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The basics
Study abroad : Student Finances

Understanding financial aid: From scholarships to bursaries

There are a number financial aid options available to international students to study abroad. Knowing what type of financial aid is on offer and the characteristics of each can be crucial in making a decision on which you choose.

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One of the most frequently cited sources of anxiety and sleepless nights for students looking to study abroad is how to finance the journey. It’s a critical aspect in the decision-making process as to where to study and what financial aid opportunities may be available in different destinations. Luckily there are quite a few types of financial aid available for international students. However, these do take different forms and structures, so it’s important to understand what the requirements are for each and what is needed for the application process. In addition, the names and definitions may change slightly between destinations so it’s useful to do your research. We’re here to help and guide you through some of the options you may come across and get to grips with what may suit you best.


What is an academic scholarship?

Academic scholarships are primarily awarded on the basis of academic achievement, excellence and potential. They are the granting of financial aid to assist students in undertaking their studies with the money not having to be paid back upon successful completion of a study programme. It is important to remember that academic scholarships may vary in terms of the criteria they use for selection, in addition to academic excellence.


This is largely reliant on the specific purpose of the scholarship and the values of the donors/organisations who may sponsor the funding. For example, some scholarships may be specifically for international students, particular subjects or for a designated period of time.



Academic scholarships may also vary in terms of what the funding covers. In some instances, this will be everything from accommodation to tuition fees while in others it may be reserved for a specific purpose only, such as course materials or partial tuition fee payment. To qualify for an academic scholarship, you’ll generally need to have an exemplary academic record, however other areas may be taken into consideration such as evidence of extraordinary service/ volunteering as well as financial need.


It’s always important to read the terms and conditions of scholarships and ensure that you follow the application guidelines very carefully. You wouldn’t want your application to be prejudiced because you submitted incorrect documentation or forget to include a letter of motivation.


What is an athletic scholarship?

Athletic scholarships, also known as sports scholarships, are targeted at students who demonstrate notable sporting prowess and skill in a specific sport. The scholarships may be designated for a particular sport or can be more general and cover a variety of sporting codes.


It’s important not to forget that although the scholarships are given on the basis of sporting ability, there is usually a stipulation that the required academic standards are also maintained. If students don’t get the required grades there is the possibility of forfeiting the scholarship.


With a thriving university/college sports scene, American institutions offer the vast majority of athletic scholarships. One of the most common forms that American scholarships take is for College Football, which is extremely popular and well-funded. In some instances, such awards have facilitated a university education for students who may have otherwise not been able to attend an institution of higher learning.


With athletic scholarships, the criteria for application will require you to demonstrate both your sporting ability, which may take the form of recommendations from coaches and evidence of results. The criteria for application and qualification are often very detailed and precise requiring attention to detail. It’s always useful to get in touch with the institution prior to applying to find out exactly what you’ll need to do.


What is a bursary?

Bursaries are designed to financially assist students in the pursuit of their educational goals. Bursaries may be awarded by institutions, organisations or companies in the form of financial aid. In the UK the term bursary is primarily used instead of scholarship, however, in other destinations around the world, the structure and nature of bursaries are not identical to that of a scholarship.


For example, in some cases, it may be necessary to pay back the money from a bursary once you have gained employment or a certain amount of time has elapsed after graduation. It’s essential to check the details of an award so that you’re fully informed of your responsibilities. This may include a particular standard of academic achievement or a pre-determined work placement post-graduation.


Bursaries are generally awarded on the basis of the requirements or needs of an applicant, as opposed to purely performance-based. Those evaluating bursaries will likely take into consideration the background and financial status of an applicant’s family, alongside their potential as a student. Bursaries are not identically structured and thus may cover a varying degree of costs, only for a specific time period or for specific degree courses.


What is a fellowship?

A fellowship is a form of financial aid which is given to individuals to support the pursuit of study, research and the development of knowledge in a particular field. This study is usually conducted within a group or academy of other individuals working towards similar goals. Fellowships are awarded at a postgraduate study level, usually doctoral. There is a certain level of prestige associated with a fellowship and it represents a significant academic achievement. 

The amount of financial aid that is awarded varies widely, but a key criterion for all fellowships is the prerequisite for high academic achievement. It can be a rigorous process of application requiring thesis proposals and evidence of viable research. Further, a strong motivation for the impact of the research may also be required in order to qualify for the award.  


What is a grant?

A grant is a specific type of scholarship or bursary. Grants are generally given by companies, corporations and trusts to assist students in the financing of their studies. Grants are often for specific courses of study and research. They may vary in terms of whether students will be required to pay back the amount they have been awarded upon graduation.


Each will have a set of terms and conditions that it’s important to familiarise yourself with. For examples, if students are granted a subsidised grant, they will not have to pay the money back. In the case of an unsubsidised grant, there will be a requirement for the amount to be repaid upon the completion of their studies.


With grants given by corporations, the award is often made with the intention of the student joining and working for the company once they’ve finished studying. Receiving a grant can therefore be a good opportunity to start your journey in the professional world.


What is a loan?

A loan is money that is granted to students based on the relative probability that they or their guarantor will be able to pay back the amount. A critical factor to remember is that a loan will always need to be paid back in full and with added interest.


What this means is that the money you pay back will be more than you were loaned, depending on the interest rate that is charged. Loans may be provided by governments, but in the majority of instances, the loan will be taken from a bank.


Banks may have different policies, interest rates and criteria so it’s important to check all of these factors prior to lodging an application. Paying back the loan usually commences once you have secured full-time employment or after a given time period following the completion of your studies.



Deciding which option you’ll choose depends on what your priorities are as well as your personal circumstances. However, there are a number of possible ways to fund your studies which is reassuring and encouraging. Don’t forget to read all of the details and information associated with each financial aid option you may be considering, especially the terms and conditions.


You have to ensure that you understand what the expectations of you are when applying for or accepting an offer. The application process can be arduous and detailed, as can maintaining the standards required of an award. However, the hard work will pay off when you’re fulfilling your academic potential and hopefully celebrating your study abroad journey with graduation.

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