As you walk around the study abroad fair where fifty different programs are vying for your attention and tuition dollars and pick up the brochure for the semester in Morocco or a year in Beijing, you get a nagging feeling. I don’t speak Chinese or Arabic. Even if you’ve been studying the language since freshman year, the doubt is still there. Yeah, I’ve been studying for 2 years, but I don’t really speak Chinese or Arabic.

And that’s a problem.

What if you get to Rabat, or Shanghai, or Moscow, or Madrid, and discover that despite years of effort, your language skills are far behind? And worse, what if you have to take classes in the local university, speaking the local language?

You’re going to fail out of study abroad. Then you’ll never get into medical school or law school. You’ll won’t be able to get any decent job with a GPA that low. And admission into the honor society? Forget about it. That one semester will ruin everything, so you’d better stay home.

But wait. Before you rule out study abroad completely, you’d better check with your school’s study abroad office to see how they transfer grades.

While it may seem impossible to get decent grades while studying abroad, especially if you’re studying in a country that speaks a different language, the reality is that grade conversions are often as varied as the study abroad options themselves. What actually ends up on your transcript after a semester abroad often depends on the study abroad program you choose, your academic advisor within that program, and your home university’s policy regarding study abroad grades. It can be difficult to know what to expect.

Some universities take the grades at face value, like they would do for any American university. If you’re a student at UMass Amherst and want to transfer to Harvard, the admissions committee doesn’t contextualize your B in Organic Chemistry by saying, well, out of 100 students, only 4 got an A and 75% got a B- or worse, so that’s actually a pretty good grade. They assume that a B is a B, at any school.

Similarly, the programs you want to avoid expect that the courses at foreign universities are about as difficult as American universities. They don’t take into account the fact that you’re studying in a different system, in a different language, and under the stress of culture shock.

Some programs give you real, letter grades that correspond to American standards. On the French grading scale of 1-20, a 14 might correspond to an A, a 13 to an A-, and so on. If you get a 12, but there’s only one French student who scored above you, the program may credit you with an A despite the scale. Similarly, a grade of 9 is failing for a French student, but most American programs will still consider that passing. In other words, these programs contextualize and relativize your grades.

They also publish their scale on the program website, or make it available during orientation, so the grading process is completely transparent.  Combine a generous scale with the fact that some foreign professors are more indulgent of foreign students, and you may end up improving your GPA when you study abroad, especially if you have particularly strong language skills compared to your peers.

Finally, some programs assign grades on a pass-fail basis. This type of grading can be  advantageous, as professors, who don’t want to ruin relationships with exchange universities, are reluctant to fail exchange students. As one program advisor explained, you have to try hard to fail a class in this situation.

Nowadays, most study abroad programs recognize the delicate balance of encouraging students to study abroad by offering a reasonable grading scale, and maintaining the integrity of the foreign grading system by providing an accurate grade conversion. Programs and universities alike are sensitive to students’ need to maintain their GPAs to get into graduate school; study abroad programs typically provide some combination of options for grade conversion and pass-fail classes, while some universities only accept study abroad credits pass-fail.

So what’s the bottom line for your GPA?

The effect of study abroad on your GPA can vary greatly depending on the program you choose and your home university’s policy, so make sure you ask questions about both of these factors before you study abroad, and weigh them in your decision making process. In general, though, don’t fret. Programs wouldn’t be able to sustain themselves if students stopped studying abroad, so they have no incentive to ruin your transcript.

Study abroad is the experience of a lifetime. Don’t miss out because you’re worried about your grades.

[Photo credit: pagedooley on Flickr]