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The scholarship search

No matter what your current financial situation is, you can be sure that graduate school will make your wallet at least a little lighter. Tuition alone carries a hefty price tag, but you also need to add in the cost of books and housing, and perhaps relocation, travel, and commute costs. If you haven't already, be sure to read our article "Are you financially ready for grad school?" to understand what aspects of your life will be affected by investing in graduate education.

So, what help is available to you in bearing that financial weight? Online scholarship searches might seem the most convenient way for you to find money, but you already have a stronger resource available to you—your network—that can produce far greater results. Moreover, in tapping those personal resources, you'll be building upon and strengthening your network ties and increasing the number of people invested in your success. This article will help you understand what kinds of scholarships may be available to you, how to find them, and what you can do to strengthen your applications.

Types of scholarships

There is a wide range of scholarships available to students. Some stipulate very specific qualifications, while others are more broad-based. It is worth taking the time to explore the full range of funding opportunities that may be available to you.

Merit scholarships are based upon achievement and can be awarded in such areas as academics, artistry, and athletics. While merit scholarships can be need-based, their primary objective is to reward talent; they often promote study in that subject area.

Diversity, or Minority, scholarships are awarded to promote study and support students with diverse racial, religious, and/or ethnic backgrounds and orientations. These can be based upon need or awarded independently of financial consideration. In addition to traditionally recruiting underrepresented groups, today these scholarships often reward someone who shares a cultural background with the sponsor. A public interest law student of Asian Pacific heritage, for example, may find funding through an Asian Pacific cultural association (i.e. National Asian Pacific American Bar Association. For more information about professional and cultural associations, see below.

Disability scholarships are available through the federal government as well as many private organizations and associations, and are awarded to promote study and support students with physical, mental, or cognitive disabilities.

Need-based scholarships take into consideration a student's and/or family's financial situation. Need-based scholarships typically fall under one of the above categories, and therefore often stipulate one or more other eligibility requirements. These can be defined by a particular field of study, an institution, or perhaps by your home town, county, state, or region.

Service scholarships vary by program and award, but if you are a current or former service program (AmeriCorps, Peace Corps) member, you may be eligible for an educational award through your program, and/or scholarships through your school. Be sure to read "Considerations if you are a current or former service program member" to find out more.

Research grants differ from scholarships in that you must write your own proposal to apply for the grant, but this option may be available to you depending on your prospective field and the type of degree you want to obtain. They can be awarded through your graduate institution, a relevant professional association (i.e. American Psychological Association), or a related organization (i.e. Psi Chi – The National Honor Society in Psychology), in order to fund specific research.

Where to look for scholarships

Within your own network

Friends and family can be an extra set of eyes and ears for you during your search. Perhaps they will know of something through their work or the organizations they are involved in. They can ask their own employers about any funding opportunities offered. Since these are the people that know you best, use them to that advantage. By letting them know you are looking for funding, they may return better results to you than an impersonal online search engine.

At work, you will need to let your employer know you are returning to school. When you do, ask about whether the organization or company has funds available to supplement your educational costs. There may be scholarships in connection to larger affiliated organizations or associations. If you work for your state's Department of Human Services, for example, you may be able to find funding through your state branch, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, or the American Public Human Services Association. At the very least, your employer may provide you information or a strong lead to other funding that you might not have thought of otherwise.

Informational interviews can provide you with greater knowledge of your field of interest and therefore may lead you to certain organizations, companies, or individuals who offer scholarships. As you expand your network through informational interviews, take this chance to also ask about funding opportunities they might know of. Be sure to check out our article on informational interviews for more on how to conduct one.

At your undergraduate institution and your prospective grad schools

Tap into the resources available to you through both your undergraduate and prospective graduate institutions: career centers, professors, department chairs, and academic advisors are all great sources of information.

At your undergraduate school, anyone who took an interest in or admired your undergraduate work may not only know of scholarships that would fit you specifically, but may even have connections or be able to write a good recommendation for the scholarship application.

And at your target grad school, you can look into more general funding through the school's financial aid and scholarship office, but don't forget about your own program. Faculty and staff will know of more specific funding for your field and/or method of study; many departments also have a budget for awarding academic scholarships.

At the national level

Government departments and offices at all levels—federal, state, and local—offer various types of scholarships. These scholarships can fall into any of the categories defined earlier (merit, diversity, disability, need-based, and research grant) and do not necessarily require their applicants to have an interest in a career of government service in order to be considered eligible.

Research councils in most disciplines provide grants for research-based study. An example is the Social Science Research Council. Search for them by your field of interest, or make inquiries within your network.

Professional associations can also be found across most disciplines and cultural lines; organizations vary from the Association of International Educators (NAFSA, formerly the National Association of Foreign Student Advisors) to the National Society of Hispanic MBAs. Associations provide grants, scholarships, and awards for their members to advance their education or to develop professionally. Again, you can search for them based on your field of interest, or find out more from your network of contacts.

Foundations and charity organizations support diverse causes and peoples, and are organized both nationally and locally. If there is a foundation in your area aligned with your interests, do some research into the organization and try to speak with members of its board of directors. Either they or a larger foundation with which they are affiliated often have the funds to support graduate education in a field related to their own work.

Journals and specialist magazines most likely exist in your field, and these publications often advertise scholarships. Rather than paying for a subscription in order to have access to their information, check out your local library first, as they may have copies available for you to peruse.

In your local community

Institutions, organizations, and businesses usually offer scholarships to assist students in their communities. Civic clubs like Rotary, Kiwanis, and Lions are great local sponsors. From your local grocery store to your place of worship, there's no harm in asking these community members about funding opportunities they might provide.

Your local library is another great resource. Not only can you access subscription materials and databases that may list scholarships for free, you can also ask the librarians to help identify resources specific to you, your interests, and your field of study. They will likely have knowledge of both local and national funding opportunities.

The Foundation Center has established a network of Cooperating Collections in libraries and community resource centers across the country. These collections provide free information on grants and how to apply for them, and also offer free educational materials to help you in your search for funding.

Finally, local and regional newspaper companies and associations may sponsor scholarships, or they may have a database of scholarships specific to your area. An example is the Ohio Newspaper Association.

Tips on applying

Because the search for scholarships and subsequent application process is so time-consuming, it is worthwhile to begin your search as soon as you can. Many awards have prerequisites, such as requiring a portfolio of your work, which can take time to prepare. Pay close attention to due dates. You can organize your scholarship applications by deadlines in order to stay organized and to plan ahead.

As you develop the content for your application, be sure to identify and focus on the criteria the selection committee will use to choose the recipient. Submitting a scholarship application is really quite similar to applying for a job:

  • Try to prioritize the information you present. Selection committees receive many applications, so if you list four qualities on your application, bear in mind that the judges may not read beyond the first two. First and foremost, you want to show how your achievements tie into the goal of the scholarship for which you are applying. Prioritize your accomplishments by how much impact they've had. Also think about accomplishments that are unique. What is it about you that makes you the best applicant?
  • Ask yourself if the information you are including will strengthen or weaken your application. Try to assume the perspective of a selection committee member. Is the information provided relevant, or does it seem like a stretch? Take required lengths into consideration and cut any information that doesn't clearly convey your qualifications as a candidate. If you can't convince yourself about the relevance or significance of a piece of information, you certainly won't convince the judges. The ability to describe yourself concisely will work in your favor.
  • While you may come across the same questions on several scholarship applications, it is important to note that different sponsors have different interests when it comes to making their decisions. A local group that sponsors civic involvement may care more about your local roots than a national group who may be looking to support the next great national leader.
  • Have a trusted friend or colleague look over your application for edits and feedback.

Submit your application one to two weeks prior to the stated deadline. Send it as certified mail as proof of mailing. Make copies of your application for your records, and then call the scholarship sponsor before the deadline to confirm that your application was received. If it was not, you will then be prepared with an extra copy and time to resubmit your application.

For some additional suggestions on writing a good application—for both scholarships and grad school applications—check out the Peace and Collaborative Justice Network's article "Top Resources for Finding Scholarships/Fellowships in Conflict Resolution and Related Fields". This site also provides some great links to various scholarship resources and funding institutions.

Conclusion and further resources

The most important thing for you to remember as you seek out funding for your graduate education is that you have to be proactive. You are the one who has to look. This requires time and effort on your part, but remember the benefits you'll reap! By going beyond the comfort of your computer screen and talking to friends and family, people at your former and future schools, and professional associations in your field of interest—and by letting everyone you know that you're going back to school and looking for funding opportunities—your chances of finding scholarships that really suit you can only increase. You may never know when your friend's sister's colleague works for an organization that's looking to award scholarship money. Your wallet will thank you later!

If you would still like to look online, here are a few sites to try. It's best for many of these to know what you're going to study and where, so that you don't have to sift through too many unrelated scholarships.

General searches

Most of these sites provide searchable fields or categories for special recipient awards, such as those reserved for gender- and diversity-building.

Disability scholarships

Grants

  • US News article: Grad School Grants by Field
    Includes a good starting list of some of the biggest graduate study scholarships, grants, and fellowships in the fields of Health, Science, Engineering, Math, Public Interest Law, Teaching, and Language Study.