How to find and land a scholarship for graduate school

It’s back-to-school time! To help you prepare, each Tuesday over the next few weeks, we’re featuring advice on finding, applying, and paying for graduate school. You can read all of our posts in this series here. Want more information? Be sure to visit our Graduate School Resource Center and attend a free Grad School Fair near you!

In this piece, Ines Sucre, Reference/Outreach Librarian at the Foundation Center provides resources and tips for finding and landing scholarships for graduate school.

by Ines Sucre, Reference/Outreach Librarian, Foundation Center

At the Foundation Center, we tell people who are researching and applying for scholarships to think about the process as a part-time job; one they will have throughout the two, four, six, or more years of graduate education. Starting the process early, setting up a well-organized system to process scholarship search results, prepare applications or essays, and handle follow-up with funders will help make this job easier and more fruitful.

Scholarship process over your head? Follow these tips to stay organized and find great opportunities (Photo credit: JuditK, Creative Commons/Flickr)

Searching for the Right Opportunity

According to the College Board (Trends in Student Aid 2011), total graduate student aid for the 2010-2011 school year was $49.6 billion. You can find scholarship opportunities by digging into the following resources:

Government Grants and Student Loans

U.S. citizens and residents are eligible for federal and state financial aid in the form of grants and subsidized loans. The Free Application for Student Aid–or FAFSA–is required (annually) your eligibility for the following: Federal Pell Grant, Teach Grant, Military Service aid, Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant, and Federal student loans. Learn more about FAFSA and government grants at: Federal Student Aid

Institutional Financial Aid

In 2010, foundations gave over $835 million to institutions of higher education and other nonprofits for scholarship funds, fellowships, and other education grants.

Colleges and universities have the means to provide financial aid packets to entering students. Find out what might be available to you by visiting the financial aid web sites of the schools you are researching and planning to apply to. Request an appointment, by phone or in person, with the financial aid office.

In addition, different departments, faculty associations, or alumni groups within a college or university may offer scholarships of their own. It isn’t always easy to find out about these, as they may not be well publicized. Start by asking a professor in the department that offers your course of study whether there is a scholarship for students in your major and, of course, the financial aid office.

Foundation and Employer Scholarships

For finding foundation scholarships, The Foundation Center’s training, databases, podcasts, and online resources can help you to streamline the work:

Getting Started

With so many opportunities, it’s important to make yourself a competitive candidate and stay organized. When you’re ready to apply, keep the following tips in mind:


  • Perseverance is key: if you don’t succeed the first application, you have a much higher chance of succeeding the next time you apply so don’t miss deadlines or don’t apply at all
  • Small scholarships are easier to obtain and are useful in attracting other funders and adding prestige to your resume.
  • Don’t ignore scholarships that are by nomination only. Ask professors, or supervisors to nominate you.
  • Create separate electronic or paper files for each scholarship, organized by deadlines.
  • Tailor each application to each funder’s specifications. To improve the focus of your responses, carefully read directory profiles and web sites (when available) to learn about the aims and goals of each funder.
  • When writing, be specific and give examples. Tell a real story related to funder’s questions. Make your writing engaging.

Following Up

  • Send a thank-you letter immediately upon receiving news of the award.
  • During the semester, write your funders, telling them how your studies and extracurricular activities are going. This will help when trying to get a renewal of the grant.
  • If you receive a rejection, send a thank-you letter anyway, thanking readers for their time. Request comments from reviewers; you may get some useful feedback.

Have questions about the process or have some resources or tips you want to share? Leave them in the comments!

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Small Change Adds Up to More Than a Billionaire's Bucks

The nonprofit world is abuzz this week with the news that 40 U.S. billionaires have signed on to give at least half of their fortunes to charity. That’s some serious cash and might make you think twice about the benefit of your own donation to your favorite local cause (by you, I mean a non-billionaire like myself).

From Flickr user Anna Fox (Creative Commons)

While some of the money will go directly to nonprofit organizations, the majority will end up in the private foundations that the donors started themselves, like The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and will then be funneled into other nonprofits through grants or used to support the foundations’ programmatic work, like the Gates’ recent $10 billion commitment to research, develop and deliver vaccines to the world’s poorest countries.

With all these billionaires’ names attached to foundation giving, you would think that this represents the single largest source of private contributions to the nonprofit sector. But, guess what? Individual donations (like yours) currently make up 75% of U.S. philanthropy while foundations make up only 12%. Collectively, individual donations are more than six times larger than those of our friends in the billionaires’ club.

Are you as surprised as I was? The power of individual donations, no matter what size, is real. Take the Hope for Haiti Now benefit concert for example. In just a few days, people donated over $57 million, mainly through small text based donations of ten or twenty dollars each. Our own donation appeal has raised over $280,000 (and counting!) with the average donation size being just $30.

We can’t all be billionaires, but we can all make meaningful donations, no matter how big or small, that become a powerful source of support to the nonprofits that we believe in. To find more information about United States giving trends, please visit The Foundation Center’s website.

[This blog entry first appeared on an older version of Idealist; any broken links are a result of having re-launched our site in Fall 2010.]

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