What Kinds Of Students Win The Scholarship Game?

Part of an exclusive Poets&Quants' series on The MBA Scholarship Wars

Part of an exclusive Poets&Quants’ series on The MBA Scholarship Wars

Schools are fighting over the most sought-after MBA applicants, and those students can leverage their own value into scholarship cash. So, what makes a student eminently desirable?

In the business school scholarship game, the one-trick pony can win – as long as the trick is “scoring really high on tests” or “being female” or “coming from Colombia” or “developing cutting-edge software” or even “fighting a war” or “having a BA in philosophy.”

A primary reality lies beneath the distribution of scholarship money: in addition to wanting students who bring valuable experience and interesting perspectives to the classroom, B-schools want you to make them look good, to burnish their stats and add a boost for the rankings.

The fastest way – though not the only way – to score that cash is to get such a high undergraduate GPA and GMAT score that MBA program officials will fall all over themselves to enroll you. Those officials want students who push them up in the rankings, particularly on the influential U.S. News & World Report top 100 list, in which GPA and GMAT numbers have a combined weight of almost 25%.


“Someone with a 770 GMAT is much more likely to get a financial award than someone with a 670 – it can be much more likely for that business school to want to ‘buy’ that high GMAT score,” says Jon Fuller, a former admissions director at the University of Michigan Ross School of Business and now a consultant with Clear Admit.

But schools want students who polish their reputation and heighten their statistical appeal in other ways. Mostly, what the institutions are looking for varies. School officials examine applicants’ academic, personal, and professional qualifications, then measure those backgrounds against their ideal class composition to determine whether a student’s profile would help the officials “achieve the balance or the mix that they’re seeking,” says Dan Bauer, a former admissions interviewer for Harvard Business School and the founder and managing director of The MBA Exchange admission consulting.

In Cornell University’s Johnson School of Management, “We do try to utilize our scholarship (funds) to achieve that kind of diversity,” says financial aid director Ann Richards. “We also want to get the smartest people in the room.”


The quest for diversity among the student body drives admissions and financial aid officers to pursue applicants from outside traditional sources. “They’re always going to see the bumper crop coming out of industry or banking or consulting. That’s the bread and butter,” says Judith Silverman Hodara, a former senior admissions director at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, now a director with Fortuna Admissions. “They’re looking for that additional diversity in their applicant pool.”

MIT’s Sloan School of Business, for instance, offers several fellowships contributing to a diverse student population, including the Class of 2004 Diversity Fellowship for students having “unique work experiences, educational endeavors, or national backgrounds that are less represented at MIT Sloan,” the school reports.

Across the board, U.S. B-schools want students from foreign countries, especially from nations not already well represented. “A qualified candidate from Colombia is much more likely to get an award than someone from India or China,” Fuller says.

HBS candidate Amira Abou El Seoud

HBS candidate Amira Abou El Seoud


A distinctive background can greatly heighten an applicant’s appeal, and draw significant scholarship funding. Amira Abou El Seoud scored 650 on the GMAT, but is now in her first semester at Harvard Business School, with $40,000 per year in need-based aid. “Myself, I’ve never met someone at Harvard who scored less than 720,” El Seoud says. But she had other attributes: she was Egyptian, she had worked as a senior manager for Procter & Gamble in low-income markets in Egypt, Nigeria, and Pakistan, and developed a micro-loan project in Egypt in which women were given Procter & Gamble products on credit, then sold them to pay the company back and earn livelihoods. Also in El Seoud’s favor was her gender.

With women making up only 36% of business school applicants in the 2013/14 academic year, and the number of female applicants to full-time, two-year MBA programs falling to 37% in 2014 over 39% in 2013, according to the Graduate Management Admission Council, b-school officials are eager to enroll female applicants.

“Women are always going to be sought after,” Hodara says. “Schools want more gender representation.”

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