Graduate Scholarships: What You Need to Know

Sage Crary
Sage Crary
Director of Financial Aid and Scholarships; pursuing an M.S. in Ethics and Religion
Female student at computer working on scholarship application

You’ve found the perfect graduate program to pursue, but how are you going to pay for it? Scholarships are the holy grail of the financial aid world, a chance to receive free money for your accomplishments and to help you reach your next goal — there is nothing better! However, scholarships at the graduate level are nothing short of a quest for even the best hero (or heroine) to undertake.

What Graduate Scholarships are Available? How Do I Apply?

You may know that at the undergraduate level there are literally thousands of scholarships from everything from academic achievements to athletic or extra-curricular activities. However, at the graduate level, scholarships are far less common and are more often based on major, degree, or even life experience.

There are typically two main categories of scholarships for graduate students, those offered by the college or university you are applying to and those that are private or ‘outside’ scholarships. The ones from your college or university are usually fairly straightforward to both learn about and apply for. In most cases your admissions application is the only application required at your school, or, in some rare cases, there is a separate scholarship application required. In either case, these should be listed on your school’s website, or your admissions or financial aid office are the best resources for knowing what particular scholarships your school may offer. While these ones are usually easier to apply for, being that they are managed by your school itself, it also means that everyone else in your program is likely applying for the same scholarship as well, so make sure to stand out and sell yourself as best you can during the admissions and/or application process.

Graduate scholarships offered by private or ‘outside’ agencies are typically harder to find. This usually means fewer applicants and a better chance of being selected. A great place to start on your quest for private scholarships is to check in with agencies that you have worked with or even groups that you may have volunteered with or supported in the past.

It’s not uncommon to find graduate scholarships for adults who want to return to school for a new career path offered by the local or national associations. For example, if you are pursuing a graduate degree in education, local teacher’s associations, national organizations, even local YMCA’s or school districts may offer scholarships. While some may be specifically for undergraduates only, there is often some wiggle-room in there for a graduate student to receive one if the applicant pool is relatively small each year.

Additionally, many larger local foundations that manage hundreds of scholarships annually often have some scholarships for graduate students in their portfolio. However, because they are mostly marketed towards undergraduate students, it’s often the case that the graduate scholarships go un-awarded because they did not have any qualified graduate students apply. I know when I used to volunteer for a multi-million dollar local scholarship foundation, every year a dozen or more graduate student scholarships went unspent for that very reason.

What Should I Expect During the Application Process?

While each scholarship application is going to look different and have different requirements, there are some basic core elements that most applications have in common. The first is your basic demographic and/or financial information (which you can’t really do anything about), and the second is your essay. The essay is far and away the most influential part of your scholarship application.

After sitting on hundreds of scholarship review boards, I can definitively say that if it’s an ‘essay optional’ scholarship and you don’t write the essay, you have a very small chance of being awarded the funding. The scholarship reviewers want to feel like they know you and that they are helping you accomplish something important. This is your chance to sell yourself and stand out among the crowd.

Spend time on your essay, making sure to answer whatever the essay topic is thoroughly and to stick within the required word count that they give you. One of the quickest ways to go to the bottom of the pile is to write a great American novel instead of a one-page essay or to write two sentences instead of two paragraphs. In both cases the reviewers see that you aren’t following directions or taking their request seriously so they will often move on immediately to the next candidate. So pay attention to details, but also be honest and showcase yourself in the best light to ensure you stand out from the other applicants. Share personal stories or details such as how your upbringing or family or a particular event influenced your decision to pursue graduate school or a particular career.

Once you submit your scholarship application, whether it’s one at your college or university, or one from a private agency, you will need to wait to hear back until after all the applications are received and reviewed. Typically, you can expect to be notified if you are being awarded a scholarship within 30-90 days after the scholarship application deadline has passed. Depending on the number of applicants and the size of the agency, some will be able to make decisions faster than others.

In most cases you will only hear from the scholarship agency if you are a selected recipient and not if you weren’t selected. But, when you do find out you’ve been awarded a scholarship, it’s critical that you send that information to your financial aid office. The financial aid office at your school will then work on your behalf to ensure that your money is actually paid to you and will often pre-credit your bill for the amount of your scholarship. What that means is that they will often show the scholarship as pending on your bill even if the funding doesn’t come in for a few months or weeks so you are not required to pay that amount. If you don’t notify the financial aid office, the chances of you never receiving the money and/or having to pay your entire bill in full are much higher.

All in all, while the pursuit of graduate school scholarships may seem elusive at first, the truth is that your chances of finding and receiving one are higher if you are willing to do the research.

Interested in learning more about your financial aid options? Explore our comprehensive funding e-guide here.

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