For many business degree hopefuls, the MBA remains the gold standard of graduate management education, and not without reason – an MBA can be the start of a new chapter in your life. Professionally, it can help you accelerate in your career or make a career pivot. Academically, it can help fill hard and soft skills gaps. Personally, it can help you discover more about yourself. For these reasons, many cite their MBA experience as being transformative. An MBA remains the goal for many who aim to pursue a career in business. But what about individuals who don’t meet the work experience requirement of most MBA programs but have the desire to pursue graduate management study and start making their mark in the business world? Is gaining acceptance to an MBA program without work experience a real possibility? The short answer is yes, it is! Two of the most commonly pursued paths for candidates in this situation are pre-experience master’s programs and deferred MBAs.
Pre-experience/early career programs
The terms “pre-experience” and “early career” are used interchangeably, but they both refer to programs that cater to recent graduates (“recent” meaning zero to three years out of undergraduate). While this category started with the general management MiM, the portfolio of programs now includes masters in finance, innovation and entrepreneurship, and data analytics, to name but a few of the options you might find available at business schools today.
Applicants in this category are commonly referred to as pre-experience or early career candidates, and this market continues to remain popular; according to the GMAT™ Geographic Trend Report: Testing Year 2021, while most global GMAT scores continue to be sent to MBA programs (63%), the proportion of GMAT score reports sent to business master’s programs has remained steady at 33% (between 2017 and 2021). While pursuing a program such as an MiM doesn’t negate the need for an MBA later down the road (indeed, you will find individuals who have both an MiM and an MBA), these programs are excellent choices for recent graduates looking to explore their options in the business world with confidence.
Candidates who opt to pursue their business studies now rather than waiting until after they’ve earned a few years of work experience might do so for a few reasons: they might be looking to specialize in a specific area, such as finance or marketing, early on to enter a specific function; they might be looking to “convert” their liberal arts or science degree into a business career; or they might come from a business undergraduate degree but want to better understand how theory is applied in the real world so they can hit the ground running in their post-graduate job. Whatever the candidate’s reason, these degrees provide an excellent foundation and help individuals build the skills, knowledge, career support, and network to get a head start in their careers.
Deferred MBA admissions
Deferred MBA programs allow students in their final year of study (or just after, if pursuing a master’s without full-time work experience) to secure a seat in the MBA classroom before gaining the generally required work experience. These programs tend to see high-flyers – students with excellent academic credentials and internships who have demonstrated leadership potential – who have already started formulating career goals. These candidates understand, and can articulate, how an MBA will help them achieve their goals. These programs are a great option because they offer security (No having to worry about studying for the GMAT and writing applications alongside your busy work schedule!) and add some clout to your resume (Wow, already accepted to an MBA program before even graduating? Impressive!). Of course, as with anything, there are pros and cons, so it’s important to think about whether committing yourself to a deferred program makes sense with your career aims. If you decide that deferred enrollment is the best option for you, bear in mind that these programs are incredibly competitive.
If you’re thinking that pursuing a deferred MBA program sounds like a good option, here’s some information to help you better understand what these programs are all about.
Business schools with deferred MBA programs*
Harvard Business School 2+2 Program: Harvard’s 2+2 program is what the name implies – a minimum of two years (maximum four) of work experience, followed by two years of MBA study. Harvard is looking for “innovative thinkers who have demonstrated leadership and analytical skills and want to develop their knowledge and passion to make a difference in the world.” And this difference doesn’t have to be in a “traditional” business area. In fact, the 2+2 places some preference on candidates pursuing paths “that aren’t as well established”; this could include candidates planning to work in an operating company, coming from a lower socioeconomic background, aiming to pursue a technically demanding role, or with aspiring to entrepreneurism. So, if you’re not focused on joining one of the “big three” strategy consulting firms, don’t let that stop you from applying. You might just be what the 2+2 is looking for.
New York University (NYU) Stern NYUx NYU/Stern program: Undergraduates from NYU’s College of Arts and Science, Tandon School of Engineering, Global Liberal Studies, Stern School of Business, and Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development can opt to pursue their full-time, two-year MBA at Stern (without needing the GMAT or GRE) within two to five years after they graduate. Financial support is a big pull with this program – accepted students are granted an Early Advancement Award of $10,000, which is used to cover part of their MBA tuition at NYU. These students are also eligible for other Stern scholarships, including the Berkley Early Advancement Fellowship, which covers all fees and tuition for the year in which they matriculate. Accepted students with an interest in technology or in the fashion and luxury industries could choose to enroll in the Andre Koo Tech & Entrepreneurship MBA program or the Fashion & Luxury MBA program rather than in the traditional two-year MBA program.
Columbia Business School (CBS) Deferred Enrollment Program: CBS’s deferred admissions option offers flexibility; admitted students can explore the professional world for two to five years before beginning their MBA studies at a time that works best for them. This is a great opportunity for individuals who are looking to explore their career options and develop a better understanding of their business interests and passions. The flexibility continues once students start their studies; when they’re ready to begin, they can specify in a letter of intent whether they prefer the 16-month (January) program or the 20-month (August) program, the latter of which includes a summer internship. Admitted students are also able to apply for a dual degree program the year that they matriculate. Having spent time in industry or entrepreneurship during the deferment period can help students determine which MBA journey will offer the teaching and experience they need to achieve their professional and academic development.
Wharton Moelis Advance Access Program: Wharton’s deferred admissions program offers recent undergraduate or master’s degree students the chance to work for two to four years before joining the MBA as a Moelis Fellow. The program “seeks students who are ambitious, innovative, and prepared to use a sense of professional liberty to maximize their early career experiences.” In addition to seeking proactive, motivated students, Wharton encourages admits to take professional risks during the deferment period and take advantage of the opportunity to “pursue [their] early years with increased confidence and risk-tolerance.” Once on campus, Moelis Fellows have access to valuable Wharton resources, such as conferences, mentoring, and networking events, as well as select Wharton Interactive simulations.
Stanford Graduate School of Business Deferred Enrollment Program: Stanford’s program offers something that most do not – deferred MBA admits are able to take as little as one year (but no more than four) to gain experience before beginning their MBA studies. It is open to students in either the final year of their bachelor’s or joint bachelor/graduate program, or those currently in a graduate program that they started immediately following their undergraduate study. We should note that Stanford uses the same evaluation criteria for deferred candidates as it does for applicants to its full-time MBA program, assessing how applicants think, lead, and see the world.
Stanford cites deferred enrollment as a good option for candidates who are unsure of their long-term professional path and feel they would benefit from gaining full-time work experience first. The school also indicates that some industries – such as private equity, biotech, and management consulting – recruit only MBA candidates who have pre-MBA experience in that field or specialized knowledge. So, taking time out to gain that experience and knowledge can be valuable in ultimately achieving your post-MBA career goals.
Stanford expects admitted students (during the deferral period) to “pursue opportunities that enable [them] to build expertise, enhance [their] skills and knowledge, expand [their] perspective, and develop professional judgment and self-confidence.” So you will need to reflect on what activities will allow you to develop and how you should spend your pre-MBA time.
Kellogg Future Leaders Deferred Enrollment Program: Kellogg opened admissions to its deferred enrollment program, one of the newer ones on the market, in February 2020. It allows admitted students to work for two to five years before beginning their MBA journey. Master’s and undergraduate students (excluding law, medical, and PhD students/grads, who apply through the standard admissions process) can come from any undergraduate study discipline and have either graduated in the past year, be in their final year, or have gone straight into graduate study post-bachelor’s.
The usual admissions requirements apply – test scores, essays, letters of recommendation, interviews – for some but not all candidates. Applicants who are already attending Northwestern are exempt from having to take either the GMAT or GRE, so that’s one application requirement that can be ticked off the list for those already wearing the purple N.
Silver Scholars Program: Yale’s program works slightly differently from the other deferred admissions programs on this list. College seniors earn their MBA in a fast-tracked three-year format immediately after completing their undergraduate degree. The program structure is as follows: Year 1 covers the core curriculum, Year 2 involves a full-time internship(s), and Year 3 comprises electives. The opportunity to develop academic skills while simultaneously gaining professional experience is a unique one. In addition, Silver Scholars learn alongside students from Yale’s traditional MBA track. Access to knowledge and experience? Check!
Yale says, “Silver Scholars are chosen for their combination of intelligence and common sense, maturity and curiosity, passion and compassion. Each has made a difference and distinguished themselves in a particular field of interest.” You’ll need to ensure that you really stand out through the application process (which, by the way, is largely the same as for the traditional MBA program, with just a few differences). Remember, you’ll be studying alongside students with five years of professional experience. You’ll need to convince the adcom that you have what it takes to contribute to classroom discussion and debate.
Chicago Booth Scholars Program: In 2018, Booth opened admissions to its Scholars Program, which was originally available only to University of Chicago undergraduates, to students from any university. The program allows candidates to apply before they graduate from college, then defer and gain professional experience for two to five years before enrolling to earn their MBA.
Booth cites flexibility as one of the major differentiators. Booth Scholars have the option of considering the Evening MBA or Weekend MBA if one of those programs is a better fit with their career aims.
Booth says candidates for the Scholars Program “demonstrate intellectual curiosity, personal maturity, competitive scores, and leadership” and that they “have a history of substantive internships or part-time jobs and/or an entrepreneurial spirit.” The application essays make clear that successful candidates need to be able to articulate their career goals and where the MBA fits in. The school wants intelligent, independent thinkers with a considered career map. Although one’s career aims can change during the course of deferment, of course, the adcom wants to see that candidates have taken the time to consider their professional path and how Booth fits into it.
UVA Darden Future Year Scholars Program: Darden’s program allows final-year undergraduates, or full-time master’s students without work experience, to work for two to four years before starting their MBA studies. Student backgrounds are diverse because Darden aims to recruit a range of abilities and professional and academic backgrounds. The school’s most recent class comprises an internationally (43%) and academically (61% non-business degrees) diverse group of students hailing from ten countries and 43 undergraduate institutions. Applicants are evaluated in three areas: academics, extracurricular involvement, and personal characteristics. While the latter of these criteria is vague, the adcom does say that the school is looking for individuals who “aspire to be future ethical leaders and managers in a global world.” Putting thought into why you have the potential to be this kind of future leader, and whether your values align with Darden’s, would be time well spent.
MIT Sloan Early Admission: If you are an “ambitious and forward-thinking student,” Sloan’s deferred admissions option might be right for you. It is open to final-year students and to those in graduate study (who started immediately after completing their bachelor’s) without work experience, and students are able to work for two to five years before joining the MBA.
The admissions process is slightly different for Early Admission candidates, and with a different application calendar for non-MIT undergrads. Candidates are required to submit a 300-word cover letter demonstrating their fit. MIT is quite specific who they’re looking for. They want “thoughtful leaders with exceptional intellectual abilities and the drive and determination to put their stamp on the world…people who are independent, authentic, and fearlessly creative… who can redefine solutions to conventional problems, and strive to pre-empt unconventional dilemmas with cutting-edge ideas.” A lot to think about and a lot to squeeze into a one-page cover letter, so do carefully consider how you fit these criteria. Additionally, candidates must submit a resume and 60 second video introducing themselves to the class. The video is a great opportunity to show your personality and bring the person introduced in the cover letter to life.
And applicants who are current MIT students and have a cumulative GPA of 4.2 or higher are in luck because the GMAT/GRE will be waived for them.
Berkeley’s deferred pathway joined this list of programs in January 2020. When initially launched, it was open only to students with an undergraduate or graduate degree from one of the ten University of California campuses. However, as of January 2021, qualified candidates from any school can apply. Admitted students not only have access to the full-time MBA program but are also eligible for consideration for dual degree programs.
Students are required to work for a minimum of two years before beginning their MBA studies but are allotted a maximum of five years in which to explore their career interests. While Berkeley does not require its deferred students to follow particular career paths, it prods them to pursue “employment that enhances [their] leadership profile and prepares [them] to contribute to the mission-driven business community” at the school. To ensure that admitted students are meeting the required criteria, all offers are conditional, and students are required to attend check-ins with a Haas advisor or career coach, and a review might be conducted prior to the intended enrollment date to ensure terms have been met.
Tepper Future Business Leaders Deferred MBA Admissions Program: In February 2021, Tepper joined the deferred admissions space with its Future Business Leaders program, which allows students to defer for up to four years while they gain professional experience. The program’s lead recruiter believes the format “will allow motivated seniors to have better insight and more control while mapping out their future career paths.” The program is open to eligible college seniors who plan to graduate from a U.S. college or university in the current academic year and who do not yet have full-time work experience. The school says “competitive applicants will have a strong academic record, professional internships, and undergraduate leadership experience.” Tepper’s adcom also expects applicants to have put some thought into their career aims and why the program format is a good fit (essays alert!). The GMAT/GRE is waived for Carnegie Mellon students, and admits are eligible to apply for scholarships, with decisions to be made at the time of matriculation.
Georgetown McDonough Advanced Access Program: The most recent player to join the MBA deferred admissions club is Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business, with its MBA Advanced Access Program (MAAP). The MAAP allows candidates in their final year of undergraduate studies or in graduate school – who have not previously had full-time work experience – to apply for deferred enrollment to . Accepted students can secure a place in the class two years out from the time they apply, with the option of extending this time period to three or four years.
The application process is thorough. In addition to the standard written application essay (candidates have three question options to choose from) and video essay, MAAP applicants are required to complete program-specific essays. The prompts for these essays ask candidates not just about their career aims but also about where they stand in working to achieve those aims. Applicants are also asked about their personal and professional development plans. So you’ll want to take some time to reflect and think about how you can present yourself as a proactive, principled future leader who will contribute to the school’s community and make an impact in the business world.
*Information is accurate as of March 2023.
If these options sound interesting, but you’re still unsure of whether it makes sense for you to study for a master’s now or wait till a later date to pursue an MBA, in which we discuss the differences in the degrees and points for consideration. You might also like to read more about the benefits of deferred admissions and whether this path might be the right one for you.The important thing to remember here is that you CAN apply for an MBA with no work experience. And Accepted can help! Explore our MBA Admissions Consulting Services and work one-on-one with an experienced advisor who will help you create an application strategy that will get you accepted!
The important thing here to remember is that you CAN apply for an MBA with no work experience, but it’s not without its challenges. And Accepted can help! Explore our MBA Admissions Consulting Services and work one-on-one with an experienced advisor who will help you create an application strategy that will get you accepted!
Jamie Wright has more than eight years of recruitment and admissions experience at London Business School (LBS) and is the former admissions director for Early Career Programmes at LBS. Originally from the United States, Jamie is now based in London. Want Jamie to help you get accepted? Click here to get in touch with Jamie Wright.