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How to Boost Your Chances of Getting an MBA Scholarship

David White

David White - Menlo Coaching

David White, a founding partner of Menlo Coaching, is an mba.com featured contributor.

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Did you know that you can take steps that significantly increase your chances of getting an MBA scholarship?

The process behind the MBA scholarship might seem mysterious, relying primarily on luck, good timing, or other factors beyond your control. And yet most applicants are not content to leave their financial aid package up to chance. So if you're a prospective MBA student, you’re probably wondering what you can do to increase your chances of earning a scholarship.

This article will briefly cover some background on MBA scholarships, and then we’ll look into how you can boost your chances of heading into business school with a hefty financial aid package in tow.

MBA scholarships basics

When it comes down to it, MBA scholarships aren’t as mysterious as the average applicant thinks they are. The simple guideline to MBA scholarships is as follows: the same factors that make you competitive for admission to an MBA program will come into play when the programs are handing out financial aid—so to increase your chances at a scholarship, you need to increase the competitiveness of your application.

We’ll address the factors that make for a competitive MBA application in a moment, but first, let’s consider why MBA programs award scholarships. The main reason a business school will award an applicant with a scholarship is to persuade them to attend their program. This isn't a shady bribe; it's a compliment. If you’re a great applicant, a business school might want to give you a hundred thousand reasons to attend their MBA program.

And for students applying to top programs, the good news is that the best business schools have huge financial endowments. For example, as of 2021, Harvard Business School has over US$4 billion in its endowment! So how do you get some of that money into your pocket?

The most important factor? Your GMAT™ exam score

The number one way to earn MBA scholarships is through a high GMAT exam score. This is for a number of reasons. If you ask the average admissions officer, they will tell you that it's because the GMAT is one of the most significant indicators of academic achievement after admission.

Of course, MBA programs care about applicants with high GMAT scores because test performance is connected to performance in the classroom, but they also care because the GMAT is a component of the U.S. News MBA ranking. Business schools pay close attention to this ranking, and they admit applicants with good GMAT scores in order to maintain or increase their program’s ranking.

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At Menlo Coaching, when we ran the numbers on Round 1 2020 applicants, we saw first-hand how GMAT scores correlate to MBA scholarships. Applicants with scores of 730 or higher received much larger scholarship awards than applicants with lower GMAT scores.

Anecdotally, we’ve also seen that diligent study with official GMAT resources is more effective than using third-party materials. So now I tell every client that if they earn a strong GMAT score, they are more likely to earn scholarship money compared to applicants with lower scores—and I tell them to study exclusively with official problems in order to achieve the best outcome.

You can download a copy of Menlo Coaching’s GMAT data report here.

Other factors to consider: Your MBA application package

Beyond the GMAT, creating a great application is also a key driver of scholarship success for incoming MBA students.

Some applicants are sought after by MBA programs because of the experiences they can share in classroom discussions, such as military veterans who have supervised large numbers of soldiers in combat. Other applicants are sought after because MBA programs expect them to achieve phenomenal professional success in their post-MBA careers—such as private equity professionals or family business candidates. Admissions officers expect these candidates to be stars in the alumni network because of their high-ranking positions, and potential future donors. No matter what your unique advantages are, expressing them clearly in your applications makes you more likely to win a scholarship.

So while a high GMAT score is essential to qualify for merit scholarships, you have to prove yourself worthy of admission with the combined effect of your GPA, your personal essays, your performance in the MBA interview, and with your general knowledge of and fit with the culture of the program.

Scholarship factors out of your control

While all applicants must have a high GMAT score and strong written application, some factors for earning an MBA scholarship are out of your control. One factor is your identity; if you come from an underrepresented applicant group, there is a greater chance that you will earn a scholarship. Some schools and organizations offer MBA scholarships for Black and Latinx candidates, specifically. 

For example, around two two-thirds of MBA applicants are men and one-third are women, but MBA programs want to reach gender parity in the classroom. So as a matter of supply and demand, business schools have to work harder to admit and enroll women, and are more likely to award financial support to women than men if all other factors are equal. This is not just an opinion or a logical argument, but a fact borne out by the data in the report we linked earlier.

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Conversely, if you are part of an overrepresented group, your baseline chance to earn an MBA scholarship is lower.

One other important factor is the level of school you're applying to. If you are applying to lower-ranked business schools, there is a higher chance that you will earn a substantial MBA scholarship, especially with a strong application. And just as the competition for admission goes up with the rank of the program, so too does the competition increase for MBA scholarships.

Exceptions to the rule

Harvard Business School and Stanford Graduate School of Business are two exceptions to the rule that most MBA scholarships are merit-based. At these top schools, the scholarship program is exclusively need-based. That means that MBA students must have demonstrated financial need to earn a scholarship. Having a great GMAT score and a strong application are required for gaining admission to the program, but they will not result in any scholarship funds.

Another exception is external MBA scholarships. While these are still merit-based scholarships, they require a separate application after gaining admission into the school. For example, the Haas School of Business at Berkeley has quite a few MBA scholarships available. Applications require an extra personal essay explaining why the student is a good fit. And at Stanford, the Knight-Hennessy Scholars program offers full-tuition scholarships to a very limited number of graduate students (including MBA students) who have exceptional qualifications.

Negotiating your MBA scholarship

A little-known fact about MBA scholarships is that they are negotiable. The most successful way to negotiate your scholarship funding up is to win scholarship awards from your target program’s peer schools, with whom they are competing for MBA applicants.

One example among our former clients is an MBA applicant whose dream school was Columbia Business School. She was accepted to NYU Stern with a full tuition scholarship, and accepted to Columbia, but with no scholarship. I advised her to write a letter to Columbia explaining the situation, emphasizing the reasons she preferred Columbia, and the financial struggles she faced coming from a developing country and why this made a scholarship so important to her.

Columbia ended up awarding her a full-tuition scholarship, matching Stern and allowing her to attend her dream school at no cost.

Key points to remember

Most MBA scholarships are merit-based, and the best way to secure a great offer from a business school is to maximize your GMAT score, write a great application, and negotiate your offers once you receive them.

David White

David White - Menlo Coaching

A founding partner of Menlo Coaching, David White began working with business school applicants in 2012, following a 15-year career in tech. David draws on his corporate experiences to help clients understand the skills they need to be successful in their pre- and post-MBA goals, with a special focus on long-term career strategy. In addition to his status as one of the leading MBA application coaches, David's famously candid commentary has earned him a reputation as a thought leader on application strategy, MBA rankings, GMAT scores, and the admissions consulting industry itself.