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

by Gabby Beckford
Reading Time: 7 minutes

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Education abroad and study abroad scholarships are two elements of university life that are misunderstood, underutilized, and shrouded in mystery

 Luckily, I've decoded the puzzle of applying to and successfully winning this form of financial aid, and to this day have racked up $69,264 in total, of which $41,027 in study abroad scholarships being used exclusively for my academic year abroad in Dubai.

($40,000+ in college study abroad scholarships… after graduating, I've won $100,000+ more in paid travel opportunities!)

Unfortunately, I know that the #1 most common reason that people don't travel is finance-related. How many times have you heard people say that all they want to do is quit their jobs and travel the world?

Study abroad scholarships are an incredibly underutilized funding method and can be easily attained if you know what you're doing. That's where I come in!

👑 You do not have to be a certain major, age, or even be a student to win funds to travel and study abroad! Our Packs Light Past Winners Wall proves that!

In this article, I'll share my process of finding study abroad scholarships, weighing my probability of winning them, applying to them, and ultimately winning them.

Read on, and you'll see the level of behind-the-scenes effort that it takes to win a study abroad scholarship.

So first I'll share my tips on how to find study abroad scholarships, and then I'll show you exactly which ones I won and how I did it!

Search for study abroad scholarships at your home university

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

Your university very likely has a department that specializes in studying abroad.

Don't blow them off just because they're in some admin office next to your school's library. They will have a huge supply of resources on which schools abroad are the cheapest, which universities they have an established relationship with, 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 study abroad scholarships at your abroad university too!

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).

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

Do you really believe I am so knowledgeable and lucky that I applied to three huge scholarships and happened to win them all? Uh, no. I wish, but no.

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 won 4% of all of the scholarships that I applied to in college 😅

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 recommendation, 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 zeroes on the end of that $20, I have bad news. Be prepared to put in the immense time and effort to get that moola.

‘Pro/Con' every 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 study abroad 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 is the 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 for a scholarship you have a minimal chance of winning.

If you'll be competing for a scholarship against a million 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, that you need to focus your energy.

Need help deciding what's worth applying to and what's not? Our Application Tool-kit includes a “Should I Apply to This?” Calculator!

We'll walk you step-by-step through the thought process and save you hours and hours of wasted time and headache by giving you a simple: YES or NO on whether you should apply to that scholarship and your chances of winning!

This leads me to my next point,

Find obscure study abroad scholarships

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

By looking for very specificnew, or local scholarships, you drastically increase your chances of winning. Usually, these scholarships are for smaller amounts since a smaller pool of people applies to them, but hey, money is money.

No. 5: Applying for more obscure and specific study abroad #scholarships increases your chances of winning. Gabby from Packs Light gives more advice here: Click To Tweet

Focus on having a great application as a whole.

This may sound 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 thing 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 the rest, so don't be afraid to take risks!

In study abroad scholarship applications specifically, universities usually want you to describe the value you hope to find in your experience abroad and why you chose that country.

Be honest and raw in why you want to travel—I wanted to go to Dubai, UAE, because I knew nothing about Islam or the Middle East besides the mess that Western media portrays it as in the media. My school respected my desire to see their country with my own eyes and not judge before I experienced it.

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 pastime or even a 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 have communicated your story effectively 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.

#Collegetravel doesn't have to be out of reach! Get 9 actionable application tips to win study abroad scholarships here: Click To Tweet

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

And finally: start as early as you possibly can. But no matter what, START!

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!

The surprising fact is that I could've started applying for study abroad scholarships in middle school! Check out my article on travel scholarship/grants for KIDS grades K-12.

The following are the exact study abroad scholarships I won and the story behind how I won them. I hope it can give you a perspective of how much time and effort I put into applying for them and the real secret behind winning them.

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Study Abroad Scholarships I Have Won

David L. Boren Language Scholarship


HOW I WON IT: I found the Boren Language Scholarship quite simply: by Googling “study abroad scholarships VCU”. Exactly that.

I applied right before 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 these 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 William Jefferson Clinton Scholarship, again, by Googling “study abroad scholarships AUD“. Are you sensing a trend?

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.

I won $40K in study abroad scholarships. See which ones, how I won them, and some more scholarship application tips here. Click To Tweet

Virginia Commonwealth University's Deans Scholarship

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

HOW I WON IT: I won the Virginia Commonwealth University Dean Scholarship through my school, VCU when I was a high school student applying to attend VCU for my bachelor's degree. So this lesson is essential for those still in high school—your grades can matter! More specifically… how valuable you are perceived to be, matters.

This scholarship was given to me as an incentive to choose to go to VCU, I believe, for three reasons:

  • I had an above-average SAT score—my SAT score was 2010, and in 2013 the national SAT score average was 1498
  • I had an above-average GPA—having a 4.35 GPA thanks to the International Baccalaureate classes I was taking
  • I applied with the intent of pursuing a biomedical engineering major, a fresh and highly-funded degree program at VCU still thirsty for new students and willing to bribe us.

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 I 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. A first-hand example of how good grades and working hard in school could change your life!

Ready to start your study abroad scholarship search?

I hope my advice has inspired you to pursue some study abroad scholarships. Well, you can start right here! Here are some resources you can check out for an abundance of education abroad scholarships:

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

If you take away anything from all of this, it should be that you may not win all of the scholarships that I won, but you can win.

If you found this article helpful in your study abroad funding journey, you'll love our FREE online course on seeking and succeeding in paid travel opportunities. And share this article with a friend!

How I won more than $40K in #studyabroad #scholarships, and how you can too!
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How I won more than $40K in #studyabroad #scholarships, and how you can too!
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Gabby Beckford

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Elisa May 7, 2022 - 12:34 PM

I just found you on tiktok and I’m really sad that I didn’t get to do those things years ago!
I really want to try and win a scholarship/internship to go to Japan but I wanted to understand if there’s a language requirement or it changes from application
Thanks in advance!

Gabby Beckford May 8, 2022 - 1:43 PM

Hey Elisa! 🙂 It definitely varies per application. I will say, for countries like Japan or other countries that have very different languages from English, there is usually some sort of language requirement. Just because they want you to be able to navigate the city, order food, find help, etc. On your own if you need to! But then again, it depends on the program you’re doing. If you’re teaching English, there’s likely no language requirement because they want you to speak English more than Japanese.

Jacquelyn October 5, 2018 - 12:36 PM

I originally got to your blog through GLT on Facebook, and saw this post and had to read! My younger sister is looking to study abroad and my parents need all the help they can get! I’m passing this post on to them, thanks!

Gabby October 6, 2018 - 9:38 AM

I’m so happy you’re passing it on and I hope it can really help her! Please tell her to email me if she has any specific questions!

Phoebe May 11, 2018 - 11:01 AM

I really wish I came to America when I was still in High School. Unfortunately, I insisted to finish my HS in my country and part of college. I studied and worked part time while I finished nursing school. No debts but I was not able to travel early.

Education is really important and most students in high school don’t take it seriously. There is so much more you can do when you are educated and choose to take studying seriously

Reagan December 18, 2017 - 2:39 PM

Do you know about scholarships for non-studying? I’m a student, but I’m looking into an internship program once Australia that’s $10K, so I’d be working while traveling, not studying.

Gabby December 27, 2017 - 3:12 PM

All I know of is the Fulbright Scholarships, which is very popular and I highly encourage it! Otherwise, private scholarships and grants are more common for non-students!

Marissa October 27, 2017 - 3:46 PM

Wow, this is awesome!! It almost makes me want to go back to college so I can do the same 🙂

shayan Naveed July 27, 2017 - 1:15 AM

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.

Gabby July 28, 2017 - 9:24 AM

Thank you so much Shayan! It’s never too late to take that leap into something new and exciting though!

Agness June 2, 2017 - 5:47 PM

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

Carly March 6, 2017 - 2:13 PM

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

Gabby March 25, 2017 - 4:42 AM

Of course!

10 Things I Wish I Knew About Dubai Before I Moved Here December 9, 2016 - 3:12 AM

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

Natasha November 30, 2016 - 6:44 PM

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

Emily October 19, 2016 - 2:25 PM

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

Caroline October 6, 2016 - 5:33 PM

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

CJ October 5, 2016 - 10:38 PM

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!

Ulli October 5, 2016 - 2:09 PM

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 🙂

Gabby October 5, 2016 - 3:12 PM

Ahh I’mm glad it helped you Ulli, I hope you do study abroad if you get the chance! 😀

Anju October 5, 2016 - 1:27 PM

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

Clare October 5, 2016 - 12:36 PM

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 🙂

Shem October 5, 2016 - 12:26 AM

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! 🙂

Lyssie October 4, 2016 - 9:29 PM

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!

Maggie October 4, 2016 - 8:56 PM

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!

Natalie October 4, 2016 - 7:23 PM

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.

Brenda October 4, 2016 - 7:09 PM

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!)

Danielle Des September 25, 2016 - 2:54 PM

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!

Chasa Fulkerson September 25, 2016 - 2:01 PM

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!

Cristina September 25, 2016 - 9:26 AM

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

Danielle September 25, 2016 - 3:38 AM

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!!!

Gabby September 25, 2016 - 6:30 AM

I really appreciate it Danielle! It’s been a whirlwind ride for me, hoping this does end up helping some other college kids see the world!

mark wyld September 23, 2016 - 8:54 PM

Great information for those looking for overseas oppertunities

Kate September 23, 2016 - 11:11 AM

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!

Jacqueline Minnick September 23, 2016 - 9:43 AM

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

Tom September 23, 2016 - 9:01 AM

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!


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