What criteria you need to get a full-ride scholarship at a top-ranked business school

BY Anastassia GliadkovskayaJune 22, 2022, 4:42 PM
UCLA graduates from the College of Letters and Science celebrate at their commencement ceremony in Pauley Pavilion at the Westwood campus, as seen in June 2022. (Photo by Sarah Reingewirtz—MediaNews Group/Los Angeles Daily News/Getty Images)

Business school can be expensive, with some top-ranked programs costing upwards of $200,000. And yet, the returns are also rewarding: Following graduation, the median salary for MBA grads is 77% higher than people who only have a bachelor’s degree—a pay gap that could balloon to $3 million over 35 years of work. 

Given that prospect for higher compensation and the tremendous demand for MBA programs, admissions experts say that landing a merit-based full-ride scholarship at a top business school is tricky—but possible. The criteria for these scholarships is rarely public and can vary by school or even academic year and largely depends on the qualities a business school hopes to attract in a given class.

“It really is more of an art than it is a science,” says Shaifali Aggarwal, founder and CEO of Ivy Groupe, an MBA admissions consulting firm. “I wish there was a formula here, but I think it really is just thinking about leadership, impact—it’s thinking about what is that sort of unique angle or perspective that you bring to the class.” 

The surest way to be considered for an all-expenses-paid MBA education is to excel in as many aspects of the application as possible. But even a candidate who has few outstanding components can still successfully nab a full-ride scholarship to a top business school.

Identifying schools that offer full-ride scholarships

Schools may offer full-ride scholarships to entice applicants to accept their offers. Schools known for high awards include Columbia Business School, New York University’s Stern School of Business, Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, and the University of Chicago Booth School of Business

“Certain schools have larger budgets than others,” says Scott Edinburgh, founder of Personal MBA Coach, an MBA admissions consulting firm. But applicants may need to broaden their search beyond the most elite schools if a full-ride scholarship is a high priority. “We would target different schools.”  

In general, admissions consultants agree that there’s a higher chance of scoring scholarship money at slightly lower-ranked business schools. This may be because full rides are a way to attract talent—and those with top brand names need to expend less energy doing so.

Some schools may offer more scholarship money than they have in their budget, according to Edinburgh: “It’s kind of like a yield play, where they put out more money than they really have knowing not everyone is going to take it.” A school’s yield rate is what portion of its offers get accepted. 

Though prospective students may want to look externally for scholarship opportunities, in Edinburgh’s experience most money comes from the school for a strong candidate. Typically, business schools don’t have a separate application to be considered for scholarship funds. Information about scholarship eligibility may be more readily available for opportunities that are aimed at specific groups.

Bring ‘the right mix’ of application components for scholarship eligibility

Applicants wanting to be considered for a full ride must bring the right mix of components to the table. “Maxing out in every category will always make it more likely,” says David White, founding partner of Menlo Coaching. “You have to get them excited about you.”

The factors that admissions consultants say are most important are: undergraduate GPA, GMAT (or GRE) test scores, leadership skills, essays, and candidates who convey a demonstrated interest in the school.  

While even little differences can help—a high GPA from a recognizable undergraduate school or scoring 20 GMAT points over the average, for example—lacking such attributes on an application isn’t necessarily a dealbreaker.

“It’s more like cooking a recipe. You need the meat, the potatoes, the spices,” White explains. “You need a lot of things to make the right mix.”

Schools are looking at what an applicant could add to their class. Even for those with below-average test scores or a non-traditional work background, evidence of leadership and impact could count for a lot. That could be from college, at work or in the community. 

“People confuse leadership with management,” says Melody Jones, co-founder and president of Vantage Point MBA Admissions Consulting. “It doesn’t mean you have to have five people reporting to you.” It could be solving a difficult problem, or leading a new initiative like a diversity, equity and inclusion effort. 

Letters of recommendation should further exemplify the applicant’s service above and beyond their traditional responsibilities. The key is to demonstrate depth of experience instead of doing too many things. 

“They want to be able to see that potential already,” Aggarwal adds.

Make your case for an MBA scholarship

Essays are an opportunity to showcase why you are the right fit for a school. In the essays, you can elaborate on how the program will help you achieve your goals, what unique perspective you will bring to the class, and why you are choosing that particular program. 

Consultants caution against essays that are too grandiose or trying to be something you’re not.

“The biggest mistake you can do is try to write one essay set and then somehow copy and paste and retrofit it for other schools,” Jones says. “Treat each one like it’s the only school you’re applying to.”

One of White’s clients got a full ride without having a traditional prestigious job. Nitish Tripathi studied computer science in India, and though he had an above-average GMAT score of 760, he worked in an atypical sector—at a nonprofit dedicated to social justice. Tripathi even turned down a job offer with Dreamworks India because of his commitment to bettering the lives of the impoverished in his community. 

In his essay, he wrote about seeing the impact of that work and why it inspired him to want to get an MBA and work toward social impact consulting. He was accepted to Columbia, Yale, Wharton and got a full ride to Kellogg.  

Similarly, Jones also worked with a client who scored a full ride to NYU Stern. In an essay, the candidate wrote about his experience growing up with a parent with a gambling addiction, and how that sparked his desire to pursue a career that educates others about personal finance. Jones also recalls how the applicant shared his experience leading a team of MIT scientists older than him on a data science collaboration—and while it was intimidating at first, he ultimately earned the team’s trust. 

“Although there’s no ‘formula’ for receiving a scholarship, all of my clients who have received one have been especially vulnerable and personal in their essays, on top of impressive scores and accomplishments,” Jones says. 

Some top schools, like Columbia, care (and track) whether an applicant shows a demonstrated interest in their program. Visiting campus or attending admissions events is a good way for prospective students to show they are taking steps to gauge how they would fit in. Applications may ask why you want to go to a school and what events you have attended. 

The exception is Harvard Business School, where Jones tells clients it’s a waste of time to explain why you want to attend. “We get to decide if we want you,” Jones says of the school’s position. “We assume that you want us.”

Overall, it comes down to the overall strength of an application, Edinburgh believes, where it’s clear the applicant is well-positioned in every area. 

Alternative ways to get a free MBA 

There are alternative ways to get an MBA for free. One is an MBA sponsorship through an employer. The average MBA student is more likely to get tuition reimbursement through their employer rather than a full-ride scholarship through a school, according to White. Sponsored students may be expected to return to work for a number of years in exchange for the sponsorship.

Another option is to apply to schools through an external program like the Consortium for Graduate Study in Management. It partners with 21 schools and offers one common application through which prospective students can apply to up to six MBA programs at once. 

The Consortium is intended for applicants from a diverse background who are committed to promoting inclusion. Admission to each program is determined by the school and once accepted, students will also be considered for Consortium membership. Members may be eligible for a full ride, also determined by each school, and the Consortium awards hundreds of full-ride scholarships annually

Apply early to be eligible for scholarships

Most of a school’s scholarship budget is used in the first round of applications, usually in September. By the later rounds, schools will have already chosen their most desired candidates. 

But aiming to apply early shouldn’t be confused with applying early decision, which is binding if an applicant is accepted, Jones notes. Scholarships are used as a recruiting tool; early decision applicants signal to the school they are already committed.

“Not every single person can realistically get a full scholarship at a top program,” White says. Applying early can help guarantee availability. 

See how the schools you’re considering landed in Fortune’s rankings of the best master’s in psychology programs, public health programsbusiness analytics programsdata science programs, and part-timeexecutive, full-time, and online MBA programs.