FORT WORTH, Texas (SWBTS) – The stereotypical poor college student is a term that can also sometimes be applied to students studying at Southwestern, many of them having even left or passed over jobs so they can attend seminary.

But Certified Financial Planner Christian Messemer said at a recent financial aid seminar that students can escape that stereotype with careful budgeting and knowledge of available scholarships.

“This is doable,” Messemer said of a debt-free seminary degree, “because the money is out there.”

Messemer, who has been at Southwestern since 2007 working toward his master’s degree and now Ph.D., left behind his career to attend seminary but said he promised his wife they would not go into debt to do so.

At the seminar, Messemer first directed students through a financial checkup before giving advice on how to find scholarships even from outside the institution. Messemer compared a financial checkup to a yearly physical—before establishing a goal or a budget, a student first needs to determine his current situation, whether good or bad.

Messemer demonstrated how students can determine their net worth or whether they have a surplus or deficit in funds by creating balance sheets and income statements calculating income, expenses, liabilities and assets. Using that information, students can then budget their available finances.

After determining their financial state, students should search diligently for aid if needed—a search that takes work.

“Sometimes you go through the work for just one little nugget,” Messemer says, but often that nugget is worth it when it allows a student not to go into debt.

Just last year, Messemer said he applied for 100 scholarships, receiving 89 declination letters. But he said those 11 scholarships he received made the other disappointments worthwhile.

Messemer advised students to start with the seminary’s financial aid office and website for the institution’s scholarships such as general, impact, missionary, and new student scholarships. But the website also provides a list of external scholarships students have received from other sources.

Other theological schools and even private or state universities often have similar lists that can be used to search for scholarships, Messemer says, mentioning that he has even received scholarships from other denominations and an African American sorority, for examples.

A former salesman, Messemer said once that scholarship is found, students should not just apply with the usual application, recommendations, and good grades. They should also carefully craft their sales pitch that will set them apart from other applicants by including items such as a cover letter and even photos. These can create a bond between the applicant and the scholarship board and may place the applicant high on the list.

“You’ve got to do something different,” Messemer says.  “You have to do something that makes you stand out.”

Students should also set a timeline for themselves when applying so they have time to gather the information and resources needed for the application and not miss the deadline. After applying, students then need to wait graciously, not demanding a speedy reply, and also respond to a positive or negative outcome with gratitude. Even when rejected, a courteous response could put a student high on the list for the next scholarship an organization awards.

“Every rejection letter puts you one step closer to an acceptance letter,” Messemer said. “Your job is to apply; God’s job is to allocate.”

First-semester graduate student Ashley Anderson said she found the seminar very helpful as she continues her education at Southwestern and searches for financial aid to do so.

“I can always improve my ways of budgeting,” Anderson said. “I want to find ways to be faithful with my time and money while I’m here at seminary.”