How to Win Study Abroad Scholarships (From Someone Who Won Over $40,000)

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Gabby Beckford knows how to apply for scholarships 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.

“Studying abroad really showed me how limitless opportunities are for students,” says Gabby, a senior math major who writes about her travels on Packs Light.

It also showed her how study abroad scholarships and grants could pave the way. There other ways to finance study abroad programs, but nothing beats gift aid that doesn’t need to be repaid.

5 tips to win scholarships to study abroad

Gabby 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.

Gabby 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 pay for her nine-month trip to the United Arab Emirates.

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

1. Search in obvious (and obscure) places

The first sizable scholarship that Gabby 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 Gabby 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 with your study abroad school or program (if you’ve chosen one) for aid. The American Institute for Foreign Study, for example, offers $800,000 in annual scholarships to students and schools signing up for its study abroad programs.

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

Gabby recounted searching basic terms like “Study abroad scholarships VCU.” You might sharpen your Google search skills to find gift aid opportunities that haven’t found their way onto popular 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, 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. Gabby says 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, or essay requirements.

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

3. Be open to language-based scholarships

Gabby 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 are often hung up on two obstacles:

  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, Gabby 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, Gabby applied for and won a $20,000 Boren Scholarship that takes students to countries that are critical to U.S. national security interests. That’s how she ended up studying Arabic in Dubai, not 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 says.

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 Gabby. Given her two-week timespan, she was forced to become a more efficient applicant. Although writing comes naturally to her, she says that getting in the practice of writing essays can help any scholarship applicant pump them out faster and better.

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

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

And don’t worry about rejection. Gabby 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 your goals

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.

Gabby realized that her tall tale would 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,” she says. “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 overseas. If you can highlight your destination and the value you’d bring back to the U.S., you’ll be well on your way.

Start applying for study abroad scholarships and grants

You might not score $40,000 in aid — or even need to for that matter. But putting Gabby’s tips in practice should at least help to answer the question of how to get study abroad scholarships.

Gabby’s last piece of advice is to keep applying for study abroad scholarships and grants until 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. Think about those weekend trips you’d like to take.

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

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