Information compiled by the GradSchools.com team - last updated August 2010
One year ahead - August and September
Search for scholarship opportunities
Given the amount of scholarships that exist, and the lack of a single, comprehensive listing, you’d be wise to start searching for awards as soon as possible. Our Where to Look for Graduate Scholarship Programs article pinpoints some viable sources for graduate scholarships, along with other scholarship search tips. For certain, the Internet has become the fastest and easiest way to access a free scholarship search, but don’t underestimate old-fashioned networking. A professional phone voice and your local yellow pages can turn up leads from small donors that don’t always advertise online such as chambers of commerce, civic groups, and religious communities; Keep in mind, tenacity never hurts. Experts report that some students have actually pioneered their own scholarships, convincing organizations to initiate a brand new fund for students like themselves!
Collect application forms and information
These days, when it comes to scholarship applications, the traditional practice of sending written requests is largely outdated. Most institutional scholarships don’t require separate applications anyway; chances are you will automatically be considered for all available awards when you apply for school admission and financial aid via the FAFSA form (see below). Still, you should always check the lists of grants and scholarships provided by the academic departments and the schools that you’re considering. If an institution doesn’t specifically list awards and/or downloadable forms (where applicable), you can usually obtain the necessary answers and materials with one polite phone call.
Some private organizations may still require more formal inquiries. If the organization’s website does not contain a link to its scholarship forms, you should compose a short, type-written request for a scholarship application and any accompanying rules or guidelines. Bear in mind that the person who receives your request is very likely involved in the selection process. Your correspondence should demonstrate poise and intelligence – that means careful spellchecking and several rereads.
Make a spreadsheet
Save yourself some undue stress by entering all your deadlines into a spreadsheet. In the same document you can also outline addresses, requirements, and any other special considerations. Keep a hardcopy with your physical materials, and save a softcopy for revisions and updates.
You’ll already be collecting recommendations for school admissions, so scholarship recommendations can be as simple as a request for extra copies. If you are recycling recommendation letters, there are a few things to keep in mind. First, some schools ask recommenders to use specific forms, or to answer specific questions. Obviously, in such cases, recommenders will have to be cognizant of the special requirements and tailor their evaluations accordingly. Second, many scholarship committees want to prevent tampering or falsification of documents. To that end, they may request that letters be sent directly to their headquarters or ask for letters in signed, sealed envelopes. In either of those cases, make sure you brief your c. You should also supply your sponsors with all the necessary materials and postage. They’re already doing you a big favor; don’t expect them to print, stamp, or sort on your behalf.
Ten months ahead - October and November
Compile your resume or CV
Here again, you’ll already be drafting a resume for your graduate school admissions application. When submitting that resume alongside a scholarship application, you may want to make a few small tweaks or changes, depending on the award in question. For example, the resume you send with your MBA application probably doesn’t need to include the fact that you completed four years of piano lessons. But if you’re applying for a scholarship from a corporate piano manufacturer, the selection board would certainly see the relevance of that accomplishment.
Write several “template” essays
Since most scholarship applications require an essay or statement of purpose, it’s never too soon to start organizing your thoughts and getting them down on paper. Draft some paragraphs that outline your “story” and your abilities. Draw on any experiences or conquered challenges that distinguish you as a scholar, an artist, an entrepreneur – whatever the desired perception may be. By the time you have the actual essay questions in front of you, you will have some substantive material to build on. You can then customize the framing features of the essay and tie in relevant threads according to the ideals of the sponsoring organizations.
Visit as many prospect schools as possible
Unless you’re independently wealthy, a large part of your grad school decision will be based on the aid packages you’re offered. As you’re counting down until May, this can be a frustrating variable. You can curb some of the uncertainty by securing other types of information about your prospect schools. Visiting campuses is a great way to shore up your plans while you’re waiting to receive the bottom line. After meeting professors and students, you may find that your top choice school is not at all what you expected.
Eight months ahead - December and January
Complete the FAFSA
Because you will need the information contained in your W-2s, you cannot complete the FAFSA any earlier than January 1st. After that, however, it’s a good idea to fill out this document as soon as possible, and preferably online. Colleges start building aid packages early. Submit your materials well ahead of the financial aid deadline.
Besides school-based awards, a completed FAFSA guarantees you’ll be considered for all types of federal financial aid that are available to you. Federal aid comes in three possible forms: loans, grants, and work study opportunities. Grants are the most desirable because they do not need to be earned or repaid. Unfortunately, Pell Grants are almost exclusively dedicated to undergraduate students. As a grad school applicant, you will likely receive a package that includes some awards from your college and some federal loan options.
Request copies of your transcripts
For admissions and for some scholarships, you will need to gather transcripts from all of the undergraduate institutions you attended. These records will substantiate your grade point average and other academic accomplishments you are presenting to scholarship committees. Most schools will accept your transcript requests online and in person. Either way, allow for two weeks of processing time. You should be prepared to pay a small fee, usually $5 to $10, for each transcript you order. Be careful to read your scholarship instructions as some committees prefer to receive “official” transcript copies directly from the registrar’s office while others ask you to assemble all materials and submit them together.
Gather your recommendations
Professors and employers are busy people. Even though you will have requested recommendations 2 or 3 months ahead of time, it’s possible your request has been forgotten. Politely remind any stragglers that your deadlines are approaching, and that their words of support mean a lot to your candidacy. With a little nudge, you’ll round up all the necessary letters.
Seven months ahead - February
Send out your scholarship applications
If you stick to the plan, all of your paperwork should be ready to go by early February. In some cases, you may need to be ready sooner, but your spreadsheet will alert you to those deadlines. Package your materials neatly, and be sure to use adequate postage.
Investigate alternate sources of funding
Don’t assume that you’re going to be selected for anything. If major awards or fellowships don’t pan out, you’ll need to have a backup plan. Be prepared to know how much you’re willing to borrow, and under what terms. Find out from other students if it’s feasible to work a part-time job, and then investigate the job markets that surround your prospect schools. Ideally, you will be awarded the amounts you are expecting and more. If not, you’ll at least be able to make an educated decision about private loans and other options.
Send thank you notes
Acknowledging everyone who helped you is a polite gesture, and a common practice. Whether or not you are selected for a scholarship, you should send thank you notes to all the people that took the time to recommend you. Sincerity counts; an informal card with a handwritten message is preferable to a generic letter or an email.
If you’re fortunate enough to receive a scholarship, you should definitely send a thank you to the committee or organization that selected you. In accepting the award, you should reaffirm your academic goals and express your commitment to fulfilling benefactors’ expectations. In all cases, be humble and appreciative. Many scholarships are renewable, and their committees can often be instrumental in securing future opportunities.
Photo by mararie