To put it simply, you should put in as much work on your program as you would at Bowdoin, over an equivalent period. It is vital to understand that other institutions' academic calendar is often different from, and in certain areas incompatible with, Bowdoin's semester system. In the program options list you will find the Bowdoin academic period for which each program offers an option of equivalent duration. Differences that you may find in specific regions are outlined below.
The issues here are not too complicated, and the system of preapproval used in Bowdoin's application process should help you, but there are a few potential traps to be aware of. Programs and universities use many different systems of measuring credit, and few are as straightforward as Bowdoin's. On most programs it is the number of credits earned that is significant, not the number of courses, since varying amounts of credits or points are awarded for different courses. In addition, in computing the number of credits you must earn, do not be misled by the fact that at some institutions you are regarded as a full-time student even if you are taking a reduced course-load, just as at Bowdoin you are considered to be a full-time enrolled student even if you have permission to take only three courses.
Students attending institutions on the semester hour system should complete 15-16 semester hours or credits per semester; it is common (though there are many variations) to take 5 courses a semester, each carrying 3 semester credits/hours. In the semester hour system, a normal full load of 4 courses at Bowdoin would be equivalent to 16 hours. Many programs will describe their full load as a range, often 12-18 credits; note, however, that a student taking less than 15 credits in this system is not taking the normal full load. The many institutions using this system include DIS, IES, NYU, and Temple University.
At institutions on the British three-term model or the quarter system, a single quarter or trimester is not of equivalent duration to a semester at Bowdoin. Students must complete either three terms over a full year for 8 Bowdoin credits; or, for 4 Bowdoin credits, either the two terms that run from January to June or an autumn term supplemented by a presession. The standard system in the UK awards 120 units of credit a year; so over two trimesters or one semester a minimum of 60 units must be taken.
Universities in Australia and New Zealand have their own systems: for full credit at Bowdoin the required semester load is 50 credits at Melbourne; 24 at Sydney; 12 at James Cook; and 60 at Otago. In South Africa, the University of Cape Town has recently adopted a system requiring 72 credits (NQFs) a semester.
In order to complete Bowdoin's OCS application properly, you must understand how many credits you need to earn in the system of your host institution. Establish early on how many courses you will need to take to earn those credits, and in which areas. But it is a very good idea to list more courses on your application than you would be able to take, in case any are ultimately not offered or do not fit your schedule. If you are confused by your program's system, please consult the OCS Office.
Keep in mind the difference between general or graduation credit at Bowdoin (the 32 course credits you need for the degree) and credit toward the major or minor, which is determined by each academic department. The final decision on graduation credit and distribution requirements is made by the Registrar and Recording Committee; the final decision on major or minor credit is made by the appropriate academic department.
Here are the most important rules to follow in order to transfer non-Bowdoin credits for a full semester (4 course credits) or year (8 course credits) on a program for which you have been approved:
Since the nature of the curriculum can be very different in foreign universities, it is possible to end up taking a course that is too easy or too difficult for you, either of which will endanger your credit. Pitfalls include enrolling for a course that covers a substantial amount of ground already covered at Bowdoin; taking a course that requires experience in parts of the field with which you are unfamiliar; and assuming that a "third-year course" is at the same level as a course you would typically take as a junior at Bowdoin (in England, for example, most undergraduates take three-year degrees and reach university with a more specialized grounding than most American first-years).
Most foreign English-speaking universities expect students to work more independently than is customary in American colleges; many base a high proportion of the grade on a final exam. British and Australian students, for example, routinely underplay the amount of studying they do, and are also more experienced than Americans at writing polished examination answers in the allocated time. American students who misunderstand the system risk performing poorly in the exam, and failing the entire course as a result.
You are responsible for ensuring that at the end of your program the institution sends an official transcript to the Office of the Registrar at Bowdoin. (Many programs ask you to sign a transcript release as part of the application process.) The total of transferred credits will appear, with the name of the issuing institution, on your Bowdoin transcript. Off-campus study grades are not entered on the Bowdoin transcript, or calculated into the GPA.