How to Win a Scholarship to Study Abroad (From a Woman Who Won Over $40,000)

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Originally published Nov. 7, 2017.

Gabby Beckford knows how to win a scholarship to study abroad.

She won $41,027 worth of them to cover tuition, as well as travel and living expenses, for a two-semester program in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

“Studying abroad really showed me how limitless opportunities are for students,” Beckford, a senior math major, told Student Loan Hero.

It also showed her how gift aid could pave the way. There are other, costlier ways to finance your education adventure, but you can avoid them by learning how to win a scholarship to study abroad.

5 tips to win a scholarship to study abroad

Beckford will graduate from Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) in December 2017 — without resorting to student loans for studying abroad or stateside. Her father’s GI Bill benefits covered her first two years of tuition. Oh, and she earned $69,264 in scholarship money overall to cover the rest.

The Virginia native got the travel bug in January 2016. After wondering how to get a scholarship to study abroad, she spent two weeks straight applying for scholarships — they’d go on to pay for her nine-month trip to the U.A.E.

Here are her five tips to help you land your own study abroad scholarships:

1. Search in obvious (and obscure) places
2. Ensure you’re a fit before taking time to apply
3. Be open to language-based scholarships
4. Apply like crazy
5. Use your essay to explain
● Plus: Keep applying for study abroad scholarships and grants

1. Search in obvious (and obscure) places

The first sizable scholarship that Beckford earned came as a direct result of her high SAT score, high school accolades and high-demand major of study. Her school offered a $7,038 award to her without asking for an application and said that it could be used for a study abroad program. That got Beckford thinking about other sources of study abroad scholarships and grants.

Sure, your school’s financial aid office should be among your first stops if you’re already on campus. The representatives there can help you navigate the financial aid maze. You’d also be wise to check about available aid with your study abroad school or program (if you’ve chosen one). The American Institute for Foreign Study, for example, offers thousands of dollars in annual scholarships to students and schools signing up for its study abroad programs.

But becoming an expert Googler is Beckford’s next piece of advice — it’ll help you find newer, hyperlocal scholarships that don’t attract as many applicants or, in your case, competition.

Beckford recounted searching phrases like “Study abroad scholarships VCU.” You too might sharpen your Google advanced search skills to find gift aid opportunities that haven’t found their way to helpful scholarship search engines.

2. Ensure you’re a fit before taking time to apply

Once you’ve found a bunch of scholarships to study abroad, Beckford advises prioritizing them. Give each application a review to see whether you fit the scholarship’s requirements and are in its intended audience. You might be disqualified off the bat, for example, if you’re a freshman applying for aid reserved for upperclassmen.

Consider discarding scholarship opportunities that require a lot of effort on your part and will also attract thousands and thousands of applications nationally. Beckford said it’s best to first apply for scholarships that offer a better chance of success.

Once you’ve narrowed down your list, rank the remaining scholarships by award amount, application deadline and essay requirements.

It’s also worth examining what kind of nonfinancial support each scholarship offers. Beckford, for example, said that her lengthy trip to Dubai wouldn’t have been possible without financial aid. But it also would have been impractical to travel to a Middle Eastern country without the training she received before leaving the states.

Read up on scholarships for…
High school students
Current college students
First-generation students
Asian students
Black students
Latino and Hispanic students
DACA students
Minority students
Community service
Military service
Professional development
Single parents
Single moms
Student-athletes
Nursing school
Medical school
Photography
Poetry
Art
Music
Communications
Education majors
Journalism
Criminal justice
Business
Computer science
Studying abroad in Japan
Studying abroad in Canada

3. Be open to language-based scholarships

Beckford has volunteered at her school’s study abroad fair, where she interacts with students looking to follow in her footsteps. She’s found that they’re often hung up on two obstacles aside from just wondering how to win a scholarship to study abroad:

  1. Trying to find programs and scholarships specific to a major
  2. Locking in on a popular country, like France or Spain

As a mathematics major earning a certificate in Middle Eastern studies, Beckford is proof that you don’t have to study your major while studying abroad. She’s also proof that prioritizing scholarships over places can send you down a rewarding path.

As a junior, Beckford applied for and won a $20,000 Boren Scholarship that transports students to countries that are critical to U.S. national security interests. That’s how she ended up studying Arabic in Dubai, rather than French in Paris or Italian in Rome.

“Finding scholarships and then the destination would help you get going, and get you going to somewhere you weren’t normally going to,” she said.

In your search, consider scholarships to study abroad that will pay for your learning of a foreign language. You can also take classes for your major once you arrive.

4. Apply like crazy

Leaving it to the last minute created a lot of late nights for Beckford. Given her two-week time span, she was forced to become a more efficient applicant. Although writing comes naturally to her, she said that getting in the practice of writing essays can help any scholarship applicant pump them out faster and better.

Beckford adds that there’s nothing wrong with creating template essays and cover letters and then reworking them for many study abroad scholarships and grants. Saving this time makes it more tempting to roll the dice on a national scholarship that has stiffer competition.

Beckford also learned to make the most out of general use scholarships. More than once, she won a smaller academic scholarship from a local organization that was perfectly happy that she wanted to use it for her program in Dubai.

And don’t worry about rejection — Beckford freely admits she won only six of the 150 scholarships she sought (yes, 150). Each application gave her practice at submitting a better one.

5. Use your essay to explain

Most great scholarships to study abroad are going to require a good story — your story. Maybe about how a math major wants to live in Dubai for nine months to learn conversational Arabic.

Beckford realized that her unique story might require some explanation.

“I just think of it as how I would convince my dad or someone else close to me why they should trust me,” Beckford said. “I didn’t have a concrete example, but I did say that I have enough ingenuity and drive [that] if I [were] to be given the scholarship, I would make a change; I’d be the one to say Arabic skills could change a company.”

Ask yourself why it’s worth an organization’s dime to send you somewhere, anywhere. If you can highlight your destination and the value you’d bring back to the U.S., you’ll be well on your way to avoid paying for study abroad out of pocket.

Keep applying for study abroad scholarships and grants

You might not score $40,000 in aid — or even need to for that matter. Still, putting Beckford’s tips into practice should at least help to answer the question of how to win a scholarship to study abroad.

Beckford’s last piece of advice is to keep applying for study abroad scholarships and grants until (and after) you board your flight. Although some scholarships won’t cover expenses beyond the cost of your attendance, others might help you pay for additional expenses while you’re abroad — just think about those weekend trips you might like to take to nearby cities.

And once you step off the plane, you could always figure out ways to make extra money while abroad, too.