How to study abroad for free as an international student

1. Choose the right study abroad destination / country

There are countries where the colleges don’t charge a tuition fee at all. Consider Germany as an example, where tuition is banned by many states. Strange, you might think. But government views education as an investment rather than an expense.

There is a catch though. For many of these free degrees in Germany, the medium of instruction is German. Brazil also has very low tuition for foreigners, but again the language challenge comes up.

If the language unfamiliarity is a turnoff for you, there are other countries that offer free education (or very low tuition). Norway and Slovenia fall in that list.

2. Choose the right degree (MS vs MBA vs PhD)

Popular study abroad countries like the U.S. don’t have tuition free colleges. But they have a huge amount of financial assistance options (scholarships) for international students.

But all degrees aren’t created alike. Take the example of Masters degrees – MBA, MS, MPhil, MiM. You are more likely to get scholarships for an M.S. than for an MBA.

An MBA is considered to be a commercial degree, which gives excellent returns to students [read this post on MBA salaries after 3 years]. So why subsidise the education for them?

Which is why even without the tuition waiver or scholarships, the cost of an MBA is several times more than an MS degree. In absolute terms, a 25% MBA scholarship at a top business school is equivalent to a full scholarship in many MS programs.

Doctoral level education (PhD degrees) get some love too in some countries. Finland offers PhD degrees for free. But you’ll bump into the same cultural issues as mentioned in the earlier point. In many countries, you could get your entire PhD funded if your research topic falls in the high-priority category for the professors, universities and funding agencies.

3. Apply early in your career

While you are still in your early twenties, you are more likely to apply to programs like MS, than for MBA. So in some ways, this is linked to the earlier point about choosing the right degree, but it still deserves a separate mention to highlight the mentality of the course designers and the scholarship decision makers.

The perception of the admissions office changes when they see applicants with significant experience. They think such students have spent enough time working, earning and saving. They are capable enough to pay the tuition fee without needing much support from the university.

When you are applying earlier they know your bank balance isn’t as colourful as your facebook profile, and not getting any support might scare away the good students.

4. Crack the study abroad entrance exams

Irrespective of the degree or the country, all universities want to look good to external evaluators – like leading publications that come out with worldwide university rankings where they pitch colleges against each other and try to rank them on the same scale despite the huge subjective differences.

There are two dimensions that are talked about the most – placement statistics (average salaries) and selectivity (where entrance exam scores count a lot).

Your GRE, GMAT, SAT, ACT scores matter a lot in that race. The higher you score, the better your odds of getting extra honey on your bread. English proficiency exam scores (TOEFL and IELTS) are important too for getting an admit, but not as crucial in scholarship decisions.

Here’s one story where high GMAT scorer got a full-tuition scholarship plus stipend despite having a common (IT Male Engineer) profile.

5. Explore alternative financing options

Sometimes free money (i.e scholarships with no strings attached) isn’t easily available, especially at the top universities. However, some might want you to sweat a little and earn that money, in return for a waiver or a lower fee structure.

Graduate assistantships (GA) are the biggest sources of financial aid for international universities. Read more about how graduate assistantships work.

If you think about it, it’s a win-win situation for both, universities and students. As a student, the overseas education experience ceases to be just an academic exercise as you get to work abroad and develop practical skills.

The university isn’t under undue pressure to distribute free lunches and strain its resources. Instead of hiring expensive professionals from outside, they can tap into the global resource pool in their backyard and get some basic work done in-house.


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