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How NOT To Haggle For Scholarship Cash

Amrut Acharya's GMAT scores were higher than the averages at two schools which threw scholarship offers his way.

Amrut Acharya’s GMAT scores were higher than the averages at two schools which threw scholarship offers his way.

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Part of a series of articles on The MBA Scholarship Wars

Although business-school financial aid offices are taking on some of the characteristics of a Middle Eastern carpet bazaar, employing hard-line, take-it-or-leave-it negotiating tactics may be the fastest way to get shot down for MBA scholarship cash.

Yet the time to haggle for scholarship and fellowship funds is increasingly at hand, as schools compete ever more strenuously for applicants who will help build desired MBA class compositions.

“At some schools the admissions officers are very open to negotiating,” says Karen Marks, who spent five years as associate director of admissions at Dartmouth College Tuck School of Business before leaving in 2013 to found North Star Admissions Consulting.

‘FIGHTING FOR EVERY GREAT CANDIDATE’

High tuition, opportunity costs and greater MBA options overseas have in recent years been driving numbers of MBA applicants downward, says Soojin Kwon, admissions director at the University of Michigan Ross School of Business. “All of us are fighting for a limited pool of the same students,” Kwon says. “We’re fighting for every great candidate. The top applicants are getting (admission) offers from multiple schools.”

For those with admission offers, just because one school offers a scholarship doesn’t mean another institution will match it – but they sometimes do.

While the financial aid game may seem on the face of it to be all about the numbers, B-school applicants should remember that the fingers holding the purse strings belong to humans, and few people appreciate arrogance and disrespect.

Words to the effect of, “I got this offer from another program, so pony up or I’m not coming” may well get a student crossed off the list of potential scholarship recipients, says Jon Fuller, a former admissions director at the University of Michigan Ross School of Business and now a consultant with Clear Admit. “People get funny when money is involved.”

Even so, admissions staff at several leading business schools, including the University of Texas – Austin’s McCombs School of Business, are seeing an increase in the number of would-be MBA candidates trying to negotiate over scholarships.

ASK QUESTIONS, DON’T ISSUE COMMANDS

“Applicants are treating it almost like a job offer,” says McCombs admissions director Rodrigo Malta. “I wouldn’t advise people to do it like that. There is a better way. Send an email explaining your situation. Ask questions and start a dialog. It will open the door to share more information about yourself and why you want money or more money.

“We see a lot of candidates saying, ‘If you can match it, then match it.’ That is not going to get you very far. Have more of a conversation instead of putting someone on the spot.”

Potentially making matters worse is specific mention of what’s being offered by which competing school or schools, says Dan Bauer, a former admissions interviewer for Harvard Business School and the founder and CEO of The MBA Exchange admission consulting. “The biggest mistake they make is naming the school and the amount, because other schools can take offense at that and it definitely doesn’t show respect and recognition of their own brand,” Bauer says.

Says Ann Richards, financial aid director at Cornell University’s Johnson School of Management, “This isn’t Let’s Make a Deal. If they have specific experience that really sets them apart or they bring skills that really bring value to a class, the school may go to bat for them.”

HIGH GMAT SCORE NOT ENOUGH ON ITS OWN

A high GMAT score or undergraduate GPA is usually not enough to provide significant leverage in scholarship negotiations at Johnson, Richards says. “We’ve had students try to stack offers. They get a scholarship from a lesser-ranked school (then) they go up the ladder, and they say, ‘Here’s what so-and-so gave me, can you match that?’ And frankly, we’re not going to. In some cases that indicates to us that a student may be less self aware than we had hoped, they may not have some of the skills that we had hoped.”

As for whether Johnson does negotiate with any students who report scholarship offers from other schools, Richards says, “It may depend on where we are in the cycle, if our scholarship funds are exhausted, or if the candidate has the kind of experience we’re short on or would like to see more of. Do we automatically match scholarship awards? Absolutely not.”