Top business schools with deferred MBA admissions programs

BY Sydney LakeNovember 19, 2021, 2:31 PM
Students during a class at the North Carolina State University Jenkins Graduate College of Management, as seen in September 2021. (Photographer: Logan Cyrus—Bloomberg/Getty Images

The average MBA student admitted to a top 10 business school (as ranked by Fortune) has five years of work experience when applying. Some prospective MBA students apply with exactly zero years of work experience, however.

Many competitive MBA programs offer a deferred admissions process in which college students apply to secure a spot in a future class after one to four years of work experience. Candidates pay a standard application fee (HBS even offers a reduced rate of $100 compared to $250 for its normal full-time application) and pay a deposit, typically around $1,000, to secure their spot.

For example, under Harvard Business School’s 2+2 program, college seniors can apply for the full-time MBA program, work for two to four years after completing their undergrad, and then matriculate to earn their MBA.

The 2+2 program is “meant to help people in college think about the kind of impact that they want to have over their careers and start to chart a course for making that impact,” Chad Losee, managing director of MBA admissions and financial aid at HBS, tells Fortune. “We like to see different paths that they’re going into after college and before HBS because that’s part of the way that we’re getting the different perspectives into the full-time class a few years later.”

Top business school officials and students agree that these deferred MBA programs allow young professionals the chance to take risks early on in their career because they’ve already locked down acceptance into business school. Such risks could include chasing a career in an industry students are passionate about, trying out multiple jobs within just a few years, or taking on projects they may not have done otherwise.

If you already think the MBA will be the right choice for you, read on to learn more about deferred programs offered at top business schools. Note that other competitive business schools—including University of Chicago (Booth), Northwestern University (Kellogg), Columbia University, and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Sloan)—also offer similar programs.

Harvard Business School

About 10 years ago, HBS launched its deferred admission program and the school now admits about 100 students each year who end up matriculating in the following two to four years. 

Prospective students applying under the 2+2 program take the exact same steps as anyone else who is applying to the full-time MBA program at HBS: They must submit a written application (resume, test scores, essays, and recommendation letters), as well as complete an interview and post-interview reflection essay.

“In both admissions processes, we’re trying to get to know someone, understand their context, understand the choices they’ve made, the impact they’ve had on other people, and the organizations they’re part of,” Losee says. “All of that data helps us understand someone’s potential, not just as a student at HBS, but also for the rest of their careers and the rest of their lives.”

The 2+2 program also looks to “attract people who aren’t already on a path to business school,” Losee adds. This could be a student who plans to work at an operating company, comes from a low socio-economic background, or goes into a technical role. This doesn’t mean the application process isn’t competitive, though. 

In 2021, more than 1,400 students applied for the 2+2 program, 124 of which will eventually matriculate as HBS students. Students do not need to specify ahead of time when they’ll matriculate; HBS checks in with the student each year. Don’t let this deter you from applying, though.

“The number one piece of advice that I always have is just to apply,” Losee says. “If you think that HBS could be part of your journey in making a difference in the world, apply.”

Stanford Graduate School of Business

College seniors or students who began a different master’s degree immediately after undergrad can apply to Stanford GSB’s deferred enrollment program. 

“Many people think you need years of work and management experience to apply to an MBA program,” Christine Friedman, director of enrollment at Stanford’s MBA admissions office, tells Fortune. “Not so. At Stanford, we believe you should apply when you’re ready.”

Stanford GSB upholds its same competitive standards for admission for its deferred enrollment program, she adds. Admissions officials are looking for intellectual vitality, demonstrated leadership potential, and personal qualities and attributions just like it does for its direct enrollment candidates.

Leadership can come in many forms and many settings, and you don’t need to have a formal leadership title, or years of professional experience, in order to lead,” Friedman says. “We want to learn how you’ve created positive change in the organizations and communities you’re in, regardless of your role.”

If admitted, deferred enrollment Stanford GSB students stay connected with the school during the one to four years they take to work before heading back for their MBA. Deferred students connect virtually with one another and are invited to student and alumni events.

“During the deferral period students are encouraged to pursue opportunities that are of interest to them, that enable them to build expertise, enhance their skills and knowledge, and expand their perspective,” Friedman says. 

University of Pennsylvania (Wharton)

In 2018, Rehan Ayrton was one of about 10 students admitted to the first cohort of the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania’s Moelis Advance Access Program and is currently a first-year MBA student. He also attended Wharton for undergrad and went on to work for McKinsey for three years before returning to school to pursue an MBA. Like at Harvard, Moelis students have two to four years to matriculate after being admitted.

Since then, the Moelis program has grown to having 173 students commit in 2020. Similar to its regular full-time admissions process, prospective students must submit a transcript, resume, GMAT or GRE scores, recommendation letters, essays, and complete a team-based discussion and interview.

While that process may sound daunting, it’s not, Ayrton says. “Really try to get ahead of it and give yourself as much time to write really authentic, genuine essays that showcase who you are and why you’d be able to add something unique and diverse to the mix.”

Ayrton was a very involved undergraduate student, having served as the president of Wharton’s student government. He ultimately chose to apply through the Moelis program for an opportunity to take risks and to have the security of earning an MBA in the future. Being a Wharton alum also allowed him to skip out on some of the MBA core courses and prepared him for the school’s learning style. 

Between the time he graduated from college and matriculated at Wharton’s MBA program, he stayed connected with the school. The Moelis program offers mentorships as well as social, learning, and professional events to stay involved. These include regional dinners with fellow Moelis students, Q&A sessions with current Wharton MBA students and access to Wharton events and conferences. 

“I think it’s a really neat chance to take risks from a career standpoint, but also have the security and the ability to know that you’re not only going to have the benefits of being an MBA student in two to four years, but also be able to experience some of that in that deferral period itself,” Ayrton says.

See how the schools you’re considering landed in Fortune’s rankings of the best part-timeexecutive, full-time, and online MBA programs.