A Free MBA For A Case Contest Or A Tweet

Just around this time last year, Felipe Penna had taken a week off from his job at Deloitte Consulting in Brazil to work up a plan for a business that would never see the light of day.

Penna’s reason: to win a full two-year scholarship to the University of Illinois’ MBA program.

Brazilian Felipe Penna won a free MBA ride at the University of Illinois

Penna’s sister already had earned her MBA from the school and he had seen her career takeoff because of it. After a five-year stint with Deloitte, working with clients mostly in Brazil and Mexico, he was ready to take the jump as well. And when Penna heard that he could essentially get his MBA for free by competing in the school’s “Scholarship Case Competition,” he was all in.

The contest put him in a head-to-head battle against other potential applicants who had to analyze an issue, formulate recommendations, and create a persuasive presentation on a real-world business problem.

“I worked full time on it, maybe 70 to 80 hours,” recalls Penna. He proposed a company that would create and sell a residential irrigation system, an idea he picked up from his consulting work on a couple of agricultural assignments. Along with some 30 other scholarship hopefuls, he then sent the business plan off to Chicago and waited for a verdict.

Soon enough, he was invited to Chicago in February to present his plan before a group of judges at the headquarters of the consulting firm Accenture. In the morning, Penna competed against 11 other applicants, and finally, in the afternoon, he and two other rivals faced off in a final round. By the time he boarded the plane back to Brazil, he had won a free ride to Illinois’ MBA program.

“Everything is free,” gushes the 29-year-old Penna, who figures he will have saved nearly $70,000 in tuition and fees by the time he graduates in 2013. “I only have to pay my expenses and books.”

Welcome to the MBA scholarship game. With applications at most schools in decline for two to three years running and the cost of attending a two-year program unaffordable to many potential applicants, an increasing number of business schools are trying to create buzz-generating contests and games to gain publicity for their MBA offerings. Last year, for example, the University of Iowa’s Tippie School of Business awarded a full financial award package to an applicant who most creatively answered a question with a Tweet in 140 characters or less.

The question: “What makes you an exceptional Tippie full-time MBA candidate and future hire?” The winning answer came from a 33-year-old business trainer based in Houston who succinctly wrote: “Globally minded (5) Innovative and driven (7) Tippie can sharpen (5).”

This year Tippie has extended the contest for the scholarship that the school says is worth more than $36,000 to applicants from outside the U.S. The new application deadline for the contest is April 1, 2012, for a student entering the program in the fall 2012 semester.

The University of Illinois, meantime, is dangling a trio of awards before students who enter the case competition by its Jan. 15th deadline: The two-year scholarship for the first place finisher, a one-year scholarship for second place, and a $10,000 scholarship for third place. The school has pushed back its deadline this year by a full month, hoping to attract at least 50 applicants to the competition.

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