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Scholarship Strategies That Help Cut Grad School Costs

It's no secret that grad school is expensive, but scholarship strategies to help reduce the cost shouldn't be. Start finding opportunities with this advice!

With student loan debt at an all-time high of $1.6 trillion in the United States, it’s a wise decision to look for alternative ways to reduce the cost of graduate school before you sign your name to new or additional student loans. A largely overlooked way to reduce the cost of a master’s or doctoral education is through private scholarships. Many companies, organizations, individuals, and foundations have created private scholarships that can be used by students at any level of higher education and at any college or university. But why don’t many people apply for these scholarships, and where can you find them? Let’s discuss.

Why don’t grad students pursue private scholarships?

There are many reasons why people don’t pursue private scholarships despite the fact that they can dramatically reduce or even eliminate the costs of graduate school, medical school, law school, or doctorate programs. Some people wrongly assume that scholarship applications will take a lot of time that they don’t have. Some students don’t know how to start looking so they give up before they even start. Others mistakenly believe the window of opportunity to apply for scholarships ended when they graduated from high school. And still more simply believe they couldn’t possibly be “good enough” to win an award and don’t ever try.

Related: Expert Grad School Financial Aid Tips You Need to Know

Where to look for private scholarships for grad school

With so many people opting out of the application process, you have an increased probability statistically of becoming the recipient of a scholarship award. The key is knowing where to find the scholarship opportunities. Here are five places to look for scholarships for advanced degree programs.

Academic department offices

Many private scholarship committees actively reach out to academic departments at colleges and universities offering or promoting career-specific scholarships. Utilize both the academic departments of where you completed your undergraduate degree as well as where you’re looking to pursue your advanced degree. This should be your first step, as it’s a massive time-saver in finding scholarships that align with your future goals. Follow up with an email to those departments every three months to check in on any new opportunities.

Alumni networks and offices

Connecting with the alumni offices from your former, current, or future educational institutions to find out about scholarship opportunities is an overlooked goldmine. You’re not the first person in your chosen field to seek scholarships to reduce the cost of your education. Recognize that you essentially have an entire army of scholarship research assistants who’ve already done the work. Utilize the team of alumni personnel at your institution(s) to help you connect to alumni in your chosen field quickly and efficiently. You can inquire about scholarships they found, applied to, and received. This can also serve as a bridge to expand your network for future internships and job opportunities.

Professional organizations and associations

Most professional organizations and associations offer scholarships to individuals aspiring to work in that specific field. Research what organizations and associations are related to your chosen field of study, and email them to inquire about opportunities they may have or sources they could point you toward. But be aware that many professional organizations require membership to be eligible for scholarships. If membership within an association is required, ask if there are free or discounted options to become a member.

Related: Find a Mentor to Boost Your Graduate School Success

Scholarship book directories

Let’s be honest: We all Google everything. We’ve forgotten how efficient it is to pick up a book and turn to the index to find exactly what we’re looking for. A visit to your local public library can save you thousands of dollars. Scholarship book directories are huge and can be be found in the college resources section of any library. Simply turn to the book’s index to quickly identify scholarships for your chosen field. Write down all the websites and relevant information from the scholarships you find, and you’ll leave with a list of opportunities you can start expediting immediately.

Online scholarship tools

There are many websites that help people find scholarships. Utilize scholarship search directories to search for scholarships by age, field of study, deadline, and more. Specifically sorting your opportunities by deadline will help you focus on applications one month at a time and avoid overwhelming yourself.

Look for scholarships beyond your field

Private scholarships for master's program, medical school, law school, or doctoral degree programs are often specific to the field of study you’re pursuing—but that doesn’t mean all of them are. Don’t make the mistake of only looking at scholarships that are directly related to your field of study. For example, you could apply for a poetry scholarship but put the money toward your MBA. And while some scholarships may be smaller amounts, they can certainly add up if you take the time to apply for a few.

Related: How to Expand Your Reach and Find Scholarships in Hidden Places

Examples of scholarships for graduate students

To help get your search started, here are some great scholarship opportunities for graduate students:

  • Bridging the Dream Scholarship Program: The Sallie Mae Fund is expanding their program to award 30 $10,000 scholarships over the next three years to graduate students.
  • Geological Society of America Graduate Student Research Grants: Applicants must be members of the Geological Society of America and currently enrolled in a geological science graduate program at an institution in the United States, Canada, Mexico, or Central America.
  • Legacy Scholarship for Graduate Students: Sponsored by the American Society of Interior Designers, graduate students enrolled in Interior Design programs at degree-granting institutions can find many different scholarship opportunities through ASID. 
  • American Speech-Language-Hearing Foundation Graduate Student Scholarship: Students pursuing advanced degrees in Communication Sciences and Disorders should apply to this scholarship, which is awarded based on academic achievement and promise.
  • NACA Graduate Student Scholarships: The National Association for Campus Activities offers five scholarships covering different regions of the country for students pursuing graduate work in preparation for or to enhance a career in campus activities.
  • Marine Studies Scholarships and Emerge Program: The Marine Technology Society offers student memberships for $25 per year as well as several scholarships for students enrolled in full-time marine-related programs, such as Marine Technology, Marine Engineering, or Marine Science.
  • National Society of Collegiate Scholars GEICO Graduate Award: In partnership with GEICO insurance, NSCS awards five $2,500 Graduate School Scholarships to deserving, talented, and motivated NSCS members who’ve been accepted to or are already in a graduate studies program.
  • Thrivent Annual Graduate Scholarships: Applicants must be enrolled or planning to enroll in an accredited theological seminary or postgraduate institution and demonstrate active Christian faith, civil engagement, and leadership to be eligible for these two awards.
  • CollegeXpress's $10,000 Scholarship: Graduate students are eligible to win CollegeXpress’s annual $10,000 scholarship, which can be used at any featured college for your first semester of grad school. Just create a free account to enter!

Private scholarship amounts could range from less than $2,500 each to all-expense-paid opportunities. They can be stacked on top of college-specific scholarships your educational institution may also offer you. And most importantly, they can be a game changer in terms of advancing in your professional field while not burdening yourself with years of student loan debt. With this smart use of your time now, you can transform the outlook of your future for many years to come.

Start looking for scholarships right here using our Scholarship Search tool, and learn more about grad programs in our Graduate School section.

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About Jean O'Toole

Jean O’Toole is an educational consultant and author of the bestselling book Scholarship Strategies: Finding and Winning the Money You Need. Over the past 15 years, she has helped tens of thousands of students in the United States. Individuals collectively have been awarded millions of dollars by applying Jean’s scholarship strategies. In 2008, Jean co-founded Connections101, a company specializing in providing motivational tools for scholarship searching. It is her goal to empower students to design their paths to their future without college debt. Visit Connections101.com for more information, and follow Jean on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.


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