It’s easy to forget that it is not a vacation, but a study abroad. And while one of the most important criteria is the location, it’s not everything. Here are some things I (and my classmates) maybe should have considered about my own university abroad that I wish I had known earlier.

Do you get transfer credit? Are your necessary classes offered that term? Getting transfer credit is not a problem for many American universities who have signed an agreement with the foreign institution. However, if you are participating in an outside program, definitely talk with your advisor and credit examiner. One of my friends had to go back to her home university, finding out last minute that the courses she needed to take were not offered here this semester and no substitute classes were available. That’s an expensive plane ticket wasted and falling behind on classes back home.

Are your classes graded? Some universities use pass/fail, others use letter grades. If you come to HKUST and receive letter grades back home, you might need to work a little harder than you expected. The grades here are distributed on a bell curve, with the mean equating to a B-/C+. For many Americans, that’s a harder curve than they are used to back home. Also, a significant portion of my classmates are from mainland China, which (stereotypically, sorry!) make the mean even higher. One horror story that from a local is that a student got a 96 on their exam, but the mean was 99.- and the standard deviation was negligible, so they failed the course. I think that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but HKUST is known to the locals as Hong Kong University of Stress and Tension.

Living on- or off-campus? In a city as crowded as Hong Kong, the property prices are one of the highest in the world. Renting a tiny flat is as expensive as renting an apartment in New York City. University housing is subsidized, but there isn’t enough for everyone. Most locals commute 1-2 hours each way. I’m living with a host family, that my parents are close friends with. Living off campus really helps you get to know the local culture and a family, but living on campus can help you get to know a tight group of fellow exchange students and/or locals.

How well do you know the local language? Hong Kong’s official languages are Chinese and English. However, while you can probably ask someone on the street to point you in the right direction in English, it’s actually difficult to hold a conversation with them. The locals learn some English in school, but it’s mediocre. Most exchange students opt to take a Mandarin class here, but it’s also different from the less-spoken local dialect of Cantonese. Knowing Cantonese can help you better integrate into the local culture and help with ordering in restaurants and bargaining in the shops, but is no means necessary. Some of my friends definitely expected everyone to speak English fluently, but that has proven to be false.

Is the school location ideal for traveling? If you plan to travel to neighboring cities/countries, consider the accessibility to the airport/train stations. It takes 2 hours to get to the airport from my university. Going downtown to grab a bite to eat also takes a while. This last bit maybe helps you focus on your academics, but getting to know the city is a learning experience as well, right? Hopefully this helps some of you decide whether Hong Kong (or any other study abroad location and university) is right for you.

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