Guide to US Applications • Undergraduate

US Undergraduate Scholarships: What International Students Should Know

POSTED ON 03/14/2023 BY The Red Pen

Deciding which US university to attend involves several factors, including location, course, faculty, extracurricular activities and most importantly, cost. College education in the US comes with a sizable price tag. According to U.S. News, in 2022-23, the average out-of-state tuition fee at public, four-year institutions was $22,953 and $39,753 at private, non-profit four-year institutions. Due to these rates, many students require scholarships and financial, which covers a portion, if not the entire cost. While “scholarship” and “financial aid” are often used interchangeably, there is a difference. 

What is college financial aid?

College financial aid is funding that covers the cost of higher education. Depending on your situation, it may include loans, tuition-fee waivers, study allowances, lodging, scholarships, fellowships and travel grants, amongst others. A few students also receive full coverage for their education. For international students, sources of aid are:

1) Institutions:

Universities typically have an endowment comprising various financial assets and donations, which they tap into to provide grants and scholarships to eligible students. Institutions can offer both need-based and merit-based aid.

2) Private organisations:

Options for Non-US citizens and residents are limited, but a few organisations, such as Big Future-College Board, Next Genius, HSBC Bank and Aga Khan Foundation, that fund undergraduate education for eligible international students.

What is an undergraduate scholarship?

An undergraduate scholarship is financial aid awarded to students looking to pursue a bachelor’s degree. To offer scholarships, US universities handpick students with exceptional academic and extracurricular credentials. International students seeking aid are more likely to receive a scholarship than any other financial aid from US universities. Scholarship candidates typically receive their awards at admission or shortly after they enrol.

Scholarships can be of varying amounts. Sometimes they are token amounts; other times, they are a full waiver covering tuition and living expenses. The award can be given for all four years or only for the first year.

What are the types of US undergraduate scholarships and financial aid?

International students wanting to study at the undergraduate level in US universities can apply for three types of scholarships or financial aid:

1) Need-blind financial aid:

Need-blind financial aid for students focuses on merits, such as grades, test scores, essays and other accomplishments. US universities offering need-blind assistance are highly selective because they provide substantial packages. The eligibility and criteria of need-blind aid are college-specific. Only highly selective US universities, such as Amherst College, Dartmouth College, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Harvard University, Princeton University, and Yale University offer need-blind aid to Non-US students. However, recently, Bowdoin University and Brown University announced that they will include all students, regardless of citizenship, under its need-blind admissions policy.

2) Need-aware financial aid:

Colleges with a need-aware policy consider their ability to offer financial aid while making admission decisions. For instance, suppose you and another student have identical credentials, but if you require financial assistance that the college cannot provide, then the student competing with you secures admission. Most private institutions only admit students who can meet the demonstrated financial need. But several colleges offer generous aid packages to international students. Wellesley College, for example, states that they are need-aware for international students but also guarantee to meet the full demonstrated financial need if a student is admitted. Similarly, despite being need-aware, Johns Hopkins University will meet 100 percent of the financial requirements of admitted international students. But securing admission to these colleges isn’t easy, and your application may get rejected if the colleges cannot provide the required assistance.

3) Merit-based scholarships:

Merit-based scholarships are gift money that does not have to be repaid. It is generally awarded based on demonstrated merit, such as academic credentials, involvement in the community or personal talents. These awards are of varying amounts. Sometimes they are full scholarships covering tuition fees and other expenses. At other times are token amounts. Colleges often use merit-based scholarships to lure talented students whose grades will improve university rankings. Merit-based scholarships are usually institution-specific, meaning they are offered by the college and not by an external institution.

Always research US universities with scholarships and financial aid to ensure they can provide the required financial assistance. For instance, as an international student, you are not likely to receive aid from a public university such as the University of California, University of Michigan or Georgia Tech, as their mandate is first to support the students within their states. Hence, they have limited funds left for international students.

How to apply for US undergraduate scholarships and financial aid? 

The College Scholarship Service Profile (CSS) portal collects information used by nearly 400 colleges and scholarship programmes to award non-federal financial aid. To apply for financial aid as an international student, you must complete an online application through  You may also view the CSS profile guide and check specific college codes to submit your profiles. Some colleges, such as Princeton University, require students to complete the Princeton Financial Aid Application form. 

While most colleges consider all applicants for merit-based scholarships, some require a separate application which can include an interview or additional essays.  For example, the University of Richmond’s presidential scholarship requires a separate essay and a sample of graded coursework. Since scholarships are college-specific, consult each college individually for accurate information. 

What is a financial aid appeal?

A financial aid appeal is also known as a professional judgement review. It is the process of requesting your college for a better package. To make this appeal, you and your family will have to demonstrate a significant change in your circumstances from the time you applied for aid in your application. While there is no formal process to appeal for aid, here are some strategies that might help: 

1) Contact the financial aid office:

Families may contact the financial aid office and explain a change in circumstances to be considered for a better package. The institution may require specific documentation, which the family must provide. 

2) Use a competing offer:

Some schools are willing to adjust a student’s award package to match a better offer from another college. If you reiterate your interest in one particular school, despite being offered better aid packages by other institutions, they may consider your appeal.

3) Reach out to the admissions office:

If a student has been given a scholarship, contacting the admissions and financial aid offices may be a good strategy. A typical increase in merit aid could be between $1,000 and $5,000.

What are some of the US universities offering scholarships and financial aid? 

Universities offering need-blind financial aid Universities offering need-aware financial aid Universities offering merit-based scholarships 
Amherst College Clark University  Boston University
Bowdoin College Colgate University  Clark University
Brown University Cornell University  College of Wooster
Dartmouth College Duke University Franklin & Marshall College
Harvard University Drexel University Grinnell College
Massachusetts Institute of Technology Mount Holyoke College Tulane University
Princeton University  Occidental College University of Richmond
Yale University Pitzer College University of San Francisco
Swarthmore College University of Washington in St. Louis
Trinity College
Tufts University
University of Richmond
Vanderbilt University
Wesleyan University

How to manage expenses if you don’t qualify for financial aid or scholarships?

1) Explore the work-study programme:

Colleges offer job opportunities, often in your field of study, on or off the campus, to help you earn money for your tuition and other expenses. The US government funds the work-study programme. Speak to the financial aid office of institutions to see how they can help you. 

2) Accelerate your programme:

You can condense a four-year programme into three years if you take one extra course per semester. Remember this is a rigorous option, but it will reduce your cost of living in the US by a year. 

3) Earn IB, AP or A Level course credits: 

Some colleges will waive course credits based on your scores in these exams. Each college has a different policy, so apply to those that offer maximum credit for these courses to save on tuition. 

4) Consider community college:

For the first two years, you may join a community college and then transfer to a four-year university to complete your education. Your bachelor’s degree will be awarded by the college where you complete the final two years. 

5) Look at ‘best buy’ colleges:

Colleges in smaller towns have lower published tuition fees and living expenses. The University of Colorado, the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities and The State University of New York (SUNY) are a few colleges to consider. But remember that these colleges rarely offer financial aid. If you manage to secure financial aid from another college, a ‘best-buy’ college becomes more expensive.

6) Get stellar results in your first year:

Some colleges offer tuition waivers in subsequent years if you give an outstanding performance in your first. If your college offers this, work hard for the concession.

7) Be smart about your study material:

Instead of buying textbooks from the college bookstore, look for deals online. You may also find digital versions, which are less expensive. Or, you may purchase used books and sell them back to the store or someone else. 

8) Transfer later:

Instead of attending a US college for four years, you may also complete a year or two of university-level study in your country and then transfer to a university in the US. Doing so will cut your tuition and living expenses considerably. 

A college education is expensive. Read our blog post about finding funding for your college education. Whether you need guidance with scholarships, financial aid or any aspect of undergraduate applications, please get in touch. Our experts and specialists look forward to helping you.