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Undergraduate vs. Deferred Enrollment: How to Know When You Will Be the Most Competitive Business School Applicant

By Danielle, IvyWise College Admissions Counselor

One of the most common discussions I have with families is when to apply to business school. There are three questions to consider:

  • Should the high school student apply directly into an undergraduate business program?
  • Should the student apply at the end of their undergraduate studies through deferred enrollment programs?
  • Should the student complete 2-5 years of substantial work experience before applying to business school?

These questions dictate key decisions, such as crafting your balanced list of undergraduate programs. With only a small number of top U.S. schools offering an undergraduate business degree, making the decision to pursue business immediately after high school can seriously impact a student’s school list.

If you are considering business school and having difficulty planning out the next five to 10 years of your life, keep reading as I walk through what a competitive profile looks like for a few entry points into a business education.

How to Compete as an Undergraduate Candidate

As an admissions officer at the University of Pennsylvania, I reviewed thousands of applications from students convinced they wanted to study undergraduate business. I often started each day opening applications to the business school because they were always the quickest reads. It is easy to spot the students who not only have the credentials but “get it.”

Don’t Shy Away From Math Classes

One of the first credentials that will help you stand out in an undergraduate business pool is pursuing the highest level of math available through your senior year. The most competitive applicants prioritize the fundamental math courses—precalculus, calculus AB or BC, linear algebra, multivariable calculus, differential equations—and do not substitute them for business-rooted math courses like economics. If you can take both, great! But top business schools base their curriculum in data and do not prefer a senior with AP economics over calculus AB or BC.

Make an Impact with Leadership

The second credential that helps students float to the top of the pool is leadership. At top business schools, it is not enough that someone is the class president, captain of the athletic team, and/or founder of a nonprofit. I have seen plenty of committee chairs move on from these profiles because they were lacking impact.

What do I mean by impact? I’ll give you some examples. Not only were you president of your high school, you lobbied with other student presidents in the area to get a culturally insensitive holiday removed from the school calendar. Impact could also mean taking leadership on a sports team a step further by using analytics to create a tangible change in team outcomes.

Explain Your Why

The last credential that separates competitive students is your why—explaining why you want to pursue business. If your sole motivation for applying to an undergraduate business school is because of the success you saw from your lemonade stand, being inspired by a parent, or because you enjoy investing, I recommend you wait until after your undergraduate studies to pursue business. Top applicants can read through the curriculum listing at an undergraduate business program, identify the major they want to pursue, and write an essay on the key business problem pursuing this major would help them solve.

If you feel like you’re missing a few of the pieces above, do not worry. There are a few other entry points into business school, including deferred enrollment programs.

How to Compete as a Deferred Admission Candidate

Harvard, Stanford, Booth, Wharton, Sloan, and numerous others have established deferred enrollment entry points for stellar undergraduates to apply during their senior year and secure a seat in their coveted MBA programs after 2-5 years of substantial work experience. Similar to MBA admissions for professionals, an undergraduate’s academic record and leadership are heavily evaluated.

Establish Your Expertise

The most competitive applicants will have taken a rigorous courseload throughout their undergraduate years and demonstrate a level of expertise in a particular field. This can include graduating with multiple degrees or majors, entering selective scholar programs on campus, or receiving honors and recognition for standout research. Similar to high school students, undergraduate applicants also have pursued quantitative-based courses. This does not mean you have to double major in math or economics, but even if you’re a liberal arts student, you should take calculus, econ, and a data-centric course.

Gain Meaningful Work Experience

One of the biggest indicators of a competitive applicant is work experience. For an undergraduate student this means taking a close look at how they spent their summers. Students who completed formal internships at highly sought-after companies across industries, such as Google, Amazon, McKinsey, Bain, BCG, Goldman, Evercore—or the even rarer undergraduate student that landed a private equity internship—usually fare well in the committee. Students go through a very rigorous selection and interview process to gain these internships and an even higher quality learning experience once they are there, so MBA programs are confident these students will have key insights to offer to the classroom.

Explain Your Plans for the Future

If I had to identify one element that could make or break a deferred admission candidate’s application, it is their articulated next steps after their undergraduate studies. The biggest question going into the committee room was always, does this student have an offer or offers for post-undergraduate employment?

There are a lot of students who intern at the coveted companies listed above, but very few gain full-time offers and even fewer students receive full-time offers without ever interning at the company. Admitting students before seeing their full-time work experience is a bit of a gamble, so deferred admissions programs tend to lean toward the students with solidified employment or clearly articulated and funded entrepreneurship venture in place.

If you do not have the strong academic undergraduate performance, internship experience, and a clear employment plan post-graduation, I would recommend working for 2-5 years before applying for an MBA program.

Deciding whether business is the right fit for you and when to pursue it can be a stressful process. At IvyWise, we work with all students to determine which academic major and program could be the best fit for them. Our team of admissions counselors can help you home in on your academic interests, then work with you to craft the appropriately timed application strategy that will increase your chances of gaining admission into top business schools across the nation. Contact us today for more information on how we can help you with your future applications!

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