5 Steps for Negotiating Your Offer of MBA Admission (Updated)

Today's blog post builds on a post I've been working on for years, where I continue to add thought about the art of negotiating your MBA offer of admission.  I've long said that "negotiation" is not what you do when it comes to securing more financial aid from a business school.  The term of art for what you are going to be doing is "asking."  Let me explain and try to add clarity around questions that often come up.

Obviously, any discussion of an offer in this context automatically means we're dealing with some good news: you've been accepted.  So congrats on that!  However, with the news that a b-school wants you to enroll comes the sobering reality that they also want you to *pay* for that privilege.  Sure, offers often come with dollar signs attached, but the amount left in the "you" column is almost always going to be the bigger number.  And that fact tends to bring up the following question: "How can I negotiate my offer?"

Again, let's rephrase the question entirely. 

Don't think of this as a negotiation, but rather a request: "How can I request more aid?"  That is a much better frame of reference, especially in light of the the advice that follows.  Here's how we typically approach this process:

1. Be respectful. 

There are a lot of ways you might be able to get a little more scholarship money from a business school, but we know of one sure way that you WON'T get money and that's if you try to "hardball" them.  We have witnessed countless admits go from months of wishing and hoping to sudden arrogance and a "you better wine and dine me" attitude.  Ditch it.  Immediately.  If you call an admissions office and try to leverage another offer or you give them the "so what can you do to sweeten the deal?" treatment, you will inevitably find yourself on the line with a tired and supremely annoyed member of that school's staff.  Go in polite, grateful, and professional.  Always.  This is not an M&A deal and you are not "negotiating" with anyone.  You are "asking" a business school to grant you more free funding.  Big difference and on that is not lost on the schools themselves, we assure you.

(Note: this is why I often use the word "call" instead of "email" when discussing these things.  There is no rule that says you have to call and for many, there is a big preference to write up their thoughts and send along.  That should work fine and if you are dreading the prospect of getting on the phone, definitely just email.  But I feel like you generally have a better chance of your tone - which would include showing real respect and appreciation - coming through if you are actually speaking to someone.  Who should you be calling or emailing?  Anyone in the admissions office who can be an advocate for you with financial aid.  If you know someone already through your process, call that person.  If you don't, call the person who let you know the good news.  But you want admissions folks fighting this battle for you if possible.)

2. Instead, go for the heartstrings. 

Okay, you have your hat in hand and you are determined to avoid acting entitled.  Now what?  Not to be too blunt about it, but in our experience, a good old sob story seems to work best.  So if you have authentic hurdles - and most of us do - to paying over $100K for your MBA, share them.  You don't have to impress anyone at this point with your huge salary or countless offers from heavy hitters; they've already decided they want you to attend their school.  And they are far more likely to try to work something out if they find you nice, respectful, and, yes, a bit needy.  A long-term career goal that eschews riches is probably best, but there are a lot of ways you can be honest about your situation and paint a very realistic picture as to how an extra $20K could make all the difference for you.

3. Never lie! 

If you don't have the "heartstrings" story, then don't go there.  Of even greater importance is that you don't make up offers or dollar amounts from other programs.  It damages the integrity of the financial aid process (which is designed to get money to those who deserve it and who need it most) and the school may ask to see proof in making a decision on revising your award.

4. Consider what you are going to share. 

This is a new section I've added from past posts and it details with whether or not you mention the other schools involved.  In many cases, you will be calling Program A asking for money because you want to go there more than Program B, where you DID receive money.  This is not a new dynamic to the school, I assure you.  So, do you share all this?  And how granular do you get?  When I was in admissions, I really didn't want to know all the gory details, honestly.  Maybe it was because I didn't like hearing my school compared to others in such a brass tax way ("hey, wait, USC only gave you X and you are thinking of going there over us? What!"), maybe it just seemed unnecessary, I really don't know.  But that's just me - maybe others are different.  You will have to go with personal preference and instinct in many cases.  

If I have to give a rule of thumb, I would say it goes like this: 

  • Don't mention the "other suitor" unless they ask you specifically. 
  • If they do ask, just tell them; don't be cagey about it.  

If it gets into numbers, use one of two methods.

  1. Just talk about the scholarship amount the other school gave you and leave it at that, don't try to compare apples to oranges in terms of tuition, costs, etc.  
  2. Alternatively, only talk about the bottom line for you.  "How much did X give you?"  "Honestly, I'm looking at spending $75K more to come to your school, is what it boils down to."  

You want to pick your methodology so that you can give them one clean number from which to start any potential discussion.  

5. Wait a beat. 

One of the keys to even getting yourself in the running for more aid is to wait a little bit so the dust can settle.  Sure, on the one hand, the money could be gone and the class full and the school might have no incentive to sweeten the offer.  I've heard people worry that if they wait, this scenario could result.  And they are right - it totally could.  But here's the dirty secret ... they always spend all the money!  When decisions go out, they throw out all the scholarship awards with them, hoping to entice and bring in the necessary yield.  It is only when people start turning down offers - and scholarship awards - that the directors and staff start to see where there might be A) enrollment needs and B) financial aid surplus.  In other words, if Booth gave you a $20K scholarship last week, don't call *this* week hoping for more.  They won't have any more - at least not on paper.  That spreadsheet is going to show every dollar spent.  Wait for people to turn them down and for some of that paper money to flow back into the Booth coffers.  Doing so will give you a better chance at there even being something to ask for, let alone get.  Plus, while this isn't necessarily likely, if you wait, you might also catch a school getting shorted a bit on enrollment, in which case they will be far more likely to help you meet your needs.  (Think of what is better for a program - going to the waitlist and thereby increasing their "admitted student" number in the process, or getting a 1-for-1 right off the existing list by spending a bit more money.  It's a no-brainer.)

(As a rule of thumb, try to wait a few weeks at least.  If you can make it work, try to figure out the midpoint from offers going out and the enrollment deadline and aim for a date right around there.)

6. Follow up. 

If you talk to someone and they say they will get into it (most likely scenario other than "sorry" is "let me get back to you" ... "here's more money!" is a distant third), don't be afraid to follow up.  The squeaky wheel can get the grease given that an admissions office is like a battlefield this time of year - it's not crazy that your request might land on someone's desk for a full week.  In that time, hundreds of thousands of dollars might funnel back and forth on paper, leaving you in the cold.  So wait a day or two and then call back to ask - respectfully, of course - if there has been any progress and if there is anything else you can or should do.  As long as you are really nice and polite about it, no one is going to fault you for being angst-ridden about your financial future.  And we should add here - since people seem to worry about it - you are not going to lose your offer by calling about this stuff.

(Oh and just so you know - there isn't a "counter offer" phase of this.  If you ask for money and they are willing to give you some, it's a final offer.  You can't say "thanks, but can you give me more than that?"  Rest assured they are now giving you as much they can/want to give.  They are already having an internal conversation about trying to secure your enrollment and that is the only reason they are offering anything.  Whatever the amount is, that is the best they can do.) 

We hope that these hints help you navigate that latest stress in this process.  Remember that you catch more flies with honey, honesty in the best policy, and patience is a virtue.  Armed with a few cliches, you'll do great.

If you are looking help with your applications, please contact us via mba@amerasiaconsulting.com or at www.amerasiaconsulting.com/contact. We have seen what the competition is doing and we can say without a doubt that we go deeper, more strategic, and generate better results with our methods.  Line up a call and find out for yourself.