Are deferred MBA programs worth it?

Deferred programs have exploded in popularity in recent years. Today there are several deferred MBA programs in USA, India and Europe to choose from, such as Harvard 2+2, Yale Silver Scholars and many others offered by the elite universities.

  • How hard is it to get into a deferred MBA program?
  • What do admission officers look for?
  • How can I improve my chances?
  • Is a deferred MBA worth it?

Harvard MBA grad and founder of ApplicantLab, Maria Wich-Vila explores each of these questions.

Are Deferred MBA programs worth it?

By Maria Wich-Vila

Are deferred MBA programs worth it?

Why deferred MBA programs were created

To try to understand some of the admissions decisions that are made today, I think it’s useful to get some background as to why these programs were even created in the first place, 10+ years ago!

When I was volunteering for the HBS admissions office, about two years before 2+2 was officially launched, one big problem was that many incredible college seniors were applying to other graduate schools and professional programs (law; medicine; engineering; etc.), essentially whisking them down a path away from the MBA.

We’d hear from lawyers / doctors / engineers in their mid-to-late 20s things like: “Gee, I wish I would have known about the MBA years ago; it seems much more interesting than what I ended up studying… but I’ve already got $250k+ of student loans as it is, or I’m already in my early 30s, so I don’t think I can do an MBA now.

They’d regret the path they took, and we’d regret missing out on an incredible student and future alum that would one day enhance the school’s brand.

Some research (and well, common sense) indicated that these non-MBA focused students highly valued having certainty about what their next step would be.

That is, the “bird in the hand” of law school felt much “safer” than waiting five years and then perhaps (or perhaps not!) getting accepted to the MBA – even if law school wasn’t actually a good fit for this person and they might have been happier in business school instead.

This was especially the case for low-income students or children of immigrants, who were often heavily pressured by their parents to become a doctor, lawyer, or engineer.

Harvard wanted to create a program that would give college seniors a sense of certainty, grabbing great talent before they committed to another path.

But there was more to it than that.

At that time, we found that there simply wasn’t as much broad knowledge about the MBA beyond the business and economics majors.

When we’d speak to current college students from groups that weren’t applying to business school – e.g. the non-profit folks, the electrical engineers, the musical theater directors, the first-generation / low-income students, etc. – we found that there was the mis-conception that an MBA is only for sharp-elbowed capitalists, or people interested in working for gigantic corporations, and not, say, an aspiring leader of a charter school system, or a solar energy entrepreneur.

By launching the 2+2 program, Harvard was hoping to – if nothing else! – increase awareness of the MBA degree among college students as a viable option for graduate school, even if they kept it in the back of their minds for a few years.

The idea was to appeal to folks with a social impact / science / entrepreneurship bent by emphasizing the “Swiss-Army Knife leadership training” of the MBA instead of the “corporate cog / blood-sucking banker” stereotype.

The hope was that, maybe later on, those folks would remember the 2+2 information session / webinar from a few years earlier and think: “Hmm, maybe I should look into that – an MBA might actually be super-useful!” instead of: “Ugh, hard pass: I have a soul, thank you very much.

Of course – the reason that now SO many schools have either launched (or expanded eligibility for) their deferred programs is the talent arms-race between schools.

As I discuss in this blog post, schools are ultimately hoping that the people they accept will go on to become famous (For the right reasons! Not for defrauding investors!) and the school’s brand will be enhanced by association.

So, when some programs started grabbing some top talent early, they were taking away promising candidates who might have later applied to other programs!

Finance-types would recognize this as a “call option”, that is, getting a promising young person to commit to their school now, in the hopes that they won’t lose that candidate to a competitor school later.

And so, the expansion of these programs was inevitable.

Is it hard to get into a deferred MBA program?

The reason I went into describing the raison d’etre of these programs above is that I think it helps set the stage for thinking about the types of people who are more likely to get accepted.

When the program was first launched, the thinking around the folks accepted was primarily:

– “This is a high-potential person that we might otherwise ‘lose’ to a different type of graduate school / career path, so we need to grab them now!

TL;DR: “Let’s head them off at the pass.”

Over the years, I’ve seen this begin to expand to:

  • This is a high-potential person who seems VERY likely to get accepted to one of our competitors’ programs in a few years, and/or looks like someone we’d end up admitting anyway, so we should lock them down to commit to our program now.

TL;DR: “Let’s put a ring on it.”

This explains why now, college graduates going to the McKinseys and Goldmans of the world might still accepted via a deferred program, even if in the beginning the program wasn’t aimed at them.

The admissions office is probably “pattern matching” the pre-work careers of the successful consultants / bankers who eventually get accepted anyway, and hoping to grab them before they get accepted to another school in a few years’ time.

What do deferred MBA admission officers look for?

Given the original spirit in which the program was started, it should come as no surprise that the program continues to hope for “non-business-y” types: students who would have never otherwise even considered an MBA.

In fact, on the webpage for Harvard 2+2 admissions they flat-out tell you: that they’re looking for “individuals on paths that aren’t as well established in leading to graduate business school”.  

As an alumna of HBS, I can tell you that HBS doesn’t play games or mess around: if they say that this is who they’re hoping for, then we can believe them!

They specifically say that they are looking for people who are planning to work directly for a company (vs. consulting to / financing for a company); pursue a tech / science or entrepreneurship role, or come from a lower-income stratum.

Another clue, albeit an indirect one?  As of the time of this writing, the recruitment webinars highlighted on the 2+2 admissions page explicitly target STEM majors, Humanities majors, and Entrepreneurs.

Hmm. Interesting. Note that they aren’t trying to woo people who have plans to go into management consulting or banking post-graduation.

That’s because they know that if you’re going to enter those fields, you’re either already convinced of the “value” of the MBA, or you’ll get convinced later…and thus, they’ll be seeing you in the applicant pool a few years from now, so… why commit to you now when they can “play the field” a bit more?

Regardless of whether you’re an engineer, a non-profit type who would otherwise be interested in public interest law / social work, etc., a musician who launched a concert-promoting business, or a budding tech entrepreneur, your “non-business” experiences are actually very valuable. 

Of course, any successful applicant must have proof of significant leadership under their belts – e.g. starting or re-launching a highly-successful student club, running a new initiative at an internship employer, convincing the university administration to agree to something new.

The bigger that “new” thing is, the better! For example, convincing your university to have two robotics teams instead of one is nice – but convincing your university to allow you to launch its first-ever club for LGBTQ students (in a country famous for its homophobic attitudes)(and yes, this is a true example!) is even better.

One note though: in all cases, proving impact is important. When I’m reviewing candidate files, I’m always on the look-out for what I call “Daddy’s non-profit or start-up” – that is, did this person simply ask family and friends for money, set up a non-profit / start-up, and then… not do much with it? Just to look good for their business school application?

So if you have an endeavor you started yourself (even if it’s just a campus club!) make sure that you can point to any statistics that demonstrate that you were truly committed to and made earnest (and visible!) efforts.

Also, make sure that it has an updated website and perhaps can even be covered in a campus or local newspaper, since often admissions officers might try to find your initiative on Google!

How can I build my profile in college for deferred MBA programs?

Find a passion, and commit yourself to it whole-heartedly. This commitment should be via concrete actions, vs. a mere “studying” of the problem.

The problem with people trying to shape their life decisions from age 18 – 24 around “What will help me get into business school?” is that they might miss out on paths that would have made them really happy…and for what?

They might not get in anywhere anyway, and now they can’t get those years back. Or they might realize in a few years that an MBA for them is a waste of time and money.

Just between us, some of my most financially-successful friends thought they wanted to get an MBA when they were only a year or two out of college… but then their careers took off so much that it was far wiser (and well, more lucrative) for them to continue to rise through their given path.

Put bluntly: some of them might have been worse off, had they stepped off of the career rocket ship they were on and taken time off for the MBA.

Heck, I’ve even told my son that my hope for him is that he figures out what he loves while in undergrad, and thus never even needs the MBA!

Of course, your academics / grades during college need to be stellar: near the top of the class. But it’s even better if the courses you take and activities you participate in coalesce around something that truly matters to you (vs. simply being random electives scattered about). That genuine passion will come through in the application, and will really help you stand out.

For example, someone I helped get in to 2+2 a few years ago was an engineering major (super-common, right?), but also had minored in a specific visual art, and was pursuing a post-college job at the intersection of those two passions.

This person had also helped grow an arts-related club in college, and put on the club’s first-ever showcase of student work.

When I did a mock interview with them, their genuine passion shone through – not because they had rehearsed the “right” answer to say, but because they truly loved what they were studying and what they were going to work on after college.

Granted, not everyone can have all of the pieces (academic; extra-curricular; professional) gel together so flawlessly, but do try to find between 1 – 3 things you’re genuinely passionate about and throw yourself into those things with such vigor that you almost can’t help but become a leader, vs. dabbling in 5+ things, merely as a “member” of a club who doesn’t really do much.

And if you have an official leadership title within a club? Then step things up and try to come up with a significant, innovative improvement to how the club does things!

Someone who has a title like “student body president” (technically the highest leadership title an undergraduate can have), but then coasts through that year, simply doing the bare minimum / doing things the way they’ve always been done, will not look as good in the deferred admissions process as someone leading a smaller niche arts club, but who creates positive change.

Is a deferred MBA program worth it?

In conclusion, deferred MBA programs were initially started to help bring atypical students into the MBA fold.

This is why it can be harder (though these days, certainly not impossible!) for a “business-y” candidate to get accepted during the deferred cycle, whereas that same person may do splendidly 4 years later in the regular cycle.

I’ve personally worked with many people who were rejected without interview as college seniors, who got the “Yes!” from Harvard five years later.

If you apply and are accepted, I think the greatest benefit is the freedom it gives you to experiment: even the freedom to fail! Since you won’t be constantly worrying about “How will this impact my MBA chances later on?”, you can go to work at that non-profit that might not get funding, or launch an app for professional bassoonists (or balloonists, or both?), or try your hand in graphic design, etc.!

And no matter what: applying to a deferred MBA program – even if you don’t get in to a single program – can be a great experience.

It gives you “practice” for the regular MBA admissions process later on, and helps you enter your career with a stronger understanding of the role that leadership plays.

If this helps you try to drive more positive change both in and out of work over the next few years, you’ll be better off for it, even if you never think about the MBA again.
About the author: Maria Wich-Vila is an HBS graduate and the founder of ApplicantLab, a simple, and affordable DIY tool for business school applications. Check out these ApplicantLab reviews to find out what users are saying and whether it’s right for you.

This article is part of CrystalConnect, an outreach initiative by MBA Crystal Ball

Also read:
Deferred MBA Programs in USA, India, Europe
How I got into the Wharton Deferred MBA program

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