An MBA admissions deferral is when an applicant is admitted to an MBA program with the intent to attend, but with the desire to defer admission to a later date due to some sort of extenuating circumstance. (This is different than the official deferred enrollment programs that are offered at some schools, such as the HBS 2+2 Program, Yale Silver Scholars Program, or Stanford MBA Deferred Enrollment Program, which you can read about in this article.)
Note, first and foremost, that MBA admissions deferrals are rare. One reason for that is that a big part of applying to business school is affirming that right now is the ideal time for you to pursue your MBA. So, when an admitted student (in admissions parlance, an “admit”) asks for a deferral, it pretty much flies in the face of all evidence presented that now is the perfect time for business school. Because of this, once a request to defer admission is made, Admissions Committees (AdComs) will question if the admit was honest throughout the essay and interview process.
Furthermore, statistics show that most admitted students who ask to defer their admission to a future year or semester do not actually ever attend that particular business school after all. That is often because the admit did not get accepted by his/her top choice and consequently plans to reapply to his/her dream MBA program in the next admissions cycle while using the deferral as a Plan B. As a result, business schools understandably do not want to allow admitted students to defer admission when they are unlikely to ever really show up on campus.
Accordingly, the policy of most top MBA programs is to not allow applicants to defer admission, and typically these policies don’t have any stated exemptions. Instead, MBA AdComs tell their admitted students to withdraw their applications and reapply the following year. This allows the business schools to accept candidates off the waitlist who view the MBA program as a dream school and will absolutely attend, as opposed to holding a precious seat open for someone who has already demonstrated reservations about attending.
Now, while these policies might sound ironclad, top MBA programs will make occasional exceptions and allow a small number of admits to defer their MBA admission. However, those concessions are generally limited to extreme circumstances that are outside of the control of the admitted students such as military deployment, deaths or illnesses in the family (particularly when the admit is the primary care-giver), or personal illnesses that require significant treatment. In these scenarios, you would have to provide documentation to the business school to prove your claim(s).
Other, more common requests to defer admission relate to finances or new career opportunities. However, these requests for MBA admissions deferral are much less frequently approved. For example, many admitted students end up deciding that they need more time to get the money together for the financial investment of business school. However, MBA AdComs expect their applicants to have already analyzed the costs prior to applying, so asking for more time to acquire the funds often comes across as the admits not having their acts together. Therefore, a desire to secure funding is not typically a compelling reason for business schools to allow admitted students to defer admission. An exception would be if there were a significant and unpredictable change to your financial situation that would make attending business school a hardship (e.g. the source for funding your MBA went away and you do not qualify for financial aid). Again, you would have to provide documentation to the business school to prove this hardship to even have a chance of receiving a deferral.
Alternatively, MBA admits often receive promotions in their careers, are assigned new consulting projects, positions at other companies, or inherit new responsibilities on the job. Understandably, admitted students in these situations would want to defer admission in order to take on new challenges and earn extra money that could go towards tuition. If you feel that you really need a deferral for one of these reasons by all means request one, just know the likelihood of the deferral being granted will not be in your favor, especially without a very compelling reason for why these opportunities are better and more timely than attending business school. Most likely, you will just be invited to apply again – but with your enhanced career experience and additional pre-MBA seasoning, your applicant profile will only have increased in value (which, of course, AdComs know can make it more likely that you’ll be admitted by an even better school, hence the reluctance to simply offer a deferral in the first place).
There are stories of admits deciding that they will defer admission or withdraw their applications but fail to communicate this to the business school AdCom. That is the worst thing you can do. Aside from the fact that this will irrevocably harm your chances of being able to attend the MBA program you wanted the deferral from, it could also harm your chances at other business schools as well (the admissions world is a small community with representatives attending many of the same recruitment and networking events, after all). So, be sure to reach out to the admissions office as soon as you know that you want to matriculate later than the cycle for which you have applied. If you have come to this conclusion before you have received a decision from the AdCom, then withdraw your application and reapply when you are ready. This allows the Admissions Committee to focus on the candidates who are likely to matriculate in the fall.
If you have received an acceptance letter (congratulations!) and you are going to make the request to have your business school admission deferred, see if you can have a conversation about your situation with the Admissions Committee in-person, or at least on the phone, rather than over email. You will learn more about the business school’s policy regarding deferrals and assess your chances of being able to defer admission. More importantly, this will also add a personal element to your request and increase the chance that the Admissions Committee will make their decision in your favor and allow a deferral.
As noted above, you will have to make sure your reason for wanting to defer admission is quite convincing. It helps if you can position the reason for your deferral as a once in a lifetime opportunity while reaffirming your commitment to pursuing an MBA at that particular business school the following year. You should also remind the AdCom of how you will be able to offer more value to the student community upon your eventual matriculation because of the added work experience and maturity you will have gained during your deferral period. Consider how the added work experience will allow you to contribute to the business school classroom and position you to reach your post-MBA goals more effectively.
Remember this is a difficult decision for the Admissions Committee as well. If the business school admitted you, then the staff is invested in you becoming a part of their community and may take a request to defer admission personally. So, engaging in discussions around a deferral is equally challenging for the AdCom. Schools make admissions decisions carefully: by accepting you, that school waitlisted or denied another candidate that it would otherwise have accepted; furthermore, your seat (and tuition) are important to the school, so your backing away from that means that the AdCom has a new task in order to fill the seat with a quality candidate. Be mindful of this in your communication. Remember, your admission took a space away from another qualified candidate, so positive dialogue is key in creating the best scenario for all involved.
Make sure to follow up your conversation with the Admissions Committee via email, and include a special thank you for their consideration as well as a reminder of the above notes, as this request is ultimately outside of the typical application process. The best thing you can do when engaging in the process of requesting an MBA deferral is to be gracious and humble. Remember, you are making a BIG request that the school does not need to grant you. Being humble and appreciative of the consideration you are receiving can only help your chances, and keep you in the good graces of the admissions committee should you need to reapply to attend later.
It is important to enter this process understanding the limited odds you have to actually secure a deferral, so follow the tips above to increase your chances of successfully requesting an MBA admissions deferral, and to make sure you are properly evaluating whether the alternative to matriculating in the year you applied is worth the overall hassle and potential risk to your future MBA opportunities.
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Dozie A. is a Veritas Prep Head Consultant for the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. His specialties include consulting, marketing, and low GPA/GMAT applicants. You can read more articles by him here.