Free money for your graduate degree

The first step of the 1-2-3 approach to paying for graduate school is to look for—and use—free money that you don’t have to pay back. The most likely sources will be from scholarships, grants, and fellowships. Finding free money can take time; some graduate students perform a cost-benefit analysis to decide on the minimum amount of money that they’ll pursue. Others devote a few hours once a week to go through their free money paperwork.

The difference among scholarships, grants, and fellowships for graduate students

Scholarships are available through organizations, companies, states, and more. They can be need-based or merit-based, but you have to apply for them.

Grants for graduate school are like scholarships in that you don’t have to pay them back. If you withdraw from school, you may have to refund part or all the grant, so know the individual grant’s rules. While scholarships are often merit-based, grants are need-based and can relate to your prospective field.

Fellowships for graduate students generally relate to a short-term opportunity to study or conduct research in a specific field. Awarded for academic excellence, they can include an internship or other service commitment and can pay for living expenses, or offer a stipend. Fellowship opportunities can be found in most graduate fields.


How to find graduate scholarships

Scholarship award amounts for graduate students tend to be more modest than for undergrads, but they can add up. An extra $1,000 – $2,000 can help reduce your living expenses for a month. Here are some different sources for customizing your search for graduate scholarships:

  • By school: Many universities offer scholarships to graduate students from their own funds to attract students with the strongest academic performance. Your school or program is a great source to learn about these opportunities.
  • By field: If you’re entering a program where your expertise is in short supply—especially in the STEM areas—focus on graduate scholarships from corporations, professional organizations, and foundations.
  • By demographic: Graduate scholarships are available for specific populations, such as women and minorities, including African Americans, Asians, Hispanics, and Native Americans. They’re also available for students, foster children, first-generation college students, and non-traditional students who are cognitively and physically disabled.
  • By region: There’s often more attention paid to national scholarships. But don’t forget to search for opportunities for graduate students from your home state or region—a smaller candidate pool can increase your chances. Call your state’s Department of Education for information.

Tips for applying for graduate scholarships

  1. Be methodical. Keep track of the essay questions you’ve already answered—you can use them in additional applications.
  2. Don’t box yourself in. Along with field-specific scholarships, consider the criteria that you used as an undergrad. Broaden your search and look for scholarships based on your region, ethnicity, interest, religious affiliation, or hobbies.
  3. Make a scholarship budget. Searching for graduate scholarships may be free, but some documents that you may need for your application may come at a cost, like transcripts. Some graduate scholarships request the College Board’s CSS/Financial Aid Profile, which costs $25 for the first application and $16 for each additional request. You may want to focus on the most lucrative (or most winnable) scholarships and pass on the less favorable ones.

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Types of graduate school grants

Grants are most often offered by the federal government, state government, an individual school, or a private organization.

Federal grants for graduate students

Pell Grants are generally for undergraduate students only. However, there are several federal programs that offer money to graduate students. Federal grants are generally need-based, but they can also be available for a student who is studying to fill a special need or discipline.

  • TEACH Grants can be awarded to graduate students taking coursework to become teachers in a high-need field in a school with low-income students. Learn more about TEACH Grants.
  • Iraq and Afghanistan Service Grants are available to students with a parent who was killed in the military service after 9/11. You’ll need to submit a FAFSA to be eligible for this grant. Learn more about Iraq and Afghanistan Service Grants.
  • Fulbright Grants are sponsored by the U.S. Department of State. They’re used to promote the exchange of ideas across countries. This grant is available to undergraduate or graduate students to help you continue your international studies. Learn more about Fulbright Grants.

State grants for graduate students

There’s no overall standard for how states distribute their grant money. Some are need-based, while others earmark their grants for students studying specific areas (like the STEM fields).

School grants for graduate students

These grants are given by graduate schools for a variety of reasons: to encourage diversity, to support research in specific fields, or to help graduate students with a financial need afford their program. Graduate schools can have money from the federal government or from alumni bequests.

Organization and corporate grants for graduate students

Many organizations have created grants to help graduates pursue an education in the fields they support. For instance, the American Chemical Society provides research grants to graduate students in the chemical sciences.

How to apply for graduate school grants

  • For federal and state grants, fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). You’ll be notified about any grant money when you receive your financial aid package from your school. You may need to be a legal resident of the state from which you’re looking for graduate school grants.
  • For school-specific grants, start with your school’s financial aid office.
  • For organization-specific grants, start with your field’s national professional association or check with your department head or advisor.

Bonus tip: Make sure to read and understand all the criteria for your graduate school grant.


Fellowships for graduate students

Awarded for academic excellence, graduate fellowships can be found in many fields and often include an internship or other service commitment. This gives you the chance to gain professional experience or pursue academic research in your field.

  • Many graduate fellowship programs provide a stipend or living allowance.
  • Housing assistance may also be available.
  • You may not have to work on campus.

Benefits of a graduate student fellowship

A primary benefit of a graduate fellowship is the exposure to research and experts in your field. As a graduate fellow, you’re often given significant responsibility, so you’re able to gain experience more quickly than you would in an entry-level position.

Graduate student fellowships can be highly competitive. They can also involve an extensive application process that includes nominations, interviews, and presentations. Fellowship programs look for highly motivated individuals with demonstrated leadership, knowledge, and drive. Requirements can vary by field and by school.

Where to find graduate fellowships

To locate fellowships in your field, start with your program chair and your advisor.

Be sure to reach out to related professional associations and other nonprofit research organizations that support your area of study. Some, like the Smithsonian and the Washington Center, offer graduate fellowship and research opportunities. The distinguished Rhodes Scholarship offers a two-year education at the University of Oxford in England, all expenses paid.

No purchase necessary. Void where prohibited. Odds of winning depend upon the number of entries received. See official rules at SallieMae.com/SweepstakesRules.

 This information was gathered on July 3, 2017, from https://studentaid.ed.gov/sa/types/grants-scholarships/pell, https://studentaid.ed.gov/sa/types/grants-scholarships, and https://studentaid.ed.gov/sa/sites/default/files/federal-grant-programs.pdf.