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HBS Deferred MBA: Top Tips for the 2+2 Essays

Application season for deferred entry programs is heating up, with deadlines coming up in April. Business-bound college and master’s degree students applying for Harvard Business School’’s 2+2 program are no doubt working on their essays, and that’s no small task. 

 The 2024 application essays for the 2+2 program offer some options and cover a lot of ground, all in just 300 words per essay. In a recent conversation, my Fortuna colleagues Michel Belden, senior expert coach and former associate director of admissions at the Wharton School, and Alterell Mills, an HBS alumnus and expert coach, offered some advice on how to tackle these essays. 


Why consider early admission? 

Early admission, deferred entry programs like the HBS 2+2 program are a terrific opportunity if you know that you are destined for business and want an early start on acquiring the solid skills of an MBA. 

These programs offer a guaranteed spot in a future class before you’ve accrued the years of practical business experience most schools expect before you enter. With a promise of admission in your pocket when you graduate from college, you have greater freedom to explore career opportunities and experiences that interest you before enrolling in the program.


The 2+2 Application Essays 

For the 2024 season, HBS asks applicants to respond to three essays in two areas. For the personal essays, you pick two of the three prompts and write up to 300 words for each. “You can choose which questions resonate with you — the ones you feel most comfortable with and best allow you to tell your story,” Belden says. For the career essay,  you answer all of the prompt questions in one 300-word essay.

Essay 1:  Personal
(pick two, 300 words each) 

‣What communities have you been engaged with that have defined how you invest in others?

‣What intellectual experiences have influenced your approach to learning and have led you to pursue an MBA?

‣How have your experiences shaped who you are, how you lead, and how you will contribute at HBS?

Essay 2: Career
(300 words)

‣How do the career plans you shared in the Career Plans section of the application fit into your current long-term career vision? What skills and/or professional experiences do you hope to obtain in the deferral period that will help build the foundation for your post-MBA career?

What is HBS Looking for in its 2+2 Essays? 

Getting admitted to one of the most selective MBA programs in the world straight out of college or a master’s, with little to no professional work experience, is a rare opportunity offered to individuals with an outstanding record of early achievement and leadership.  So what is Harvard looking for in these essays that will set you apart?

Actually, HBS is looking for many of the common characteristics they seek in all MBA candidates, Mills says. “The mission of HBS is to educate leaders who will make a difference in the world as well as evidence of the three qualities they seek in all applicants: the habit of leadership, analytical aptitude and appetite, and engaged community citizenship,” he explains. 

“I think it’s important for candidates to think about how the essay questions are really trying to assess those qualities and traits — and then try to find a balance among them. In some ways there’s a trade- around being overly analytical at the expense of not being very human or community-oriented. Likewise, there’s a tradeoff in being a strong leader, but also potentially not knowing how or when to be a follower or team player. I think that some of these questions are intended to probably get a gauge of how folks are navigating that balance.

Consider Community Broadly

Because community engagement is one of those three “pillar” traits HBS seeks, Mills and Belden advise candidates to think deeply about that — and think broadly about what constitutes community.

“We are all part of one or more communities ; it is not only limited to membership in a marginalized group,” Mills says. You could choose to share involvement in any group where you have invested a lot of your time and invested in other people, Belden adds. It could be a consulting club or a group for Muslim students you launched; it could be a leadership role in a fraternity or sorority or a community-based project in the town where your university is located. 

The key, Belden says, is to explain why you were drawn to those experiences, and to focus on impact. What kept you involved, what did you learn, and how did you contribute to or improve others’ experience? 

“In any of these communities Michel mentioned, you will probably have had conversations, discussions, and situations that map to the personal essay prompts. In shaping your essay, consider where in those situations have you been a leader? What have you stepped up to do? How did you support others?” Mills advises.

“Past performance is the best indicator of future performance,” Belden notes. ”HBS expects you to be engaged and contributing to their community, and this essay prompt aims to get an early snapshot of what you will look like as a student in the HBS space. If you were an engaged undergrad, they can envision you being an engaged student as well.” 

HBS seeks to put together a class that is rich in different backgrounds, experiences, and career trajectories, so the 2+2 program gives some preference to applicants from lower socioeconomic background and first-generation college students. “This could also be an opportunity to talk explicitly about things you have done outside of school, like going back to help your hometown community or your family, says Mills.

Acing the Career Questions

HBS understands that when you are applying to an MBA program in your early 20s, your long-term career plans are mostly forecasting a rather generalized future that can change greatly. 

Still, in answering these questions, it’s important to make sure your long-term career vision is clearly tied to the career goals you noted in the short-answer question in the application. Most applicants will have a post-graduation job lined up, or have some solid options in mind, and you should be able to write with some specificity about what you will do and the skills and knowledge you hope to gain. Again, it’s important to explain why that role or opportunity attracts you and how it ties to your long-term career plan. 

“When you’re applying to elite schools like this, you need to be able to speak to what you want to do afterwards:  What is your space — health care, clean tech? — and why? How do you plan to get there?” Belden says. 

More than STEM Stars

MBA programs use early admission / deferred entry programs like the 2+2 program to spot and attract top talent early, especially those bright young leaders who might be on a different career path than those in finance and consulting careers who traditionally head to business school. “They want to get people for whom business school is not necessarily in their plan right now, but they have the capacity to go on and do great things,” says Mills. 

In that light, HBS says it gives some preference to 2+2 applicants planning to work in an operating company, in a technically demanding role, or in an entrepreneurial setting. That leads to a perception that deferred entry programs are trying to attract STEM candidates who are in high demand elsewhere. While it’s true that in the past, the 2+2 program admitted a higher percentage of candidates with STEM backgrounds, non-STEM candidates should not worry that they are disadvantaged. 

Of the 118 candidates admitted through the 2+2 program in 2023, 36% were math and physical sciences majors; 16% studied engineering and 14% studied economics, while 22% majored in business. Another 8% majored in social sciences and 3% in arts.

The emphasis on math and science-based fields naturally reflects that pillar trait of an interest and aptitude for analytics, which is critical in any business sector today. Mills points out people who are majoring in STEM are not necessarily ending up in STEM careers. “I think about the person who studied chemistry or applied mathematics, who goes to McKinsey,” People in engineering or computer science are still going to work at Google or Facebook, possibly not in technical roles, he adds. 

The key is to remember that you are applying for an opportunity to gain stellar business and leadership skills that can make an impact in any field— and then make a case for how you will use these skills to make an impact.  


Our former admissions insiders at Fortuna know these deferred programs well and are experienced at helping candidates get admitted. If you’re interested and could use some help positioning yourself for one of these highly competitive programs, talk to us first.


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