This time of year is the most popular time for students to start asking questions about scholarships. Admission notifications have gone out for most graduate programs, and offers related to financial aid packages, admissions-based scholarships, and teaching positions quickly follow. For many recent admits, the moment of admission initiates a series of raw moments in which the financial realities of higher education truly set in.
During my four years as a Student Affairs Advisor at the UCLA Scholarship Resource Center, I learned that as incoming students decide which school to attend, the month of April becomes the month of answering endless questions like:
“What is a scholarship? And why didn’t I get one?”
Answering the big scholarship questions
Both of these questions are incredibly hard to answer in a quick phone call, or even in a blog post, partially because the answers to these questions do not resolve the ultimate problem: a university education of any kind costs money (a lot of it). There is no way around this fact in the United States’ system of higher education.
Most scholarships fit into a broad category of funding opportunities that are created by individuals, institutions, or organizations that wish to fund certain individuals to pursue particular educational goals. These opportunities vary based on the type of desired candidates, specific donor requests, limitations based on organizational bureaucracies, eligibility requirements, application materials, and related funding plans.
Adjusting your scholarship expectations
If individuals who wish to receive scholarships do not put the effort in to identify and apply for scholarship opportunities outside of the regular admissions process, it is unlikely that they will win any.
Given the diverse functions of graduate programs, the story of funding for graduate students from within the university context varies dramatically among programs and institutions. For the most part, students are expected to pay for non-PhD programs with their own resources. Those in PhD programs are expected to teach for the university in exchange for tuition waivers and a limited living stipend.
While it is true that most graduate programs offer a few admissions-based scholarships that are directly related to each university program, these opportunities are incredibly rare. Yet, many students are surprised to realize this upon admission.
Every year, students are accepted to their top choice schools, and quickly crushed with the realization that they have to pay full price because their dream schools did not provide a merit-based scholarship upon admission.
It can feel like the university is saying, “Yes! But actually, no.”
Getting accepted does not equal getting a scholarship
Over and over again my colleagues and I have heard distraught students and families exclaim:
“But I’ve worked so hard! I thought I would get a scholarship.”
“I qualified for financial aid as an undergraduate, why doesn’t this help me for graduate school?”
We’ve even heard:
“But I got a ‘full ride’ at another university, why didn’t I get one to go to my top choice?”
And we get our fair share of:
“Just because we’re not minorities doesn’t mean we can afford the full cost of graduate school. It’s not fair.”
In today’s competitive frenzy for admission to the country’s most sought after public and private schools, students often feel that if they are good enough to get in, that means they should also be “good enough” to receive a scholarship. But this is simply an incorrect assumption.
Being a competitive applicant is what grants you acceptance to a university in the first place, but it is not what gets you a scholarship. And to answer the last question, belonging to an underserved community is not the magic key to earning a scholarship either.
What qualifies a student for a scholarship?
The simple answer to this question is:
The students who are most qualified to win scholarships are those who actively apply for lots of scholarships.
At a university as desirable as UCLA, for example, very few incoming graduate students are offered merit-based scholarships as a part of the admissions or recruitment process. Every school treats scholarships differently, so there is no secret formula that guarantees that a particular kind of person will receive one. Often the criteria for distributing an admission-based scholarship depend on a number of unique and unpredictable variables.
The specific needs of private donors, regional or state quotas, internal administrative initiatives, balanced distribution across the campus’ student population, and market-based endowments, all of which change on an individual and annual basis, determine the pool of qualified candidates for most university funding opportunities and scholarships.
Understanding the role of “merit” in the graduate scholarship landscape
Basically “merit” is never the only factor that admissions committees take into consideration when they approach the potential to distribute university scholarships. In fact, separating candidates on the basis of merit alone would not narrow a candidate pool enough for a committee to begin making objective selections. And in any given year, there’s no way to guess which factors will rank highest on a committee’s list of qualifications and considerations.
No matter how smart and accomplished you are, the odds of both getting in to your top choice schools and receiving a scholarship are not in your favor. Rather than depend on the potential to receive merit-based scholarships upon admission to target institutions, students should actively seek out individualized scholarship opportunities while they are applying for school and throughout their time as a student.
What do you need to DO to secure funding?
Any student’s initial application to a university program should include multiple (I suggest 25+) applications for scholarships outside of the standard process of applying for admission. And this should become a habit that is repeated annually for as long as the student is enrolled in and paying for a university education.
Yes, more applications to fill out, more work, more deadlines, and more writing.
Of course, this is basically the worst news to deliver during the month of April, when many students’ dreams of admission actually come true, just as they come to terms with the hard-to-swallow financial realities of university life.
Expected graduate school costs
Currently, the estimated annual cost of tuition & fees for California resident graduate students at UCLA is $17,000.
For non-resident students at UCLA, the estimated annual cost of attendance is an additional $12,245.
Professional degree supplemental tuition (applies to JD, MD, and others) is $23,745 – $31,755.
Estimated rent: $2325 per month for a one bedroom (taken from UCLA’s estimate of housing within a 5-mile radius of the campus)
Estimated meals: $450 per month
Annual costs: $44,200 – $75,955
Now apply this information to the length and type of your program, add airfare, and consider summer expenses.
Most PhDs receive a TA stipend of $15,000 – $24,000 per year and that is considered “full funding.”
Have I made the knot in your stomach bigger?
Why is applying for graduate school scholarships so hard?
I’m prefacing my scholarship blog series with this financial reality because should you decide to start applying for graduate school scholarships, I guarantee that you will repeatedly say to yourself “this is hard, exhausting, and endlessly overwhelming.”
The reasons for this are twofold.
First, paying $44,200 – $76,000 per year is no joke. Graduate school costs a lot.
Second, the people who give away money in the form of scholarships do not spend money or time on making it easy to identify and apply for scholarships. This is not because they want to make your life miserable; it’s because they want to spend their money on your education – not on the marketing, user experience design, or accessibility of their websites, mission statements, and application platforms.
So when you start conducting Google searches for “graduate school scholarships” or “scholarships for something specific about me,” there will be long lists with expired links. There will be confusing websites that lack clear markers for the location of application materials, eligibility requirements, deadlines, or instructions. There will be un-editable PDFs, incorrect contact information, seemingly arbitrary descriptions of ideal candidates, and my personal favorite: lists of more lists.
Most people who make it to this part of the scholarship search process either give up without really getting started or determine that “there just isn’t anything out there for me.” Like those who depend on receiving admission-based scholarships, the people who give up after a few searches online, or even a few completed applications, just don’t win scholarships.
Pretty much every conversation that I have at the Scholarship Resource Center starts with:
“What exactly is a scholarship? And why didn’t I get one?”
“I’ve tried searching for scholarships on the internet, and I think I’m just bad at it. What’s the trick? Is there a list somewhere? How do I find scholarships that I am actually eligible for?”
If you are asking one of these questions right now, calm down. Let the reality of the numbers sink in, and accept that finding and winning scholarships takes effort.
If you want to receive any money in the form of scholarships, you are going to have to work for it. It will take time. It will be repetitive, tedious, and at times downright discouraging.
Step one: know that you can do this!
The first step in this process is to develop a mindset that can accept the fact that graduate school costs a lot, and enable you to approach scholarship searches and application processes that are inevitably difficult, inconsistent, and arbitrary.
But if you do the work, and incorporate strategic, focused, and consistent processes into your routine as a graduate student, you will be more qualified to receive scholarships than most of your peers.
What are those processes you now ask? I’ll cover them in future posts.
Do you need help applying for graduate school scholarships? We can help you with that, as well as any other step in the grad school admissions process. Learn more about our services here.
By Rebecca Lippman, Accepted consultant. Prior to working at Accepted Rebecca worked as a Student Affairs Advisor at the UCLA Scholarship Resource Center. She has taught undergraduate and graduate students how to write large grant applications for grants awarded by organizations such as Fulbright Student Program, Gates Cambridge Scholarship, Knight-Hennessy Scholars, Ford Foundation, Paul & Daisy Soros Fellowship for New Americans, and the National Science Foundation. Rebecca has a masters degree from University of Cambridge, and is currently pursuing a PhD in Comparative Literature at UCLA. Want Rebecca to help you get Accepted? Click here to get in touch!
• 5 Fatal Flaws to Avoid in Your Grad School Statement of Purpose, a free guide
• Awards! Grants! Scholarships! Oh My! a podcast episode
• The Personal Statement That Got Me a Large Scholarship to Cambridge
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