The college financial aid process is already very confusing, but for international students trying to study in the U.S., it can be enormously frustrating. It is difficult for many Americans to pay for school, and an international student has the added burden of having to prove they can pay for college in order to get a student visa. So how does one get the money needed to qualify?

The truth is that the number of international scholarship opportunities is limited compared to what is available to U.S. citizens. Of course, this has to do with tax collection as it relates to federal grants. FAFSA, Perkins or Stafford loans, which are common financial aid packages for U.S. citizens, are simply not available to international students. In addition, in-state tuition (which is the amount Americans pay at local universities) is not something international students can take advantage of.

Although the pool of money that is available is much, much smaller, the number of international students applicable to U.S. schools is also much smaller than those who are already citizens - so you won't be too disheartened when you look at the steep financial realities involved.

To help you through the process, here are some things to consider when looking at international scholarship applications.

Be alert! Don't fall for scams

Unfortunately, I feel the need to put this as number one on my list of considerations. Unfortunately, there are people who take advantage of the fact that international financial aid is such a difficult ordeal. They make promises about eliminating red tape, but it's really just a scheme to steal your hard-earned money.

Beware of companies that ask for "loan fees" or "application fees." No valid scholarship will ask for this. In fact, no scholarship service will ask for money up front. Any that do are scams.

Scams include sites that claim to have exclusive lists or influence over those who are accepted for scholarships. I repeat for those in the balcony: no one legitimate will ask for your money up front .

Real scholarships will require some sort of exceptionality on your part, either for academic merit or extracurricular prowess. If a scholarship claims to be awarded to all applicants, or doesn't seem to have any criteria, it's time to be skeptical!

Wouldn't it be great if there was such a thing as "guaranteed free money"? Use this rule of thumb: if it seems too good to be true, it probably is.

Don't provide any personal information that seems strange, such as credit card numbers.

Don't be fooled by a story about "unclaimed scholarship money" that just waits for people to accept it. That simply doesn't exist.

One thing you can do to combat these scams, beyond being cautious, is to give yourself enough time to research any potential scholarship to verify its legitimacy.

And here are some links to some legitimate scholarship sites:
  • Petersons.com
  • International Scholarships
  • International Educational Financial Aid
  • Fast Web Scholarships
  • Scholarship Experts
  • Honest Product Reviews
Contact specific schools first

If there are programs you are considering, the best way to learn about scholarship money is to look specifically at the schools you plan to apply to. Many U.S. schools have a pool of money for international students and want to connect with you. It is important for these universities to maintain a diverse population and encourage an international presence. Larger universities often have a larger pool of money available for international applicants, but at some smaller liberal arts colleges, it may be easier to gain access to those funds. The best schools that offer international aid are a combination of larger and smaller programs, but they are also some of the most selective schools in the U.S., so keep that in mind when applying.

Most universities also have International Student Offices (ISOs). Try talking to a representative in this office; he or she can point you in the right direction and make the transition to a U.S. university easier.

Know your other options

For example, Education USA is an excellent resource. Run by the U.S. Department of State and the Institute of International Education, this easy-to-use site contains step-by-step instructions and reliable information about available scholarships. The site includes a counseling center, as well as details on financial aid packages. ForeignBorn.com is another comprehensive site with excellent resources and links to viable scholarship avenues.

The best advice I can give you is to allow yourself the time you need to look at the options available to you. Understand that, while it may be difficult, there is help available and it may take a little time to make sure those resources are legitimate and that you can connect with those who are in a position to help you.

The bottom line is that there is money available, especially for those with good qualifications. Most international scholarships are merit-based, so work diligently in school and it can really pay off, literally.