A Guide to Studying Abroad

Hi, I’m Gus and this article is meant for high school students in Brazil.

Wait, what? Why Brazil? Because I grew up in Brazil. Fine, so why are you writing in English then? Well, because you should learn English to study abroad. Regardless of where you want to go, United States, Canada, Europe, Asia, you should know English. The reason is because the most important and helpful resources available to you are in English! So learn English, go!

I have two goals with this article:

  1. To help you become a responsible global citizen who is involved in solving pressing social problems in the world. Examples of social problems you might care about are gender equality, accessibility, children’s rights, global warming, etc.
  2. To help you study abroad by providing an example timeline, starting at the first year of high school, with actionable steps you can take to accomplish your goals.

By the end of this article, I hope you realize how privileged you are and feel inspired to make the world a better place for everyone.


First year of high school:

  • High school is very different from middle school. Focus on your courses and on your health. Exercise! Go play a sport, go to the gym. Play an instrument! Go paint, draw. Make sure you’re happy, because that’s what really matters.
  • Put a lot of time into your language courses. Be efficient, do things you’re interested in (e.g., play online games, watch series, read books) in English. This will help you a lot in the future!
  • Most importantly, think about the problems you care about. Go big here, what bothers you in the world today? Why do you care about it? To help you get to the root of a problem, ask why, why, why, why, why. Five times. I learned this from my advisor. For example, I was late to work today. Why? Because I missed the bus. Why? Because my alarm didn’t wake me up. Why? Because I went to bed late. Why? Because I stayed up working on my Biology project. Why? Because I was playing Fortnite with my friends for too long yesterday. Well, looks like the root of the problem is time management. As you can see, there are many paths this can take you and different solutions might come to your mind. The more you ask why, the better your solution will be. To solve the example problem I presented, two solutions came to mind: I could set more (and louder) alarms so I wake up on time OR I could set up a time to play Fortnite and finish my homework before playing. The same idea applies to complex social problems. For instance, over 1/3 of the food in the world is wasted. Why? Your turn. Anyway, what I’m trying to say is that good solutions tackle the root of a problem. Asking the five whys is one technique you can use get there. If you want to learn more techniques that can help you throughout the process of solving complex social problems, I highly encourage you to look into design thinking. This will come in handy later.

Second year:

  • Time to make a change! If your school doesn’t offer opportunities to get involved in social projects, there are a few things you can do. First, talk to your teachers. Tell them what you’re interested in and ask them if they can point you to resources. Second, look for organizations currently working on problems you care about and search for opportunities close to you. Third, email companies, non-profits, and the government in your city: tell them your story (i.e., answer the questions: Who are you? What are you interested in? Why are you interested in it? How can you help them achieve their goals? How can they help you achieve your goals?). Try to get a summer job with them! This would be a great opportunity to learn more about what kinds of jobs are out there. I know this is not very popular in Brazil, so if you could just visit their workplace and shadow a few employees for a day to learn about what they do, that would be awesome. But try as much as possible to get hands-on experience! Finally, you can also start your own thing! For inspiration, check out Trisha Prabhu talking about how she created ReThink.
  • At this point, you’re also probably stressing out about what major to apply for college. Ugh, yeah, this is stressful, but you got this! There are so many factors that will influence your decision and they will be different for everyone. Don’t worry too much, at the end of the day, your major doesn’t matter as much as the experience you have. In college, you will realize that what matters the most are the people you meet and the side projects you get involved in, especially those related to social problems. Why do I keep talking about social problems? Because I really want you to work on things you care about and to solve real problems in the world. You want to study abroad? Pay it forward. Not everyone has the opportunities you have.
  • Finally, you want to study abroad. I know, this is why you’re reading this article! I only have experience applying for a bachelor’s degree in the United States, so this is what I will tell you about. However, this is definitely not the only way to study abroad. Do your research. To help you with that, most universities will have a link in their website that looks like “Admissions > Undergraduate students > Prospective students” and this is what you’re looking for. There are also websites that help you choose American universities, such as The College Board. While doing your research, you will quickly find out that studying in the United States is expensive! Very expensive. No problem! There are great universities abroad that are free. I know one called KAIST, in South Korea. To be honest, if I were in high school right now, KAIST is the university I would apply to. So yes, don’t limit your options to the United States.

Third year:

  • Well, now you know what to do! Now let’s get real with the applications. First, find resources to study for the TOEFL and SATs on the beginning of the year. Second, schedule your tests as soon as possible, ideally before June. Some schools might require IELTS or ACTs instead. I took the SAT, ACT, and TOEFL only once, which was a mistake. These tests are very different from vestibular. They are often easier, but require a lot more strategy. So you should take these tests as many times as you can to get comfortable with the format and to get a good score. Again, a good score here is relative. Also, keep in mind that these tests are expensive. Having hands-on experience on solving social problems, in my opinion, is more important than nearly-perfect scores on these standardized test.
  • You will also need a personal statement, which is this short essay about your story. Hopefully by now you found your passions and did something about it. Write about that! Talk about the challenges you faced on the way, how you did to overcome them, and what you plan on doing in the future!
  • For some schools you might need recommendation letters, this is why talking to teachers, visiting companies, and emailing people is important! This way they will also know your journey and it will be easier for them to write about you!
  • September, applications are open! Make a spreadsheet with school names, deadlines, and required material to submit, so you keep things organized. Have 4 to 8 schools that range in acceptance rates. Don’t be afraid of applying to highly prestigious schools. Keep in mind that schools often begin on the following year around August or September, as opposed to February in Brazilian universities.
  • If you don’t know what you want to study yet, that’s completely normal! And even if you do, you will probably want to change your major at least once during your program. Look for universities with a non-declared major system, where you can study without having a declared major. Yes, you can do that and it’s very common.

Thank you for reading this far. Hopefully this was helpful! Hopefully now you see the connection between studying abroad and having a social impact. Remember that if you’re not able to study abroad yet, there will be many opportunities in the future. If you keep working on social problems and are really interested in them, check out the United Nations University. The UN and UNICEF also have lots of internships opportunities in many countries and they need your help!

Want to talk more? Send me an email :)

Ok, bye!



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Gustavo Umbelino

Gustavo Umbelino


Technology and Social Behavior PhD student at Northwestern University