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.”

  • Gregory House

    SPOT ON!

  • fidel305

    and finally the reversion to the HBS mean

  • JohnAByrne

    Thanks for your comment. We ran a story earlier this year based on a sample size of 63 respondents to a Bloomberg Businessweek survey. See here:


    But people do have to remember that this is just a small sample and you never know with total certainty how accurate it can be.

  • John C

    NYT ran a story a few months ago suggesting that Stanford
    (undergraduate) is strongly preferred over Harvard (undergraduate) among
    dual admits based on surveys of high school students who use a certain
    college application service. Many Stanford people wrote excitedly that
    not only does Stanford have a lower acceptance rate than Harvard, they
    also beat Harvard with the dual admits!

    I had a hard time believing it because Harvard has a higher yield (82%) than Stanford (76%). The whole thing was exposed to be bogus when the Stanford admissions office
    disclosed at the Stanford Faculty Senate meeting that they actually
    lose to Harvard 65:35. The survey the NYT used had a small sample size
    and was biased because most of the users of the application service were
    from California and Michigan, thus more likely to choose Stanford over
    Harvard, with very few from the East Coast.

    Now there are stories all over the internet about how people overwhelmingly choose Stanford Business School over Harvard Business School (based on some surveys of limited sample size), which also rings bogus. Harvard Business School has a much higher yield (90%) than Stanford Business School (about 80%). I know that Stanford people will trumpet it whether or not it’s true, but you probably shouldn’t believe it until more credible evidence comes out.

  • JohnAByrne

    I asked Dan Bauer to clarify his comments and here is what he said:
    “We group schools based on the most common, albeit subjective, criterion — published rankings. First-tier schools are the top 10. Second tier equates to programs ranked 11-20. And third tier is those ranked 21-25.”

    Hope that helps.

  • curious MBA applicant

    what does Bauer mean by second or third tier undergraduate institution?…this is not a defensive comment or anything I am just curious to see which schools are considered first/second/third tier in the eyes of MBA admissions experts…coud someone give a few examples for each tier? thanks!

  • Bravo

    LOL! For only 5-10% it works out that way, but spot on bud!

  • El Meerr

    I am tired from reading stories about these lucky bastards.

  • Ben

    I should have been more detailed in explaining that my interest in VC was not specific to tech. This went over better at HBS than it did at GSB where the climate and so many of my discussions were steered to tech-talk. Another input was the statistics I was able to source on West Coast versus East Coast career placement and I was not sure I wanted to stay out west post-mba. HBS had broader placement and GSB was more concentrated out west.

  • Andy

    I am a bit confused. I really think you probably would have been able to be closer to your original goal (getting into VC) if you chose GSB! Anyway, nobody during my class visit at the GSB ‘passed’ when cold-called. However, I will agree that from just observing the class, I had this feeling that these people were really really close to each other and had a lot of fun even in class. It really wasn’t a cut-throat type of environment where you’ll feel uncomfortable and constantly intimidated (like at HBS?).


    thank you.

  • Lawrence

    HBS 1st year, dual admit. 3 section-mates also dual admits who selected HBS.

    Bottom line: HBS for traditional finance, management, GSB for tech and west coast opps.

  • JohnAByrne


    Thanks a lot for your thoughtful reply. I think our readers will really this insight for many years to come. And congrats on being a dual admit and picking the school that is right for you.

  • Ben

    As a first year student and dual admit who chose HBS over GSB after months of careful analysis, I thought I would share my feelings on this matter.

    To start, it’s evident now that I made the right decision for me. I note “for me” because the schools are both so great that there really is no universally wrong decision. My background is in IB & PE and my goal with B-school was to make headway into the VC world or the emerging markets side of PE, but that has changed since I’ve been here and gained exposure to so many other areas. My decision process first started with speaking with every person at my then current firm to ask what school I should attend and the consensus was that the HBS brand was just that much stronger than the others. 1 said Wharton, my boss said Booth (both cause they went there), and those who said GSB did so with the smiling caveat of “it will be an adventure…it will be warm weather…and so on.” The CEO of my firm was an HBS alum and he sought me out to speak as well, but I suspect that HBS called him to do so. After that initial period, I was leaning towards HBS, sidenote, I’m from the East Coast,(not Boston) so a weather change was attractive.

    I visited both schools and although I could not attend admit weekend for GSB due to work travel, I went independently and they arranged for several students to meet with me, take me to dinner, to a class, and participate in events on campus. The visit was a blast and most of the people I met were genuinely friendly, with a few arrogant exceptions (it is business school after all). I’m an analytical person by design and so I collated the inputs I received from being at GSB and highlighted the pro’s/con’s. The pro’s were the beautiful campus, the weather (a perfect 75 the entire time I was there), and the attention I received from the school community at large. The con’s were the almost constant discussions of tech and silicon valley; it seemed as if 3 out of every 4 people I spoke to had aspirations that involved a start-up or working with new technology and it struck me as almost siloed in that way, and the other was the class experience. I attended a 2nd year general management elective and I was surprised at the comparative lack of engagement among the students. There was not much cold-calling, but when it did happen, 1 student outright passed and 1 student proffered a non-answer that the other students and even the professor chuckled at. It was a 180° from what I saw at HBS and though some may prefer that class setting, being challenged academically was a priority for me.

    I continued to analyze the decision for weeks after my HBS and GSB visits and went so far as to create a program (with the help of a friend) that skimmed the executive profiles of high profile companies to compare which school was most represented and HBS won by a far margin (data may be skewed for class size, but then that is a consequence of smaller class size). Each day brought me a bit further towards HBS and a conversation with a now 2nd year student put me over the top when he said to me: “close your eyes and imagine yourself walking into any executive boardroom in the country and saying Harvard then walking into another and saying Stanford, which do you prefer?” For me, it was Harvard.

    No offense intended for anyone on the GSB side, it’s a personal decision that calls for personal inputs and I’m sure you guys out in Palo Alto who were dual admits are not looking back either!

  • Renault

    If you believe that then you’re a complete moron.


  • bwanamia

    Which is any the foreigner consensus doesn’t matter.

  • gede22

    The MBA is a professional degree and every MBA aspirant should care only about people who know MBAs, NOT about people in streets. So, it is very common to find someone turning down Georgetown for Emory, or Harvard for Stanford, Oxford for IMD, or MIT for Chicago. If the main concern is about brand then there are tons of easier degrees at Harvard, Oxford, Yale, …to get..

  • bwanamia

    A simple way of putting this is that the domestic market prefers Stanford and the international market prefers Harvard. Perceptions from abroad are always distorted, as though an inverse square law were at work — North Americans gets it right, but soon as you go across the Atlantic or below the Equator complex institutions turn into dimly perceived brands and everyone wants Harvard, even if it’s only Harvard Extension or Harvard School of Education.

  • producer

    I think you have a problem with ‘causation’, “it produced the first and only MBA president”. You mean that one who would’ve become president anyway, going or not going to HBS? A thourough analysis will exclude all those who were billionaires or so from this equation, even those with a net worth of 20-30 millions. They just went there to brand themselves, don’t compare these guys with those from low-middle income families who worked their asses to become someone and succeed in life.

  • Alex

    For what it’s worth, I’m a second year MBA student at Stanford and I have yet to see anyone ‘pass’ in any one of my classes. Choosing between these two schools is difficult, so I don’t fault that student using her one class visit to help shape her decision, but just for everyone else out there wondering, that isn’t a very typical moment in my opinion.

    That said, I think Harvard students on average do care a little bit more about academic rigor, while GSB’s non-grade disclosure policy encourages students not to necessarily not care, but to go beyond their comfort zone. For example, I was encouraged to take computer science classes and some harder finance classes thanks to how GSB’s academic system is set up.

    I agree with the quoted consultant’s view that the cross admit percentages have likely skewed over to GSB in recent years. One of the associate deans privately told a few students that GSB has consistently won this dual admit percentage and that in recent years, it hasn’t been all that close. The GSB prestige goes a long way with top employers, who know how much harder it is to get in. For foreign students who idolize the HBS brand though, the breakdown might be much closer.

    It’s a little bit of a silly thing to debate though. Clearly, both schools can easily give students the foundation they need to succeed.

  • WiseCOCO

    First: based on latest research by german university of hiedleburg, there is no thing called a midlife crisis! it is just an illusion!
    Second: life is not fair by default, there are classes, unjustified poverty, and riches make rules, and unfortunately, they even make morals and values that only keep them rich!
    Advice: focus on your life, be flexible, be happy with what you have, do not be restricted by “ethics and values” when dealing with rich people!

  • Harvardfan

    Thank you John Byme for this interesting article. Both schools are great schools. But the question is which school is the most valuable, and which school can provide a MBA with the best launching pad. The answer is obvious to most people. Consider the following facts:
    If you want to get your MBA because you want to be a billionaire, HBS is your choice, because it produces more billionaires than any other universities in the world. In fact, HBS produces more billionaires than all the schools at Stanford University combined.
    If you want to go into politics with your MBA, HBS has the best track record around. It has produced the first and only MBA president, many governors and many federal cabinet secretaries. Another thing people need to think about before going to business school is the university’s brand name, because it does matter. Harvard has produced 8 US presidents, including the last two presidents; Stanford has produced only 1 US president in its history.

  • ta

    these pretty boys have fanc-eh resums but their quality of life is pretty bad…….none of them really dig into their soul to extract what their purpose in life really is
    they alllll follow a standar algorithm:

    mommy and daddy say go to phillips /exeter
    “study” government at harvard/yale
    claim to “change the world” as a goldman/mckinsey analyst
    handle a boss who calls you at 2 a.m to change the font size on your powerpoint
    models bottles blah blah
    get sick of living in your office/out of your suitcase making presentations
    go to b school
    get back to the same draw
    make money but never have time to spend it
    get a wife who loves handbags, fighting, jewellery ,staying at home
    wake up at the age of 45 …buy a ferrari- midlife crisis!!!!
    wish you were a professor who had work life balance


    Not really, teaching method is main reason for most of those choosing Stanford or Wharton over HBS.

  • 1

    ehh agree with your comment, but i’d say more than $130 to 250k. maybe a mil to two mil when you factor in trajectory…still pales in comparison to a good power ball win

  • Dutch Ducre

    luckiest? not even close. powerball comparison? Laughable. It’s school and the majority of outcomes even from these two great schools are not multi-million/yr dollar outcomes…more like $130k-$250k/yr max outcomes

  • Renault

    Nobody’s choosing to attend HBS because of the case method. It’s a completely irrelevant detail for most applicants (and most admitted students).

  • bwanamia

    The decision isn’t that hard. Harvard’s a case method school. Some people really want that and others don’t. All other considerations are secondary, though size isn’t entirely irrelevant (smaller is better).

  • Hmmmm… I would say HBS for worldwide brand recognition (might matter less if planning to stay in US) and network…

    Stanford has this entrepreneurial feel about it though… and the West-coast weather!