How HBS Decided To Allow Every Admitted MBA The Option To Defer

Harvard Business School 2018 graduation ceremony


The initial concern among many admitted students would be getting deferred two years when they just wanted one year of deferment. If too many admitted students request a deferment, there could be a bleed over into the following year. Once the deferment period opens on May 15, students will have until June 1 to indicate if they do want to defer and if so, if they want to defer one year or two years. “We’ll do our best to honor those (requests), but we can’t guarantee that,” Losee admits.

On April 28, four days after the initial deferral policy went out to admitted students, Losee, HBS Dean Nitin Nohria, and HBS Executive Director of MBA and Doctoral Programs Jana Kierstead held a closed webinar for admitted students only discussing the policy. The hour-long call drew nearly 800 admitted students and generated “over 200 pages” of questions, Losee said on the call. The administrators spent just as much time pitching admitted students on taking a “leap of faith” and attending HBS this fall as they did answering the questions, mainly around how the deferment process would work for international students.

According to Slack threads and WhatsApp messages of groups of international admitted students, as well as one anonymous admitted international student that emailed with Poets&Quants directly, the pitch largely worked. According to a poll sent to Poets&Quants from one of those informal Slack threads, 170 of 196 domestic and international respondents said they plan on enrolling. Just 14 domestic admitted students and 12 international admitted students said they’d apply to defer for a year. No respondents said they’d apply to defer for two years. Last Friday after the announcement, the same poll skewed heavily towards “not sure and still overwhelmed.”

One international student who went anonymously on the record said he was “feeling more relieved” than before the webinar despite not being sure if he would be able to obtain a visa before schools starts in the fall. “Getting deferred for two years sounds a lot worse than a virtual start which I believe we’ll be able to collectively make a great one if it has to be that way,” the admitted student said, adding that “enrolling this year” seemed to be the new trend among the other international-based admitted students they had communicated with. “Let me just say that the pep talk worked,” the admitted student concluded.


While HBS has been bold and liberal with its deferral policy, its competitors have hedged. When asked directly what sort of deferral plan they were taking, both Stanford’s Graduate School of Business and Chicago’s Booth School of Business refused to give Poets&Quants an answer. “We aren’t able to offer any useful general comments since the situation is very complex and still evolving,” a spokesperson from Stanford said. Chicago Booth’s response was “We are going to pass on this one.”

Wharton didn’t provide any response at all. Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management said it would consider deferrals on a case-by-case basis.

“As we have always done, Kellogg will consider deferral requests from admitted students with exceptional circumstances,” a spokesperson from the school said. “Admitted students can submit a request for deferment that will be reviewed by our admissions team. These requests will be evaluated on a case-by-case basis since each situation is unique.”

A list of deferral stances for the top-20 schools in Poets&Quants‘ ranking of U.S.-based business schools is here.


Harvard’s Losee says as students begin considering a deferment, to make sure they consider the environment around them.

“What is their health and what is their family’s health,” Losee says.

He also says to consider the amount of uncertainty a student is comfortable with.

“There is inevitably some uncertainty. Harvard University made a decision that we will be opening in the fall. But there are still questions about will it be virtual, or will it be on campus and in-person, or will it be a hybrid,” Losee says. “And while our desire is to be on campus and in-person as soon as possible, we are planning for every contingency and trying to be ready for everything.

“For some people, that level of uncertainty might be too hard. They’ve looked forward to business school for a long time and they have certain expectations of what it should be. And they don’t want to deal with that level of uncertainty. I would humbly submit for people to think about it. While I understand that level of uncertainty and how people might deal with that, I have been struck going through this pandemic and trying to support incoming students and my team and do my best, I’ve really been reflecting on what I learned as a student at Harvard Business School. So you spend two years going through 500 different business problems and trying to figure out what decision you would make with imperfect information. There’s a lot of decisions that are being made right now with imperfect information and I think I am better equipped to manage through this crisis and try to do right by the people around me because I went to business school and I went to a place where there was a real focus on how to listen, how to draw on different perspectives, how to weigh the different options, and how to balance all of the different needs. I feel like I’m relying on that time and time again in a very rapid-fire way as we try to manage through this pandemic.”


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