Finding financial aid and scholarships for seminaries may not differ greatly from finding aid for undergraduate studies and public universities. The complexities come on a school-by-school, program-by-program basis. This article will help you know what to look for, so that you can maximize your efforts toward finding the scholarships that you are most eligible for and which will benefit you the most.
The Scholarship Timeline
The best time to start your search is now. While many scholarships loosely follow the academic calendar (i.e., open for applications in the fall, deadline in the spring), there is no true standard and all scholarship providers are free to use whatever timelines they choose. The earlier in the fall that you begin looking for opportunities, the better; you will not want to miss out on the occasional scholarship with a December deadline. For many programs, however, the winter break can be an extremely fruitful period for completing applications. There is no reason to delay this process, even if you have not yet finalized your seminary choice.
If you have narrowed down which seminaries you are applying to, or if you have already been accepted to the one you plan to attend, then you will want to start out by studying the tuition, financial aid, and FAQs pages that are standard for all college websites. Nearly every institution offers its own scholarships, but that can range from numerous full-ride seminary scholarships to merely need-based assistance.
Federal Aid and Award Restrictions
First, discover whether the seminary in question accepts federal aid. If so, you will want to apply for the FAFSA each year; some religious institutions do not accept federal aid, (usually in order to avoid federal oversight). Next, research the specifications and restrictions of awards offered by the seminary. Sometimes, awards might be reserved for MDiv students or exclude doctoral students altogether. More commonly, awards may only be for full-time students.
Full-time or Part-time?
On that note, whether you plan on attending classes full-time or part-time will have notable repercussions on your scholarship search. Scholarships for part-time students can be rare, and you would want to guarantee that part-time enrollment qualifies for each scholarship you are interested in prior to spending the time applying. When awarded, it would also be wise to take an extra step and ask the scholarship provider for a letter that you can give to your financial aid office, certifying that the award can be used towards less-than-full-time enrollment. Otherwise, it is standard practice for universities to return awards to the provider when a student drops below full-time. (The definition of “full-time status” can also vary between institutions and programs, often from six credit hours to twelve, while the standard graduate course load requires nine hours.)
Apply for every scholarship you can that your seminary offers. If that includes full-ride scholarships, put as much effort as you can into that application process before searching for outside scholarships. If you do receive a full-ride, then you might not be able to receive any scholarships on top of that. Many scholarships can only be applied to tuition and required fees; if your tuition is already covered by the time you receive additional awards, your seminary will likely either reject the awards or use those award funds to offset its own costs. Generally speaking, it is unexpected that unused scholarship funds will be released to a student to spend however he or she pleases.
Plan Beyond Year One
A popular practice by an increasing number of seminaries is to offer special first-year awards for incoming students. These are an exciting opportunity for students just beginning their graduate degrees, but receiving such an award also means that your first year of classes will be more affordable than subsequent years. No matter what, it would be a wise practice to budget out your expenses each year; the amount you owe yearly is destined to change, whether it is caused by changes in employment, gaining new awards, losing old ones, or inflation in tuition costs and housing prices. With as much information as you have, try planning what all of your expenses will be and what all of your income will be, including financial aid. Some seminary websites include budget calculators that can be a great help. These calculators can simplify the budgeting process, while also including fees and book costs that you might have not known to plan for ahead of time.
In contrast to such first-year scholarships, seminaries often have awards exclusively for students who have already started their degrees. To that end, stay aware that your eligibility for different awards will be changing each school year, and having trouble finding adequate funds one year does not mean that you cannot earn substantial scholarships the following year. Even if you are just about to enter your program as a first year student, it is never too early to start researching what awards you might be able to apply to in future years. Save a list, somewhere you will not lose it, of scholarships you can apply to in the future, alongside the approximate deadline and what requirements you will need for those opportunities, whether that means a certain GPA or a certain amount of community service. It can make a world of difference to know what a scholarship requires a year ahead of time, rather than discovering the requirements days before your application is due.
Advice for Landing that Scholarship
It is in your hands to be an exemplary student, able to stand out in a pool of competing applicants, by keeping your grades up, pursuing extracurricular activities, and staying involved in serving your community. The key is to learn how to present yourself well — to make sure all of your merits and achievements are well-represented in your application. So what can you do that will most help you receive the award?
Two areas where you need to refine your applications as much as possible are your references and your essays, which are both commonly required for seminary scholarship applications. If a reference is required, that means the completion status of your application depends on someone other than yourself. It is a sad occurrence when you put in hours of work to submit all of your information and documentation on time, only to never be considered for the scholarship because your references were not likewise turned in. For this reason alone, you should be thinking of potential references before even applying to scholarships. Begin asking your mentors, pastors, employers, etc. to discover who is willing and able to be a reference for you. As soon as you see that a scholarship requires one or more references, let these people know. Not only is it impolite to expect a reference from someone who has not explicitly agreed to do so, but giving each person a heads-up will proactively prepare them to complete your reference long before the deadline comes.
In your essay, strive for grammatical and technical perfection, but do not stop there. You should never submit an essay that has not been proofread by someone with trustworthy writing skills, but in the case of a seminary scholarship essay — which will likely be focused on theological concepts and/or ministry experience — it would also be wise to have someone read your essay who is knowledgeable in the topic being addressed, (perhaps even a student or professor from the seminary you plan to attend). For example, if you are asked to write about the role of deacons in a church, find a deacon at your own church to read through the essay. If you are writing about a significant ministry experience from your life, you can ask the pastor or leader who presided over the event. Another useful tip for writing is to read your essay aloud. You want your writing to sound natural, and your ears will hear oddities that your eyes would not have noticed on the page. Ultimately, to submit an essay that sounds natural and honest, that contains little-to-no grammatical mistakes, and which deals with a theological concept biblically and thoughtfully will position you competitively for receiving the scholarship.
Seminary scholarships may consider other factors from your life, such as work experience and community service experience. If a scholarship is judged fairly, this data will be looked at in a balanced fashion. For example, a student with average grades may be given leniency if that student also works a job and volunteers regularly for multiple organizations. Similarly, a student who works multiple jobs would not be expected to volunteer tremendous amounts of time. How all of this information is analyzed will also be dependent on how the information is collected; you might be asked to upload a free-form resume, or you might be asked to fill out a detailed form that includes exactly how many hours you work or serve. With the possibilities that exist through online application forms, some scholarship providers even ask for the contact information from a supervisor, who can confirm that the information you provided is accurate. When it comes to volunteer hours specifically, some scholarship judges want to see the diversification of a student’s community involvement. It is already true that the students applying for most general scholarships have collected most of their volunteer hours through serving at church — this is all the truer for students attending seminary. Another way to make your application stand out above the rest is to be actively serving your community both in your church and out of your church. It is never too late to find new ways to serve, but having an established history of volunteerism will look the best.
These basics should help prepare you for finding and applying for most seminary scholarships, but there will be differences each time. Do your best to thoroughly complete applications to the awards you are most eligible for. Even if you have already been trying and failing to receive scholarships, don’t give up now! A vast number of seminary-specific scholarships exist precisely because there are churches, organizations, and individuals out there who want you to get through seminary with your focus set more on serving God and serving people than on your debts.