How I Won $40,000 in Study Abroad Scholarships, and How You Can Too

Gamla Stan Sweden Travel | Packs Light

Scholarships are a college student’s dream. No, I’m serious, we dream about them.

Luckily I’ve figured out the sacred art of applying to scholarships, and to this day have racked up $69,264 in total college scholarships, of which $41,027 is being used exclusively for my two-semester study abroad this year in Dubai!

Unfortunately, I know that the #1 reason that people in general don’t travel is money. I mean, how many times have you heard people say that all they want to do is quit their jobs and travel the world?

Well, study abroad scholarships are an incredibly underutilized funding method, and can be easily attained… if you know what you’re doing.

I’ll start by breaking down my own scholarship allotments, and some information about them

Study Abroad Scholarships I’ve Won

Virginia Commonwealth University’s Dean’s Scholarship

AWARD AMOUNT: $3,519 x 2 semesters = $7038

HOW I WON IT: I won this scholarship through my school, VCU (Go Rams, Go!), when I was a high school student applying to VCU.

This scholarship was given to me as an incentive to choose to go to VCU, I believe, for three reasons: 1) I had an above average SAT score. My SAT score was a 2010, and in 2013 the national SAT score average was a 1498, 2) I had an above average GPA, having a 4.35 GPA thanks to the International Baccalaureate classes I was taking, and  3.) I applied with intent of pursuing a biomedical engineering major, which was a fresh and highly funded degree program at VCU still thirsty for new students.

The scholarship would apply at least $3,250 for each semester of my college career (and does transfer for study abroad!), and the only stipulation was that I needed to keep my GPA above a 3.30 for each semester to keep it.

Was a surprised when I received a letter saying I was awarded the Dean’s Scholarship? Absolutely!

But it would be a lie if I told you that the Dean’s Scholarship wasn’t a huge deciding factor in me choosing to go to VCU, especially when I found out that it transferred for study abroad!

Boren Scholarship

AWARD AMOUNT: $20,000

HOW I WON IT: I found this scholarship literally by Googling “study abroad scholarships VCU”. Word for word. I applied very close to the deadline. Why do I think I won it? For having exceptional writing skills, a creative perspective, and persistence.

For this scholarship I had to write two very well thought out 800-word essays and get three letters of recommendation all basically convincing them that studying abroad would be very beneficial in my career path.

It was a lot of time and effort put into writing this essays and having a compelling argument why a STEM major like me, who is now a Mathematics major, would benefit by learning a foreign language and living abroad for a year.

Now this scholarship has one string attached—I have agreed to work for the US government for at least one year in some fashion after I graduate, in exchange for this grant.

The William Jefferson Clinton Scholarship

AWARD AMOUNT: Complimentary tuition and board for one semester ($13,989 value)

HOW I WON IT: I found this scholarship, again, by Googling “study abroad scholarships AUD” (are you sensing a trend here…) once I had decided I would use the Boren Scholarships to study at the American University in Dubai.

That’s right, I applied for another scholarship already after I had just won a huge sum of money with the Boren.

You might be wondering why?

Uh… Why not?

I completed the application, including a health physical by my physician, a $50 application fee, and a 500 word essay of why I have an interest in learning about the Middle East and experiencing life there. When I got the email saying I had passed to the phone interview stage, I was shocked. When I found out I had actually won the scholarship, I was definitely in shock.

That’s how I did it.

That’s how I won thousands of dollars of (relatively) free money to study abroad with.

On a whim, and at the last minute.

Of course there is a lot more to it than just luck as I’ll share below, but that’s my story. You may not win all of the scholarships that I won, but you can win some. Below I share my process of finding scholarships, weighing my probability of winning them, applying to them etc.

Read on and you’ll see the level of ‘behind the scenes’ effort that it takes to win a scholarship.

But first, here are some resources you can check out for more funding opportunities!

200 Travel Scholarships and Grants to Volunteer and Study Abroad
62 Study Abroad Grants and Scholarships

Those are the absolute best resources for study abroad scholarships that I’ve found. Click the above links and look through diligently comb through every single scholarship to see if you fit the bill for any of them!

The surprising thing is that I could’ve started applying for study abroad scholarships in middle schoolClick here to check out my article on travel scholarship/grants for KIDS grades K-12!

Now, How You Can Win Big Too!

Search for Scholarships at your Home University

I put this first because this is the easiest, yet most underutilized scholarship resource.

They literally specialize in study abroad. Don’t blow them off just because they’re in some admin office next to your school’s library! They likely have a ton of resources on which schools abroad are the cheapest, what type of study abroad you can do (direct exchange, alternative program, faculty led program, etc), and their department likely has study abroad scholarships itself.

If you haven’t gone to your school’s study abroad department yet put down your laptop, put your Ramen noodles on your side desk, and go right now!

Search for Scholarships at your Study Abroad University

Surprised you there, huh?
Who said you can only apply for scholarships at your home university?? You’re technically enrolled at both schools, so be sure to check the website and visit your abroad school’s scholarship office if they have one.

Just remember to A.B.C.

Always be checking (for free money opportunities, hehe).

Apply, Apply, Apply. And when you get enough money, apply some more.

Do you really believe I am so knowledgable and lucky that I applied to three huge scholarships and happened to win them all? Uh, no. Ha. And double, ha ha.

I’ve applied to more than 150 scholarships, and to date I have successfully won six of them of various award amounts.

6/150. I’ve won 4% of all of the scholarships I’ve ever applied to.

Do I regret the time and effort it took to apply to all of those scholarships I didn’t win?

Not in the slightest. Every application was a chance to hone my writing skills, tweak my resume, reconnect with old professors and mentors for letters of recommendations, and find a new perspective in which I could ‘sell myself’!

But, if you think money will fall into your bank account and add some zero’s on the end of that $20, I have bad news. Be prepared to put in immense time and effort to get that moola!

‘Pro/Con’ each scholarship before you apply

Consider asking yourself the following questions about each scholarship before you decide to apply for it:

  • Am I a desirable applicant for this scholarship? Does my major, previous job experience, internships, social connections, etc. make me relevant for this?
  • Is the scholarship a substantial amount? Is it renewable? If so, for how many semesters?
  • How long application process, and what does it require (essays, letters of recommendation, previous experience, etc.?
  • What level of competition is there, and will I be competing against hundreds of other applicants or thousands? Is it worth the effort?

Don’t waste your time applying to a scholarship you have a minimal chance of winning. If you’ll be competing for a scholarship against a million of other applicants but this is the perfect scholarship for you, go for it!

If the scholarship isn’t that fitting to you but it’s very obscure and the competition is less stiff, still go for it. The point is, you need to focus your energies!

Which leads me to my next point,

Find obscure scholarships

Why go through all the hassle of applying for a scholarship you may not win?

By looking for the very specific, new, or local scholarships, you drastically increase your chances of winning! Usually these scholarships are smaller since a smaller pool of people apply to them, but hey, money is money.

Have a bomb-a** application

This may sounds like common sense (and it really is), but successfully hitting all the marks of a bomb-a** application may not be as obvious as you think.

Firstly, you should always be selling yourself. Never put anything negative about yourself in an application. If they ask for self-critique, critique, but always spin it so that it’s more of a point of improvement that you acknowledge and can fix.

This also means playing to your strengths! I don’t know why you would, but if you ever feel like you should downplay your experiences or accomplishments, throw that thought out of the window.

This application is your chance to brag. Include every relevant things possible, and present it in an interesting and engaging way so that whoever is reading your application says, “Wow! This is such a unique and strong application”. It’s very important for your application to stand out from among the rest, so don’t be afraid to take risks!

Work on your essay writing skills

However, the pivotal aspect of a successful application is how well-written it is, hands down.

Did you just gulp?

Writing is not usually a person’s favorite past time, or even strong suit. But the fact is, most scholarships require an essay section where you pretty much have to tell them why you deserve that scholarship over everyone else applying for it.

And if your essay is not grammatically correct, spell-checked, and formatted properly, it doesn’t matter if you have the best reasoning in the world, you won’t have articulated it well enough for the person reading it to understand it!

Basically, it doesn’t matter if you have the most poetic, ground-breaking thing in the world to say, you need to say it correctly, or it’s pointless.

Always have a friend, parent, or writing-center read over your application before you click that send button! Chances are if you’ve been putting in the hours of work needed for a good application, you’ve missed little grammar mistakes and some other mishaps. It’s worth the last few minutes of annoyingly fixing little mistakes to find out you’ve won that scholarship!

Finally, my biggest piece of advice to encompass all previous advices is,

START EARLY!

Don’t be me, staying up all night balancing homework and writing these applications. Basically harassing professors and old high school teachers for letters of recommendation within the week before the submission date, and pulling my hair out when they don’t reply within 5 minutes.

Trust me, it’s not cute.

Start getting your application together well before the deadline. The final week before it’s due should just be you casually reading and reviewing everything and making final tweaks.

Getting a head start on your application will give you the necessary time to make sure that a scholarship is worth the effort of applying for, it will let you make your essay stronger, it will let your professors make their letters of recommendation stronger, and it will give you the confidence you need to win!


I hope you’ve found this article helpful and that you find a way to fund your study abroad journey! Share this article with someone who wants to study abroad but is on a budget! It could be the thing that gets them on that flight.

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28 Discussion to this post

  1. Tom says:

    my studying days are behind me, thankfully, but this is great advice for people who are currently studying! Sure you’ll make the most of your time studying abroad!

  2. Great tips! You should share this in college FB groups! Many students could use these tips!

  3. Kate says:

    These are awesome tips! I wish I had been on the ball when I started college. I’m graduating in December and only managed two scholarships. This is great advice though!

  4. mark wyld says:

    Great information for those looking for overseas oppertunities

  5. Danielle says:

    While I’m out of undergrad and grad school, AMAZING job at racking up all those scholarships girl!! I really love that you get to study in Dubai and a dollar won’t come out of your pocket. Great job and I know these tips will help someone else!!!

  6. Cristina says:

    Wow, congrats! Looks like you have things under control :). Great article!
    Good luck in Dubai.
    Cristina

  7. This is a great and helpful article, but I never really planned on going to a University, I did but my plans were derailed a bit! This is such good information for people who want to travel and are going to school though! If you are going to a University and you want to travel, there is almost no reason you can’t! Looks like you can mak eit happen if you really want it!

  8. I decided not to study abroad in college because I couldn’t afford it and I didn’t want to take out any extra loans. Never did I think about scholarships. This has to be shared universally!

  9. Brenda says:

    Definitely these are great tips Gabby! I already shared this with my friends, since most of them are always complaining about study abroad opportunities (and now that ai left even more!)

  10. Natalie says:

    Wow! That is great. I was just talking to someone and said if I could turn back time when I was in college, I would study abroad and do more traveling.

  11. Maggie says:

    My college days are long over but this is so awesome! What a great opportunity to be able to study abroad. And even better when some of the financial burden is covered!

  12. Lyssie says:

    I wish I knew about this earlier! Unfortunately I doubt too many places are going to give a 32-year-old a study abroad scholarship? Good to know for my kids (if I ever have them) though – I wish my love for travel helped me find out how to study abroad starting in high school!!! Congrats and good for you for finding all of these, you deserved it for all that hard work!

  13. Shem says:

    Wow! I seriously wish I had access to this article 7 years ago when I was struggling to find funding for my study abroad to Greece. Luckily, it worked out for me but I know it’s definitely not an easy feat to find scholarships out there to study abroad as most funds are allocated for the regular term. These are also some great tips for applying to year-round scholarships — fantastic post! 🙂

  14. Clare says:

    Wow, that is amazing, and so great that you get to experience living and studying in different countries. Wish I had had the chance to do this, instead I just get to live and travel in them 🙂

  15. Anju says:

    Very interesting post, I never thought these would actually work out! thanks for sharing! 🙂

  16. Ulli says:

    One of the best and most useful articles I’ve recently written. I’m going to safe the link and come back to it and to the inks given as well. I’m going to startUniversity this year and every information is useful. Such a perfect idea to write so! Thanks a lot 🙂

  17. CJ says:

    I WISH I had done more to apply to scholarships and to study abroad in college. I think that’s why I love to travel so much more now, because I am trying to make up for lost time. I encourage any and everyone to do it!

  18. Caroline says:

    You should be sharing this on university groups if you’re not already! I’m too old but would have loved it as a student

  19. Emily says:

    I wish I had seen this in college lol. Great tips!

  20. Natasha says:

    Brilliant post, chickadee! So much useful information there & BT DUBS, congrats on your scholarships! I know you will have an amazing time 🙂

  21. […] a student who actually came here to learn Arabic, you won’t believe how much negativity I got for choosing […]

  22. Carly says:

    This is great! Thanks for pulling together this list of resources.

  23. Agness says:

    This is a very motivational and informational post! Keep up the great work, Gabby!

  24. Wow very inspiring! Being smart and hard working definitely gets you places like it has you. Instead of being stuck in a corporate office making lots of money, you’re traveling which is even better. If my parents ever pushed me to be smart and hard working in school so I could travel, I think I would have put more effort. Working in a dead end job right now certainly wasn’t inspiring.

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