How to Get an MBA Scholarship

Some tips on how to increase your chances for getting more money

A big question on the mind of many an MBA applicant: “How do I get a scholarship?”

“It's a question that everybody asks,” says Garry Cooke, assistant dean for student recruitment at the University of Illinois at Chicago’s College of Business Administration (UIC).

Indeed, an MBA is expensive, and when you include living expenses and the opportunity cost of taking a year or two off from work, the grand total for getting the degree might seem astronomical. Fortunately for many cash-strapped applicants, many business schools tend to award scholarships to promising MBA applicants.

This year, for instance, China’s CEIBS awarded around 12 million yuan (around 1.85 million USD) in merit scholarships, which was distributed to some 80 students, covering between 20 to 80 percent of tuition costs for each recipient.

At NYU’s Stern School of Business, around 20 percent of all admitted students receive merit-based scholarships, the majority of which are awards for either full tuition or half tuition.

Merit scholarships are just that: they’re given out based on how well an applicant has done, often in past academic and work endeavors.

“These are awarded based on applicants' academic and professional achievements, personal accomplishments, interview performance and potential contributions” to the MBA class, according to Yvonne Li, the director of admissions and career services at CEIBS.

How do business schools make these decisions? In terms of potential contributions to an MBA class, “work experience is very important,” says Christine Cordt, MBA marketing manager at the Frankfurt School of Finance & Management, since a student with a strong background will be able to bring a lot to the table during class discussions.

Additionally, according to Cordt, when awarding scholarships, the Frankfurt School will also look at valuable contributions outside of class, such as a willingness to organize class events.

"Show me your numbers"

Beyond potential contributions to an MBA class, when awarding merit-based scholarships, many business schools will also look at a potential student’s hard numbers. “Because we're trying to keep it as equal as possible, we're looking at the GPA and the GMAT score,” says UIC’s Garry Cooke.

At UIC, the scholarships range from between $2,000 to the full cost of tuition, and an estimated three percent of students receive some kind of award, according to Cooke. In terms of successful scholarship recipients, “typically, if it's the GMAT they're taking, they'll have a 650 or above,” Cooke says, and “their GPA is usually a 3.4 and above.”

For potential MBAs who did poorly in their undergraduate years, this might present a problem. However, those who can get a high GMAT or GRE score are in luck.

“A lot of times your grade point average, it is what it is,” says Cooke. “So it's usually the GMAT or GRE, that's something you can have a bigger impact on.”

Tracking Down the Funds: How to Pay for Your MBA

However, a high GMAT score will not always seal the deal, as many business use coveted scholarship money to build a diverse class. “We look at the whole profile,” says Christine Cordt from the Frankfurt School.

“We don't want to have a class full of students with 800 GMAT scores,” but instead, “we want to have a class where they can have good discussions, with students from various backgrounds, who come from different countries or cultures.”

“So what we're looking at is a mixture.”

Along these lines, Cordt says that the MBA applicant groups with the highest chances of getting scholarships are women and those from developing countries, along with entrepreneurs.

Apply early, apply often?

How can you improve your chances to get scholarship money? “It is a highly competitive process so the earlier you apply, the better,” according to CEIBS’ Yvonne Li.

Representatives from some business schools agree that MBA applicants who need scholarship money should try to apply as early as possible. “The chances are higher that the earlier you apply, the better it is to receive a scholarship because the pot is fuller,” says the Frankfurt School’s Christine Cordt.

“If there are 20 good students applying at the last minute, then we might have already given out a big part of the scholarships” by that point, says Cordt.

However, applying early does not in itself guarantee a scholarship. “If someone is highly qualified, and they apply early, they'll be awarded that scholarship as early as possible,” says UIC’s Garry Cooke.

“However, I'm not going to award money to people who apply early” if they do not meet the same standards of typical scholarship recipients, says Cooke.

In this sense, potential MBA students should only apply when they feel their application is ready. “They should apply when they feel they'll be putting their best application materials forward,” Cooke says.

But beyond that, being friendly and not demanding can go a long way. “Trying to build a rapport with us always helps, says Cooke, “because you're getting to know the person, and that's always a plus.”

5 Steps to get an MBA scholarship:

  1. Do your research: comb through financial aid sites and scholarship listings
  2. Look for scholarships in external sources, such as community groups and other organizations
  3. Get a great GMAT score
  4. Tailor scholarship applications to the scholarships you're applying for. No generic application letters!
  5. Apply early. The majority of MBA scholarship funding is awarded in early application rounds

Some more scholarship info and MBA funding tips

  • Some business schools offer graduate assistantships—or other work study programs—which can help offset the cost of an MBA.
  • For second-year MBA students at some schools, merit scholarship, based on academic performance during the first year, are also available.
  • During the MBA application process, some business schools require separate scholarship application letters, but some do not.
  • Other funding opportunities include external scholarships, offered through organizations and other groups not directly associated with business schools.

MBA Scholarship Listing

Image: Jeff Belmonte / CC BY 2.0 (cropped)

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