Show Me The Money: How A Scholarship Committee Decides

Top business schools are handing out increasing amounts of cash to lure applicants

Top business schools are handing out increasing amounts of cash to lure applicants

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

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

In little more than 40 minutes, they gave $210,000 away—to just six accepted MBA applicants from North America, Latin America, China and India. The scholarship grants—ranging from a low of $20,000 to a high of $40,000—were recommended by three admission officials at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management. In one sitting, each of them gave away more money than they made in a single year as assistant directors in Rotman’s recruitment and admissions office.

With $4 million in scholarship funds—roughly 12.9% of the school’s gross tuition revenue—Rotman has more money than Georgetown University’s McDonough School and about the same level of funding as Yale University’s School of Management. But it still considerably trails most of the U.S. business schools, including such public heavyweights as the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business, UCLA’s Anderson School, and Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business.

So using the money as strategically as possible is paramount. “We just need more talent in the door and we are going to use every dollar we can to do it,” says Kevin Frey, managing director of Rotman’s full-time MBA program. “We are in this global talent game, and this is the cost of entry. We’ve got to spend this money if we want to build an impressive class.” After all, more than anything else, the quality of those incoming students will determine the quality of the school’s graduates– and the school’s ultimate reputation in the marketplace.


For next year’s fall entering class, the school expects to fill 350 seats. Half of the enrolled student body will come to Toronto with a scholarship, ranging from a “show-me-the-love” $10,000 grant to a full ride. The average grant is $20,000, and the $4 million kitty goes fast. So does an additional $1 million in financial aid to cover the interest costs of loans while students are studying for their MBA degree at Rotman.

On a chilly Toronto day in mid-November, the scholarship committee of the admissions group gathers for one of its first meetings of the new admissions year. It’s only 17 days after the school’s Nov. 3 round one deadline, the first of five cutoff points for candidates to submit their applications. It was a highly successful round, with a 25% increase in applications from a year ago. During an afternoon session in a conference room with stained glass church windows in the historic Phd House, the group will debate how much money to give each of six accepted candidates from that first round.

To be a fly on the wall of this meeting is to have a rare window into how a business school makes the often mysterious and always secretive decisions about who gets financial aid and who doesn’t and how much money they get. The process itself—along with the give-and-take of the school’s officials—provides invaluable insight into a crucial part of the admissions process that is seldom discussed nor publicly revealed. (Rotman agreed to have a reporter present during the committee’s meeting as long as the candidates’ names remained confidential along with specific details that would allow others to identify the applicants.)


To guide the handout decisions, there are a few well understood rules. Each candidate is assessed on four highly valued attributes:

Intellectual horsepower: Measured largely on the basis of an undergraduate grade point average (GPA), one’s score on the Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT) and professional designations, such as a Certified Financial Accountant (CFA).

Impact:  A subjective reading of a person’s leadership potential based on their actual impact in the world, both at work and in extracurricular matters. The committee is looking for evidence of resilience, entrepreneurship, problem solving, and influencing others.

Professional presence: The committee assesses a person’s presence, poise and communication skills on the basis of an interview, all done by staff, as well as other interactions with a candidate at open houses, coffee hours, and MBA fairs.

Spikiness: Adapted from one of the world’s top consulting firms, a spiky candidate is one who has an unusual passion or combination of skills and interests that contributes to a person’s uniqueness and appeal.

These words and praises frequently spill into the discussions of the scholarship committee. Through it all, special attention is paid to two telling factors that the school believes are deeply correlated with an MBA’s employability three months after graduation: a candidate’s success in the admissions interview and, curiously enough, their score on a portion of the GMAT exam that typically receives less scrutiny, the analytical writing assessment test.

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