The latest GMAC survey shows that in the majority of US programmes, the class of 2015-2016 was equally or more qualified than those of the previous years. Those who are best prepared and possess unique achievements are the most successful when competing for merit-based scholarships.

Scholarships are the most popular form of financial assistance offered by business schools but not the only one, according to the GMAC Application Trends Survey Report. 73% of all programmes offered merit-based scholarships in 2015, the data of the organisation shows. 306 graduate business schools and faculties participated in this survey.

Scholarships are usually given for full-time study. Generally, they come from two sources: business schools themselves or the government. Some corporations also offer awards for employees. To receive such an award, you have to demonstrate the compatibility of your personal career plans with the goals and the strategy of your firm. If it wants to expand its business in the East – say China or India – it would probably be a good idea to apply to an institution specialising in the Eastern markets or providing the possibility of networking with people from this region. Another option, if your personal circumstances allow and the change entailed would not be a problem for you, is to target the good schools in the specific region. As far as corporate scholarships are concerned, the candidate’s credentials and the achievements are important. It is also important to obtain favourable references either from your immediate supervisor or manager or from someone higher up in the hierarchy, who has worked with you. Sometimes the scholarship is linked to an obligation to work for the firm for a certain period of time after obtaining the degree.

Be the best or be different

There are two things candidates should pay attention to if they want to be considered for merit-based scholarships. Firstly, they have to make sure that they are amongst the best. One of the most important factors for assessing the quality of candidates is the GMAT score. It is viewed as crucial for the decision on where the limited available funds for financial assistance should go. The average total score for MBA candidates during 2015 in the top 11 US schools with the highest GMAT score was 715, according to the US News. The leaders were the highly selective Stanford with 733 points, followed by Wharton with 732, Booth - 726, Harvard - 725, and Kellogg with 724.

Secondly, you may not be amongst the best, but you may be different. Schools are looking for diversity in order to increase the quality of the level of participants with cross-cultural exchanges and cross-cultural backgrounds, gender, education, nationality, goals, and even personality or projects. It will be an advantage if you have started your own company, written a book or pioneered in charity activities. Highlight any unique achievements or something that makes you stand out such as an interesting idea that you have realised. There are also nationality or region-based scholarships, financial-need, minorities, gender-based, and so on. Research all available options to see where you fit.

Quality of preparation is key

The quality of your preparation is the key factor for the ultimate success of the scholarship application. GMAT results, language tests (where applicable), essays, references and a motivation letter have to show that you are above average if you want to stand a chance for a full award. Apart from that there are partial scholarships, grants, and bursaries that are generally easier to obtain.

Candidates for scholarships need to remember that in order to be successful they need to begin preparing as soon as possible. This cannot be stressed enough when you are aiming at a full scholarship. You have to start preparing at least six months before the application deadline. Quality work takes time.

When filling in your application papers make sure you include all relevant information. This is not a formal requirement but you need to be presented in the best light possible, while remaining credible in the eyes of the selection committee. Highlight the strengths which make your profile match the school’s profile. Always have a second person check your application before submitting it to business schools. It could be anyone whom you trust and who is experienced in writing or evaluating texts or works in the academic sphere. There are specialists who provide professional services in the application process in graduate schools and focus mainly on business schools. Theoretically, they will be able to point you in the right direction. The help of a coach could also be very useful.

Do not underestimate letters of recommendation, but do not overestimate them either. Recommendations matter in as much as they add value to your overall profile. If your GMAT score is mediocre or another part of the application is weak or unconvincing, a superb reference will not make up for it. Its role is to help the evaluation committee see you from the point of view of someone who is well acquainted with you.

Where can I find information about financial aid?

It is best to search for information directly from the source: your government, NGO scholarships, and the schools you are applying for. There is usually comprehensive and detailed information about the options. Go to the MBA page, look for the Financial aid/Scholarships section or subsection.