How to: Apply for Financial Aid — Chantelle (University of Rochester ’19)

Chantelle, a recipient of a merit scholarship, a research grant and financial aid from five colleges, will be a freshman at the University of Rochester. Here, the Penangite who will be majoring in Biomedical Engineering shares her tips on Financial Aid applications.


Hi! My name is Chantelle and I’m very excited to set foot on the beautiful River Campus and experience 6 months of snow-covered upstate New York (we are ranked the 3rd snowiest college in the US!). I grew up in Penang and I spend most of my time playing the violin in symphony orchestras, running cross-country, and playing netball.

Navigating the financial aid system can be one of the most important and sometimes difficult part of your college application. Based on my experience, here are the 9 things you need to know about applying for financial aid as an international freshman.


1. Types of scholarships

There are two types of scholarships/financial aid: Merit-based scholarship and Need-based aid.

  • Merit-based scholarship: awarded based on your academic/ extra-curricular ability. It can range from a few thousand dollars up to full tuition.
  • Need-based aid: awarded based on your financial need. It can comprise of grants, work-study and loans

Most of the public colleges only provide merit-based scholarships for international students; Private colleges either provide one or both. Do check their financial aid website for more details.

To get an overall idea on the number of freshman receiving aid and the average aid amount each year, you can refer to each colleges’ Common Data Set. The common data set is a annual survey completed by colleges, which contains a section on financial aid that might help applicants based on freshman statistics.

The section contains info on: Need-Based and Non-Need Based Financial Aid Offered in $’s, Number of Enrolled Students and Average Aid Awarded (Need and Non-Need Based), Financial Aid Filing Deadlines, Types of Aid Available, Scholarships and Grant Available, Criteria used in Awarding Institutional Aid

You can also visit– It shows a list of which colleges offer aid to the largest numbers of international students.


2. Admission

When applying for financial aid for some colleges, be aware that it will affect your chances of admission. At most times, international students who apply for financial aid will be placed and  reviewed as a separate group. This group is highly competitive because funding is limited.

There are two types of college admissions in this case:

  • Need-blind admission: applicants’ financial resources are NOT taken into consideration when deciding whether to offer them a place
  • Need-aware admission: applicants’ financial resources are taken into consideration when deciding whether to offer them a place.

There are currently only 6 colleges in the US that are need-blind and meets the full financial need of international students: Harvard University, Amherst College, Dartmouth College, Princeton University, Yale University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Here is a link to the top 10 colleges that award international students the most financial aid. Application to these colleges are rather competitive but it is still worth the try!

However, College rankings, reputations and ‘need-blind’ admissions should not be dominant in the process.

Ultimately, the emphasis should be on finding the right “fit” college to put yourself in the best position to find success both in the college admissions process and the undergraduate years that follow.


3. CSS/Financial Aid PROFILE®

Most colleges participate in the CSS/Financial Aid PROFILE®. Although the CSS profile for Fall 2016 applicants are only live on October 1st junior year, you can get a heads start by accessing the 2015 financial aid forms now to get an idea of what type of forms and details are needed. Normally, there are only minor changes in the forms each year.

Sending the CSS/Financial Aid PROFILE® does require a fee. It costs $25 for the initial application and $16 for each additional application.

If the fee proves to be a financial hardship, you can try emailing your financial aid officer at each college for any alternative forms.

From my previous experience, some colleges do provide an alternative application form for you to fill in and send it to them at no cost.

For those colleges that do not participate in CSS/Financial Aid PROFILE®, normally, there is an in-house application form. There are also some colleges that require both the CSS/Financial Aid PROFILE and an in-house application form.


The Institutional Documentation Service (IDOC) collects additional documents such as income statements and tax returns to finalize your financial aid package from the college. Not all colleges participate in IDOC and some of them only require applicants to submit tax-return information to IDOC after they have been accepted. However, there are a handful of colleges that do require applicants to submit tax-return information to IDOC when applying. Do remember to read the financial aid webpage of each college to determine when applicants are required to submit tax-return information to IDOC when applying.

Unlike the CSS/Financial Aid profile, there is no fee required for IDOC.

5. Deadlines

Take note of deadlines as different colleges have different deadlines for submitting financial aid forms. Submitting forms after the deadline may cause delay in notifying you of your aid package and sometimes, late applicants may obtain a smaller aid package as funding is limited.

Always remember to check each college’s website for the specific deadline on all the forms.

For merit scholarships for international students, some colleges have deadlines as early as December 1st Eg. Boston University and University of Southern California.

Some colleges only offer merit scholarships/ financial aid to early decision international applicants only. The deadline may be as early as end of November.

However, there are also some colleges that do not offer merit scholarships/ financial to early decision international applicants Eg. Rice University

  • Deadline for CSS form: Each college has their own priority filling deadline, which can range from November to December for early decision/ early action or January to March for regular decision.
  • Deadline for IDOC form: Each college has their own deadline. Usually around March.


6. Bank statements and tax returns

Coming from Malaysia where Bahasa Malaysia is our official language, bank statements, income statements and tax-return information have to be translated into English.

For Fall 2016 applicants, most of the colleges require documents of year 2015 when submitting the financial aid application.


7. Appealing


In early April, you will receive acceptance letters from colleges. If the aid package is not substantial, do not fret! It is not the end of the world! Colleges DO allow applicants to appeal for more financial aid and financial aid officers are very understanding of your situation. Do remember to express your intent of attending the college (if it is one of your top choices) in the letter.

To have an estimate of your financial aid package beforehand, you can utilize the Expected Family Contribution (EFC) Calculator.

The Cost of Attendance (COA) – Expected Family Contribution (EFC) = Financial Need


8. Additional financial aid forms

Some colleges have college-specific financial aid forms to fill in, so do remember to check their website for additional forms such as: The International Student Certification of Finances.

Again, as different colleges have their own deadlines, I would suggest having a calendar of deadlines to avoid missing any submission dates.

9. External funding

There are a handful of Malaysian scholarships available. Here are some of the links:

My final tip: ALWAYS START EARLY! The application for financial aid can last for months: from October to March. It’s hard. It’s complicated BUT it’s worth it!

Good luck to all future applicants!

Best wishes

Chantelle 🙂


Why the U.S. — Syairah (University of Texas at Austin ’15)

Syairah Ridzuan (University of Texas at Austin ‘15) finds a shift in focus in her academic journey: discovery and learning over letter grades.


For the first eighteen years of my life, I never dreamed of visiting the United States, much less living in that country. In fact, I knew nothing about the other side of the world, and I had no desire to learn more about the countries on that continent. My focus was fixed on Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia (SPM); it was (and still is, sadly) the gatekeeper that largely determines the career paths of many Malaysian youths. Not getting straight A’s will significantly lower your chances of admission to the top academic programs in local universities. Hence, my focus had to be singular at that time. And I came through – with results that met societal expectations of academic excellence. I managed to secure a scholarship that covered my entire undergraduate studies in the United States.

Whoa, what? The United States?

Nobody said anything about studying there.

I thought I had applied for a scholarship to study in the UK.

Yep, that was how I reacted after reading my scholarship offer letter. From that moment onwards, the learning curve began to steepen. Not only did I have to learn about a different higher education system, I also had to learn about other, equally important matters like the culture in the US. I was going to do more than study in the United States, I was going to live in the country for the next four years of my life. On my own. It was both an exciting and a scary prospect for me.

And I’m glad I went with it.

The University of Texas at Austin has taught me more than just economics models and theories; it has guided me to discover more about my interests in computer science, architecture, psychology, and theatre. More importantly, UT has taught me that academic excellence is important but not paramount in my life. Rather, the institution has demonstrated to me the importance of giving back to the community, whether it is through conducting research or doing weekly volunteer work. Good grades don’t matter that much. They become mere alphabets on a piece of paper called a transcript that attest to your ability in certain fields and help you land a job that hopefully pays you more than enough for you to survive. Apart from that, those letters don’t say much about you as an individual beyond the realm of professionalism. Therefore, strive for both academic and personal growth.

The United States will be a fine place for you to grow up and strengthen your own roots. Challenge your beliefs in all its forms, Compare them with the foreign culture you’re exposed to in your university and examine them in new light. You’ll come out a whole lot stronger – as a person and as a believer in whatever faith, ideology or cultural practices that you live by.

Dear Past Self — Chern Wei (Cornell ’16)

Chern Wei cheers on those daunted by the college application process, reminding them of their ultimate goal and the wonderful people supporting them.


Dear former self,

You will soon be swarmed with numerous tasks on your plate – studying for your SATs and finals, chasing after recommendation letters, translating one document after another from Malay into English, completing various forms, and devoting countless hours to attempted self-reflection. To accommodate for this pandemonium, there will be waking up at odd hours. There will be stress and sleepless nights. There will also be many startling split seconds, like when you are hit hard with the realization of potentially having missed an important deadline.

Let me get this straight: the path down college applications will not be an easy one to traverse. Expect your composure to be shaken regularly. Expect minor setbacks. You will feel like a recluse and will often believe that no one understands what you are going through. You will succumb to so much negativity, and you will want to give up on many, many occasions.


You will remember college applications being a painstakingly tiring process – but that will not be all you remember of the turbulent weeks to come. When you reflect upon this seemingly bitter point in life, you will also remember the overwhelming amount of unwavering support and love from your family members, who may not fully understand what you are stacked against, yet will continue to remain behind your back at any cost. You will remember the comfort you find in friends, in both those you’ve grown up with and those you’ve recently met, when you exchange stories of struggles with them on Facebook. You will remember the teachers who willingly devoted their time to your cause, even when they had no obligation whatsoever to meet you outside school hours in Starbucks, or to respond to an email at two in the morning. You will absolutely remember how surprised you were when your response to some of the simplest essay prompts did not surface easily. What makes you happy? What matters most to you in life? What one word defines you? You will find yourself investing days and nights into answering these questions insightfully.

To call each attempt in doing so a success would be a blatant lie. You will countlessly end up with hundreds of words barely resonating with your conscience. Still, in spite of any discouragement, remember: never settle for less than your best. Continue embarking on that relentless journey of self-discovery, and you will eventually find the right narratives to share in your application.

For the times when your patience runs dangerously thin, recall that nothing desirable comes easy – definitely not the acceptance letter into your dream school. The flower that blooms in adversity is the most rare and beautiful of all. Persevere! If all else seems to dwindle and fail, recollect your past successes, both big ones and small ones, and the price you paid in seizing them. The sweat. The tears. The time. Harness the motivation from your past when the one for the future seems too far away. If you feel distress or disappointment creeping over you, regain yourself quickly. Never let those feelings overstay their welcome during this crucial period of time; they will be highly counterproductive to your efforts. Remember to stay as calm as possible. Remember to smile. Above all, remind yourself ceaselessly on how blessed you are to have this opportunity to begin with, and to be able to share it with the ones you love – be very, very thankful.

Know that I will always be rooting for you. Best of luck!

With warmest regards,
Chern Wei

Two Years in the Land of the Free – Calvin (Stanford ’17)

In this post, Calvin Yeoh (Stanford ’17) shares his journey to the U.S. – the inevitable uncertainty and fear, the struggle, and, finally, the payoff.

Calvin (Me during ski trip in freshman year!)

A brief recap of my two-years in the land of the free:

My first foray into U.S. college education came when I was still in Form 4, when my parents and I sent my sister off to college at Madison, Wisconsin. My sister took the bold step to study in the States rather than being with her friends back home, or the U.K. or Australia, or anywhere else for that matter, for reasons I could not understand at that time. I questioned her decision to be so far away from all of us, to be within a culture that was completely foreign from the one we were used to. However, being at Madison for a week while helping my sister settle-in also made me start wondering about college. Where do I want to go? What do I want to do? With all its natural beauty and vivaciousness, Madison got me hooked to the idea of studying in the States. (though I soon came to realize that not every college in the States was beautifully wedged amongst three lakes, where students can watch the sunset while enjoying ice cream made in a lab) Call that a brief introduction to “college life”.

Fast-forward three years, I found myself taking a flight to the States, albeit to the West Coast, two thousand miles (or about 28 days’ walk) away from Madison. I walked into campus with a weird sense of excitement and trepidation. On the one hand, this was the moment I’ve been waiting for, to begin a life of higher learning. On the other, since almost everyone here had to work their ass off to get into Stanford, does this mean that I have to work doubly, triply, or quadruply hard just to “stay afloat”? Everyone I met during my first few weeks exuded a sense of confidence and poise, and they seemed to already have college all figured out – the courses that they planned to take, the clubs they intend to join, even their weekly workout routine! And there I was, trying to make sense of the independent-life I’m suddenly expected to lead and curing my jetlag and hurriedly running off to the next orientation event, for fear of missing out (read: FOMO/kiasu).

Stanford soon turned out to be an amazing ride, one with its own vagaries, quirks, and idiosyncrasies. Academics at Stanford are rigorous, but they are not the only things that challenge and enrich you. There is some truth when people say that an American education is beyond just textbooks and whiteboards and problem sheets. Like learning how to bike without hands, learning in college is a process of taking risks and daring to try new things – you may fall or slip once or twice, but the sense of satisfaction and reward at the end is something you carry with you for a long, long time. At Stanford, I found myself partaking in a myriad of activities I would never have imagined doing so. I baked bread for a charity group to end world hunger; I danced (or attempted) salsa a couple of times; I ran barefoot from fountain to fountain (that opportunity is rather scarce now, given the drought that we’re facing); I skied off a mountain. And through these activities, I’ve met some of the most humble and down-to-earth people here, awe-inspiring and unique in their own ways. Almost two years on, I find myself beginning to call this place “home”.

I can still vividly remember one of my favorite experiences at Stanford. Being an amateur astronomy-enthusiast, I went to an open space preserve about 30 minutes away from campus with a couple of friends, hoping to catch comet Lovejoy’s transition across the sky. There, everything was pitch black, and you pretty much use red light for illumination, be it a star-chart on your phone or the digital display on your telescope, because of a biological effect in our eyes that changes our sensitivity towards different colors called the Purkinje effect. The preserve, being elevated about 300m above ground, was perfect as one could see the majestic beauty of the Bay Area in its night lights and the twinkling stars above. As my friends and I huddled together against the strong frigid winds blowing at the hilltop, I felt a sense of warmth, comfort, and satisfaction. This, is what I came to college for, to do some of the things I enjoy the most with the people I enjoy being with. Into our eyes, the universe emptied its creations, the sprinkling of stars amidst the pitch-black canvas that stretched out across the horizon. What amazement I felt when a streak of light appeared at the top-right corner of my field of vision – a shooting star right before my eyes! For this amateur astronomer who grew up under the perpetually-cloudy Kuala Lumpur skies, it was a moment of ecstasy.

For all the hard work that was expected and the hard alcohol that was provided*, Stanford turned out to be a paradise that many purported it to be. From the outside, one might imagine or call this a “resort” – what with the sun-kissed sandstones, the palm trees and fountains that dot our campus, and a beautiful church right smack in the heart of campus. However, beyond its physical beauty, Stanford also taught me to think independently, to follow my own voice and to avoid falling into the mainstream. Now you might be inclined to believe that Stanford is mainly a computer-science hub, an incubator for the “next big thing” to burst out of Silicon Valley, but it is also a place for the literature-enthusiasts, the philosophers, the future teachers, the activists and the physicists, to name a few. College is a place for you yourself to decide how to make the best out of your time, and I’ve decided to learn as much and as widely as I can about the world.

Looking back, I feel eternally grateful for the education that I’ve received and gone through thus far. With admissions rates dropping faster than the bass, choosing and getting into a college can be a tough and emotional process, and once you’re in one, enjoying it can be another. Life is full of uncertainty, and most of the time we get what we want, but sometimes we don’t. In the long run, it doesn’t matter – what matters most is how you face and embrace each of these uncertainties as they come. As Leo Tolstoy, under the pseudonym Kozma Prutkov, said, “if you want to be happy, be”.

To the generations of the past, present and future, I endow you with this snippet of advice. Don’t be afraid to go off the trodden path; Don’t be afraid to question; Don’t be afraid to walk against the tide; Don’t be afraid to be who you are and become what you want to be.

*For clarification, the University does not explicitly provide alcohol or condone alcohol-consumption.

Dear Past Self — Amanda (Tufts ’18)

Hindsight is, indeed, a wonderful thing, as Amanda (Tufts ’18) shows in this heartfelt letter of advice to her past self.

Amanda Ng
Dear Amanda,

It is Day 2 of Chinese New Year of your Form 4 year. You are on the computer in your Mom’s room — to escape the heat and the irresistible cookies — and have just discovered something that will change the rest of your life. “Financial aid for international students,” reads Harvard University’s website. For the very first time, the possibility of a path other than the public university in your state reveals itself.

You will very quickly learn about: the liberal arts approach; student activism; professors who have coffee with students; living somewhere where you get to wear a winter coat; pursuing an education completely in English … And you will fall in love. You will fall head-over-heels, stupidly in love with the idea of going to university in the U.S. — it’s something about lying on green lawns and reading books written by dead Greek men, right?

I’m writing to you, not to tell you how exactly things will unfold, or even that “everything will be okay” — because between where you are and where I am right now, there will be plenty of not-so-okay moments. Instead, I’d like to offer three simple pieces of advice — which, knowing how stubborn we are, you probably won’t accept so easily, but I can try:

One: Never apologise for your deep curiosity and “weird” questions. You were born with a fascination for all kinds of people, ideas and places. You are “itchy” to try everything. Try everything. Be that one kid who sticks her hand up and ask questions in class — but more than that, look up from your book and around at your classmates, and figure out what they’re interested in. Armed with a little bit of blur sotong recklessness, you will slowly collect an unlikely but precious set of experiences. Your “annoying questions” will one day turn into the ability to “ask the right question at the right time,” to make people uncomfortable and have real conversations. Never stop reaching out and being genuinely interested, and your life journey will astonish you, again and again.

Two: The time you have right now is just as important, if not more important, than the time you will get to spend in university. (Spoiler: Yes, you will go to university.) It is not where you are, but what you make of it. Remember that it’s not how much you do, but how meaningfully you live. Your family will not live forever. Your friends will move away. You will be displaced from city to city, over and over again. There will be many tough decisions and rough moments on your road ahead — stay open and keep listening to the perspectives around you, but most importantly, listen to your inner voice. It is already telling you things you will take years to figure out how to articulate and live out.

Three: Always, always be grateful — for your energy and personality, for the doors that will open, for the people who help and support you even though they have no good reason to believe in you. Thank them, again and again. Because you are and will continue to be ridiculously lucky and privileged. You have always had a mum who’s incredibly open, loving and supportive. And you will cross paths with: Teachers who care enough to deal with your shit in and out of classes; friends who are brutally honest because they care; a non-profit founder who will teach you to question why you really want to go to university, and craft your own definition of success; host families who will comfort you with home-cooked food and the wisdom of strong women; USAPPS, a community that you never thought you needed but eventually wouldn’t have made it without …

Dear Amanda,

You didn’t do much to deserve this, but your life will turn out to be astonishingly, overwhelmingly exciting, fulfilling and gratifying — soak it all in, because that’s all you can do. And never, ever forget to say “thank you” for all the people and pieces of your life, and use your privilege to pay it forward. College is but part of the journey, and what a beautiful journey it will be.

Life will be incredibly kind to you, so be sure you are to others, too.


With peace, love and respect,

Dear Past Self — Affan (UC Irvine ’18)

Looking for some practical college application advice? Muhammad Affan (University of California Irvine 18’) has got you covered with this nifty little cheat sheet.


Dear past me,

The US application process is complicated, isn’t it? Well, don’t panic! Here is a cheat sheet I made for your reference.

SAT Prep
Everyone aims to get a perfect SAT score, but in reality it’s really difficult, especially for those who have certain limitations, such as time, since the exam itself is about 3 hours and covers subject matter such as grammar and math. My suggestion is to start early and do the SAT exercises with your friends. If you do it alone, you would only refer to the answer scheme and don’t necessarily understand your mistakes.

Post SAT
Once you’ve gotten your results, you may or may not be satisfied with it. Don’t be discouraged as you can register for another SAT exam. Be mindful of the SAT exam schedule so that you can organize your schedule ahead of time, especially when you are studying, say, in a Pre-University program.

Average SAT score
You’ve tried your best but still didn’t get a 2400 SAT score (LOL). Don’t get too frustrated about it! In the US, admission counselors look at your credentials holistically. They try to accommodate most of their applicants through many channels such as going through your academic performance, co-curricular activities, letters of recommendation, personal statement and prompt-based essays. These are the ways that you can utilize to impress them.

Which University?
There are many factors that can guide you on picking a university that fits you. Some people may decide to study at a university where most of their friends go to. I chose to be in somewhere different simply because I’ve always wanted to study in California. Besides that, a university’s ranking can be a factor, as certain students choose a university that has high rank. The weather can also be a factor, as some students prefer temperate places such as in the west coast (Oregon, California, Arizona), while some just want to have fun in the snow like in the east coast (Pennsylvania, New York). Essentially, just do some background research on their programs, tuition fees, and learning environment so that you can find a university that makes you feel at home.

I’m stuck. I can’t do this by myself. I really need someone to guide me.
If, let’s say, you are filing information on the university’s application form and find yourself confused, just shoot the university’s counsellors an email. Don’t get too intimidated with sending an email because counsellors are humans too and they want to help you as a prospective student. Besides asking counsellors, ask your peers or someone who has undergone the process of applying for advice. I’m pretty sure they’d be glad to help you. You know what they say, “malu bertanya sesat jalan.” 

Muhammad Affan Bin Othman
University of California Irvine 18’