How did I get a Full Scholarship at an American College

College of Wooster Basketball T-Shirt (Photo from private collection)

Almost all of my friends at home know that I am going to college in the United States. What most of them don’t know is that I can’t afford going to college in the US without receiving a full scholarship covering tuition, room and board, meal plans, as well as textbooks and other necessities. The ones who know usually asked me, how did I get a free ride to an American college??

I wish I could give you THE secrets of getting a total of over 200 thousand dollars scholarship from an American college. Unfortunately, there is no such thing as “Secrets of Going to College in the US For Free.” To this day, I am still not 100% sure why they give me such a substantial amount of scholarship. In this article, I try to elaborate a little bit about how (I think) I get over 200 thousand dollars scholarship from The College of Wooster.

1. Need

Most of my friends at home that know that I am getting a substantial amount of scholarship think that I get it because I am super smart or super good in basketball. They fail to realize the fact that my scholarship is a combination of merit and need. Sure, I am kind of smart, and sure, I kind of know how to play basketball. But more importantly they give me such a huge scholarship because it is implausible for me to enroll without the scholarship. In the scholarship application, they will ask many questions about your family financial situation. From how many and what type of cars do your family have, to how much does your family spend on food and clothing. If they think you don’t need it, then you probably won’t get (much of) the scholarship. If your parents give you your own car, or if you get iPhone 5 just a few days after it was released, then scholarship is probably not determinant for you.

Let me tell you a little bit about my background. I come from a middle class family in Jakarta, Indonesia. My late father highly emphasized the importance of education (he took me and my sister to English courses instructed by native speakers since we were about 7 years old!). When I applied to colleges, he was already retired, and my mother was a government employee whose income probably merely covers my textbook expenses in college (and now she has retired). While my two older brothers are already working and are supporting themselves, my older sister is still in college. So I do need financial help if I were to go to college in the United States.

It is also important to apply to Need-Blind Colleges. Need-blind is a term used by US colleges that basically says the college does not consider applicant’s’ financial situation when deciding admission. Wikipedia has a pretty good list of this type of school. Even though, as you can see at the Wikipedia page, only few  selective schools meet the needs of international students, some of the other types of school usually meets the needs for at least a couple of international students. At The College of Wooster, for example, the rumor is that only one full scholarship to international student awarded every year (though there is really no written confirmation on that).

2. Not an Academic Contest

With President of The College of Wooster, Grant Cornwell.
(Photo by Feng Ding. Private Collection)

American college admission (thus scholarship) is not an academic contest. If you have all A’s for the entire schooling career, that’s awesome. But be aware that most international applicants looking for scholarships in the US are like just you, the best graduate in their high school, get all A’s on everything, etc. I am not even exactly that kind of person. I am sure I am on the top 5% percent of my graduating class, but that is less of an achievement compared to most of my other International student friends in college. My SAT score was not fantastic (I can tell you that it was not above 1800). My TOEFL score, despite the fact that when I took the test I was completely fluent in English and had been taking classes in an American high school, was not great either (not above 100 on TOEFL IBT). I took a couple of SAT Subject tests, but I don’t think I sent them to The College of Wooster because they didn’t require SAT Subject Tests, but let me tell you, those scores were also not good either. In conclusion, I am not the smartest pants at school.

American colleges try to see you as a whole person, not merely on your test scores. They are not always successful in doing so, but at least they try. The way they do it is by looking at what you do outside of school and academics. This is what I see lacking of Indonesian students we go to school from 6:30 am to 3 pm, and then go to extra classes (i.e. “Bimbingan Belajar”) and then go home, do homework, etc. The education system in Indonesia is the one to blame in this case. To get into medical or engineering school for example, what we need to do is scoring as high as possible on one big test at the end of the school year. If going to prestigious Indonesian public university is your goal, then going to school for 9 hours and taking more classes for some more hours is probably the best way to do so. But if you want to go to college in the US, you have to change your perception of education. It is not just about getting a really good score in SAT or TOEFL. It is so much more than that.

3. Branding: Basketball

With basketball teammates in the locker room
(Private Collection)

It is extremely important to brand yourself. You want people (i.e. the admissions office) to remember you. In my case, I am a member of Indonesian National Basketball team. Basketball is not something that I do in the weekends for a couple of years. It is something that I do almost every day for very many years. It is, for the longest time, my passion. I started playing basketball for my school when I was in fourth grade. In sixth grade, we won the provincial championship. The year after that I joined a basketball club while still playing for my junior high school. I was a benchwarmer of the national champion team, but from that year on, I compete on national level competitions once a year, if not more. I even continued to play basketball when I live in the United States as a high school exchange student. My basketball career does not merely show my skills in basketball. My scholarship is not an athletic scholarship. As an NCAA Division III school, The College of Wooster is not allowed to give out any athletic scholarship. Believe me; I am not that good at basketball compared to my American teammates. My achievements in Basketball, above all, show consistency and dedication that The College of Wooster would like to see in their students.

Branding does not have to be in athletic sector. If you really are smart (which I am not), you can be a physics Olympiad medalist, for example. You can be an accomplished musician, playing for a band for many years, maybe even release your own albums. You can be an artist, a dancer, anything! It just has to successfully show your dedication and consistency on anything that you are passionate about.

4. Be a Foreign Exchange Student

Family picture with my host family in Arlington, Virginia.
(Photo by Brooke Huffman, private collection)

My intention of participating in a foreign high-school student exchange program by no means was to continue my education in the United States, but it was certainly the most helpful experience in my whole process of getting scholarship at The College of Wooster. When I decided to go on the exchange program, many of my close friends questioned my decision to delay my high school graduation by one year simply for the “experience.” I can now confidently say that this “experience” directly helps me in receiving a full scholarship.

Here are some of very many ways that it helped:

– I became fluent in English

Despite the fact that I have taken English courses with native English speakers since I was about 7 years old, I was not 100% confident to speak until I came to the US and live with an American host family and take classes in American high school for an academic year.

– I became extremely familiar with admission process/system.

At my host high school in Arlington, VA, I had a lot of resources to help me with the application process. I did a lot of research on which schools that I applied to and received a lot of help throughout the process from my friends and teachers at school, as well as my host family. I even took an elective class on how to write a good college essay, which was obviously really helpful.

– I have teachers who can write references for me.

One of the highlights of my application, I believe, is my reference letters written by my calculus teacher in my high school in Arlington, VA. I think the fact that I have both good reference from my Indonesian teachers and American teacher really helped them looking at me because two people from very different culture write good recommendations for me. Additionally, American high school teachers write college recommendations every single year to very many students. They usually know the tricks on how to write great recommendations for you.

– SAT/TOEFL/AP Credits.

I only took one SAT and only one TOEFL my whole life. I took both tests during my exchange, just a few days before I left home to Indonesia. It was a good idea to take it while I was there because I was at my peak of English fluency (although I was still getting pretty bad scores). Additionally, taking SAT and TOEFL are much cheaper in the US than they are in Indonesia. I also get one college credit for an AP Calculus test that I took during my exchange.

– I had more incentive to go back.

After  living in the United States for almost one year, you would make really good relationships with the people here. For me, it is a great motivation because I wanted to come back and see my host family again. Now, I go to my host family’s house on holidays and I still call my host parents “Mom” and “Dad”

5. Be proactive!

If you are reading this article, you are on the right track. You need to be really proactive in order to get accepted and good scholarships. Do a lot of research. Read. Read some more. I cannot tell you how many College Application book guides I have read. This ranges from how to write a great college essay, who to ask for recommendation letters, SAT books, TOEFL books.

Make sure to send all the correct documents. Ask questions. Get a mentor to help you. There are so many resources out there that would help you, you just need to open your eyes and ears and grab all the opportunities that you get. Trust me, it will be worth it.

The biggest thing about getting a scholarship at The College of Wooster was how I found The College of Wooster. No one has heard of that school, neither did I until two years ago. I came across it when I was reading the book “Colleges that Change Lives” ( and then read at College Confidential ( that The College of Wooster gives huge scholarships to international student.

I also believe one of the highlights of my application is my interview. The interview was not offered, but I asked the admissions office if they would interview me. I prepared a couple of days before the Skype interview by reading tons of article about Skype interview on the internet; I wanted to make sure everything  was right. I think it went really well and the interviewer was very impressed. It was surely an extra point on my application.

6. Be yourself

Finally and most importantly, be yourself. Do not say anything on your essays or interviews or any other part of your application anything that does not really resemble you. Do not say that you are the active member of your high school students’ government if you only do it because your school requires you to. Do not say that you are passionate about volunteering if you do it a couple of times a month. Be honest. Be genuine. They can see it if you’re lying and that will take some points off you.

Photo credit: author

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Khairunnisa (Nisa) Usman is an Economics and Mathematics student at The College of Wooster in Wooster, Ohio, USA. She is a former benchwarmer of the college's women's basketball team and the ultimate frisbee team. Before her senior year of high school, she took a gap year to live in Arlington, VA as an AFS Foreign Exchange student. Her free time consists of many "The Office" episodes as well as Manchester United games.


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