Harvard Business School vs. Stanford GSB

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.

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 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.

  • Srikar, well said. This is no knock on the Indian Institute of Management. It is a great school and doing wonderful things. But it’s not in the same league as a Harvard or Stanford for a premium MBA experience.

  • Hi John, new postings to an old post…hmmm:) your article provides an amazing insight into the ‘World’s Top 2 Programs’. Period.
    That said on a personal note I wish Harvard too had a program like Stanford’s MBA/MA(in Ed) because not only is US realizing the importance of education (especially primary education) but also are countries like India and China looking at education as a prominent factor to maintain their unprecedented growth rates.To make it a more organized sector and to build world class Education Companies the marriage of business + education management is the need of the hour! Though HGSE exists, it is a different school altogether-it essentially deals with the science of education. As for the other point on IIM v/s S/H/W – I will just say,”look at linkedin profiles or gather data from other sources; even after graduating from an IIM the majority again apply to H/S/W for a full fledged 2 year FT-MBA!” So, that’s self explanatory and a request to my fellow Indian applicants just in case you intend to compare-Do not!!

  • Arthur,

    As you say, selectivity is “typically” the ratio of admits to applications. I agree with that statement. But don’t think you can ignore the actual quality of the pool of applications. There is a tremendous amount of self-selection going on at Stanford and Harvard which is why the average GMAT score of their entire applicant pools is above 700. But I will try to be more precise. Thanks for weighing in.


  • Arthur Dullsworthy

    John, selectivity is typically the ratio of admits to applications but can be something like the mean/median GMAT or GPA of accepted applicants. Any given ranking may include selectivity as one factor in assessing the relative merits of different schools, but selectivity does not incorporate rank information. Otherwise, you’d be going in a circle, i.e., basing rank on rank.

    You say: “Just because there is a crowd of people wanting to get into a school, doesn’t make it the most selective.” This is worrisome because it does. By definiton. “Global reputation and image, quality of students and faculty, and the value of the alumni network” have nothing to do with it.

    Try to be more precise.

  • Actually, you’re wrong. It’s more like 770 applicants to every one seat. So why do I think Stanford is still the most selective business school in the world? It’s because as good as the Indian Institute of Management is, the school really does not compare with Stanford on any level–global reputation and image, quality of students and faculty, and the value of the alumni network. With 99% of the students native Indians, there is no diversity whatsoever, and with the average age of a student at the very best IIM in Ahmedabad just 23, there is very limited work experience. None of the seven institutes are even acknowledged by The Financial Times’ global ranking, while The Economist ranks only one campus–Ahmedabad–at 85th, behind such institutions as Thunderbird in Arizona and the University of Queensland in Australia. The school also fails to make the non-U.S. rankings of BusinessWeek and Forbes. Just because there is a crowd of people wanting to get into a school, doesn’t make it the most selective. That is one criteria clearly, but more importantly, it’s the overall quality of the institution and the education it is offering students that truly matters.

  • SS

    @Author – LOL, Quote from the article – “Stanford is the most selective business school in the world..” – did you bother to check facts ?
    Try the Indian Institute of Management (IIM) where the selection ratio for the MBA is more like 1200 (yes Twelve Hundred) to each seat, compared to 19:1 at Stanford per your own writing. Unless you think “World” = “California”, you should correct the article.

  • Very good point, Steve. It’s a very hard thing to fairly assess from the outside. Certainly, the greater percentage of alums who give back to their schools each year are far more likely to be deeply connected. That’s why I’m so high on the Tuck School network.

  • Steve

    This is a thoughtful discussion of the merits of each school. It is, however, an issue that few MBA applicants will be in the enviable position of deciding.

    In my view, an even more thorough comparison would have a more detailed discussion about the usefulness of alumni networks. One primary reason I sought a top MBA was access to a network of people who could lend advice, job referrals, and with whom I could discuss ideas. Anecdotally, Stanford’s is reputed to be more passionate about helping out their fellow GSB alums, whereas HBS’s is more numerous and incomparably connected in the upper echelons of the business world. Perhaps John will have a chance to discuss that parameter if he ever revisits the topic.


  • Deborah, you are so right. In fact, I fondly recall sitting down with James Thompson, who had been the director of Stanford’s Public Management Program, in the late 1980s and having a wonderful conversation with him about social enterprise. Back then, it was the only true rival to Yale University’s program in public service. For those who don’t know about it, the program was designed for MBAs interested in the public and non-profit sectors. When I first encountered the program in the late 1980s, more than 100 students sought PMP certificates which required three public management courses from among 20 electives in this area. I have another connection to this program: it was founded in 1971 by Arjay Miller, former president of Ford Motor Co., who was a central character in one of my books, The Whiz Kids. Miller, of course, became dean of the business school. Stanford was a pioneer in creating a way for MBAs who landed more lucrative summer internships to pledge to donate some of their earnings to help subsidize classmates who did their internships with non-profits. Stanford also was among the first schools to create a loan forgiveness program for students who took jobs in the public sector after graduation.

    At this year’s commencement, 86 of the graduating students walked off with PMP certificates, off from the peak year of 2004 when 134 were awarded PMPs but the highest number since 2006. Today, Stanford says the certificate requires a minimum of 16 PMP elective units, including an approved Economics course. Students may specialize in one of three areas — government, nonprofit management or socially responsible business. There’s also an annual public management initiative in which students explore a topic of social or environmental interest. Teams of students compete each spring to lead the following year’s initiative, with the winning team selecting a topic to explore in detail throughout the academic year. In 2009-10, students engaged in the question: “Debating Tomorrow: How will business change after the crisis?” The PMI topic for 2010-11 will be “Demystifying D.C.: Is America Ungovernable?”

    So thanks for reminding all of us Deborah.

  • Deborah

    I would have mentioned Stanford’s expertise in social innovation (even had Public Management program back in ’80s, maybe earlier), ties to the Stanford d.school, deemphasis on grades and extremely collaborative culture.