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  • Writer's pictureCortney Dowdle

How to Pay for University with Scholarships

Updated: Apr 7, 2022

How likely are you to receive these types of aid as an international student?

This blog is all about the different types of scholarships or aid that can help international students pay for school. International students can qualify for quite a few different types of aid to help pay for school. But how likely are they to get these different types of aid? I feel like this is a key piece of information often missing for international students…

Of course the answer in short, is that it depends. It depends on the institution - big or small, public or private, two year or four year, large international support system on campus or not. It also depends on the student - excellent academics, lots of service, where your home country is, how much your parents can afford to pay, and whether or not you’re an athlete (but not just any athlete, more often than not you need to be an elite athlete).


  • Merit scholarships are WAY (way way way) more popular than sports scholarships

  • The percentage of students receiving sports scholarships in the USA is less than 1% (including Americans)

  • Schools that offer international specific scholarships care more about international students, period.

  • Name recognition is great, but so is a school with lots of support, concrete help finding a job after school, and staff on campus who care about who you are, where you’re from, and what you need

Read on to see why I have these opinions…but first…

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My advice to students is always that decisions are two-part for university studies. Students have to select the schools they want to apply for admissions to, and the schools have to select the students that best fit their needs for the upcoming year. As important as the student application is, it’s just as important what the school is searching for, and that’s a critical piece of information that students don’t usually have, and sometimes counselors don’t even have.

Three girls walking
Learn how to pay for university in the USA

This blog reviews some of the most common ways that students help pay for their university studies in the USA.

Types of scholarships that can help pay for university studies in the USA:


  • Merit scholarships are the most popular type of aid. Merit scholarships are usually granted automatically when a student applies to university. They can be given by public or private universities.

  • Public university merit scholarships are often small, ranging from $1,000-$5,000 per year, if offered at all, off the total cost of attendance (remember that public school costs are often ranging between $25,000-$40,000 USD total including accommodations)

  • Private university merit scholarships can be substantial, ranging from $10,000-$35,000+ depending on the university (remember that private school costs are much higher, typically ranging from $45,000-$80,000 USD)


  • Athletic scholarships are usually offered to athletes in the USA who have trained at a high level and have participated in club or academy sports outside of school sports.

  • I often tell students that athletic scholarships are most likely for international students that are playing on a national team level or very high academy level in their home country. It also depends on how important that sport is in their home country. Futbol/soccer is the world’s sport after all! Students might be a top golfer in their home country, but it may not be at a competitive level to the USA. Same with basketball, tennis, swimming, etc. - it depends how the level in your country compares to the level in the USA

  • Read on for how I initially advise athletes to go about learning more about sports scholarship opportunities in the USA…


  • I’m always preaching to my students to look at universities that offer international student scholarships. If a university cares about supporting international students, they will often offer special scholarships to this population. I think private schools tend to offer more in the way of special scholarships, but even large universities will post special opportunities for new international students to get aid.

  • Tip - look early! These types of special scholarships are often first found (and applied), first given

  • Tip - look for #youarewelcomehere scholarships or scholarships that apply only to students on an F1 visa or with citizenship outside of the USA

  • Tip - international scholarships usually require a separate application or essay submission in addition to your application for admissions to the university


  • Universities can offer scholarships for all sorts of “special” programs - these could be academic programs (business majors, engineering, or STEM fields) or they could be for special programs (service programs, student ambassador programs, etc).

  • Tip - this is why the school search process and finding the right fit is so important. If you are super into community service and can find a school that will give you nearly full financial aid to study there, it’s a win win for you and the university!


  • The short of it- financial aid for international students is TINY. It’s bare bones at best, and students need to understand that some universities are just not going to offer aid. Period.

  • Some universities that are not likely to give you merit scholarships (because they don’t need to because they get SO many applications each year) are NYU, UCLA, University of Florida, Penn State, Ohio State University, and Georgetown.

  • To fully understand financial aid, you have to understand the difference between “need blind” and “need aware” (review this blog for more details)

  • There is a consulting firm called BigJ Education Consulting, that publishes an annual spreadsheet on international financial aid. For reference, they compile information for only 10% of universities in the USA.

  • Out of about 5,000 institutions, they can only find data for less than 500 universities on how they provide international student financial aid

  • Review their spreadsheet here

  • Tip - Know going into the university application process what your family can afford per year for your education.

Girl doing research
Research is the most important part of the process to study in the USA!

Okay, so that’s a LOT of information about scholarships. Honestly, it’s hard to keep up with the constantly changing nuances of applying to university in the USA. This is why there are so many consultants and agencies that help students with the process.

Here are some of my biggest tips for students when considering which types of scholarships to look for and how to find them:

  1. Using an independent consultant will help you immensely with choosing the right schools that can specifically help you whether it be academically, financially, or most graduation. Be sure to do your research to find the right one who can help!

  2. Athletes - most student athletes in the USA are not recruited from high schools directly. Often, they participate in club or academies that help them get seen to university level coaches

  3. There are specific athletic consultants who help students find sports scholarships through different ways - this may mean paying to participate in an international showcase, work with someone to submit videos and information to universities, or even just someone who knows lots of coaches in the business. It’s a tricky business, and my biggest caution is just to know that no consultant can snap their fingers and get you into a school. They are just conduits that have knowledge and may have a wide network of coaches to reach out to.

  4. Athletic recruitment starts early in the USA - if you are a rising senior or going into your final year of secondary, just know that DI NCAA programs (top ones anyways) are done recruiting. They recruit three to four years out. If you want to find athletic scholarships, start EARLY. Your game can continue to develop, but it’s important to get on the radar of coaches as early as possible.

  5. Remember that the number of athletes in the USA on full scholarships in TINY. Being a strong student is a way you can often get merit scholarships to help pay for school and then still participate in university level sports when you get to college. Even if you are an average student, you may still have a better chance to get a merit scholarship and try out for the sport later, rather than try to get a sports scholarship at the beginning.

  6. Know that most schools can allow athletes to “walk on”, or join the team without being recruited, if they do well in a try out. This means that you may not get a scholarship the first year, but you could get on the team and potentially get a scholarship the second year

  7. Research school costs and maximum merit scholarships available FIRST - then look into your other types of aid. Do this part at the beginning, not at the end of your school search process.

  8. Make sure you know your family's budget (for four years) of university.

There is so much information on this topic. Future blogs will dive more into how to get recruited as an athlete specifically, or how to research merit scholarships specifically.

To learn more about working with an independent consultant, reach out here!

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