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5 Ways to Ace Your Business School Scholarship Negotiation

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Though attending business school comes at a cost, few students pay tuition fees in full. Instead, business schools offer a variety of scholarships—including needs-based, merit-based, and diversity scholarships—to ease the financial burden of an MBA or business master’s degree.

Once you receive a generous scholarship offer, negotiating for more money might seem a little awkward, if not rude. Can you really negotiate a better deal after being offered a scholarship? The answer, it seems, is yes.

Chris Abkarians, a Harvard Business School MBA alum and co-founder of student loans company Juno, says many students negotiate their scholarship offers. “A lot of schools already have money in the budget and if you’re not asking for it, you should assume that somebody else is!” he says.

Still, entering a business school scholarship negotiation is a delicate task that needs to be approached with precision and care.

Follow these five guidelines from business school experts to increase your success at the negotiation table.

1. Prepare and set goals

Paul Fisher is director of the Oxford Program on Negotiation (OPN), offered by the University of Oxford’s Saïd Business School, which helps senior executives boost their negotiation skills.

He says preparation is the number one factor that ensures negotiation success. “Do your homework and establish the issues you want to negotiate, prioritizing what is most important to you, what you need, and what you would like,” he says.

As well as goal setting before you speak to the school, you should find out more about “the other side” before you craft your pitch, adds MBA admissions consultant Barbara Coward.

Ask: What is the context for the school’s scholarship budget? Has it increased or decreased? Is there a particular focus on scholarships this year? Prepare these questions before your business school scholarship negotiation.

2. Establish a negotiation process

In a negotiation you naturally may feel vulnerable. Keeping control over—and establishing—your negotiation process beforehand is a sure-fire way of boosting your confidence.

“How will we negotiate? In what sequence? Over what time period? In what language? If virtually, over what platform?”—these are the questions Paul suggests asking yourself before your scholarship negotiation.

3. Leverage multiple offers

“There’s no harm in politely asking financial aid offices to match aid [you] may have received from a different program, especially if it's factoring into your decision,” says Nikhil Agarwal, Harvard MBA alum and Chris’ co-founder at Juno.

Using existing scholarship offers can be a good way to negotiate your scholarship, adding legitimacy to your request. However, Barbara notes, this method should be approached with care:

“What candidates don’t realize is that many of the admissions officers at schools know each other from conferences and recruitment fairs. If you don’t present the information to them accurately, such as inflating the amount one school has offered you, it will come back to bite you.”

4. Justify your needs

Scott Edinburgh, MBA admissions consultant and founder of Personal MBA Coach, says being honest about your financial situation and explaining why you’re the perfect candidate for the school is crucial when negotiating your scholarship offer. From there, you can build a case for yourself.

Your negotiation strategy should also vary depending on whether you’re negotiating for a better needs-based or merit-based scholarship

“For the former, you'll want to provide evidence of greater need to justify a bigger package,” says Barbara. “For the latter, you'll want to communicate the additional value that you bring to the cohort.”

5. Be self-aware

In successful negotiations, Paul notes, negotiators try to put themselves in the other side’s shoes and identify that side’s underlying interests; their basic needs, wants, and motivations.

Showing empathy and being respectful when negotiating your scholarship is therefore key—you don't want to come across as demanding or threatening.

Nor should you view a negotiation like a competitive sport, where there is “one winner and one loser,” says Scott.

“If you take that approach,” Scott explains, “you will not only leave a lot of value on the table but destroy any future relationships too.”

Remember: your choice of business school will have a lasting impact on your career, and a level of self-awareness going into a scholarship negotiation will help you come across in a positive light.

Double and triple check that your choice is the right school for you, and negotiate your scholarship offer at a level which helps you, but doesn’t jeopardize your plans.

Read more of our best advice for scholarships, financial aid, and how to pay for business school.