Tips on How to Apply For (and Win) MBA Scholarships - Paying for Business School

To maximize the chances of winning an MBA scholarship, steps definitely exist that candidates can take. This report builds on our first BSchools article in this series on MBA scholarships, and presents four of the most effective tips that experts recommend.

When it comes to MBA scholarships, a knowledge gap exists. One of the world’s foremost experts on graduate management education, John Byrne of Poets and Quants, points out that business schools which give the most money in MBA scholarships typically trumpet that fact in the press. Less generous business schools tend to be much more quiet about their scholarship funding, although analysts can infer their annual budgets and student awards from other sources.

Moreover, not much has been written about MBA scholarships lately. Because the Covid-19 pandemic led to so many layoffs, indirectly it contributed to a sudden, unexpected surge in MBA applications. Deluged with candidates, MBA admissions committees now find themselves with fewer incentives to offer scholarships than they did before the pandemic when MBA applicants were relatively more scarce. Moreover, because the management education press now has editorial calendars loaded with stories related to the pandemic, that leaves even less space for coverage of MBA scholarships, which have only received sporadic media attention since February 2020.

However, one can still glean important insights from legacy coverage. For example, Poets published a series on MBA scholarships in 2014. It turns out that six years ago, the average award disclosed by 26 of the top-ranked American business schools was $26,151. Adjusted for inflation, that works out to about $28,752 in 2020 dollars. The authors also estimated that about 49 percent of enrollees received scholarships in 2014.

That said, for candidates seeking to maximize chances for an MBA scholarship, good tips exist.

Tips to Win MBA Scholarships: Summary

Start Radically Early

Although this tip might seem obvious to some, actually, it’s highly significant because MBA applicants tend to underestimate the time required to file winning business school applications. Elsewhere on BSchools, we’ve suggested most potential applicants will need about a 24-month pre-matriculation lead time to mount an effective campaign that wins an entry offer from at least one top-25 MBA program. Candidates who require scholarship support will need to begin even sooner.

The reason is that filing between three and six business school applications can take a tremendous amount of time outside of work hours—and that’s time that most early career, pre-MBA professionals don’t have because they’re so busy. Many of these folks have jobs that take up more than 40 hours each week. If they work in industries like investment banking, they might work 60 hours or more during many weeks, and those in management consulting also have frequent travel schedules.

Even those with careers outside of these pre-MBA “sweatshop” industries may frequently work beyond 40 hours in a week. A study by the Big Four accounting firm EY found that 60 percent of American managers typically work beyond 40 hours a week. Though not always, often these managers will favorably reward their pre-MBA hires who work long hours, just like the managers. And winning early-career promotions that look great on MBA application resumes frequently requires more than 40 hours a week.

If that potential MBA applicant will need a scholarship, they will need to meticulously research the available scholarship funding sources—including potential MBA programs—before any other steps in this process begin. That’s because the business schools themselves offer most of the scholarship funding within the industry, and business school selection can predetermine whether that candidate receives an award following an offer of admission.

A disparate group of funding sources outside of the business schools also offers scholarships for MBA programs, and we have prepared an extensive, updated list of examples within this popular article.

But irrespective of the funding source, researching, cataloging, and prioritizing all these scholarship options takes time, and that process needs to happen before other steps in an applicant’s MBA “admissions journey.” Now we’re talking not 24 months, but more like 26 or 28 months worth of lead time before a potential applicant’s planned matriculation date.

Maximize GMAT and GRE Test Scores

Admissions consultant David White of Menlo Coaching told BSchools that, “It is utterly uncontroversial that MBA programs give scholarships frequently to strong candidates.”

In a scholarship sense, a “strong candidate” is typically one that can at least help the business school maintain or improve its rankings published each year by U.S. News and World Report. MBA programs often “buy” these strong candidates through scholarship offers. In October 2019, we first reported on this practice at the end of our guide to GMAT Alternatives.

Specifically, for what kinds of candidates are the schools willing to pay? That’s easy to recognize from the methodology published by U.S. News (2021). In the current edition, the magazine ranks MBA programs based on a weighted value system that accords admission test scores on the GMAT and GRE almost 2.2 times the weight of undergraduate GPAs. This criterion indicates the optimum scholarship acquisition strategy.

The single most important step that one can take to maximize their chances of winning an MBA scholarship is to earn a high score on the GMAT or GRE. In most cases, other things equal, this is a necessary condition for an applicant to win a scholarship award from a business school. However, by itself, it may not be a sufficient condition because at some schools other factors influence scholarship decisions. But in general, the optimal strategy for most applicants seeking MBA scholarships will predominantly depend upon a high GMAT or GRE score.

For a typical candidate who wants to attend a top-25 business school, capable admissions test preparation is essential. But when a scholarship is also riding on test scores, GMAT or GRE preparation might need to take on the significance of a personal “Manhattan Project.”

Fortunately, at least one recent study has been conducted that characterizes the kinds of preparation that can maximize scores on the GMAT. We summarize these findings in our BSchools report, “How Do I Prepare for the GMAT?” Scholarship applicants should also consider sitting for either the GMAT or the GRE, because as we discuss in that article, examinees with certain skills usually do better on one test than on the other, and almost every business school accepts both.

We would also encourage scholarship applicants to plan on taking a particular test at least twice. A comprehensive examination of this recommendation is beyond the scope of this article, but here’s a brief summary.

For one thing, a GMAT score is available immediately upon completion of the test, and examinees can promptly cancel poor scores before GMAC, the Graduate Management Admissions Council—the test’s administrator—reports the scores to business schools. In fact, before GMAC set limits on retests a few years ago, some candidates had taken the GMAT as many as six times in order to obtain the best possible scores.

Furthermore, unlike law schools that traditionally have averaged admissions test scores, business schools consider scores separately so they can view trends. What’s more, MBA programs generally look very favorably upon multiple test sessions as a demonstration of personal initiative.

Emphasize Affiliations in Underrepresented Groups

Along with buying high GMAT and GRE scores through scholarships, business schools also “shop” for applicants who are members of groups traditionally underrepresented among MBA classes. However, different schools define their target groups in very different ways, making it imperative that candidates learn these various criteria.

Applicants might qualify for scholarships as such a group member, but never recognize that they might be able to take advantage of such a privilege. It’s possible that as many as 10 percent of all MBA applicants each year might qualify for scholarships because of an underrepresented group affiliation, yet fail to do so.

MBA programs find candidates from underrepresented groups attractive for several reasons. In short, business schools seek divergent, opposing viewpoints expressed during class discussions because those views enhance learning. In general, the way MBA programs guarantee lively classroom interactions is through admitting diverse, well-rounded classes made up of students with different backgrounds and experiences. And a diverse gender and ethnic background mix provides an essential way to do that, but it’s not the only way.

For example, at some business schools, an undergraduate liberal arts degree—such as one in a field like philosophy—can attract scholarship funding. So can a military service background, especially with leadership experience as an officer. Even work experience for nonprofit organizations can result in scholarships, as in the case of this Harvard MBA student who received almost a million dollars in scholarship offers.

But why? Most MBA students graduated with an undergraduate degree in economics, business administration, or engineering. Many worked in only two fields, management consulting or financial services. But a class limited to consultants and investment bankers doesn’t exactly promote lively exchanges of divergent ideas and perspectives. That’s why a diverse mix of students fills a critical role in an MBA classroom, and in student clubs and activities as well. And to achieve that diverse mix, MBA programs frequently need to pay for it with their scholarship endowments.

Negotiate Scholarships

Accepted candidates with high GMAT and GRE scores who will deliver unique, desirable experiences to an MBA class often find themselves able to negotiate scholarships. This isn’t usually true at the Harvard Business School, which except in rare circumstances awards scholarships on the basis of financial need.

Nevertheless, at most other business schools, scholarships can be negotiated—but only using subtle, low-key negotiation techniques that bear little resemblance to the tough bargaining tactics often practiced in American business and government.

In this Menlo Coaching video, White recounts an anecdote where one of his consulting clients won an MBA scholarship from the Columbia Business School. What’s remarkable about the story is that although Columbia had accepted the client, he had no other competing offers from any other MBA programs that he could use as bargaining leverage during negotiations, yet he won a scholarship award anyway. How could an applicant ever pull off such an accomplishment?

White explains that most adcoms—admission committee members—are often motivated by the prospect of making a huge difference in an applicant’s life. Most want to offer scholarship awards to deserving, talented candidates who might never be able to attend their business schools without scholarship support. Understanding this aspect of adcom psychology—and how an applicant can help an adcom feel good—can lead to effective negotiation strategies.

Essentially, with White’s support, the client drafted a polite email message containing an up-front emotional payment. This is a subtle yet effective negotiation technique pioneered by Wharton Professor Stuart Diamond, whom we profiled in our report, “Do Business Schools Teach Courses in Negotiation?

The message explained how the client had planned to accept the business school’s enrollment offer because he had always wanted to attend Columbia University. However, because he had chosen to work as an asset manager for a social impact charitable foundation, he had accepted lower compensation than was common within the industry. He wondered if the admissions officer could do anything to make things easier for him because his finances were so tight.

A few days later, Columbia’s adcom replied with a $100,000 scholarship offer—a full-tuition scholarship, and more than three times the average award at comparable business schools!

Although White’s example is remarkable, instances like that one occur more frequently than MBA applicants might suspect. For an encouraging look within the inner workings of a business school’s scholarship committee, readers should review this 2014 narrative from Poets and Quants. The article depicts the deliberations among a group of MBA adcoms at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management who happily award hundreds of thousands of dollars in scholarship funding to MBA admits—and give all that money away in little more than 40 minutes.

Douglas Mark
Douglas Mark

While a partner in a San Francisco marketing and design firm, for over 20 years Douglas Mark wrote online and print content for the world’s biggest brands, including United Airlines, Union Bank, Ziff Davis, Sebastiani, and AT&T. Since his first magazine article appeared in MacUser in 1995, he’s also written on finance and graduate business education in addition to mobile online devices, apps, and technology. Doug graduated in the top 1 percent of his class with a business administration degree from the University of Illinois and studied computer science at Stanford University.

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