As you eagerly apply to theology schools, a critical question that comes up is how will I pay for my degree? More than ever, theology schools are dissuading students from taking out student loans to finance their education and they are doing what they can to defray the cost of educating our future ministers. This is great news for you! This means there are more grants, more scholarships, and more ways of funding your education than ever before. Here's a practical guide for the best practices to get a full ride scholarship to seminary.
1. Determine your top schools and do your research!
As early as 2 years in advance of when you plan to enroll in divinity school and no less than 1 year ahead, make a list of 3-5 schools you will apply to. If you need guidance concerning how to determine what schools to apply to, 4 Things to Consider before Choosing a Seminary, will help you focus your research and make a decision. Look at schools' websites, call and email admissions reps, try to connect with professors there and even read some of their articles or books, and make a visit to get an accurate picture of what the school is like. Keep notes on the schools you research. When you are being considered for a scholarship schools will want to know what other institutions you are considering and why. This will directly impact the type of scholarship package they offer you. If they sense a need to compete for your enrollment, they will offer more incentive to you, especially if you know your stuff and make a good case for why you would be a good fit at their school.
2. Apply EARLY
All too often, applicants get preoccupied with the demands of life and do not apply early enough to receive consideration for scholarships. Most schools have a priority deadline for scholarship consideration that occurs months in advance of the final admissions deadline. For Fall applicants, the priority deadline is usually some time in January or early February. It's essential that you start your research early and make note of all deadlines so that you can start and complete your application ahead of schedule. If a website is unclear on whether the deadline for scholarship and admissions is the same, make a quick phone call and get clarity. Some financial aid deadlines are also separate from scholarship deadlines, since some schools only classify financial aid as federally funded aid such as loans and work-study.
3. Highlight your uniqueness and what you would contribute
Schools are looking for dynamic individuals, but they also seek a well-rounded class. The classroom environment is better for everyone when you can bring a diversity of perspectives to conversation. So share what makes you different. You don't have to claim a particularly crazy conversion or call story; you simply need to be yourself and express your true interests, talents, and history. Try to get at least a little clarity and articulation around what you are interested in learning through seminary and where you see yourself going after you receive your degree.
4. Get more than enough recommendation letters
Professors are brilliant, but notorious for lacking organizational skills. Church leaders are often similar and when you ask those influential people in your life for recommendations they usually respond with a resounding 'yes', but then procrastinate or forget to put the actual letter in the mail. While each school has a slightly different recommendation form, almost all will take a letter in lieu of a form. There's also no penalty for sending in more than the required amount of recommendations. No one wants to be perceived as the pesky person who's just a little too sure of themselves, so anything over 4 to 5 letters is excessive. But asking 1 or 2 extra people to write letters for you that you can substitute if one goes missing will keep you from missing an admissions deadline, crying into your pillow late at night, and ruining a good relationship with a recommender in your life.
5. Save for application fees or ask if there are waivers available based on need
Application and transcript fees on their own don't cost much, but they add up fast. You don't want the cost of an application to hold you back from getting it on time as you try to scrape together some cash. I advise saving at least $75 per application you plan to submit so that you can cover app and transcript fees, possible travel costs to visit, background check, etc. Many schools offer fee waivers to those for whom they know the cost will be a burden. Pro tip: go ahead and submit the bulk of your application before asking for a fee waiver. By doing this, you give the admissions team a chance to review your file, see what an awesome applicant you are, and promptly reward you by waiving your fee and helping you wrap up your application. It also shows your commitment to considering the school, which flags you as a serious applicant, versus those who say they will apply, but never follow through.
6. Treat your admissions/scholarship interview like a job interview
This means whenever you're scheduled for a “meeting” or an interview at a school, whether it's in person, on the phone, or by webcam, approach it like you would an interview for a job position. First, do your research on the school. Read the website to learn about the founding principles, the schools mission, their vision for the future, and what their curriculum really focuses on. You need to demonstrate in your interview that you know why you're considering this school. Conversely, you need to know yourself and express why the school should consider you. So be prepared to talk about your academic history, faith journey, your strengths, and what you're looking for from a seminary education. You don't have to brag; just be honest and forthright about your accomplishments, what you've learned thus far, and how you're seeking to grow further. Interviewers will be excited about your communication skills and self-awareness. Dress in business casual, come well groomed, calm, and confident. Put your best foot forward and treat every moment like a business interview. This doesn't mean you need to put on a façade or feel like you're on edge, it simply means you're aware that you are making an impression and gives you the opportunity to control what that impression is. After all, the Christian faith journey is all about reflecting the love and character of Christ, so this should be second nature for you.
7. Take notes & ask questions
Pay attention to what you see and hear from admissions staff, faculty, and students. Ask questions and make sure you get clear answers; take notes even if it helps you to keep track of what you need to know. For a great checklist print out our Questions to Ask Your Admissions Office.
Financing your seminary education may seem daunting, but most schools are deeply committed to helping their students succeed in and after school, which means providing ample scholarships to cover the costly burden of graduate education. If you plan ahead, do your research, and approach the application process with professionalism and passion it will make all the difference for you!