How to Get Scholarships for Grad Students

Applying for graduate school can be intimidating, especially when you don’t know how you’re going to pay for your education. Unfortunately, lack of funding can be a deterrent for many students, and not knowing how you’ll pay for school can even deter you from applying in the first place and discovering what your options are.

Don’t let that happen to you. The truth is, most students can find a way to pay for school if they want to go badly enough. If you have the time and motivation to attend school, don’t give up just because you don’t know how you’ll finance your education.

Instead, look into scholarships. They are one of the best tools for paying for school, because they don’t have to be paid back. Moreover, you aren’t limited as to the number of scholarships you can receive, so you can apply for as many as you want. Scholarships are hands-down one of your best friends when it comes to transforming your educational dreams into reality.

Below, we will take a look at some of the most commonly asked questions about scholarships, give you tips on how to find and apply for them, and provide an all-around guide to using scholarships to enhance your graduate school experience.

What Is a Scholarship?

First things first. According to the University of North Texas, “a scholarship is a financial award given to a student on the basis of academic achievement and promise. Many scholarships are awarded based on merit. However, some also take into account financial need. Scholarships do not have to be repaid.”

Who Funds Scholarships?

Anyone can fund a scholarship, provided they have the money to do so and set it up in the right way. In an effort to help more students through school, a wide variety of institutions and organizations fund scholarships. These include:

  • Religious Organizations: Churches, synagogues, temples or other religious organizations may set aside money for the purposes of helping students through school. Religious organizations often target students of theological programs, colleges and universities, but they also may not. If you are interested in such a program, even if you aren’t a member of that faith, you may wish to apply to a religious or faith-based scholarship. If you are a member of that faith, you may be able to put the scholarship toward a number of different types of schools or degree programs. It all depends on the organization and the scholarship.
  • Local Businesses: Businesses often want to help students in their communities succeed. Whether or not you have worked for a local organization, you can apply to scholarships they offer for graduate school. These scholarships may work toward any college or university in the country, or may be specific to schools in the area. Businesses often offer scholarships to students going to school to learn about that business’s field. For instance, a bank might offer a scholarship in finance.
  • Foundations: Foundations such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, are well-known for providing many educational opportunities. Some foundations require that you apply directly to them, while some fund other foundations that are actually responsible for setting the scholarship up. Do your research before applying to find out how it works.
  • Ethnic Organizations: Groups based on ethnicity frequently establish scholarship funds to help advance members of their ethnicity.
  • Military Organizations: The armed services often provide scholarships.
  • Institutions of Higher Learning: Colleges and universities, both online and off, frequently provide funds to attend.
  • Private Individuals: Wealthy individuals often put their money toward the education of others.
  • Professional Associations: Associations geared toward a craft, trade or profession (i.e. computer science, marketing, art therapy) will often provide scholarships to promising students to help them attend.
  • Employers: Employers are a frequent provider of scholarships, because they have reason to invest in their employees’ success. If you have a good relationship with your employer, you might consider asking them to fund your attendance in a graduate program. Many will in exchange for a guarantee of work for a certain amount of time. I.e., in exchange for helping fund a year of school, you must work at that organization for a year after graduation.

How Are Scholarships Different?

Scholarships are unique in that they are free money that you do not have to repay, usually based on merit or membership.


Grants are much like scholarships in the sense that you do not have to pay them back. However, unlike scholarships, grants are typically based on need rather than merit. The federal government offers only a few graduate-level grants, including the TEACH Program and the Pell Grant for future teachers. If you are not going to school for education, never fear: There are plenty of grants from other organizations besides the federal government that you can apply for.


Work-study is federally approved work that usually takes place on campus. Like grants and loans, the government approves your work study up to a certain amount, which means that for legitimate jobs you can earn up to that amount. Like a real job, you do not ever have to pay work-study funds back.


Unlike grants, loans do have to be repaid, as indicated by the title. While loans are a wonderful tool that allow many students to go to school, when you can’t repay them, they can become a nightmare. Make sure you only take out loans after getting all the grants, scholarships and work study you can, because later you will have to contend with that debt.

How Do Scholarships Work?

Scholarships vary quite a bit. For instance, they may be for a single year or they may be recurring, meaning that you receive the scholarship every year for as long as you’re in school. Some scholarships are just a small one-time check to help you buy books or other supplies, while others may be substantial amounts that assist with tuition, housing and other large expenditures.

Moreover, scholarships differ in how the money is given to you. Some scholarships will be sent directly to you in the form of a check or a direct deposit to your bank account. Other scholarships may go to your school first. After the school uses the money to pay off your outstanding fees, you will get a check for the rest.

Lastly, scholarships differ in what they can be used for. Some scholarships are very specific about what the money goes toward. These are usually sent to your school first so that the scholarship organization can be sure the money is being used for tuition, housing, campus fees and other legitimate expenses. Other scholarship providers may send the money just to you with no rules about how you may spend it. If this happens, keep in mind that even though you technically could spend the money on concert tickets and clothes, this will not help you get your degree.

A few note of caution: If you are kicked out of school or leave before the term the scholarship covers ends, you may be asked to repay the money. Additionally, you should never have to pay to apply or to receive money. If someone asks you to pay a deposit, a service fee, or any other type of fee, say no and walk away. A legitimate scholarship fund will never ask you to do so, so it could be a scam.

Who Gets Scholarships?

Scholarships are given for many reasons, including merit, background and membership in an array of organizations. If you’re wondering whether or not it is possible to get scholarships, look to your specific strengths or communities.

  • Ethnicity: Many scholarships are available only to members of certain ethnic communities, especially minorities. If you are, for instance, American Indian, Latino, Inuit, African American or identify strongly with another racial group, you may be eligible for scholarships from ethnic organizations associated with them.
  • Armed Services: If you or a family member of yours served in the armed services, you may be able to get scholarships based on that. Military scholarships may be available to soldiers on active duty, future military personnel, veterans, or relatives of former or active duty soldiers. A well-known example is the ROTC (Reserve Officers Training Corps) scholarship, which funds college education in exchange for becoming part of the reserve corps of the major military branches (Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines), which can be called upon in times of need.
  • Clubs and Organizations: Sometimes membership in a club or organization can earn you a scholarship, especially if that organization has a large presence. If you are part of a club that performs service to those in need or volunteers, a recreational organization or a religious group, these are good places to search. Anything you spend a lot of your time on is worth exploring.
  • Merit: Finally, merit is a huge source of scholarships for many graduate students. If you have especially good grades, have a special talent or interest, or have achieved something particularly noteworthy, you may be able to get a merit-based scholarship from the school you wish to attend or from another scholarship-granting body. Search for scholarships based on your interests or achievements and apply to all that look promising.

How Does the Application Process Work?

Each scholarship has its own rules for application and receipt of the scholarship. These include:

  • Due dates
  • Eligibility
  • Application requirements, including transcriptions, letters of recommendation, portfolios or essays
  • Method of submission
  • Time to hear back
  • Delivery of funds

Depending on the specific scholarship you choose, the due date may be a few weeks out from the start date of your program or a year out. You may have to submit online or through the mail. You may wait only a few days to hear back, or several months. Because they are all so different, it is crucial that you read the instructions for each scholarship thoroughly and give yourself plenty of time to complete all requirements.

If you land the scholarship, the organization that provides it will send you an award letter, after which they will disburse the money to you.

Can I Lose a Scholarship?

Unfortunately, yes. Scholarships are not a guarantee, especially when they are for more than one year. If you are lucky enough to earn a recurring scholarship (such as you might earn for a multi-year master’s degree program or a PhD program, which can take up to 8 years or more), you will need to ensure you follow all requirements of the scholarship so that you do not lose it. TIME Money reports that there are three main ways you can lose a scholarship:

  1. Grades: If your grades fall below the level specified by the scholarship, you may lose it.
  2. Discipline: If you fail to follow the rules set by your university (which you can usually find in your student handbook) and receive disciplinary action, your scholarship may be taken away.
  3. Athletics: It is unlikely you will receive an athletic scholarship at the graduate level, but if you do and you can no longer play, you will lose the scholarship associated with your sport.

Take heart, though: Most students don’t lose their scholarships. Especially at the graduate level, where students tend to be motivated and driven, you can usually count on keeping your scholarship as long as your take your studies seriously.

Scholarships are, if not abundant, certainly accessible to any student with a good academic record and a love of learning. If you want to go back to school to obtain a graduate degree, you should absolutely apply to scholarships to try and fund your education. Reference this basic guide whenever you get stuck and soon enough you’ll be on your way to scholastic success.

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