Studying abroad and scholarships are two elements of college that are misunderstood, underutilized, and shrouded in mystery.
Luckily I’ve decoded the puzzle of applying to and successfully winning 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 finance-related. I mean, 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.
- 1 How to Find and Win Scholarships
- 1.1 Search for Study Abroad Scholarships at your Home University
- 1.2 Search for Study Abroad Scholarships at your International University
- 1.3 Apply, Apply, Apply. And when you get enough money, apply some more.
- 1.4 ‘Pro/Con’ each scholarship before you apply
- 1.5 Find obscure study abroad scholarships
- 1.6 Have a bomb-a** application
- 1.7 Work on your essay writing skills
- 1.8 And finally: START EARLY if you can, but no matter what, START!
- 2 Study Abroad Scholarships I Have Won
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.
But first, here are some resources you can check out for more funding opportunities:
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.
How to Find and Win Scholarships
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 study 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 International 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!)
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. 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’ve won 4% of all of the scholarships that I’ve 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 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 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 energy. Which 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 competition?
By looking for the very specific, new, or local scholarships, you drastically increase your chances of winning. Usually these scholarships are for smaller amounts 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!
In study abroad scholarship application’s 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.
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 have communicate 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.
Finally, my biggest piece of advice to encompass all previous advices is,
And finally: START EARLY if you 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 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
AWARD AMOUNT: $3,519 x 2 semesters = $7038
HOW I WON IT: I won this scholarship through my school, VCU when I was a high school student applying to VCU. So this lesson is essentially for those still in high school.
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 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, 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 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. A first hand example of how good grades and working hard in school could change your life!
AWARD AMOUNT: $20,000
HOW I WON IT: I found this scholarship literally by Googling “study abroad scholarships VCU”. Exactly that. 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.
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?) 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?
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. Usually 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 the gist. You may not win all of the scholarships that I won, but you can win.