How to Maximize Your Chances of Getting Merit Aid from B-Schools

What do Yale, Rice, and UCLA all have in common? They all offer generous merit aid to accepted business school students. Note that I said “offer”—merit aid, as the name suggests, is earned for achievement. This sort of funding can help make an MBA more affordable if your hard work has qualified you for merit aid or if you believe your (or your family’s) income is too high to receive need-based financial aid.

With the best MBA programs competing aggressively to attract the strongest applicants, schools are capitalizing on a fact that both students and schools will easily acknowledge: money talks. Poets & Quants estimates that $220 million in scholarships is awarded annually by the top 25 MBA programs. Though Harvard Business School easily tops the list with its $31.5 million scholarship fund, public and private schools across the spectrum are flaunting lavish awards that cover up to the full cost of tuition (or more commonly, a quarter of the cost). With MBA price tags sometimes reaching upward of $200,000, you want to tap into all the financial resources available to you. But, how do you make yourself a strong contender for merit aid?

#1 Some Things Never Change

No matter which program you attend, merit aid (if it’s offered) will typically be awarded based on the same over-arching factors. This is great to know so you can begin planning early. Generally, educational achievement, life accomplishments, competitiveness, and other indicators of merit will be considered. This can mean flaunting high GMAT scores (750+) or an exceptional GPA (3.6+). It can also mean earning an impressive undergraduate degree (from a distinguished undergraduate business program and/or with multiple rigorous majors) or belonging to prestigious professional societies (such as Beta Gamma Sigma). Applicants who have been out of school for some time can also build outstanding work experience on their resumes—and it doesn’t need to involve working for a Fortune 500 firm. Often, a leadership role at a lesser-known company or successful completion of a demanding project can demonstrate the degree of ambition business schools are looking for.

Hint: In a large pool of highly qualified applicants, you should set yourself apart in some way. Invest time and effort into at least one thing that will make admission committees remember you and distinguish you from equally competitive peers. Start a small organization or a club, for example, or engage in pro-bono work that aligns with your long-term goals. Schools love to see that you are passionate about your business subfield.

#2 Research the Qualifications

If programs offer merit-based aid, they will typically list on their websites what factors they consider when evaluating applicants for scholarships. Assess how you measure up—and if you’re still early in the process (i.e., still an undergraduate), figure out how you can strengthen these factors before you apply. At UChicago’s Booth School of Business (known for its generous funding), educational achievement, intended concentration, quality of interview, competitiveness, life experiences, and professional goals are all considered.

Hint: Typically, your graduate school application will also serve as your application for merit aid. However, you should double-check with programs’ financial aid offices well ahead of deadlines to make sure you don’t need to submit separate applications and aren’t missing potential scholarship opportunities.

#3 Leverage Your Options

Being a big fish in a small pond can have its advantages—so apply to schools where you’d be one of the top candidates. Schools are eager to raise the average GMAT score and GPA statistics of their class profile, and if your numbers can help with that, they will likely try to attract you with greater merit aid than they offer your lower-scoring peers.

#4 Negotiate for More

Lastly, once you have your offers in hand, don’t be scared to negotiate funding if your top choice school is offering you less merit aid than other comparable schools. They might refuse (Harvard and Stanford claim to not negotiate, for example), but you can’t know unless you ask. If they agree, you can maximize your chances of walking away with the best possible funding offer as well as the opportunity to attend the best school for you. However, to increase the chance that your negotiations will be fruitful, you’ll want to present yourself as a competitive applicant from the start by strengthening the factors listed above in #3. Make yourself a candidate that schools can’t pass up.

You’ve worked hard to get where you are, and it doesn’t get any easier in business school! The good news is that you can at least ease your financial burden. Seek not only merit aid, but also need-based aid, fellowships, and external funding whenever possible. The investment of time and effort pursuing funding now will pay off—literally.