By Julie Gardella
Receiving graduate school admissions decisions after a long and demanding application cycle can be an exciting time. The thrill of an acceptance letter is a great feeling, but if the decisions don’t turn out the way you had hoped, it can be devastating. I know the feeling. My first time applying for graduate school, I received no funding from the schools I had hoped to attend, and was ultimately unable to afford my dream programs. I learned from my mistakes and reapplied years later. Due to a change in strategy, I received multiple fully funded offers from prestigious programs in my field.
I want you to learn from my mistakes, too, so you can enroll in a program that advances your career goals without paying a dime.
My First Graduate School Application Cycle: What I Did Wrong
After college, I was eager to enter the workforce. I knew graduate school would be an important step in my career path, but that it wasn’t the next one for me. I couldn’t wait to land my first post-college job and put my degree to use. Using the free ProFellow Database, I found a fellowship that matched my interests and values and moved to Alaska to join the Alaska Fellows Program. After completing the program, I decided it was time to consider graduate school.
The cost of higher education was at the forefront of my mind. I already had student loans from my undergraduate degree, and the thought of taking on more was daunting. I set about researching programs in Ireland and the UK, believing that they would be a cheaper option than programs in the U.S. I found four programs I was excited about and spent months crafting my applications, which included pouring over department mission statements, obtaining letters of recommendation, and endlessly editing my personal statements.
I was thrilled to be accepted to all four programs. But my elation was short-lived when I realized that not a single school offered me any form of scholarship or grant support. I had been counting on receiving at least a partial funding award when considering the cost of my degree.
For weeks I agonized over the decision of whether I would accept an offer of admission or decline them all and try again. The idea of starting the application process from scratch felt like a failure that would delay my professional ambitions, but taking on additional student debt would be a financial burden for years to come, impeding my personal and professional goals.
If you are unhappy with your funding offers at the end of an application cycle and considering if you should apply again, ask yourself the following:
How will (additional) student debt affect your personal and professional goals?
For me, paying a large student loan bill every month for the next decade or so was not in line with my personal goals. Student debt can be a tremendous financial burden that prevents you from saving up for life milestones like buying a home or traveling to new places. Hefty student debt can also negatively impact your professional goals.
I majored in environmental studies as an undergraduate, and working to combat climate change and pollution was the career path I wanted to pursue. If you plan to pursue a social impact career, committing to monthly payments of hundreds to thousands of dollars could mean you might not be able to accept a dream job where you’re completely aligned with the organization’s mission, but the salary isn’t enough to live on while making loan payments.
Consider checking a student loan calculator to see what you should expect your monthly obligation to be, and compare that to your expected monthly salary after earning your degree to get a realistic picture of how your loan would affect your future finances.
Could you use more time to grow professionally and become a stronger applicant?
I knew I needed a graduate degree to advance my career, so postponing attending graduate school initially felt like a delay in achieving my goals. However, I was lucky enough to be working on a supportive team during my Alaska Fellowship at my host organization; ultimately, my host organization offered to bring me on as a full-time employee. I asked my supervisor if I could take on more research responsibilities, and she assigned me a new mentor to help me develop my skills and work on research products. Gaining research experience during my “gap time” was in service of my overall career goals, and made me a stronger candidate for my future applications.
If you choose to postpone graduate school, how can you use this time to further your professional goals, gain new skills, or pursue a relevant project? If you have a supportive and flexible work environment, consider asking your supervisor or colleagues if you can help out on relevant projects, as I did.
Another option is to pursue a professional fellowship. The free Profellow Database has a wide range of fellowships that offer opportunities to work on a project of interest, develop research skills, and grow your professional network. Even a part-time fellowship that can be completed with your full-time job can be a great option. Lastly, consider getting involved with local organizations as a volunteer, or pursuing a self-designed project in your spare time. All of these things look impressive on an application and are great ways to use unexpected “gap time” to further your goals.
In making my decision, I considered these questions and concluded that the additional student debt did not support my personal or professional goals, and that I would be able to use the following year to grow professionally. Ultimately, I made the extremely difficult decision to decline my grad school offers and apply again at a later cycle.
To say I was disappointed would be an understatement. I had put so much time and work into my applications, and it felt like it had been for nothing. I was also concerned about my recommenders; I thought they might be disappointed or angry at me for wasting their time. However, this was not the case. They were very supportive and offered to write me a recommendation letter when I re-applied later. Recommenders are likely former professors and/or professional supervisors, many of whom have gone to graduate school themselves. They should understand how important the decision is, and want to support you in doing what is right for you and your goals.
However, it is essential to update your recommenders of your decision, whatever you choose, and genuinely thank them for their support. The good news is, if you ask them again to write you a recommendation for the following application cycle, they will already have a draft of the letter that will likely just need to be updated.
My Second Graduate School Application Cycle: How I Corrected My Mistakes and Earned Hundreds of Thousands of Dollars in Funding Offers
After taking a short break to catch my breath, I started researching programs again. This time, I knew I had to do things differently. I didn’t want to repeat the experience of pouring hours into applications, only to decide I couldn’t take on the necessary debt to attend. I was familiar with ProFellow at the time, and after seeing the program advertised on their site, I decided to sign up for Dr. Vicki Johnson’s Fully Funded Course and Mentorship Program. This interactive workshop helped me recognize some of the misconceptions I had about finding funding at the master’s level, and was instrumental in helping me set myself up for options I knew I could afford.
Three Things I Learned in the Fully Funded Course that Can Help You Receive Funding Offers
1. Funding at the master’s level is not found in the financial aid department.
Traditional scholarships through the university’s financial aid department are usually modest at best; in fact, most financial aid for master’s students in the U.S. is through federal loans. In my case, I didn’t receive any financial aid from the universities I applied to in my first round.
Instead of relying on the university financial aid department, look for programs that offer all or most of their accepted students a complete tuition waiver (and hopefully a living stipend) on Profellow’s Directory of Fully Funded Programs, and through searches of your own. This takes time and meticulous effort, but full funding does exist at the master’s level and is common in PhD programs. It’s important to have at least a couple of fully funded options on your list of schools.
2. Apply for named scholarships and external awards, but don’t depend on receiving one.
Much like university financial aid departments, it’s risky to rely entirely on named scholarships, like a “Dean’s Scholarship” or an “Alumni Memorial Scholarship,” or external funding awards. These are often highly competitive and only awarded to a small number of students.
This is not to discourage you from applying to highly competitive opportunities; in fact, if one of your top choice schools has scholarships that you’re eligible for, you should definitely apply! However, it’s important to be realistic about how competitive these are, and to have other options of schools you’re excited about that you know you can afford.
Personally, my ability to attend my top choice program in my first application cycle depended on receiving an international scholarship in Ireland that would have come with full funding. With over 3,000 applicants for a limited number of slots, I was unfortunately not selected, and with no other potential funding sources, I had to decline my acceptance.
3. Graduate school abroad is not necessarily more affordable than graduate school in the U.S.
In my first round of applications, I thought applying in Ireland and the UK would not only be an adventure, but also a more affordable option than programs in the U.S. because, at the time, I didn’t know about domestic fully funded master’s programs. While there are many excellent programs in Ireland, the UK, and elsewhere, don’t make the assumption that it will always be a lower cost!
For me, applying to graduate programs a second time made all the difference. I was accepted to two fully funded programs that offered me a complete tuition waiver and living stipend: the UMass Amherst Fully Funded MBA and the Master’s in Environmental Health Sciences at NYU. ultimately, I elected to attend NYU because I felt the program better aligned with my goals and research ambitions. And remember: I will be getting paid to complete this program because of the strategies I mentioned above, all of which I learned through Dr. Vicki Johnson in the Fully Funded Course.
The decision not to enroll in a grad program can make you feel like a failure, but being realistic about out-of-pocket graduate school costs is an incredibly important decision that significantly impacts your personal and professional life. Applying to fully funded programs can mean you attend graduate school with a funding offer that empowers you to focus on making the most of your chosen program with the freedom to pursue post-graduate opportunities in line with your career mission and values.
Julie Gardella was the 2019-20 recipient of the Entrepreneurship and Research Fellowship through the Alaska Fellows Program. She fell in love with Alaska and continued working full-time at her host organization, the University of Alaska Center for Economic Development, for an additional 2 years after her fellowship ended. Julie holds a BA in Environmental Studies from NYU, where she will return this fall to start a fully funded Master’s program in environmental health and toxicology.
Want more tips on how to go to grad school debt-free like Julie? Register now for the Fully Funded Course and Mentorship Program.
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