My favorite question to ask my MBA classmates is this…
“What broke you down at work so much that you were willing to possibly accrue $100,000+ in student debt?”
Fun ice breaker, right?! Dark humor aside, one of the top concerns of any potential MBA is paying for school. But what if you could get your business school to pay you instead?
Well, you can. As outlined by Poets & Quants this month, graduate school funding offers – once limited to the likes of Ph.D. students – are now a reality for MBAs too. I always assumed that any professional school—law, medicine, and business, primarily—would cost you a pretty penny, one you would later earn back in salary. It wasn’t until I was well into my own MBA admissions journey that I discovered a better way.
Thanks to a Georgia Tech Scheller College of Business webinar back in May 2017, I learned about the Forté Foundation and its fellowships for women completing full-time MBA programs. As a member school, Scheller College grants Forté Fellows financial awards to offset the cost of tuition and to help further Forte’s mission of promoting women in business education. Now, in addition to preparing for a July GMAT and hitting Round 1 app deadlines, I had a new mission:
Get. That. Lady. Money.
Despite the silly name, this goal motivated me to put the best possible application forward in the hopes that I could pursue my MBA with financial security. All those weekends of GMAT prep and essay writing did not make for a fun summer, but I knew it was a short-term investment for long-term benefit. Fast forward to November 2017: I was thrilled to receive admissions offers for at least 75% funding for Vanderbilt (Owen), Emory (Goizueta), Ohio State (Fisher), and Georgia Tech (Scheller). In the end, I gratefully accepted Georgia Tech’s package of a Forte Fellowship and graduate assistantship to cover the full amount of tuition and fees for two years.
While every applicant and MBA program is different, there are key strategies that you can apply to help maximize your opportunities for your own MBA funding offers.
SIGNAL YOUR INTEREST
Just like getting a job at a new company, the application shouldn’t be the first time a recruiter learns your name. Demonstrate your interest in an MBA program by signing up for emails, attending campus events, and networking with current students and alumni far in advance of your application submission. If you’re not local to target schools, you can meet with multiple recruiters at consolidated MBA fairs offered in major cities around the world.
In addition to engaging with a specific school, joining certain pre-MBA organizations can help signal your seriousness about business school overall. I completed Forté’s virtual MBALaunch program both for the program’s application guidance and the clout it could provide with member schools. Similarly, my classmate Stephanie Landaverde joined Management Leaders of Tomorrow (MLT) MBA Prep Program for African American, Latinx, and Native American professionals.
“MLT was essential to my MBA success, as the program gave me direct access to business school recruiters and provided coaching for all my application materials,” Stephanie told me. “Additionally, my close MLT cohort bolstered my confidence and helped me communicate my worth as a prospective student,” she added.
With full merit-based funding at Scheller in hand and MLT on her resume, Stephanie landed her Deloitte internship before the start of our first semester – and then later parlayed her internship success into a full-time role with the firm.
While organizations like Forté, MLT, the Consortium, and Reaching Out MBA provide identity-based programs for coaching and funding, there are financial opportunities for students of all backgrounds if the timing is right. If you ask most programs, “When is the best time to apply?” they’ll tell you, “Whenever your application is at its best.” They’ll also tell you that the best chance at funding is when it is still available in early rounds. Basically, if you want to get in, have a great application. If you want to get in AND get funding, have a great application as early as possible—and meet the admissions team even earlier.
CALCULATE THE ROI
ROI is a favorite financial metric in business school, but it’s even more important for prospective students. Like any investment, it’s critical to understand your costs and the likelihood of a desired outcome.
When evaluating the true cost of attendance, don’t forget to forecast the lifestyle expenses that will accompany tuition and fees. While exposure to metropolitan life may be exciting, do you want to pay the typical rent for cities like New York, Boston, or Seattle while you’re effectively unemployed? If you want an idyllic small college town experience, how much money and time will you spend traveling for recruiting or personal holidays? Is keeping up with your classmates’ expectations of ski weekends and exotic spring breaks aligned with your desired MBA experience (and bank account)?
In my own school visits, I made a point to ask about housing, socials and travel, and geographic clusters of key employers. I’m more of a “Redneck Riviera” kind of beach girl, so I knew one particular school wasn’t right for me when I kept hearing, “We all go to Thailand together each year!”
On the “return” side of the equation, do your homework to dig into each school’s employment statistics. You’ve done enough GMAT review by now to know the average starting salary can be dramatically affected by high outliers, often from consulting, investment banking, or technical product management in high cost-of-living areas. Look closely at school employment reports for average salary by functional area, industry, and geography to have a clearer view of your most relevant outcomes. You may find that the MBA grads from pricey M7 programs net the same positions and salaries like the rest of the Top 30 schools for your dream role.
At Scheller, I am surrounded by second-year peers who are genuinely excited for their post-MBA roles because they landed jobs they want—rather than jobs they had to get to pay back debt. Most of them tell me the same thing about their MBA search: I wanted X, Y, and Z, but it had to make financial sense.
“While cultural fit and relevant coursework were my top priorities, I realized that MBAs are not cheap,” my classmate Neel Mitragotri recalled. “I wanted to be at Scheller for the community and analytics expertise, but it would not have been feasible without my full merit-based award.”
UNDERSTAND YOUR OPTIONS
There’s no such thing as a free ride though, right? Classic MBA answer: It depends. Admissions offers vary widely in percentage of tuition covered, the inclusion of a stipend or salary, or work component required. Just like a job offer, a candidate should diligently inquire about all the strings attached before accepting. In general, business school scholarships fall into two types: fellowship awards (free money!) and assistantship positions (work for it!).
Fellowships are often funded through specific college donors, a general university endowment, grant money from a partner organization, and other sources. It may differ from school-to-school, but fellowship recipients receive a lump sum applied toward the amount due each semester or quarter. Traditionally, the only stipulation for retaining funding is maintaining a certain GPA and taking a full-time course load. While keeping a fellowship can be simple, landing one is more difficult. As in any graduate school, being named a Fellow is one of the highest academic honors. As a result, the evaluation process is highly competitive. Check with your target MBA programs to make sure you understand how to apply or be considered. You don’t want to miss out on free money because you missed a checkbox!
Alternatively, assistantships require campus work as a graduate research assistant (GRA), teaching assistant (TA), or similar position in exchange for funding. Does this mean you have to give up your real full-time job, go to school full-time, and then still work? Not really. The assistantship obligation is typically scoped for a limited number of hours per week or bounded by project or research requirements. For example, full GRAs at Scheller work 14 hours per week for their departments in exchange for full tuition coverage and a monthly stipend.
While some assistantship positions involve traditional grading, filing, or academic research, MBA positions can also include support positions for admissions, career services, or marketing—which allows you to impact the value of your own future degree. My own GRA experience has included contributing to articles in U.S. News & World Report, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and Poets & Quants. Meanwhile, my first-year peer Carli Wiesenfeld is the lead GRA for our admissions department, gaining leadership and project management experience while finding our next cohort of MBAs.
“Beyond the financial benefit, I was happy to accept my GRA offer knowing that I would help build the brand of Scheller while also positioning myself to be successful after graduation,” Weisenfeld reflected.
As Parks & Recreation’s Tom Haverford once said, “Sometimes you gotta work a little, so you can ball a lot.” I can personally attest that working hard throughout the admissions gauntlet led to a more enjoyable MBA experience. Thanks to my funding, I’ve been able to spend my MBA time and attention on interesting coursework, fulfilling social activities, and my own personal hobbies instead of fretting over escalating debt. Make the investment in yourself early to make the investment in an MBA worth it.
Jasmine Howard, a Tennessee native and marketing strategist, is a second-year MBA candidate at Georgia Tech’s Scheller College of Business. Each month, she offers advice, pro tips, and life hacks for the emerging challenges of today’s evolving MBA world.
DON’T MISS: MEET GEORGIA TECH’S MBA CLASS OF 2020