Navigating Financial Aid for International Students – A Comprehensive Guide

By Grey Joyner, Admission Consultant


For international students applying to study in the United States, understanding the intricacies of financial aid can be difficult. Financial aid comes in different forms and from many sources, so it can get daunting trying to make sense of it all. This guide aims to demystify the process and arm you with the information you need to determine if and how to apply for financial aid in the US.

Types of Financial Aid

Financial aid covers any sort of assistance a student receives to help them cover the cost of attending university.

There are two types of financial aid for international students:

1. Need-Based Aid: This type of aid is awarded based on the applicant’s family’s financial need. Universities assess the financial situation of the student and offer assistance to cover tuition, fees, and sometimes living expenses if the student’s family cannot afford to cover the tuition in full.

2. Merit-Based Aid: Awarded to students based on their academic achievements, talents, or other accomplishments, merit-based aid is highly competitive and often limited. While some universities offer generous merit scholarships to international students, they are relatively rare compared to those available to domestic applicants.
Overall, need-based aid is much more common than merit-based aid. We will delve deeper into these two areas below.

Need-Based Aid

Understanding Universities’ Financial Aid Policies

When it comes to need-based aid, universities fall into two categories:

1. Need-Aware: Need-aware institutions consider an applicant’s financial need when making admissions decisions. Indicating that you require financial aid lowers your chances of acceptance.

2. Need-Blind: Need-blind institutions evaluate applications without considering their financial need. Applying for financial aid does not affect your likelihood of admission.

While many universities adopt a need-blind policy for domestic applicants, only a handful extend this policy to international students. Notable need-blind institutions for international applicants include (as of May 2024):

  • Princeton University
  • Harvard University
  • Yale University
  • Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)
  • Dartmouth College
  • Amherst College
  • Bowdoin College
  • Brown University (as of this year)

Additionally, some universities, both need-aware and need-blind, commit to meeting 100% of the demonstrated need of the applicant. This means that, if accepted, the student will receive a combination of grants and/or loans to cover the tuition that their family is unable to afford.

When considering financial aid options, prospective applicants should research the schools they are considering to determine if they are need-aware or need-blind, and if they meet 100% of the demonstrated needs of applicants.

How to estimate how much need-based aid you will get

To get an estimate of how much need-based aid you will receive if accepted to a given university, you can visit the Net Price Calculator for that university. For example, here is the Net Price Calculator for Harvard. This calculator will ask for financial information about your family and give you an estimate of how much it will cost for you to attend that university.

You can also look at the Common Data Set (CDS) for a given university. Section H of the CDS contains data about financial aid at that university. There you will be able to see how many students received financial aid and if 100% of the demonstrated need was met, which can help you estimate whether you will get need-based aid from that university.

How to apply for need-based financial aid

To determine eligibility and aid amounts, international students must submit specific financial aid forms alongside their application. These requirements vary by university, but common requirements include the International Student Financial Aid Application (ISFAA), the CSS Profile, or university-specific forms. These forms collect detailed information about the applicant’s family finances, such as income, assets, and liabilities, and may ask you to submit tax documents as well. Typically, these forms are due at the same time as the application.

Based on this information, universities calculate the Estimated Financial Contribution (EFC), representing the amount expected from the student’s family. Institutions committed to meeting demonstrated need will then craft financial aid packages to bridge the gap between the EFC and tuition costs.

Of note, international applicants do not need to submit the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), which is required for students to receive federal student aid and is limited to US citizens.

After you receive your financial aid package, you can appeal the decision to that university. This approach, however, is generally reserved for situations where the applicant’s financial circumstances have significantly changed since submitting their financial aid application.


Merit-Based Aid

Exploring Merit-Based Aid Opportunities

In addition to need-based aid, international students can explore merit-based scholarships based on exceptional academic, extracurricular, athletic or other talents. Getting merit scholarships is rare, but can be worth exploring.

Merit-based scholarships come from one of two sources:

1. Universities: Ivy League universities do not offer merit-based scholarships; however some other universities do. In some cases, international applicants are eligible, and in other cases they are not. Some examples of merit-based scholarships offered by universities that international applicants are eligible for include:

  • The Robertson Scholarship, which combines study at Duke University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
  • The Ingram Scholarship at Vanderbilt University
  • The Jefferson Scholarship at the University of Virginia

Applicants should research the universities they are considering to understand the merit scholarships offered. In some cases, they will automatically be considered for the scholarship based on their application to the university, but in other cases they will need to submit a separate application for the scholarship.

2. Third-party organisations: Other organisations such as companies and nonprofits also offer merit scholarships. Some examples of such scholarships include:

  • Study a Bachelor’s in the US Scholarship from
  • Be Bold Scholarship from
  • Women in STEM Scholarship from MPower Financing

Good sources for finding merit-based scholarships include and

Merit-based scholarships are quite difficult to get, particularly for international students, so applicants should not bank on them to fund their studies and should consider whether they are worth the effort required to apply.



Both need-based and merit-based aid provide opportunities for students to reduce their cost of attending university in the US. For need-based aid, students must consider the likelihood of getting aid (based on tools like Net Price Calculators) and whether applying for aid will reduce their chances of admission. Merit-based scholarships should also be considered, but students should evaluate whether they are worth the effort of applying given how difficult they can be to get.