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How to Win Scholarship Money for Grad School (and where to look)

Joa Ahern-Seronde
Joa Ahern-Seronde
February 3, 2021
When you're looking for funding for graduate school, it is as important to know yourself as it is to know where to find scholarship opportunities.
Est. Reading Time: 7 minutes
Article Contents

If you’re ready to apply to graduate school or currently enrolled, you’ve already determined that the value of a master’s degree outweighs the considerable financial investment. But even if you’ve reconciled yourself to the fact that the average student loan debt for graduate school is more than $70,000, you should still be looking for scholarships. 

You might be asking yourself what kinds of scholarships and how many scholarships should you apply for. The simplest answer? Apply to ANY and ALL scholarships that you are eligible for. We’re talking FREE money, people! Each dollar counts, so pursue every option available to you.

However, before you start applying, you need a solid game plan to increase your chances of winning scholarship money. 

A note about doctoral programs: In the US, doctoral programs usually offer tuition plus a stipend in exchange for you teaching classes or serving as a research assistant as you complete your Ph.D. However, the more you demonstrate you can obtain independent funding, the more compelling (and competitive) a candidate you’ll be! And keep in mind that if you are an international student, the funding for PhD programs can vary, so be sure to look at the specifics of the programs you’re applying to.

Start with the Basics

Most graduate schools offer some scholarship money so your admissions application should be as strong and competitive as possible. The information you provide in your application will often be used to evaluate your merit for scholarship (though some programs will ask you to write an additional essay or submit extra materials to be considered for scholarship – if they do, then be sure to fill out those sections too!). 

The application sections for leadership and community involvement offer the best opportunity to differentiate yourself from other candidates. Before starting your application, you should make a list of your leadership experience, affiliations, volunteer work, and significant contributions to your field or community. 

You should also consider submitting your application as early as possible. The amount of available scholarship money may decrease in later application rounds depending on the competition in earlier rounds. Keep in mind that every school has different criteria for awarding scholarship money. Check your school’s website for specifics on the types of scholarships available, including merit or need-based grants and scholarships for certain affinity groups such as LGBQT, veterans, or women, to name a few.

First Places to Look

Some of the best sources of free funding for school are the government and your employer. 

Regardless of your personal financial situation, you should complete the FAFSA. Why? Because you have nothing to lose! The FAFSA is the easiest way to qualify for federal and state scholarships. The form is free  and determines your eligibility for both federal grant funding and federal student loans. Local government scholarships are also available, but often have more specific eligibility restrictions such as demographic criteria.

If you currently have a job, you may qualify for education benefits through your employer. Many companies offer scholarship funding and tuition reimbursement programs. Funding amounts vary depending on the employer so you should reach out to your HR representative about available education benefits.

A note about telling your employer about your educational plans: While many employers fully support the pursuit of a graduate degree, you’ll still want to think about how you tell your boss about your plans. Will you be quitting your job in order to go to graduate school? Do you hope to continue full time work while attending your graduate program? Will you want to discuss the possibility of dropping to part time while you pursue your degree? Is your education plan in service of trying to advance yourself at your current job? Be prepared to negotiate in order to meet the needs of your own schedule as well as the needs of the job if you hope to stay. The more you prepare for this conversation, the better!

Go the Extra Mile

There are seemingly endless scholarships available through foundations, contests, companies, professional organizations, and corporations. It may seem obvious, but the first thing you should do when applying for these scholarship opportunities is to read and follow all of the instructions carefully. After confirming that you meet all of the eligibility requirements for the scholarship or grant, create checklists for all the materials you’ll need for your application. Tailor your answers to the goals of the scholarship sponsor, while highlighting what makes you an outstanding candidate. 

If a scholarship has any “optional” requirements, you should absolutely include them in your application. Doing the extra work demonstrates your strong initiative and drive and sets you apart from the candidates who didn’t provide the optional materials. Providing thorough and thoughtful materials for scholarship committees to review will help your chances. The more robust your application, the more likely you are to win the scholarship!

Pro Tip: One of the best ways to qualify for scholarships is to have a high GRE score. JEM can help you boost your GRE scores with one-on-one tutoring and tailored resources.

Know Yourself & Where to Look

You can find a scholarship for nearly anything you can think of. Are you a Star Trek fan with an interest in the veterinary sciences? Do you love making your own greeting cards? Maybe you're passionate about tobacco prevention in underserved communities. Whatever it is that makes you unique, there’s likely a scholarship for it.

Scholarship winners don’t take a one-size fits all approach to applying to scholarships. They find and apply for the opportunities that match their demographics, personal interests, career goals, and accomplishments.

Your unique combination of qualities and traits make you eligible for scholarships that few students apply or even qualify for. The more specialized the scholarship, the less competition for it. Therefore, it’s important to be diligent in your research and to create a list of all your skills and personal traits that you can think of.

A sample list might include:

  • Demographics (age, gender, nationality, ethnicity, orientation, languages spoken, heritage)
  • Family Circumstances (economic/social hardships, first generation student, parents)
  • Medical Conditions
  • Religion
  • Professional Affiliations/Memberships
  • Volunteer Work/Community Involvement
  • Academic Achievements
  • Hobbies and Passions
  • Career Goals
  • Military Service/Affiliation
  • Personality (creativity, sense of humor, leadership)

Google is always a good place to start for any online search, but there are also several online scholarship databases and resources that help you hunt for private scholarships based on your personal criteria. A few of these databases include Unigo, Fastweb, Scholarship America, Going Merry, the College Board’s Big Future, College Scholarships, and GoGrad.

Be Passionate

While your scholarship essays should reflect the goals of the sponsor, the secret to writing a winning application is to be passionate. Your answers should come from an honest place and explain your specific goals and vision for the future. Let the scholarship committee know that you have the passion and drive to put the award to good use. Your passion will make your application more memorable and compelling. If you’d like to schedule a writing session with JEM, we’d be very happy to help you on your way to acquiring scholarship money!

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