academic skills that you might not get at your home college or university;
  • cultural awareness about different educational contexts, broadening your view of the world and ways of being educated in it;
  • confidence to navigate the big, broad world; and
  • you may just meet your life partner like my wife and I did!*

*And if you want another example…our EssayJack co-founders met while one of them was an international student … so you may meet your life partner AND your business partner while studying internationally!

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