This post was originally posted April 10, 2020 and was updated June 19th, 2020

Note: this blog post describes why I believe that few business schools (apart from Harvard) will allow for broad deferrals due to COVID. If you’ve been accepted and are wondering if I still think you should enroll in an MBA program, even if the program will be online this year, see my thoughts in this post instead: Should I Still Enroll In An MBA If The Program Is Only Virtual / Online?


Due to coronavirus / COVID-19, many MBA admits (and those who applied in the extended R3) are now looking at the different scenarios and outcomes and wondering if they should ask the MBA program that they have been accepted to if they can defer (that is, delay) enrolling in the MBA program by one year. In other words, instead of enrolling in August or September of 2020, instead asking the school if they can enroll the following academic year instead.

This is for 2 key reasons:

  1. Many students are understandably nervous that virtual classes will NOT allow for some of the intense bonding and friendships that MBA programs are famous for (though personally I think this concern is overblown)
  2. On a darker note, lay-offs and restructurings at many companies may give early-career candidates a chance to take charge of some more advanced opportunities (think: taking over an important client relationship if a boss has been laid off), and so there might be some exciting opportunities for professional growth (personally, I think this is a bit risky — after all, if your boss is let go due to the economy… sure you might get some plum projects…or you could be next!)

Anyway, because of this, I’ve been getting lots of emails from my clients who have been accepted to MBA programs asking me:

“Is it OK if I ask the MBA program for a deferral, so that I can start classes next year, instead of this year?”

Well, the SIMPLE answer to this is: “Sure, you ‘can’ ask for a deferral.”  But ASKING and RECEIVING are TWO DIFFERENT THINGS.

No, I do NOT think that business schools will grant many COVID-19 related deferrals.

Reasons:

  1. The coronavirus pandemic is affecting essentially 100% of the world right now. The fact that you are stressed out, or bummed out, about the fact that classes might be online or your internship might not materialize, etc.?  Well guess what. I’d estimate that 85% of other MBA students are stressed about this as well (the only reason I don’t say 100% is that I’m allowing for roughly 15% of the class to be either employer-sponsored or going back to a family or self-owned business, so recruiting is not a big worry to them)

2. Can you imagine what would happen if 100%, 85% or even 50% of the incoming MBA class asked for a deferral until the following year?

      • It will rob the school of one year’s worth of MBA revenue for those students: the school will still have many “fixed costs” that it needs revenue to keep running (professor salaries; facilities; administration; etc.)
      • This will rob next year’s applicants of spots: now, instead of, say, 500 spots available in a hypothetical program, now they would only be 50 or 100 spots, since many (most?!) of the spots would be taken up by the previous year’s admits.

Well then, so when DO schools usually grant deferrals, in other years?”

Even in Corona-Free times, they have NEVER been granted in the past simply on a candidate’s whim — for example, because “Some cool new opportunity at work just came up!”. After all, if you felt you had more to learn / more room to grow in your current job, then why would have applied to b-school now? (This is precisely why many schools often have a “Why now?” component to their “Why MBA?” question).

Usually, the reasons for deferrals are when something outside of the candidate’s control occurs that will make them physically unable to attend school in the fall.

Examples:

  • An illness that requires intense care, such as the candidate undergoing chemotherapy
  • Discovering that one is pregnant and due to give birth near the beginning of the school year; thus, “maternity leave” would occur when classes are starting and the student would not be able to attend class / catch up
  • Needing to care for a relative, in case of unexpected illness or a financially-devastating tragedy
  • Being called for mandatory military deployment

Note that one reason that someone may be unable to attend an MBA program is that they are unable to get either:

  • A student visa
  • A student loan

The visa in particular is almost never grounds for being successfully granted a deferral, since the school views that as being the candidate’s responsibility to have their acts together. While sometimes there are things such as a random, unexpected travel ban that pop up, usually the candidate is expected to have researched what it takes to get a visa and to take steps as soon as possible to get one (side note: this is why many U.S. MBA programs distinctly discourage or even forbid international students from applying late in the cycle, such as in Round 3).

So what is different about asking for a deferral NOW vs. asking for a deferral in the past?

Well, since pretty much every business school switched to online classes for the end of the spring semester, AND since MOST business schools are anticipating being at least partially if not fully online when classes start in the fall of 2020, many of the previous reasons for getting a deferral have gone away, since THE ENTIRE WORLD has been affected by COVID.

Put another way: if COVID were ONLY a virus impacting people from, say, Papua New Guinea, and THOSE students were physically unable to start classes because of it, then yes, in the past, those folks may have been able to ask for a delay in enrolling.

But now? As of the time of writing (original article written in April 2020; updated in June 2020) it looks like ALL international students may be stuck in their home country when classes start, and even A LOT OF DOMESTIC students may also be unable to move to another city in their own country, if they are on some sort of lock-down.

Since this virus is impacting such a huge chunk of students, and since the MBA programs are providing online learning alternatives, this is why I believe that it will be very difficult to request a deferral.

So…is ANYONE getting COVID-related deferrals? 

Yes. While some programs like Harvard told HBS admits that anyone who wants a deferral can have one, MOST other schools are doing them on a “case by case” basis.

What I’ve seen so far (as of June 2020) is that people who can’t come to campus? Tough luck — that’s why we’re online. BUT people who can NOT START an MBA program at all? They are having more luck.

For example, I’ve recently heard of two cases (one at Columbia and the other, I believe, at Stanford) where an incoming student’s parents BOTH lost their jobs, due to the virus. Suddenly, this ~25-year old has found themselves not only needing to pay for their own living expenses, but also for their parents and possibly younger siblings as well.  In a case like that, even the most generous financial package ever (i.e., a full ride) would not be enough, since how would the rest of the student’s family eat?  In that case, the student MUST continue working to earn money; taking time off for school would have devastating ripple effects for the entire family.


Regardless of what schools do re: deferrals this summer, one thing is almost 100% certain: this year will be be ONE OF THE MOST COMPETITIVE MBA application seasons in years.

YOU’LL NEED EXPERT ADMISSIONS ADVICE THIS YEAR,

but you DON’T need to pay thousands of dollars for that advice.

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