Five Important Tips for International Students Who Need and Want U.S. Financial Aid

A note from the author: The content of this article won’t help every applicant: every situation is sensitive and unique, and education is continuously changing. However, I want to be transparent that my goals are to give you context, steps, and tools for further research so you can be empowered in your next decisions.

—Disclaimer: For the purposes of this article, an “international student” is a student who is a “nonresident alien”—not a  U.S. citizen, U.S. national or eligible non-resident, who has not passed the green card test or the substantial presence test—, regardless of where the student completed his/her high school education. “College” and “university” are also used interchangeably.

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Are you looking for financial support for college? This Step-by-Step Financial Aid Guide for International Students is your go-to resource. You’ll find that financial aid comes in several forms for international students: merit-based, need-based, or a combination of both. The tips below are suggested to help you maximize money available to you in all of these areas.

Ok, here are five important things international students who want or need U.S. financial aid:

1. Do your best in high school (the best way to prepare for any financial aid) 

Regardless if the total cost of attendance for college is 500 USD/year or 70,000 USD/year, your eligibility for financial support to college overseas will dramatically improve if you have made the most of your time in high school. 

Merit aid is defined by each university and often based on outstanding academic achievement, and engagement within an academic context: are you making the most of your classes? Exams available to you? Clubs? Relationships with your teachers? Engagement in the major you are interested in? Other scholarships rely on your involvement and interest in charity or school activities, contributing to positive community engagement. There are also scholarships that factor in a limited ability to pay for college with a cut-off above-average grade/grade point average (GPA) to be eligible; so, make your total qualification count. 

Remember: university admissions representatives are trained in context. That means each country, school, and student is read with the understanding of what opportunities the student is offered and what that student does with them. Admissions representatives are culturally sensitive—and they understand that not all students have access to service learning, for example. But students can also understand that activities can include anything building and deepening skills.

Remember too that if you’re applying to an undergraduate program abroad in English, utilize opportunities during high school to maximize the use of your English skills. If formal English training and preparation is unreachable for you, take simple steps, like changing subtitles to movies in English, installing Grammarly, and using the DuoLingo app

2. Identify how much you can actually afford 

Before you search for colleges, discuss openly with your family what you can afford, and also what is comfortable/ideal for them to pay (sometimes, these are two different answers). 

Financial aid comes in several forms: this wonderfully detailed podcast— Financial Aid Tips for International Students (and their Counselors)—will help you understand more about the process. Learn about common mistakes and what you need to know about receiving financial support in the U.S. in particular. We highly recommend you take the 40 minutes to listen to this podcast before you dive into the rest of the tips listed in this article.

It is also wise to learn how colleges evaluate your financial situation. Colleges normally want you to submit a letter from your bank, including your account balance as part of the International Student Certification of Finances (here’s an example), tax returns (here’s another example) and/or a Financial Aid Application (yet another example). In the U.S., some colleges will ask you for the College Scholarship Service (CSS)/Financial Aid PROFILE form.

Here’s another highly recommended podcast about Which Schools are Most Generous with Financial Aid (for students applying outside of the U.S.)

Comb through the financial aid pages for the colleges you’re interested in to know exactly how much they can match your demonstrated financial need combined with scholarships, and check if it matches the number you indicated that you can afford for college. You might find explicit information such as this: “We estimate that a student awarded a full-tuition scholarship must demonstrate a minimum financial contribution towards their education of $14,000 annually to cover the expenses.” Or, you might have to do some digging around. Write the financial aid office directly if you have any questions, especially if you know you need a scholarship. You will find that financial aid officers are very helpful. 

3. Be realistic: look at universities outside of the U.S.

Financial aid is extremely limited and competitive for non-U.S. students applying to U.S. schools. In addition, tuition, room and board in the U.S. for four-year colleges averages at about 40,000 USD/year, so finding full or partial scholarships to reduce the total cost of attendance can be very challenging. 

If you open up your options to studying outside of the U.S., you will be pleasantly surprised. You can find bachelor’s (and even graduate) degrees in English in countries such as Estonia, Hungary, Czech Republic, Italy, and Poland (among others) starting at a total of 10,000 (USD) or less per year—that includes tuition and living expenses.

We wrote a guide with 20 university options for you to consider in order to make your education more affordable. Check out: Schools That are Actually Cheap: Affordable Options Under 10,000 USD/Year. Speak another language such as French or Spanish? You can broaden your list to include degrees in languages other than English. In addition, you can find scholarships offered by the college based on need and/or merit to further reduce the total cost. 

Learn more about How to Develop a Great College List When Applying to Schools Outside the U.S.

Admissions to Non-US Universities: Tips and Benefits from the National Association of College Admissions Counseling  gives an excellent country by country breakdown of popular destinations—Australia, Finland, Japan, Norway, and more—, including country profiles, admissions deadlines, tuition fees, housing details, visa information, and more. 

4. Use local support 

Apply to local universities.

Remember to create a plan of applying to local universities, even if you are planning on applying outside of your home country. Make sure you take any entrance exams on time, and inform yourself thoroughly about the opportunities available to you. Also keep in mind that if your dream is to study abroad, it does not have to start and finish with an undergraduate degree. Work on forming a plan for graduate level studies outside of your home country by educating yourself as much as possible: you might find yourself surprised by the possibilities. 

Find your local EducationUSA advising center.

EducationUSA has 400+ advising centers worldwide to assist you in accessing U.S. higher education opportunities. Most centers can connect you with university administrators, host college fairs, can speak to you in your native language, provide you with a computer with Internet access, advise you about financial aid, and more.

Look for government sponsorships.

Some countries offer foreign study funding for their own nationals through government organizations. This funding could be contingent upon being admitted to a specific institution, studying a specific track, and/or returning to your home country once you graduate to work in a certain field or within a certain organization. 

Reach out to local college advising mentors.

In addition, many countries have volunteer organizations to guide you through the college planning and admissions process, and can even support you with plane tickets, test fee waivers, and more. For example, Education Matters supports Zimbabwean students and BRASA aids students in Brazil. 

Virtually, The Matchlighters Scholarship offers free college application counseling for high-achieving, low-income students from experienced college counselors to students from the U.S. Acceptance to these programs is competitive though, and it is always recommended that you begin early. 

Search for citizenship-specific scholarships.

Value your citizenship. For example, there are wonderful EU Scholarships for Western Balkan Students, and students with citizenship in countries with low economic development have tuition reduced from 2500 USD/year to 840 USD/year to Ca’ Foscari’s undergraduate programs in Venice, Italy.

5. Budget for out-of-pocket expenses from application to college graduation

The cost of attendance of a college typically includes tuition, room and board, and fees. Most times, there is another figure stated for “indirect costs,” with items such as books, transportation, and personal expenses. 

However, there are additional expenses to consider in the college planning process while you’re still in your home country as well as when you arrive at college. Take a look at this overview. 

Costs to Consider in the College Planning Process

  • Application (check your availability for a waiver)

  • CSS Profile (for applicant to U.S. Schools)

  • Standardized tests such as Duolingo, TOEFL, or IELTS (if needed for English proficiency); SAT, ACT, SAT Subject Tests as well as score report fees; university entrance exams; language certifications/proficiency exams

  • Transportation/lodging/food to take standardized exams, visit embassy, attend college fairs, etc.

  • Passport

  • Visa/Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) Fee 

  • Round-trip plane tickets

  • Transportation from airport to college

  • Health and medical insurance

  • Local cell phone plan

  • Food consumed outside of the meal plan

  • Off-campus activities not sponsored by the college

  • Laundry 

  • Winter clothing

  • Computer (some universities specify preferred brands to make repairs easier)

Ultimately, stay optimistic and proactive in your search for financial aid—and remember that the college will help you plan many of these aspects if you ask for guidance. With some creativity, proper planning, and outreach in the process, you can reach your goals. 

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