Maximize Your Chances for Need-Based Grants or Scholarships

Almost all graduate students feel they are financially “needy” because of big tuition bills

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Almost all graduate students feel they are financially “needy,” because they don't earn very much money and are facing big tuition bills. So every grad student should at least fill out the single most important financial aid application, the FAFSA. But students should also be realistic about their chances. Very little financial aid is awarded to graduate students based solely on financial need. Pell grants, which help pay tuition for millions of low-income undergraduates, simply aren't awarded to graduate students, no matter how broke they are. Many grad schools—especially professional programs—tell students to borrow on the theory that their new degrees will help them get better-paying jobs, so they'll be able to repay those loans.

Still, some charities, and some schools—mostly big public universities or private schools with big endowments—do award scholarships to the neediest students. Generally, the students with the best chances for need-based aid come from disadvantaged backgrounds. Often, however, scholarship funds are so limited that they go to only the most talented or qualified needy students.

Here's how to maximize your chances at getting need-based aid:

1) Analyze your own finances. Does your fiancé/fiancée have a good job, some savings, and/or a house? If so, delay the wedding! Many schools consider a spouse's income when deciding who gets need-based aid.

2) Do your parents have good jobs or a nice home? If so, you'll want to focus on schools that don't consider income of the student's parents. That means focusing on schools that ask only for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. Schools that ask for additional forms typically expect parents to help pay your graduate school bills.

3) No matter what your financial situation is, you should fill out a FAFSA as soon as possible. Don't wait to fill out your tax forms first. You can estimate your income now and correct the numbers later. The federal government's free financial aid application generally asks for financial information only from graduate students and their spouses. It does not require information about the grad student's parents. Even if the FAFSA doesn't get you a scholarship, it will qualify you for cheap federal student loans like Staffords, which are capped at 6.8 percent (plus fees).

4) See if any of your target schools or the charities that offer scholarships in your field ask financial aid applicants to fill out the College Board's CSS Financial Aid Profile. This application asks for financial information about an applicant's parents and spouse. The College Board charges $25 to send a financial aid application to one school and $16 for every school after that.

5) See if any of your target schools ask financial aid applicants to fill out the Need Access form. This form is free. It also asks for financial information about your parents and spouse.

6) Seek out schools more likely to give need-based aid. That includes schools that require the Profile or the Need Access forms, many public universities with state-funded programs, and private schools with the biggest endowments.

7) Call your department head or graduate school financial aid office and ask for help in tracking down other financial aid opportunities.

8) Try for grants and scholarships awarded for reasons other than pure financial need such as by field of study or by competition. Also, try creating a bidding war over yourself. See if your employer will help pay for your education. Search for other financial aid opportunities.