"I was completely blown away," she says. "I kind of just assumed if they were going to offer me monetary financial aid, they would have done that from the beginning, so I never thought to ask."
4. Ask all offices: As a graduate student, you'll likely be enrolling in one department of a larger school—which means you have a second option to petition for more money.
"If you're not happy, call up and say—to both the financial aid office and the department—'I cannot afford to go to this school. I have this other school that is offering me more aid ... that I don't have to pay back. What other scholarships can I apply for?'" recommends Reyna Gobel, author of Graduation Debt: How to Manage Student Loans and Live Your Life. "There may be other scholarships that you didn't know about."
[Find out where to look for grad school scholarships.]
Reaching out to a future department may be especially beneficial for international students, says Jack Ahern, vice provost of international programs at the University of Massachusetts—Amherst. Since financial aid offices tend to deal more with federal funding options that international students can't get, grad students may get more help finding assistantships, fellowships, and scholarships by appealing directly to a department, he says.
5. Try again next year: When he didn't receive a work-study position for his first year of graduate school, Boston University School of Education student Andrew Barlow didn't get discouraged.
"I just reapplied for it, and I kept bugging them about it," he says. "I had the person who wanted to hire me already lined up, and they kept bugging [the financial aid office] as well." His efforts eventually paid off; Barlow later landed both a work-study position and another part-time job.
Waiting to secure funding might help international students, too. It's "quite common" for international grad students at the University of Massachusetts—Amherst to not receive an assistantship (which can come with a tuition waiver) until after they've arrived, vice provost Ahern says.
"It sometimes depends on the availability of funding, and opportunities may develop after they've been accepted," he says. "It may be a case where faculty want to see the students, especially international students—how well they speak English, how well they write—before they offer an assistantship."
Negotiating may not work for all who try, but, when Stanford Law grad Onyema recalls his experience, he says he "think[s] about how many other students don't have that conversation."
If he hadn't reached out to his top school for what ultimately resulted in a $20,000 annual award, "that 20K would have gone to someone else who did negotiate or did talk," he surmises. "Those who are proactive are the ones who get the money."
Trying to fund your education? Get tips and more in the U.S. News Paying for Graduate School center.