Maximize Odds of Earning a Full Ride to Business School

Some MBA hopefuls have the opportunity to attend business school without paying a cent for their education.

That's what happens when prospective MBA students receive such generous subsidies for their MBA studies that they have enough to cover the cost of tuition and fees. Subsidies for an MBA can come from a variety of sources, including scholarships, fellowships, need-based financial aid or company sponsorships.

Experts say this is a rare situation, but MBA applicants can improve their odds of receiving a debt-free degree by doing thorough research on the funding options they are eligible to receive and preparing polished scholarship and fellowship applications. It's also important to submit strong admissions materials to B-schools, since schools often distribute merit-based scholarships based on the quality of students' essays, interviews, resumes, grades and test scores.

"Full-tuition scholarships are typically awarded to candidates who are strong across the board," wrote Elissa Sangster, the CEO of the Forté Foundation, a nonprofit organization that focuses on increasing the number of women in business leadership positions and offers MBA scholarships in conjunction with various affiliated MBA programs, in an email. "A high GMAT score is important in scholarship consideration, but it usually isn't enough to land a full ride. Your application should tell your story, reflect on your career and life experiences to date, and show how you can contribute to your school during your MBA and to the broader business world once you graduate. I suggest demonstrating authenticity, likability and a record of success in the application process -- this will cultivate advocates on the admissions team."

Andy Lord, the senior director of admissions for the MBA programs at the Hough Graduate School of Business, a subsidiary of the University of Florida's Warrington College of Business, says winning a full scholarship to his school is not easy.

The University of Florida offers 100% tuition scholarships for full-time MBA students. "It's very competitive and selective," Lord wrote in an email. "We will receive around 600 applications and award 65 to 75 full-tuition scholarships."

[Read: Consider Applying for These 4 Types of MBA Scholarships.]

One way to significantly boost your chances of receiving full funding for an MBA is to apply to business schools that give scholarships to a high proportion of students, MBA admissions consultants say. Some schools have a history of being generous with scholarship dollars and are great options for scholarship hopefuls, admissions consultants say.

Pam Delany, the director of recruiting and admissions at Arizona State University's W.P. Carey School of Business, says her school offers all students admitted to its full-time, on-campus program either a partial or full scholarship. "W. P. Carey's 'Scholarships for All' mindset means that 100% of our full-time, on-campus MBA students receive a generous scholarship," she wrote in an email. "Many of those scholarships will cover all tuition and fees."

The MBA candidates who are most competitive for scholarships are those with strong credentials "who have a demonstrated history of professional success, ingenuity, curiosity and the ability to lead in complex and uncertain times," Delany adds.

David White, a founding partner with Menlo Coaching, an admissions consulting firm, says the MBA applicants who are most likely to receive large scholarships are those business schools are most eager to attract. "MBA programs use scholarships to give their preferred applicants an extra incentive to enroll, so the applicants most likely to win a generous award are ones who schools expect to receive multiple offers -- such as applicants with 760-plus GMAT scores or ones from underrepresented categories," he wrote in an email. "Having said that, some applicants receive large awards based on their personal story, too."

"A previous applicant who told a courageous #MeToo story of overcoming sexual harassment at work received $420,000 in total scholarship offers despite a low GPA and below average test scores," White says.

Stacy Blackman, the president of the MBA admissions consulting firm Stacy Blackman Consulting, says top-10 MBA programs are less likely to give full-ride scholarships than lower-ranked schools. Nevertheless, at nearly any business school, partial scholarships are more common than full scholarships, she adds. "Cast a wide enough net if your goal is a full ride, as even an admit alone to top MBA programs is still considered fiercely competitive," she wrote in an email.

Here are eight strategies experts recommend for business school applicants hoping for a subsidized education.

Apply for School Funding

Eli David, co-founder of the Ivy MBA Consulting company, says he encourages applicants who need help financing their education to investigate the scholarships and fellowships that business schools offer.

David says business schools provide the majority of MBA scholarships and fellowships, so though there are alternative funding sources, schools are the first places that MBA applicants should look to get financial help.

MBA programs vary in their policies on merit scholarships, and some programs have elected to focus on giving need-based financial aid rather than merit scholarships, such as the Stanford University Graduate School of Business, which recently changed its financial aid system.

"We believe that our new need-based financial aid model best supports our goals of attracting a competitive and diverse class, enabling all admitted students to attend and participate in the educational experience, and ensuring that the process treats students fairly and equitably," Kirsten Moss, the assistant dean and director of MBA admissions and financial aid at Stanford, wrote in an email. "Stanford GSB provides additional full-tuition fellowships -- like the Charles P. Bonini Partnership for Diversity Fellowship -- which are designed for students with specific backgrounds. We are continuously exploring new fellowship opportunities to assist students in attending the Stanford MBA Program."

[Read: 10 Ways to Find Money to Pay for an MBA.]

Focus on Test Prep

Experts say one of the biggest factors in whether an MBA applicant receives significant scholarship or fellowship offers is how high his or her test scores are, so doing your best on the GRE or GMAT is essential.

Aspiring MBAs who are still in college should take their business school entrance exams before graduating to maximize their scores, says Peter J. Aranda III, executive director and CEO of The Consortium for Graduate Study in Management, a nonprofit organization that grants full-tuition MBA fellowships.

Aranda says it is ideal to take the business school entrance exam during or shortly after college, because that is when your math skills will typically be sharpest, while the information from math courses is still fresh in your mind, and the results are valid for five years thereafter.

Inquire About MBA Funding for Specific Interest Groups

Experts note that many MBA scholarships and fellowships are reserved for women and minorities or for those who work in a specific industry.

Some of these financial awards are designed for business school applicants who excel both as students in the classroom and in other ways. For example, the fellowships that the Consortium for Graduate Study in Management awards are given to MBA applicants with both strong academic credentials and "a proven record of promoting inclusion in school, in their jobs or in their personal lives," according to the Consortium's website.

The latter fellowship requirement ties in with the Consortium's mission to boost the representation of African Americans, Hispanic Americans and Native Americans in both U.S. business schools and U.S. corporate leadership roles.

Polish Your Essays

Aranda, a Native American who received a full-tuition MBA fellowship in the 1980s through the Consortium fellowship program, says crafting thoughtful personal essays is one way applicants can boost their odds of winning a full scholarship.

He says the essay prompts in MBA scholarship applications often appear easy to answer, but those who write rushed responses to these questions may produce sloppy essays.

Lord urges prospective MBA students to carefully revise their admissions essays. These students should aim to be "concise, unique and focused" when crafting their essays, Lord adds. "We want to know how you are a value add to our program and that you have a good understanding of what your future might look like post-MBA," he says.

[Read: Become a Good Candidate for MBA Scholarships.]

Investigate Whether Your Employer Offers Tuition Benefits

Amy Kittle, the program coordinator for the online and executive MBA programs at Kent State University, says her university facilitates tuition payments by students' employers. "Kent State offers deferred tuition payment -- meaning employers make payment to the university after the given semester, providing enough time for an employee to show proof of final satisfactory grades to the employer," she wrote in an email. "The advantage is that the amount to be covered by the employer does not need to be provided up front and out of pocket by the student."

Submit a Well-Crafted MBA Application

Sean O'Neill, a 2018 MBA graduate of Babson College's F.W. Olin Graduate School of Business who received a full-ride scholarship to attend the school, says he suspects one reason behind his success in the competition for scholarship dollars was that he customized his MBA application for the school.

"Babson is, above all else, a school that prides itself on entrepreneurship and an entrepreneurial mindset," O'Neill, the founder of Toast Supplements! Inc., a company that sells nutritional supplements, wrote in an email. "So when it came to writing my essays and interviewing with their admissions team, I built my entire storyline around that theme. I researched how they viewed entrepreneurship and what they cared about, and spoke to those themes."

Shari Hubert, associate dean for admissions at the Duke University Fuqua School of Business, which offers a full-tuition merit-based scholarship to outstanding MBA candidates that is known as the Keller Scholarship, says a prospective MBA student who hopes to win a scholarship should be sure to submit a solid MBA application.

"One way students can differentiate themselves is in the leadership and involvement area of the application," Hubert wrote in an email. "Help us understand how you will make an impact inside and outside the classroom based on experiences in your professional career or within your community."

Submit Your Application as Early as You Can

"At the end of the day, it's most important to make sure your overall application is as strong as possible," Hubert says. "However, it can also help to apply as early as possible if you can do so without sacrificing the quality of your application." Duke has scholarship funding available throughout the MBA admissions cycle, Hubert says. However, funding may be limited after the second round of the admissions cycle depending on the competitiveness of the admissions pool.

Prepare to Excel in Admissions Interviews

"Take the interview very seriously; dress the part," Lord says. "Convey your intentions of earning an MBA and stay attentive and positive. You will be asked questions about career goals, so be sure to tell us what you're interested in pursuing. You should also be able to tell your story, address previous work experience and how you believe these tie into your post-MBA opportunities."

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