Just how shocking is the cost of a U.S. college education? In my country, Zimbabwe, the tuition at the country?s top university is US$674 per semester ? US$1074 including room and board.

When I began to research schools in the U.S., I found the total annual cost of many colleges broke the $50,000 threshold, with some schools dangerously teetering on the brink of $60,000 per year. Essentially, the cost of educating one student at a U.S. college is equivalent to pushing at least 50 Zimbabwean students through the University of Zimbabwe, a revelation which left me completely dry-mouthed. My initial enthusiasm at applying to study in America was completely thwarted, and my dream of a U.S. education was seeming unrealistic.

But the next discovery that I made was even more baffling.

Caution: students at work! (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson, File)

Apparently, there are some colleges in the U.S. that give out as much money in financial aid as they request in tuition, even to international students. I had some questions about this: Why were these colleges handing out millions of dollars to international students who would most likely return to their countries after obtaining their degrees? Was there an ulterior motive? Would I have to pay back the scholarship money?

One of the basic tenets of a liberal arts education (the predominant model in U.S. higher education) is the importance of diversity as an integral element of a holistic education. It is believed in the U.S. (and now in many developed countries) that diverse perspectives create the best environment for learning, innovation and the exchange of ideas, so a number of U.S. colleges invest heavily in financial aid to attract students from different backgrounds, including students from other countries, to help create a microcosm of society on their campuses.

This means that there is hope for low income international students, and there was hope for me when I applied. Here are some of my thoughts about how to fund your studies:

  • Start the process early and do thorough research about the types of institutions that can offer large funding. Identify schools that offer mostly need based aid (these are mainly large private universities and the top liberal arts colleges.) Do not restrict your research to top schools that you may have heard of before or only the schools that purport to be ?need blind?., there are a number of generous colleges that you may not have heard of previously and that may be need sensitive. There are colleges beyond Harvard and Yale that can offer a fantastic education and scholarship opportunities, especially liberal arts colleges.

  • Apply for merit based scholarships! There are colleges that offer automatic full tuition scholarships for students with a combination of a high GPA (usually 3.5) and high SAT scores. Make sure to apply early for this funding as they usually award the scholarships on a first come first served basis

  • Help to make your application stand out to admissions officers by writing an admissions essay that will ?pop?. As an international student, there will be a number of things that you could draw from your culture, upbringing, and background that would be helpful in crafting a compelling essay. When you have finished writing it, get a variety of impartial people to give you honest opinions about it.

  • Use online resources such as college confidential to keep abreast with what other international students are discovering and sharing. I learned about colleges I hadn?t considered and scholarships I didn?t know existed on college confidential. Try it.

  • Apply to a good number of schools in order to maximise your chances. But make sure that you have carefully researched the schools for fit. Are the colleges aligned with your career goals, personality and interests? Can you get in based on your GPA and test scores (this should not become an obsession!).  Your chances will be highest when you apply to say, 6-8 carefully chosen colleges that are good fits for you rather than 10-12 randomly selected colleges that may not be aligned with who you are as a person.

Finally, it is important to believe in yourself and your capabilities, getting admitted as a needy international student may be challenging, but certainly not impossible. Do not let the seemingly high cost of a US education deter you from pursuing it-careful and focused planning well in advance can help you get the resources you need to make your dream of a US education materialize.