September 5, 2008

How to Go to Business School for Free

Many business school applicants figure their essay writing is done when they learn they've gotten into one of the top business schools. Devin Griffin took the opposite tack when he received his Wharton acceptance letter, sitting down at his computer and writing yet another essay for the admissions committee. His thoughts on leadership would, he hoped, give him a shot at acquiring what he called Wharton's crown jewel of financial aid, the Howard E. Mitchell Scholarship, a two-year, full-tuition scholarship covering Wharton's $80,000 per year tuition and fees.

"After I handed in the application, I was holding my breath every day," says Griffin, who was working at the time at the National Basketball Assn.'s team marketing and business operations group. "There was so much anticipation and so much hope."

His determination paid off a few weeks later when he when he received a phone call from a Wharton admissions officer with good news: He was one of 10 recipients of the Mitchell fellowship in his entering class. "It ended up being a huge weight off my shoulders," Griffin says. "I was looking at $100,000-plus in debt."

With tuition for a top MBA program averaging $150,000 for two years, and nearly 90% of students taking out loans, business school is increasingly becoming a more expensive proposition. The average debt for a student attending one of the top 20 business schools hovers around $80,000, according to Graduate Leverage, a student loan consolidation and debt management company in Boston. Yet every year, a highly selective group of students manages to snag a full-ride scholarship or fellowship. Needless to say, they're among the most competitive awards in the management education sector and many top business schools offer only a handful each year.

Well-Rounded Superstars There's very little luck involved in getting a full ride. The students who get them tend to be all-around superstars, outstanding at everything from work to their involvement in the community, says Linda Abraham, an admissions consultant for And they work their applications to the max.

"I think the trick is you need to kind of do everything that will get you accepted, but on steroids," says Linda Abrahams, "Students who want to get one need to show serious commitment, involvement, and impact. That is critical for getting a full or significant ride."

But even if you are not at the top of your class or on the fast-track to a promotion at work, they are still worth considering, admissions officers say. Nontraditional candidates who may have launched their own startup or done some impressive community outreach can also be strong contenders for the awards, says Sara Neher, director of admissions at University of Virginia's Darden School of Business, which offers several full-tuition fellowships a year.

"I don't think people should think they won't get it if they don't have the highest GMAT. There's no minimum for the fellowships," Neher says.

Regardless of how qualified you are, applying for one can still be a confusing process. At some schools, students are automatically selected for the fellowships during the regular admissions process, while at others students need to apply once they've gotten in. [Details on some of the top MBA programs. Table URL TK.] Here are some tips that could result in cutting your tuition bill to zero.

Get a Running Start One of the best ways a student can get in the running for a full-ride fellowship is to start planning -- early. It's never too soon to think about how you are going to finance your MBA, says Rosemaria Martinelli, associate dean of student recruitment and admissions at the University of Chicago's Graduate School of Business, which offers several full-ride fellowship programs, including the prestigious Distinguished Fellows scholarship. She recommends people start thinking about them two to three years before even applying to business school. This will help students narrow down what school offers merit awards, as well as to help them focus their applications and essays, Martinelli says. Try to take the time to visit each school's scholarship page and learn what merit awards are available, she says. "Most people can't think that far in advance, but those who really do end up capitalizing on these additional awards."

Another thing to keep in mind: Often, the students who get the fellowships are those who apply during the first round, says Darden's Neher. Student can best position themselves by applying early, she says. "It's sort of a natural thing. At the start of the year, all of the fellowships are available, just like all the seats in the class are available," Neher says.

Look for Targeted Fellowships Students looking to broaden their search should research fellowships that are sponsored not only by schools but also by corporations or a particular organization. Often they are targeted to a particular group. For example, Yale's School of Management awards the Laura Cha Scholarship every other year to a promising MBA student from mainland China with financial needs.

Elsewhere, the Consortium for Graduate Study in Management, an organization that promotes diversity at business schools, offers merit-based, full-tuition fellowships that students can apply to through their Web site. Other groups, such as the Forte Foundation, a consortium of schools working to increase the number of women in business school, offer similar opportunities through its Forte Fellows Program, which offers students a full tuition waiver at select schools. Keep in mind that for many of these fellowships, students will need to demonstrate they have shown leadership in that group's particular area of focus, says Abraham. "You need to show enormous promise in that particular field and, more than just promise, some leadership contribution that has had some impact," she says.

Highlight Leadership Admissions officers are on the prowl for students who have demonstrated significant leadership experience, whether at work or in their community, says Judith Hodara, Wharton's senior associate director of admissions. For example, Devin Griffin, the Wharton student who received the Mitchell fellowship, says he used his application essay as a chance to talk about his desire to help more minority students launch careers in the sports management field. It's that type of vision that helps students get noticed by the admissions committee, Hodara says. "These are individuals who had a high impact in their community," she says. "They were not just individual superstars at work or academically, but there is a very strong thread of community engagement and community mentorship."

At Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management, recent recipients of full-tuition scholarships include a student who had worked for a nonprofit in Vietnam helping poor families start small businesses, a former army soldier who led a reconnaissance mission in Iraq that resulted in the capture of the members of an insurgent group, and a former operations manager for a pharmaceutical company who was able to save his company $650,000 a year. These students were selected for fellowships because they were able to highlight their leadership experience clearly in their application, as well as to distinguish themselves from the general applicant pool, says Beth Flye, Kellogg's director of admissions and financial aid. "It's the candidate's responsibility to let us know to why they think they would be a model candidate for a certain scholarship," Flye says. "They need to show us those marquee points."

Speak Up Students who have their sights set on a particular fellowship can note their interest in the award of scholarship during the application process. This can be helpful to admissions officers as they are considering students for the various scholarships doled out to students, admissions officers say. Another way to get the attention of an admissions officer is to encourage the person who is writing your recommendation to mention your interest in the fellowship and how it will help you achieve your career goals. "That is more meaningful than the applicant saying they'd like to be considered for it," Darden's Neher says. "That's not a guarantee, but it doesn't hurt. It certainly shows the recommender that you took the time to get to know the school."

Think Strategically One way to improve your odds of getting a fellowship is to apply to several schools where your grades and GMAT will be above average. For example, students who are applying to mostly top 10 business schools should also consider schools that are not as highly ranked but still strong in the subject area they want to study. "If you do that, you might end up where you want to be and for a whole lot less money," says Accepted's Abraham. The school's admissions committee might be inclined to give an above-average student a full-ride scholarship because it will help the school improve their overall student body profile, she says. It's a strategy that has worked for some of Abraham's clients, though she says students shouldn't pursue this exclusively.

For some students, getting a full-ride fellowship can help tip the scales in deciding what school they ultimately decide to attend. That was the case for Jamala Massenburg, a former product design engineer at Ford (F), who is now a second-year student at Darden. She was choosing between Tuck and Darden when she learned that she had been selected for one of Darden's Jefferson Fellowships, a full-ride two-year fellowship. She decided to accept the Darden fellowship, a decision that came with its own responsibilities, she says. As a fellowship recipient, she feels a strong desire to give back to the school. She has gotten involved in the student admissions committee and helping to organize the school's open house events. She plans to help interview potential first-year students this year, as well as to spend several months working on a research paper for the school.

"I want to make sure I deliver on the expectations that the scholarship committee set out on me. It's not an entitlement for me," Massenburg says. "I feel very lucky and I feel as though I owe them also."