Navigate the Financial Aid Process at U.S. Colleges

Amy Rader Kice

When it comes to finding scholarships and financial aid for international students at American universities, there is good news and bad news.

The bad news is that there is no one book, website or clearinghouse that will answer all your questions -- though I wish there were. Information is often scattered and hard to find. The scholarship search can be a complicated, confusing process.

The good news is that financial aid is a big part of the college admissions process for everyone, not just international students. All students have questions, and there are lots of resources available if you know where to look.

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1. Know financial aid basics: There are many different kinds of American colleges, including big, small, rural, urban, public and private. Each type of school awards financial aid differently.

At private universities, for example, the cost to attend is typically the same for everybody, whether a student is from Boston or Beijing. At a public university, by contrast, students who live in the same state as the university pay less than students from other states or countries.

Universities also offer different kinds of financial aid. Some scholarships are awarded based on academic success, while others are based on financial need. Some are awarded for talents like theater, art or music, and others are reserved for athletes. Some awards are loans, which need to be paid back, and others give students a paying job on a university's campus.

[Get more tips on spending less money on U.S. study.]

2. Go to the source: Don't be afraid to ask questions. Start by getting in touch with the admissions office at the universities you have applied to or are interested in attending. Every university is going to award financial aid differently, and going to the source will save you time and frustration.

Mention upfront what programs or majors you're interested in pursuing. This will help the admissions office refine the options available to you. Also make sure you have talked with your family in advance about how much they can afford to pay.

Be transparent when you discuss this with the admissions counselor. She can help you figure out if you need assistance that covers tuition (the cost of attending the university), housing, meals, books or a combination of these.

3. Share your strengths: In general, I can tell you that international students are more likely to qualify and receive scholarships based on their academic accomplishments. This is called merit-based aid. If you've excelled in a particular subject or received recognition for a project or paper, be sure to share these accolades with the admissions office.

Some colleges will also give you credit for courses or curriculum you've completed, including A-levels, International Baccalaureate, Advanced Placement and more. Getting credit for these classes is just as useful as a scholarship because it means you have fewer classes to take and pay for in order to get your degree.

[Find colleges where international students get the most financial aid.]

4. Explore your options: While each individual university should be your first and best resource, be sure to look elsewhere.

Affiliated with the U.S. Department of State, Education USA offers free, unbiased information on how to pursue college in the United States. Be sure to visit your local Education USA office or explore Education USA's tremendous online resources.

Some governments, like Saudi Arabia, also offer scholarships to students from their country who are interested in studying abroad. Some companies, including GM, Ford, Toyota, Disney and others offer scholarships to children of their employees across the globe. And some nonprofits, like the American Association of University Women, also offer scholarships.

The bottom line is that financing a college education is a partnership between your family and the colleges you want to attend. Ask questions, be honest, meet deadlines and continue working hard.

Admissions and financial aid counselors will do the same because they want you to come to their university and want to help you get here.

Amy Rader Kice is director of international admission and assistant dean at St. Edward's University. She has counseled international students for more than 10 years and volunteers for the CIS Committee on Europe, the Middle East and Africa. She has also completed the College Board's Enrollment Leadership Academy. Connect with her on LinkedIn or via email.