Rare Privilege: Deciding Between HBS, Stanford

Accepted by HBS & Stanford last year, Matt Saucedo went to Palo Alto

Accepted by HBS & Stanford last year, Matt Saucedo went to Palo Alto

When Steven Pearson was deciding between Harvard Business School and Stanford Graduate School of Business, he followed his McKinsey & Co. instincts in methodically building an elaborate list of pros and cons for each MBA program.

On a spreadsheet, Pearson rated each institution on 21 different characteristics, ranging from the grading systems to the alumni network. When it came to the power of the brand, he even scored the schools on their “snob factor” along with how well he believed their brands traveled across borders.

Pearson, who was then working for Vector Capital in San Francisco, carefully scored each criteria from one to ten, with ten being the highest grade. He then weighed each attribute according to its personal importance (see Pearson’s analysis).


“I tried to be as analytical as I could be,” he says. “I took a McKinsey approach to it and then scrolled down to the bottom of the spreadsheet to see the grand answer that would tell me what to do. But they both got over 1,000 points and they were within 11 points of each other. None of that really mattered because it became extraordinarily difficult to make a value judgment.”

Of course, deciding whether to get your MBA from HBS and Stanford is a great problem to have—and it’s a challenge precious few people have to grapple with in any given year. Yet, the process by which MBA applicants come to their decisions offers valuable insights for any candidate choosing among several options.

For sure, to be a dual admit to the two best business schools in the world is exceedingly rare. In a admissions cycle, as many as 4,500 candidates apply to both MBA programs at HBS and Stanford. Little more than 150 applicants gain the privilege of being dual admits, according to estimates by MBA admission consultants and students. That’s an acceptance rate that hovers around 3.3%—well below the overall acceptance rates of 12% at Harvard and 6.8% at Stanford.


“For those rare individuals who get to choose between offers from those elite schools, it might take winning the Powerball lottery — twice — to make them feel more blessed,” says Dan Bauer, CEO and founder of The MBA Exchange, a prominent MBA admissions consultant.

Which school is winning the showdown? In years past, the difference would be little more than a hard fought percentage point or two. Sometimes, HBS would win by, say, 51% or 53%. Other years, Stanford would have a slight advantage. Growing interest among MBAs in launching their own companies, working for startups rather than mainstream recruiters, and working in tech has given Stanford, located in the heart of Silicon Valley, more of an edge in recent years.

Bauer says the slight advantage is due to four basic factors: “1) Stanford is more selective (6.8% admission rate vs. Harvard’s 12%), so being offered a seat at the GSB is considered a more prestigious achievement; 2) The significantly smaller student body at Stanford (800 vs. Harvard’s 1800) suggests that there is greater intimacy, collaboration and bonding at GSB, 3) GSB’s proximity to Silicon Valley promises unbeatable access to tech startups for individuals following that career path.  And with that comes a definite “coolness” factor of simply being near the headquarters of Apple, Google and Facebook, and 4) Last but not least, there’s the California sunshine. Given the choice, many dual admits don’t want to endure two New England winters. Palo Alto’s average annual temperature is 10 degrees warmer than Boston’s — with just half of the precipitation.”

“That said, the cachet of the ‘Harvard Business School’ brand is undeniable and transcends all borders,” adds Bauer. “Especially for dual admits who attended a second- or third-tier undergraduate institution, it can be nearly impossible to say no to HBS.”