Deferred MBA Admission: The Ultimate Opportunity for Pre-MBA College Students

Guest article by journalist Douglas Mark

Ready for a surprise? A new, fast track to highly selective MBA degrees recently opened up for college students. Deferred admissions programs, such as Harvard Business School’s 2+2 or Stanford GSB Deferred Enrollment program, are new pathways which bypass a roadblock that’s prevented undergraduates from applying to these programs. And what’s more, this route relieves the stress and intimidation many college seniors feel while planning their first career steps following graduation. 

What is this new pathway? How did it come about? And most importantly, who should take advantage of it? 

The MBA Work Experience Requirement

Decades have passed since top business schools enabled their admits to complete an MBA right after undergrad studies. In fact, not since the mid-1970s have elite MBA programs routinely welcomed applications from “pre-experience” university students. Since the early 1980s, those programs have strictly required applicants to demonstrate at least two to six years of professional work experience after graduating from college. 

Most potential MBA applicants have heard of this requirement, but few understand why the best business schools insist on it so uniformly—and so ardently. 

Why the Experience Requirement Exists

Top business schools cite a broad range of reasons for the experience mandate. In brief, the schools argue that experienced students add tremendous value to their MBA programs. Especially at case-method schools like the Harvard Business School, where students earn 50 percent of the grades in some courses from class participation, the schools extensively rely on peer education. At these schools, professors occasionally lecture but mostly act as astute facilitators of discussions among classmates. 

Deferred MBA programs expect that experienced students will contribute more useful insights to these discussions by sharing concrete examples based on their practical experience during similar business situations. Furthermore, students with more experience tend to feel less inhibited about speaking up in class and engaging in prolonged exchanges with classmates and faculty. 

The business schools also argue that the experience requirement makes MBA graduates more employable by influential recruiters. For example, some of the highest-paid sectors like private equity seldom consider hiring MBA graduates who lack prior experience within their industries. Moreover, admissions committee members—known as “adcoms” in business school lingo—strive to ensure that their admits will be readily employable upon graduation, and almost all MBA recruiters require experience among their new hires. 

How the Experience Requirement Imposes Obstacles for College Students

When formulating the composition of their ideal classes, elite business schools “want it both ways.” 

First, on the one hand, business schools traditionally have favored candidates with experience gained from pre-MBA jobs at prestigious blue-chip, brand-name “MBA feeder” employers mainly in two industries: management consulting and finance. That preference existed as far back as the early 1980s. And although they today admit increasing numbers of candidates with experience in industries like technology, the consulting/finance preference still persists at many business schools. 

Second, on the other hand, those business schools also want a diverse and vibrant exchange of insights and perspectives during their class discussions. They encourage rich exchanges of opposing views because those dialogues enhance teaching and learning. With the right professor, spirited discussions like those can focus students’ attention and even make examinations of dry, technical concepts seem fascinating. 

However, with a class made up of students predominantly from only two sectors, how diverse do you suppose those opposing views might be? Those aren’t likely to be the kinds of unforgettable classroom exchanges that successful graduates fondly recall 40 years later while they’re writing donation checks to the alumni association. This is one of the reasons that business schools who traditionally accepted applicants with mostly consulting and finance industry experience today also admit a significant proportion from “big tech.” These include firms like Amazon, Google, Microsoft and Uber. 

Paths to the MBA

Business schools also came under intense scrutiny and pressure following the 2008-2009 Great Recession. Vocal critics charged that a lack of diversity among MBA hires amounted to one of the factors that brought down perennial business school recruiters like the Wall Street investment bank Lehman Brothers. And Lehman’s collapse, in turn, sparked the global financial crisis.  

In short, business schools find themselves caught in the crossfire of conflicting admissions objectives. The schools continue to want applicants who worked for consulting and financial services firms, but they need diverse student bodies drawn from broad ranges of industries and backgrounds. 

Pre-MBA college students who understand this dilemma can feel whipsawed. If they want business schools like HBS, Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business, or the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School to admit them, the safest strategy continues to involve joining a financial services or consulting firm after college as a junior associate.  

But for a lot of talented college graduates, “shoehorning” themselves into jobs within those two industries for at least a couple of years might not match their motivations or interests. In the case of STEM (science, technology, engineering or mathematics) undergraduates—students in high demand at top business schools—most jobs in those two sectors probably won’t fit their skills, either. And working in financial services or consulting requires some college graduates to forego passions early in their careers that may benefit society as well as the economy, like starting businesses or working for nonprofit firms. 

The Ultimate
MBA Admissions Checklist

Our free, comprehensive checklist covers everything you need to shop for an MBA admissions consultant.

Our free, comprehensive checklist covers everything you need to shop for an MBA admissions consultant.

Compare pricing across 35+ MBA admissions consulting firms

Learn why “success rates” are not to be trusted

Find the right service model for your needs

Prep for your consultation calls

Compare pricing across 35+ MBA admissions consulting firms

Learn why “success rates”
are not to be trusted

Find the right service model
for your needs

Prep for your consultation calls

The Deferred Enrollment Solution

To address these obstacles, a rapidly growing contingent of increasingly available MBA programs has added or expanded deferred enrollment options. Without first requiring full-time, professional work experience, these alternatives enable college seniors and many pre-experience graduate students to apply for early admission to some of the world’s most selective business schools. The programs guarantee an early spot in their classes two to six years in the future, so long as these admits secure appropriate professional experience in the meantime.  

Programs like these aren’t new. Harvard has offered such a program under various brand names since the 1970s: at present, it is simply called HBS 2+2. As its name suggests, the HBS 2+2 program means a candidate works for two years after completing undergraduate school, and then they join the two-year full-time MBA program. A few other business schools like Stanford GSB, the Yale School of Management, the University of Navarra’s IESE Business School, the University of Virginia’s Darden Business School, and New York University’s Stern School of Business have also operated these initiatives for years.

However, seven other programs added or expanded deferred MBA enrollment programs in 2019 and 2020. For example, during this time Columbia Business School, the University of California at Berkeley’s Haas School of Business and Emory University’s Goizueta Business School introduced brand-new programs. Furthermore, four other M7 business schools—MIT’s Sloan School of Management, the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School and Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management—all expanded their deferred entry eligibility beyond the students who attended those universities’ undergraduate colleges. 

The Main Objective Driving Deferred Admission Program Expansions

Why the sudden growth of all these deferred enrollment options? And what do the schools gain from offering them? In short, business schools added these programs primarily to capture talented college seniors who face an unprecedented range of attractive post-graduation options

A director and consultant here at Menlo Coaching, Pascal Michels supervised a deferred enrollment program while Director of MBA admissions for the Financial Times’ number-two-ranked European MBA program at the IESE Business School in Barcelona. And according to Pascal—although the schools don’t openly talk about their primary motivation—they intend deferred enrollment programs to serve as more attractive alternatives than these jobs. “Deferred admissions programs tackle head-on the biggest competitor of all to top MBA programs: the possibility of a great career without an MBA,” he says. 

In some sectors, possibilities like those Pascal cites have become increasingly attainable. For example, software engineering employers now offer post-MBA level earnings even to professionals with only bachelor’s degrees. 

Similarly, private equity firms traditionally wouldn’t promote candidates without MBA degrees. However, to an increasing extent, these days PE firms extend direct promotion offers to their non-MBA associates. But that fact doesn’t necessarily mean that the promotion candidates with only bachelor’s degrees would enjoy the same long-term protection against career instability as those with MBAs. 

Why? “That’s because in a case like this, an employer’s interest might not always align with the candidate’s,” adds David White, one of Menlo’s founding partners. 

“Look at this situation from the employer’s perspective,” says David. “The employer’s motivation for offering a direct promotion is to retain the employee who would almost always discover better job options during a top MBA program. However, if economically necessary, the employer won’t think twice to lay off that same person they promoted early, and won’t care that the individual has a weak professional network to fall back on as a source of job leads because they skipped going to business school.”

Other Objectives Driving Deferred Admission Programs

But providing a more attractive alternative to good jobs isn’t the sole purpose driving the sudden expansion of all the deferral initiatives. Business schools also say that their deferral programs intend to: 

Harvard Business School’s Objectives

Harvard, in a league of their own as usual, seems to display a whole crop of distinctive objectives for their HBS 2+2 deferred enrollment program. None of their goals appears to be duplicated by the other business schools: 

Incentives Driving Students to Apply to Deferred Enrollment MBA Programs

Why should students apply to deferred enrollment programs? The incentives that drive college and pre-experience graduate students to apply are tremendous: 

Who Should Apply to a Deferred Enrollment Program? 

Given the broad and diverse array of objectives and incentives that drive deferred entry MBA programs, which students should apply to them? Based on our decades of combined experience working with applicants to elite business schools, our counselors here at Menlo Coaching have compiled the definitive list of qualities found among candidates who derive the most value from applications to early-enrollment programs. 

In our experience, candidates who fall into at least one of the following four categories find that applying to deferred enrollment programs seems especially worthwhile: 

Competitive Students Who Thrive on High Risk/High Reward Challenges

Students like these welcome opportunities to explore and take huge early-career risks after their graduation from college or a pre-experience master’s program—even when they recognize that a significant probability of failure exists. They’d consider working in a safe, classic pre-MBA job as a financial analyst for an MBA feeder investment bank on Wall Street to seem overly conventional and dreadfully boring. They’re the kinds of students that felt energized when they first read Stanford business school professor Tom Peters’ influential treatise Thriving on Chaos.

Despite rare exceptions, if after college graduation one joins a risky venture-funded tech startup that eventually fails, a traditional MBA admissions officer at an elite school probably will perceive that experience as a strong negative. Why? Other things equal, MBA admissions officers at these business schools require evidence of successful applicant track records to justify their acceptance decisions. Such adcoms generally don’t award partial credit, in the sense that they usually won’t give an applicant like that points because the startup might have transformed into a huge success if only a couple of events had worked out differently. 

Elite business school applications amount to a tough, high-stakes game—and awarding partial credit for failure isn’t generally how the adcoms at the best schools play it. Instead, a committee may wonder if such a candidate’s maturity level, lack of foresight, or impulsiveness may render that applicant an employment risk following their MBA graduation. And because they want their classes 100 percent employed upon receiving their degrees in rewarding jobs with exceptional promise, elite school admissions committees typically won’t hesitate to “ding” (decline) applications from candidates who display evidence of potential employability challenges. 

But on the other hand, what if that job candidate in our example had already won entry into Stanford’s deferred enrollment MBA program before that startup’s job offer? They could join that startup confidently, without fear of failure that could later torpedo their acceptance at Stanford or at many other elite business schools. Essentially, they’ve won the freedom to select pretty much any job they choose—no dull banking job for them!

“Had I always wanted an MBA from a school like Harvard, I probably never would have gone to work in Silicon Valley right after college,” says David. “It would have been too risky because startups routinely go out of business there. In that culture, it’s just part of the game.”

“Before I left Yahoo to go to work as Travelzoo’s vice-president, I worked for more than my share of startups. For example, only a year after I had graduated from college I joined a firm called Efficient Frontier as employee number one. But before Adobe bought the company it certainly could have failed, which probably would have damaged my chances for acceptance by an M7 business school. So for a STEM grad like me, one of these deferred enrollment programs instead would have been ideal.”

College Leaders With Amazing Accomplishments

Applying for deferred enrollment can capitalize on incredible college achievements by focusing the admission committee’s attention on them. Here’s why: 

In standard, non-deferred MBA applications, college leadership in extracurricular activities is nice to have. It can’t hurt, and might help. However, college extracurriculars rarely form the core of a candidate’s application—not when they may also have several years of post-college work experience success, potentially performing roles for a blue-chip corporation with progressively increasing responsibilities. 

But a deferred program application can boost the relative significance of strong leadership results while an officer of a college club, honor society, fraternity or sorority—or perhaps as a student body president. That track record would most likely end up de-emphasized in a standard application, buried under years of work experience. But in a deferral program application, those leadership skills might take center stage—and if presented in compelling ways, they may convince the committee that the candidate already fits the profile of a future chief executive. 

Students Who Expect Challenging MBA Feeder Jobs Following Graduation

During the spring semester of their senior year of college, many students who only need nine or 12 credit hours to graduate have extra time available and end up “coasting.” That’s especially true if they earned AP (Advanced Placement), CLEP (College-Level Examination Program) or proficiency credit hours—or if a company they worked for as an intern during the previous summer extends them a terrific full-time job offer upon graduation. 

Graduates Rejoice - Menlo Coaching book

Contrast that idyllic end-of-college scenario with typical first jobs out of college for the elite MBA-bound. Even in the 2020s, college graduates who choose pre-MBA financial analyst jobs in the investment banking industry can still expect to work an average of 80 hours a week. Alternatively, should grads accept jobs with consulting firms like McKinsey, they’re in store for four-day per-week travel schedules, with plenty of flights and hotel stays. 

Now, how is someone with one of these intense, time-consuming jobs ever going to schedule enough time to study for admissions tests, visit business school campuses, and write outstanding MBA program applications and essays? 

“Truth be told, not everybody can pull it off,” says David. “Especially among investment bankers and private equity associates, I’ve observed all sorts of situations where merciless and grueling work demands have interfered with their applications to business schools. Some folks coped by delaying the entire process, but missed deadlines and months of delays only compounded all their stress.”  

David points out that applying instead to a deferred enrollment program, which “time-shifts” the MBA admissions process into one’s senior year of college, provides an ingenious way around this trap. Because this rescheduling permits much more time to write compelling applications and essays, it relieves much of the stress that many MBA program applicants experience, and boosts their probability of acceptance by at least one super-elite M7 business school. 

Christine Mayer, the director of admissions for the two-year program at Northwestern Kellogg, agrees with David. Kellogg calls its new deferred enrollment option the Future Leaders Program, and she contends in this video that securing a spot in a future Kellogg class through the FLP offers a compelling choice: 

You’re securing a spot in a future Kellogg class. That means you’re investing time now that’s going to pay off later. You don’t have to worry about this application process a few years down the road when you’re trying to balance your career and your personal life. You’re already in that school mindset—you’re used to writing essays, and you’re used to writing papers. 

So doing this now is going to be a good investment of your time because it’s going to save you a lot of time later, and give you that peace of mind that you’ve already gotten this hard part out of the way and have that seat waiting for you.

Women and Others From Groups Underrepresented Among MBA Students

In 2019, only 38 percent of those who applied to full-time MBA programs were women. And the Graduate Management Admissions Council—the folks who administer the GMAT—recently discovered a key factor in the MBA program application journey for women: early planning. 

Research published in GMAC’s Global GME Candidate Segmentation Study demonstrates that in the United States, almost 60 percent more women than men were more likely to consider an MBA program while still enrolled as undergraduates. That’s because 27 percent of women candidates reported that they started to consider an MBA during college, compared with only 17 percent of men. The study points out:

For these women, deferred admissions programs can be a particularly appealing pathway to the MBA, enabling them to plan for their future education and career earlier than the standard trajectory to a full-time MBA program. 

Launched in 2016, one such deferred enrollment program at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business calls itself the Future Year Scholars Program. Katherine Alford, Darden’s senior associate director of admissions, told GMAC that “when we began the program, we knew that women tend to make their decisions about applying to graduate school earlier than men, and thought this would be a great opportunity to get in front of women earlier in their decision-making process to tell them about the benefits of the MBA.”

Alford’s colleague Taylor Fisher, Darden’s assistant admissions director who manages the FYSP, remarks that “the idea of removing uncertainty surrounding next steps, getting in early, and securing your place for ‘down the road’ seems to resonate especially well with women.” He adds, “I get the sense many of the women I speak with are very sharp in their planning—they want to know what’s next.”

What Could Go Wrong? Three Challenges 

Early-enrollment MBA programs confer such tremendous advantages that one would be crazy not to apply to them while still a university student. However, several challenges exist for those who do. 

Deferral Programs are Extraordinarily Competitive

First, most of these programs nevertheless remain extremely competitive. Keep in mind that even the business schools with the largest enrollment like Harvard’s—which admits about 1,100 students each year—still only allocate about 115 slots annually to early-enrollment admits.

Competition is so fierce that without admissions counseling support like that provided here at Menlo Coaching, few of these applicants are likely to win entry. In fact, among candidates unsupported by counselors at our level, the odds of winning entry at the HBS 2+2, Stanford or Wharton early-enrollment programs remain slim even if a candidate scored within the top ten percent on the GMAT and earned at least a 3.7 undergraduate grade point average. Moreover, the odds aren’t much better at the other M7 early-enrollment initiatives at Columbia, MIT, Northwestern or Chicago. 

Younger Candidates Need More Counseling

Second, GMAC points out: 

Younger candidates often have less prior knowledge about the value of an MBA and the diversity of professional opportunities it leads to, and typically require greater levels of individualized counseling.

In our experience counseling early-enrollment candidates, this seems like a remarkable understatement. Because these programs were designed to attract students from disciplines that typically don’t send many graduates to business schools, it’s hardly a surprise that college academic and career advisors frequently failed to provide such candidates the support they needed. 

Counselors at firms like ours bridge this gap. Our clients receive—often for the first time—the essential support they must have to deliver compelling, winning applications to these programs.

Early Enrollment Clients Gain Value Over More Years

Third, the optimal time to secure admissions consulting that delivers the most value isn’t necessarily when a candidate who has worked full-time for as many as six or more years decides to apply to business school. Instead, the best time is as early as possible—and especially while that candidate is still in college. 

In other words, by investing in our counseling earlier—which typically spreads the value over more years—our advice will pay dividends over a longer portion of that client’s life. That’s one reason why supportive parents of students applying early to business school invest in our services on behalf of their sons and daughters.

Admission Consulting’s Unfair Advantage

That said, not only potential clients but also their families frequently ask us about the extent to which MBA students studying at the best business schools hired firms like ours. 

That’s a reasonable question. It’s also not a surprising one, since today’s admissions consulting industry didn’t exist when most of our clients’ parents and relatives attended universities only a few decades ago. 

Recently a business school publication investigated this practice. Here’s an extended excerpt from their review: 

BSchools’ editors were surprised to learn the extent of the involvement of admissions consultants in editing and selecting topics for candidates’ essays. Data associated with published application essays suggests that many students who won admission to the full-time programs at the world’s most popular M7 business schools—including Harvard, Stanford, and Wharton—relied on help from these consultants.

Published estimates report a range between 22 and 45 percent of candidates who hire admission consultants, depending on the applicant group. This 2015 Fortune article reported that MBA admissions consultants “typically see a quarter to a third of the applicant pool of the top 10 business schools.” Another recent survey concluded that more than 20 percent of all MBA program applicants hire consultants.

The Association of International Graduate Admissions Consultants (AIGAC) is an industry group that represents 180 graduate admissions consulting firms from 16 countries. In 2016, AIGAC released a report that 45 percent of a sample of 1,114 applicants who applied to at least one graduate business school had hired admission consultants, a level consistent with a similar study the group conducted a year earlier.

However, some criticized the findings as biased because it’s in the best interest of this association to report higher than actual results. Moreover, AIGAC failed to report the sampling methodology. And 61 percent of respondents were international applicants, a group known for widespread use of admission consultants.

Nevertheless, anecdotal reports support even higher estimates. For example, this discussion forum comment from an MBA student at Northwestern University mused, “Sometimes I feel like I’m the only person who didn’t use an admissions consultant.” 

Another comment from a Harvard Business School student mentioned:

“Recently had a dinner with fellow HBSers where we talked about if we used a consultant or not. There were 10 of us there and only one hadn’t used a consultant. The others either externally hired someone or used an internal resource (since their companies sent a lot of people to b-school). . .”

Kira Talent—a Toronto software firm that develops interviewing software used by some business school admission offices—surveyed 50 of the top business schools in the United States. According to the Economist, Kira asked the schools’ admissions officers if they believed students who used consultants exercised an unfair advantage over those who didn’t. Half of those surveyed said they did.

The Ultimate Opportunity

As we mentioned, the advantages of these deferred admission initiatives are so compelling that college students would be crazy not to apply to them. The career freedom and exclusive networking contacts these programs deliver can completely transform a college graduate’s opportunities right from the start of their career.

Indeed, if ever there was an opportunity that justified an investment in admissions counseling from a firm like Menlo Coaching, this is that one, ultimate opportunity. 

Elevate your MBA application with the guidance of our experienced MBA admissions consultants, ensuring your path to elite business schools is clear.

While a partner in a San Francisco marketing and design firm, for over 20 years Douglas Mark wrote online and print content for the world’s biggest brands, including United Airlines, Union Bank, Ziff Davis, Sebastiani, and AT&T. Since his first magazine article appeared in MacUser in 1995, he’s written on graduate management education and finance as well as mobile online devices, apps, and technology. Doug graduated in the top one percent of his class with a business administration degree from the University of Illinois and studied computer science at Stanford University.