Adding 2+2 To Equal Five

As Students Defer, HBS's 2+2 Program Learns To Be Flexible

When Diana G. Kimball ’09 was in her junior year at Harvard, she got a phone call from her father. He had just read an article in the Wall Street Journal announcing a new program at Harvard Business School that he thought would be perfect for his daughter.

At her father’s recommendation, Kimball read about the 2+2 Program, which invites students to apply to Harvard Business School in their senior year of college. Admitted students are asked to spend two years in the workforce before completing Harvard’s two-year MBA program, hence the name.

Kimball, a history concentrator at the College, applied and got in.

She spent two years working at Microsoft’s Silicon Valley office and a short time at a start-up company, but her plan to return to Harvard was always at the back of her mind. “I entered a romantic relationship early in my time in San Francisco, and on our first date, I had to disclose that I was moving in two years. It made it difficult to settle down in some ways.”

As the first class of students admitted to the 2+2 Program, including Kimball, wraps up its first year at the Business School, the difficulty of structuring one’s early post-college years around a two-year plan has become apparent.


Some students have said they avoid disclosing their acceptance to 2+2 to their potential employers. And others, finding success in the working world, are not ready to step away after just two years on the job.

Out of the 106 students who were accepted in 2008 to the first class, 65 showed up at Harvard this year, 40 postponed matriculation, and one dropped out. For the next class, which is scheduled to arrive on campus in the fall, more than half have chosen not to come right away.

“The reality is it could be called the X+2 Program,” said Deirdre C. Leopold, managing director of MBA admissions and financial aid.


Harvard Business School requires most students to enter its MBA program with at least two years of work experience. The 2+2 Program opened the door to college-aged applicants.

“We want to get the MBA out there as something for smart and active and committed college students to consider,” Leopold said.

The program classifies admitted students based on their expected year of graduation from the MBA program. The School is currently selecting what it terms the 2016 cohort; Kimball’s cohort is 2013.

Harvard College has had a strong showing in the first three cohorts admitted to the program—22 out of 106 students in the 2013 cohort were Harvard undergraduates; 27 of 115 the next year; and about 20 of 100 the year after that.

After two years in San Francisco, Kimball said she has found it comforting to return to the familiar environment of Harvard. “I think that same place, different story is the main feeling,” she said.

Lilly Y. Deng ’09, who was accepted to 2+2 at the same time as Kimball, noted that compared to Harvard College, the Business School offers a more structured academic experience. She said her classes run from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. and are almost fully attended—a stark change from college life.

She also said that she finds the social environment at the Business School more focused on forging new connections.

“At the College, if they weren’t in my concentration, or they weren’t in my House, or they didn’t live in my dorm as a freshman, it would be very hard for me to walk up to someone and say, ‘Hey, I’d like to get to know you better.’ But it’s really easy to start those conversations at Harvard Business School,” Deng said.

Alexandra Dickson ’09 pointed out that Harvard Business School’s case study method constitutes a “different type of learning” from what she experienced at the College. She added that her two years of work experience at a health care consulting firm assist her in the classroom.

“I think the two years have definitely been very, very valuable,” Dickson said. “It helps in understanding the interpersonal relationship piece in classes like leadership or ethics.”

Yet Deng, Dickson, and Kimball represent only a segment of the population in the initial 2013 cohort. Many of their would-be classmates told Harvard that they would put off coming back to school, and the 2014 cohort has made the choice to defer their matriculation in even higher numbers than the first class.

“The majority of 2+2 admits [from the 2014 cohort] are electing to do a third year of work,” Leopold said. “We’re very flexible [in saying], ‘Tell us what you need and we’ll work with you.’”


One of the students from the 2013 cohort who chose to postpone matriculation was Sergio Prado ’09. Prado had joined the staff of a gaming website called HeavenGames at age 13 and had quickly risen through its ranks. He became a manager at 15, a board member at 17, the owner at 18, and the CEO at 20.

Prado said he applied to 2+2 because it placed a focus on drawing students with technical experience. According to Leopold, the Business School aims to fill at least half of each cohort with students who have backgrounds in STEM—Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math.

After graduating from Harvard, Prado worked for a year and a half as a software engineer at Microsoft. He is currently developing a fitness start-up that he founded with a friend.

Prado said that he is drawn to the idea of working on start-ups as a long-term career, and he wanted to have a full experience working in that arena before he entered Harvard Business School. He recently decided to defer enrollment for a second year—meaning that for him, the equation is at least 4+2.

“Based on my understanding, what you get out of business school is only as much as the experiences you had coming in,” Prado said. “What it came down to was I believed that the additional experience with a start-up would be hugely beneficial.”

Leopold said that students like Prado can defer the classroom component of the program at the Business School’s discretion. “We evaluate on a case-by-case basis when it goes beyond the three years,” she said.

If students forgo their admission offers, they forfeit a $1,000 deposit, according to Leopold.

Some admitted students might never make their way to the Business School.

“I think the benefit of being in the 2+2 Program for me was that it was an option that I had,” said one 2009 Harvard College graduate. “I put down a deposit, but for me...I didn’t feel that I necessarily had to go.”

The Harvard alumna deferred matriculation for one year and will enroll at the Business School in the fall. Like Prado, she said her primary reason for deferring was to gain additional work experience.

“All I really had to do was send them [the admissions office] an email telling them I wanted to defer, and I got an email back saying okay,” she said.

She asked to remain anonymous in this article because she did not tell her employer that she had been admitted to the 2+2 Program when she sought one of the three jobs she has held during her three years off.

She was worried about seeming “presumptuous” to her prospective employer by noting her Harvard Business School admission on her resume, she said. Others have noted that 2+2 admission, while certainly a mark of distinction, might also be a hindrance for students’ budding business careers.

“For some companies, if you had put ‘HBS Admit, Class of 2013,’ they actually would not have wanted to hire you because they wanted to keep you for longer than 2 years,” Dickson said, although she said that she told her employer—a health care consulting firm where she had previously interned—about her admission.

Kimball noted that the turnover period for many first jobs is around two to three years anyway and said she was glad she told her manager and co-workers at Microsoft that she would be heading back to Harvard eventually.

“If you believe that you’re likely leaving in two years, that’s going to affect the way you approach your work,” Kimball said. “Your manager’s going to be better able to help you...if they know that.”


As the 2+2 Program enters its fourth year, students have learned how to navigate the newly created gap between college and an anticipated Business School start date. Harvard too has adapted the program during its early experimental years.

In the first year of the program, the Business School offered students help finding employment through career counseling and a recruiting partner system that included companies such as Google, McKinsey & Co., and Teach for America.

Now, Leopold said, “We don’t get involved in that process. Students are required to get their own jobs.”

Harvard also offered summer programs for the first cohort of 2+2 students to practice case studies and network with each other on campus for a few days. The program has since been discontinued. Leopold said, “We found over time that they found ways of connecting without us being involved at all.”

Furthermore, the Business School tweaked the admissions cycle for the program this year, breaking it into three rounds instead of one application deadline to better match the regular Business School admissions process.

As administrators fine-tune the infant program, they can only wait to find out the answer to perhaps the biggest question of all. With no strict limits on repeated deferrals, only time will tell whether students selected for 2+2 will indeed eventually enroll or choose to stay in the working world as their careers develop.

But however many students matriculate and however long it takes them to get there, the program has succeeded at the goal that Leopold identified—drawing bright college students to Harvard Business School, two or more years down the line.

Sitting at the Business School, Kimball reflected on the pilot program that took her from Harvard to the West Coast and back again.

“I’ve seen the 2+2 population stepping into leadership roles in many ways, despite our young age,” Kimball said. “I think that HBS is better for that.”

—Staff writer Brian C. Zhang can be reached at


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