Harvard Business School vs. Stanford GSB

by John A. Byrne on

Harvard Business School's Baker Library. Photo by John A. Byrne

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.

Yet 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 school in the world. 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 34 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 boasts 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 its new curriculum changes that emphasize smaller seminar-style courses. A new 600-seat auditorium replaces 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 34 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?” Hear, hear for directness. 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.

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  • Guest

    I think you missed the point, John. The keyword was “likely.” Both schools are almost diametric in terms of culture, and perhaps inspire disparate business personalities. I think most would agree.

    Concoct your own euphemisms.. Phil Knight vs. Mitt Romney. Brogues vs Sneakers. Tux vs. Flip Flops. Get the idea? Relax man.. all in good jest

  • Guest

    great post on EJMR from a TA at a top school…

    As I see it, there are literally two types of people in the MBA
    program:1. The “Poets”: Translation? They have trouble working their way
    around a $5 pocket calculator. They’re really good in bullshitting useless stuff
    out of their ass and it shows from their previous undergrad degrees and work
    experiences. Let’s just say I’ve seen my fair share of people who did an
    undergrad in things like Communications, Political Science, Art History, etc.,
    and with work experiences like HR, Marketing, etc.

    2. The “Quants”: These are by far the worst. Typically you’ll see people with
    some economics / finance / engineering type undergrad and had some experience at
    a finance or consulting firm. They are clearly smarter than the Poets. But
    because of peer effects or what not, just because they know they are smarter
    than the Poets, they immediately infer that to mean they are smarter than
    everyone else in the world. They think that a “financial model” means Excel
    spreadsheets. And they think “finance” to mean building DCF spreadsheets,
    working out the CAPM and hitting the occasional “Regression” button in Excel.
    But the moment you start to going into more mathematical intricacies and deeper
    thoughts about the financial models, they immediately shut off and exclaim
    “Irrelevance to the real world!”. I guess they don’t want people to pop their
    fragile superiority complex bubble.

  • http://www.facebook.com/bykov.80 Sergey Bykov

    Hi guys, your articles about comparison of business schools are all distorted

  • stanfordalum

    Your picture of stanford gsb is the old campus that closed over a year ago. The new campus is much more impressive.

  • Leslie

    and keep the color codes consistent!

  • coedk

    Despite your horrid grammar mistakes, I find myself agreeing with you. A lot of the sites that admissions people at these schools have put up have repeatedly said that having a good GMAT score is the equivalent to being tall when you want to join the NBA, it helps but you can get there without it. For example, I think just last year Stanford accepted people with a 530!

  • Jeremy

    HBS has been making a BIG push towards Innovation, Entrepreneurship, and Design Thinking over the last two years, while enrollment of “finance people” is down. I think you’d be quite surprised about the culture at HBS today.

  • Being Honest

    The purpose of an MBA is to brand yourself as a member of an elite institution, to meet and network with other members of the institution, and to gain access to career paths that non-MBAs don’t have.

    The best American applicants (former employees of KKR, or Bain, or Google) don’t go to II-whatever. They go to Harvard, or Wharton,or Booth. They lend prestige to the university, and confer it upon its graduates, which makes the school more desirable. It’s a vicious circle. The fact that these Indian schools have extraordinarily low acceptance, to be perfectly honest, is irrelevant: it’s the QUALITY OF STUDENT that is relevant. Harvard, and Stanford, and the other M7 schools, are the clear leaders in those areas. That’s what you should be looking for, not a low acceptance rate and high test scores.

    Maybe II-whatever wouldn’t be a bad idea if you want to stay in India,
    but American employers would not view the degree as meaningful. If you want to get a job at Goldman Sachs, or McKinsey, or Google in the Western hemisphere, you should go to GSB/HBS/Wharton.

  • Justin

    John, can you write up a Cornell Johnson vs UVA Darden comparison?

  • kingfalcon

    Of course the photo is old. This article is 2/12 years old at this point.

  • Yup

    That’s awesome — especially the Design Thinking part, because I don’t think the school’s push toward Entrepreneurship started just two years ago. Cambridge kind of sucks though. Two great schools nonetheless.

  • Undecided

    Hello, I just got accepted to both HBS and GSB. I went to Harvard undergrad and work at a Big 3 consulting firm in Boston. Which would you choose?

  • AR

    The Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs) would be at higher positions than Stanford in terms of selectivity of business schools with less than 1% getting in…

  • Dan

    In response to your claim – “There is no other business school in the world that can even remotely match Harvard for its expansive classrooms and study halls”

    Attended classes in both HBS & MIT Sloan. New Sloan classrooms & study rooms are way better than those at HBS. HBS Campus is great and nice but Charles river & Boston skyline view you see from Sloan is priceless. Also MIT is more closely aligned with Stanford than Berkley. So fair comparison would be MIT vs Stanford than MIT vs Berkley.

  • Kamikaze

    Internationally, HBS’ name value and prestige trumps GSB by a long shot…

  • Guest

    You’re commenting on a 3 yr old article so you’re not going to get much discussion.

    That said, Harvard’s brand is still incredibly powerful but you’re overestimating it. There’s been a big shift the last 2-3 years (especially in Asia) where Stanford is edging out Harvard. Couple this with the new Forbes list that ranks undergrad Stanford #1 and it might get more momentum.

    Harvard is still incredibly powerful but these days it and Stanford are on the exact same level to the people who matter.

  • feshKer

    dakota.

  • michael

    thank you so much for writing this article. remarkably nice compare and contrast

  • Chloe

    You know what they say here: HBS is the Stanford of the East Coast and GSB is the Harvard of the West Coast. They are both titans. No comparison.

  • John

    Jobs provided numerous talks at GSB and it’s where he met his wife. That’s a closer association than Gates or Zuckerberg have to HBS (both undergrad dropouts).

  • disqus_JGP1tL6mRq

    As someone who’s just been through both applications (and admitted to both), let me say that the processes are intensive and interesting. Spend the majority of your time on the essays and recommendations.

  • marcus

    Stanford is the most competitive B School in the country by a long shot. Harvard, Wharton etc are great safety schoolz if you don’t get into Stanford. Harvard is also great if you want that consulting, marketing sort of safe post MBA job. Stanford is more for the folks interested in starting their own company and swinging for the fences. Harvard is a good safety in more ways then one.

  • B

    Hi John,
    Thanks for this. It would be great to see the insights on Wharton, Booth, Haas and Columbia Business Schools.

  • Alpheus Legoke Mokgalaka

    This an excellent comparison, genius vs intelligence, HBS vs Stanford, Harvard might be best but ”why Stanford had fewer intakes?” Do you think small buildings, few sponsors, etc. have major impacts? Harvard emphasizes and encourages students to be an aspirant career seeker, have excellent presentation skills, be diverse and have anxiety to learn. I will like HBS!

  • YoYoMa

    I REALLY wish this would be updated. It’s been over 4 years!

  • Sachin Wordsmith

    Disagree. A higher number of people write the CAT, which serves as the entrance exam for the IIMs, but that doesn’t mean they are “applicants”. If you are making that comparison, you can as well say Stanford is again the most highly selective School. More people give the GMAT than they do CAT.

  • Gopal

    I do disagree with ARs point though but not due to the reasons Sachin mentioned.

    One also needs to check a box and actually say which schools should your applications go to. And IIMA,B,C and probably L also received many more applications than Stanford. ALso 238K people took the gmat last year. And since IIMs accept GMAT scores as well you can attribute some of that volume to them as well. And more over about 200k gave the CAT last year and ticked A and B and C as their schools to apply to.

  • Sachin Wordsmith

    This is where we get into semantics. Just sending the score doesn’t constitute applying. You need to write the essays, submit LORs, the CV etc and pay the not inexpensive application fee for a complete application. All these aren’t really there for the IIMs. The score is all it takes to be invited for future rounds. Anyway it really doesn’t matter though,which the most highly selective school is. If I/as many had to pick one school only among the IIMs and GSB, without a second’s hesitation it would be GSB.

  • Gopal

    True about the semantics. But you or I are not right people to assess choice for an entire community. there are a multitude of Indians who would choose IIMs over the schools mentioned. And their reasons and success would be no less important than yours or mine when we think of cutting edge management research or selectivity. In terms of opportunities that it affords and the respect it gets around the world IIMA,B and C would be not be a bad bet.

    On the other hand if IIMs would allow it (it currently does not) Im sure multitude of foreign candidates would apply to it as well, regardless of the research that it produces simply because of access and the status IIMs have in the Indian Context.

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