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Harvard Business School vs. Stanford GSB

Harvard Business School

Harvard Business School

Let’s just say it right out: Stanford and Harvard are the two best business schools in the world. In terms of prestige and status, you can’t do better than to win the coveted MBA letters from either Stanford or Harvard. So it’s not surprising that a large number of people who apply to Stanford also apply to Harvard and vice versa. When Harvard gets turned down by applicants it accepts (about 11% of those who gain an offer), more often than not the applicants go west to Stanford. The same is true when Stanford’s Graduate School of Business (known as GSB) is passed over by accepted applicants. They inevitably head for Harvard Business School.

Forget the persistent stereotypes about these powerhouse schools, that Stanford is the place for those who want to do a startup and Harvard is the the place for those who want to climb a more traditional corporate ladder to the top of a Fortune 500 company. That may have been true many years ago, but it’s not true now. There are some dramatic differences between these two MBA educational giants. Most notably:

Geography: This is an obvious point, but an important one. Stanford is in the heart of Silicon Valley on a campus dotted with massive palm trees that sway in the afternoon breezes. In the winter months, when Harvard students are bundled up and trudging through ice and snow, Stanford MBAs might still be wearing shorts. The Stanford campus is located between San Jose and San Francisco, which is about a 45-minute drive away. The Harvard Business School, of course, is in Boston, one of the world’s most dynamic and inviting cities. Fenway Park, home of the Boston Red Sox, is just minutes away. So is world-class arts and culture of all kinds. But the winter months can be brutal in New England so the east-west difference is a big one.

Size: With about 390 students per class, Stanford pretty much guarantees that almost every student knows each other. A Stanford class is less than half that of Harvard which has the largest MBA enrollment of any top U.S. school. Total full-time MBA enrollment at Stanford is just 765, versus Harvard’s 1,837. It’s the difference between “intimate scale” and “large scale.”

Facilities: The campus of Stanford’s Graduate School of Business is small and compact: a complex of eight new, separate buildings created around three quadrangles opened in 2011 and a single residence hall. Harvard Business School, on the other hand, is like a university onto itself with 35 separate buildings on 40 acres of property along the Charles River. Harvard has its own state-of-the-art fitness center, a massive library, a new innovation lab, and a chapel. Strategy guru Michael Porter and his Institute for Strategy and Competitiveness even has his own building on campus. There is no other business school in the world that can even remotely match Harvard for its expansive classrooms and study halls. Stanford’s new Knight Management Center, named after Nike founder and Stanford alum Phil Knight who tossed in $100 million of the $345 million cost, has given the school modern, up-to-date, world-class facilities. The available square footage increased by 30% over the previous 280,000 sq. foot of space when Stanford lacked even a single classroom with windows (HBS boasts more than 1.5 million square foot of space).

Stanford now has 13 tiered classrooms, up from 11, 20 flat-floored classrooms, up from eight, and 70 breakout and study rooms, a huge improvement from 28 previously. The larger number of breakout rooms, in particular, have helped the school to more effectively deliver a curriculum that emphasizes smaller seminar-style courses. A new 600-seat auditorium replaced the previous 324-seat model. There also are eight 16-person seminar rooms, to allow for more intimate instruction, eight showers for MBA students who also can use the university athletic center next store, and an 870-car underground parking structure on a campus where parking was always an ordeal. But that still makes it 35 buildings to nine, if you’re counting.

Culture: When Harvard Business School opens its essay section inquiring about “your three most substantial accomplishments”, it’s not a leap to believe that Harvard – a bastion of higher overachievement – is signaling that “accomplishment”, past and future, is paramount. That Harvard people value getting things done comes through loud and clear. My favorite question on the Harvard application, though, is one of four optional essays, with a 400-word limit: “When you join the HBS Class of 2013, how will you introduce yourself to your new classmates?” This gets at the aspiring students’ sense of identity, and how they present themselves, and may shed light on how they might fit into a diverse group of students. The answer might also shed light on applicants’ anxiety about joining such a potent group.

Stanford Business School, on the other hand, starts by asking about values and aspirations: “What matters most to you, and why?” and then, more directly, “What are your career aspirations?” Not that Stanford is entirely focused on ideals; they also give applicants a choice among four other essay options, one of which inquires about experience on a high-performing team. As far as I could tell, Stanford was the only one of the top ten that didn’t specify the maximum number of words for their essays. It says something affirmative about the place that they trust applicants to use their own judgment about how much to write.