Merit Scholarships for International Students

Article originally published as a guest blog for Strictly English USA.

  International students face additional financial challenges when applying to American universities.  Before the U.S. consul will grant a visa, students must document their ability to pay tuition, room, board, and fees.  While many American students are counting on money from grants, loans, scholarship, and work, international students find many financial alternatives closed. International students are not eligible for some types of financial aid including federally subsidized student loans, grants, and some scholarships.  While the opportunities are limited, there are chances to qualify for merit scholarships, awards based on talent and ability rather than need. I recommend my international clients take two approaches to finding merit aid:
  1. Research individual scholarship programs and apply for as many scholarships as you qualify.
  2. Seek specific colleges and universities offering scholarships for international students and add some potential scholarship schools to your list.
By applying both strategies, you can maximize your chances of receiving merit aid.  

Individual Scholarships

There are a number of independent programs offering scholarships to international students.  Corporations sponsor some of these scholarships to support students from a particular region or to encourage study in a specific field.  There is no single source for finding this type of scholarship, but you may try using the search features provided by organizations such as IEFA and Before you spend hours working on an application, check with the program directly to make sure they are still offering awards.  In the past, some groups have discontinued scholarships due to lack of funds. Additionally, take care to avoid fraudulent businesses that guarantee to help you find scholarships – for a fee.  You should never have to pay to apply or accept scholarships and no organization can guarantee results.  

School-based Scholarships

Often the best sources of scholarships for international students are the colleges and universities themselves.  First, school-based scholarships can cover a large portion of annual tuition and are often renewable each year providing students meet the set academic standards (often a set GPA and number of hours completed.)  Second, aid from your college or university is automatically added to the calculations of your financial status, making it one less thing you need to provide as documentation.  Finally, competition for school-based merit aid can be less competitive than that for large, independent scholarships, which draw applicants from around the world. Some international students initially become discouraged when they see how many scholarships for which they cannot apply.  Understand you will not be considered for National Merit, ROTC, and a variety of other programs, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t scholarships specifically for international students. Many colleges and universities offer a limited number of scholarships for highly qualified or talented international applicants.  In some cases you will need to demonstrate your talent in athletics, music, or art, but most often your academic abilities will be evaluated based on the information you submitted for admission.

Schools Offering Scholarships for International Students

Not every school offers money for international applicants, but many do.  Here is a preliminary list to show you the range of school-based scholarships available. This is by no means a complete list.  It is meant to illustrate the variety of schools offering merit scholarships. Boston University California State Long Beach Davidson Elon Emory Grinnell Iowa State Johnson & Wales Rice Ripon St. Edwards Syracuse University of Chicago University of Houston University of Richmond University of Rochester University of Vermont Vanderbilt Start with the schools you’ve already considered and see what scholarships are offered.  Often you can find information on the admissions websites under the “international applicants” page.  

Private Schools Versus State Universities

In many ways international applicants will find private colleges and universities offer more scholarship opportunities.  But this doesn’t mean you should overlook state universities if you are currently living in the U.S.  If you meet requirements for in-state tuition where you live, a state-university could be your least expensive option. I live in Texas where it is possible for some non-citizens to qualify as in-state residents. Residency is significant in admissions because the state legislature limits the number of non-residents to 11% of the student body, so international and out-of-state applicants are competing for a restricted number of spaces. Beyond the issue of competitive admission, you should learn more about your residency status because it will affect your tuition.  Most international students are charged the out-of-state tuition rate, which can be double or triple what residents are asked to pay.  You may find some schools will offer in-state tuition to non-citizens based on the domicile requirements of that state.  In Texas, undocumented students can qualify as residents; the University of Vermont distinguishes between resident and non-resident international applicants.  If you can qualify for in-state tuition where you live, it is effectively the same as earning a tuition scholarship from that school.  

Level of Competition

Because international applicants have fewer options for financial assistance, competition for available scholarships is fierce.   Don’t let this deter you, but do set realistic expectations.  If it is a reach for you to simply gain admission to Rice or Vanderbilt, you are unlikely to meet scholarship consideration.  However, you may be more competitive at a school such as St. Edward’s or University of Rochester.  To improve your odds of earning scholarships, look for schools where your qualifications are above average and you will stand out as a top applicant. Merit scholarships for international students may be limited, but they are available.  Take time to research your options, improve your credentials (TOEFL, SAT, etc.), and apply for a variety of scholarships.    

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