An International Student's Guide to Navigating the Scholarship Search

An International Student's Guide to Navigating the Scholarship Search

The college financial aid process is already very confusing, but for international students trying to study in the U.S., it can become hugely frustrating. It’s difficult for many Americans to pay for school, and an international student has the added burden of having to prove that he or she can afford college in order to be awarded a student visa. So how does one get ahold of the money necessary to qualify?

The truth is that the amount of international scholarship opportunities are limited in comparison to what is available for U.S. citizens. Of course this has to do with tax collection as that relates to federal grants. The FAFSA, Perkins loans, or Stafford loans, which are common financial aid packages for U.S. citizens, are simply not available for international students. Also, in-state tuition (which is how many Americans afford local colleges) is not something that international students can take advantage of.   

Though the pool of money that is available is much, much smaller, the number of international students applying to U.S. schools is also much smaller than those who are citizens already — so don’t be too disheartened when you look at the sheer financial realities involved.

To assist you in the process, here are a few things to consider when looking into international scholarship applications.

Be ALERT! Don’t fall for scams

Sadly, I feel the need to put this as number one on my list of considerations. Unfortunately, there are people preying on the fact that international financial aid is such a difficult ordeal. They make promises about cutting through the red tape, but really it’s just a scheme to steal your hard-earned cash.

  • Be wary of companies that ask for “loan fees” or “application fees.” No valid scholarship will ask for this. In fact, no scholarship service will ask you for up-front money. Any that do are scams.
  • Scams include sites that claim to have exclusive lists or influence over those who are accepted for scholarship. I repeat for those in the balcony: No one legitimate will ask for your money up-front.  
  • Real scholarships will require some kind of exceptionalism on your part, be it for your academic merit or extracurricular prowess. If a scholarship claims to be given to all applicants, or doesn’t seem to have any criteria, it’s time to be skeptical!
  • Wouldn’t it be great if there was such a thing as “free money guaranteed”? Use this rule of thumb: If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.
  • Don’t give out any personal information that seems odd such as credit card numbers.
  • Don’t fall for a story about “unclaimed scholarship money” that is just waiting for people to take it. That simply doesn’t exist.

Something you can do to combat these scams, beyond just being wary, is to give yourself plenty of time to research any potential scholarship to verify its legitimacy.

And here are some links to a few legitimate scholarship sites:

Contact specific schools first

If there are programs you are considering, the best way to learn about scholarship money is to look specifically at the schools to which you are planning to apply. Many U.S. schools do have a pool of money for international students and want to connect with you. It is important to these universities that they maintain a diverse population and foster an international presence. Large universities often have a greater amount of money available for international applicants, but at some smaller liberal arts colleges, it may be easier to gain access to those funds. The top schools offering international aid are a mix of larger and smaller programs, but they are also some of the most selective schools in the U.S.—so take that into account when applying.   

Most colleges also feature International Student Offices (ISO). Try and speak with a representative at this office; he or she can point you in the right direction and make the transition to a U.S. college an easier one.

Know your other options

For example, Education USA is an excellent resource. Run by the U.S. Department of State and the Institute of International Education, this user-friendly site houses step-by-step instructions and reliable information regarding available scholarships. The site includes a center for advice as well as details on financial aid packages. is another comprehensive site with great resources and links to viable scholarship avenues.

The best advice I can give you is to allow yourself the time you need to wrestle through the options available. Understand that though it can be difficult, there is help available, and it just may take a little while to be sure that those resources are legitimate, and that you can connect with those in a position to assist you. 

The bottom line is, there is money available — particularly for those with good grades. Most international scholarships are merit based, so work diligently in school and it really can pay off, quite literally.

About the Author

Ryan Hickey is the Managing Editor of Peterson's & EssayEdge and is an expert in many aspects of college, graduate, and professional admissions. A graduate of Yale University, Ryan has worked in various admissions capacities for nearly a decade, including writing test-prep material for the SAT, AP exams, and TOEFL, editing essays and personal statements, and consulting directly with applicants.

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