Before I turned 18, I had never left the country before. My parents didn't have the money to send me to college, so I knew early on getting a scholarship to go to school would be critical. I applied to 13 universities and wound up with a full ride to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Once at UNC, I vowed to go abroad as soon as I could find a way to afford it. I applied to dozens more scholarships, won 5, and spent every summer and a semester overseas. I studied Mandarin in China, did research on non-profits in Guatemala, studied the Chinese diaspora in Egypt, and even won a free spring break trip to South Korea. I'm about to share with you what works, so keep reading.
Your odds of getting money to study, volunteer, or intern abroad might be far higher than you expect.
But first, would you have guessed there are some major study abroad providers who had only 15 applicants for 12 scholarships? Or that the providers are disappointed because year after year they have to select lower quality winners just because there are too few applicants?
While many scholarships ARE very competitive, it turns out there are plenty of others that may be easier to win than you think. Your odds of getting money to study, volunteer, or intern abroad might be far higher than you expect: you just have to identify the opportunities, tell a compelling story, and actually hit "apply!"
One of the biggest mistakes you can make in setting up a financial plan for going overseas is not even applying for study abroad scholarships.
Here are 11 tips for study abroad scholarship applications that can help make your international dreams a reality.
1. Be Prepared to Work Hard for Study Abroad Scholarships
Trying to get a scholarship, whether for full-time study or for study abroad, is hard work. You'll probably need to apply to half a dozen opportunities for every one you hope to win. It'll take time, so set up a schedule where every Monday, Wednesday, and Sunday night you sit for 3 hours and work on applications (or something to that effect).
If you need motivation, just look at your bank account and then at pictures of Tokyo or Brazil. Study abroad scholarships might be the only way.
2. Make a List of Everything You Qualify For
Start with your home university, then move on to external providers. Meet with folks at the career center or study abroad office. Find out what's available, who's eligible, what the requirements are, and when the deadline is. Make a spreadsheet in Google Drive.
Then move on to the bowels of Google. Search "study abroad + undergraduate + scholarship + country/language/major" and add those to the list. You're going to wind up applying to as many as possible.
Try some of these:
3. Understand the Organization's Goals and Values
Before starting an application, you have to understand your audience. Look at what the organization actually does, their mission statement or values page, and understand what seems important to them and how they talk about themselves. Then identify those keywords and values, and make sure you work those into your application.
4. Understand How They Evaluate Candidates
Who are they really looking for? Look at past winners or the detailed FAQ that's probably on their website. Re-read the parts where they describe how candidates will be evaluated. Keep coming back to this and checking yourself and your application against each and every one of those criteria.
5. Consider Studying Critical Languages and Going to Less Commonly-Visited Countries
This is part of the reason I wound up studying Mandarin so many years ago: there was so much support for it! While most American students are looking to go to Europe, there are lots of scholarships for those who want to get off the beaten path.
If those regions or languages appeal to you, consider taking the leap and refocusing on those opportunities. If 100 students want to study in Spain, your odds are 1:100; if 15 students want to go to Ghana, your odds are 1:15.
Even if you want to study a common language, try applying to study French in Senegal instead of France or Spanish in Panama instead of Spain.
6. Essay Tip: Avoid Generic Statements at all Costs
You have a unique story by virtue of being alive. So don't say things like, "I want to explore new cultures" or "I've always been interested in Arabic." Tell the story about the refugee family that moved down the block, or how you love Egyptian cinema, or befriended the Korean exchange student in middle school. Make your interests come alive through concise stories and personal experience.
Talk to your professors or other possible references early, get the verbal okay that they'll support you.
Re-read your essay when it's done. If anyone else in the whole world could stand up, read that essay, and claim it as their own, then you need to re-write it with elements that speak to who you and only you are.
7. Include a Plan for Giving Back
Even if the scholarship doesn't require it, volunteer your ideas for how you'll bring your experience back home to help others. Will you make short videos about famous landmarks in Asia and share them with the primary school teachers? Will you have a blog? Do a photography exhibition?
Make sure it's something you can follow through on, but an orientation to using your time overseas for the benefit of more than just yourself is always appreciated.
8. Do THIS to Get Great Recommendations
Talk to your professors or other possible references early, get the verbal okay that they'll support you, and then hand-deliver them a package that includes one page of (SHORT!) bullet-pointed information about the scholarship, a second page of (SHORT!) bullet-pointed information about you and specific examples of why you qualify, and your resume.
This makes it easy for references to write you a good letter of recommendation, should the scholarship require it.
9. Double Check Eligibility and Application Requirements
Before submitting anything, double check that you meet all the eligibility and that you have all of the application requirements satisfactorily completed. Many students wind up being disqualified because they've simply forgotten something.
Also, go back to the essays. If the prompt asked you to talk about your leadership experience, community involvement, and interest in the Middle East, have you done all three?
10. Print it Out and Read Everything Out Loud
It's hard to proofread things on a screen. Once you've finished your essays and have an updated resume, print it all out and read every word out loud -- even your resume. Read through your application line-by-line, and correct grammar and typos in red pen.
Edit the digital version, and repeat the process until there are no errors. A few typos could stand between you and several thousand dollars, so don't be that guy.
11. Apply Early
Even if there's no preference indicated for early applicants, remember that all applications are being reviewed by humans -- humans who most likely have other jobs and responsibilities besides selecting scholarship winners. Once the deadline is reached, those evaluators will be inundated with applications and may start skimming through applications.
You have the best shot of winning when someone reads your story, relates to it, and finds it an appealing fit for their organization's money. If your application is in a stack of ten because you applied early, it is perhaps more likely to get a thorough read-through.
Remember, every little bit helps. Even if a scholarship award is only $1,500, that's your round-trip international airfare right there! It all adds up.
If you're in a stack of 100 along with everyone else who applied just in time, your chances could be decreased. This is just a theory I have, but it never hurts to apply early and look eager.
It All Adds Up
Remember, every little bit helps. Even if a scholarship award is only $1,500, that's your round-trip international airfare right there! It all adds up. Not to mention, once you've completed one scholarship application, it's that much easier to re-purpose your essays and recommendations to apply for dozens of other opportunities. It's a numbers game, and if you have a strong profile and the determination, you can have a strong chance to win.
It's also worthwhile to mention persistence. Maybe this year you don't receive any scholarships. That just means you need to continue to do well in school, find outlets for your international interests that will improve your eligibility, and re-apply next year.