Getting Schools to Fight Over You

Even highly ranked grad schools are themselves competing fiercely for the best applicants.

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The competition to get into the top graduate programs is so fierce—especially for the professional schools such as law, business, and medicine—that many students assume universities don't give away scholarships to lure candidates.


The reality is that even highly ranked grad schools are themselves competing fiercely for the best applicants. Don't believe us? Listen to Karen Klomperans, dean of Michigan State University's well-ranked graduate business school:  "We want to attract the best M.B.A. students, and there is a lot of competition among the top 30 institutions for those students."

Here are eight tips on how you can use grad schools' competition to improve your financial aid packages:

1) Before you apply to any graduate school, realistically evaluate your grades, scores, qualifications, and willingness to move to a distant school. For example, if you're a C student and can attend only the nearest school, you shouldn't expect many programs to compete for your matriculation.

2) Search among the schools for which your qualifications are typical of admitted students for at least two you'd like to attend.

3) Search among schools for which your qualifications are at the top of the admitted pool for at least one you'd like to attend.

4) Search for schools you'd like to attend and for which your qualifications make you competitive that have comparatively low tuition and total costs of attendance (including travel and living costs).

5) Apply to a couple of affordable schools, a couple of schools for which you are competitive, and a couple of schools for which you are a catch.

6) Once you're accepted and get your aid offers, do the math to calculate the net price for each school. That means adding up tuition, fees, room, board, travel, books, etc., and then--from that total--subtracting out the free money for each school.

7) If the net price of the school you prefer seems unaffordably high, figure out what net price you can realistically afford. Many graduate schools don't offer grants or scholarships because they figure students will make such high incomesafter they graduate that they can easily pay back loans. Use a loan payment calculator to figure out how much your payments might be. Use our career and salary estimators to see if you are likely to be able to pay off your grad school debt.

8) Before the commitment deadline and before you make any decision, contact the head of the graduate department and politely explain why the school is your first choice but you might not be able to attend because you have more financially attractive alternatives. Be open-minded about the solutions. Grants can be scarce, but an assistantship or tuition discount might get you to the same out-of-pocket cost. Warning: Don't expect a highly-ranked school to match offers or compete financially with a school ranked much lower. Many schools feel you should pay more for a degree that they believe is more valuable. You'll have to decide for yourself whether the extra cost is worth the benefit.

If you still need more money, search for other sources of financial aid.