Negotiating an MBA Merit Scholarship Award with Admissions Consultant Karen Marks

Karen Marks explains how to boost your chances of securing a merit-based award

Karen Marks is the president and founder of North Star Admissions Consulting. She has more than 12 years of experience assessing MBA applications to the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College, an Ivy League institution. Since founding North Star in 2012, she has helped clients secure admission to the world’s top business schools including Stanford, Harvard, Wharton and Yale. In addition, her clients have been awarded more than $10 million in scholarship funds.

Read more about North Star Admissions and other firms at FIND MBA’s Admissions Consultants section.

What is an MBA merit scholarship and what are some examples of them? 

Merit scholarships are tuition fee reductions in amounts typically ranging from $10,000 per year to a full ride. Merit scholarships are offered to candidates that business schools really want to enroll. Some scholarships are designated for applicants who come from a certain industry or country, and others are earmarked for underrepresented minorities, including women, or to people with superlative leadership experience. (The Consortium Fellowship and the Forte Foundation Scholarship are examples of the former, and Cornell’s Park Leadership Scholarship is an example of the latter.)

In addition, all schools award merit aid to candidates who are exceptional academically, personally or professionally.

What factors are MBA merit awards based on? 

Candidates who are at the top of the pool for a particular school are more likely to get merit awards. Above-average test scores and grades, unusual work experience, and demonstrated resilience, are all factors that might prompt an admissions committee to offer a merit scholarship.

Furthermore, schools want to build diverse classes. Therefore, they offer merit aid to applicants from target countries, and to women and candidates from other underrepresented demographics, who can share a perspective that the school values.

How to boost your chances of securing a merit-based award? 

The first step is to honestly assess your candidacy, so that you understand your strengths as an applicant. As mentioned above, applying to schools where you are above the average numerically, or where you bring a diverse perspective that the school might have trouble finding, maximizes your odds of getting merit aid.

After that, it’s critical to submit the strongest possible application, making sure to present your story authentically, in a way that resonates with the admissions committee. Again, the goal is to write such a compelling application that the school decides to incentivize you to enroll.

Finally, make sure that you are conveying sufficient enthusiasm for the school — there are limited scholarship funds, and they aren’t likely to “waste” their resources by offering merit aid to candidates who seem disinterested.

Should MBA candidates ask for more money? 

In some cases, yes. For instance, if you really want to attend one school but have a better financial offer at a peer school, it can be ok to diplomatically inquire about the possibility of getting additional merit aid. However, it’s critical to remember that most people don’t get any merit aid, so you should not act entitled during any negotiations.

Also, it’s again important to have a realistic sense of your place in the applicant pool. If you have grades and test scores well below the average and limited work experience, but a compelling personal story that led you to receive a scholarship, you might want to think twice about asking for more money. The admissions process, including merit aid allocation, is very personal at some schools — and you don’t want to start your relationship with the institution on a bad note.

What is the key to maximizing an MBA scholarship award? 

Submit outstanding applications to schools where you are strong and/or unusual in the pool. Convey genuine enthusiasm for the program, and apply as early in the cycle as possible. There is usually more merit aid available in the first two rounds, and some scholarships (like the Consortium Fellowship) are awarded by March. Finally, if securing merit funding is a pivotal part of your application strategy, apply to between six and eight schools. You want to give as many programs as possible the opportunity to say yes to your MBA candidacy, and in addition, to offer you a merit scholarship.


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