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He Got Into HBS, GSB, Wharton & Booth. Now He Has To Decide Where To Go

An enviable dilemma: Whether to go to HBS, Stanford GSB, Wharton or Booth

As far as MBA applicants go this season, Justin Ernest is in a remarkably enviable position. He applied to four business schools in the first round–and got into every one of them. What’s more, the four full-time MBA programs that accepted him are among the very best in the world: Harvard Business School, Stanford’s Graduate School of Business, UPenn’s Wharton School, and the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business.

Justin Ernest

How does a guy with an undergraduate degree in finance from a public university, the University of Georgia’s Terry College of Business, gain acceptance to all four schools to which he applied? It helps to have graduated magna cum laude with a 3.84 GPA in his major. A 740 GMAT scores doesn’t hurt. And having a job as a senior analyst in capital markets at the Coca-Cola Co. in Atlanta is a big plus as well. Toss in the fact that Ernest works part-time at NextGen Venture Partners which invests in early-stage tech companies and you have the making of a solid application to an elite school.

For Ernest, the dilemma is to decide which school to attend. Does he go north to Boston to take advantage of his HBS offer? Or fly west to Silicon Valley for the GSB? Or does he go to Philadelphia or Chicago to attend Wharton or Booth? And what role does financial aid play in his decision?

We recently discussed Ernest’s options with him and with Betsy Massar, founder of Master Admissions, a leading MBA admissions consulting firm. Massar is herself a Harvard MBA graduate who has had a career in finance both on Wall Street and in Asia, and who actually worked at Stanford GSB for a time. Massar did not provide consulting advice for Ernest’s applications but helps guide our conversation with him. Here’s a transcript of our talk which is also available on audio:

Betsy Massar, founder of Master Admissions

John: CONGRATULATIONS, man, you are in a position that people can only dream about.

Justin: Thank you so much, first of all John, I’m very excited to be here and I look forward to talking with you guys.

Betsy: Welcome Justin, it’s a pleasure to talk to you, and I am here to answer your questions. You wanted to know a little bit about how to think about the decision and had some specific questions related to your own inquiries. Having talked to you in the past, it sounds like you are agnostic between all four.  If you are agnostic between all four, I think the decision defaults to between Harvard and Stanford as far as how your career will benefit. Not to mention possibly your life, but that’s harder to predict.  So I don’t know for you if the decision is about anything other than Harvard and Stanford…

Justin: All four schools are obviously great. But honestly, the only other way that I would bring the other schools in would be if I received no financial aid from the top two, which I’m not expecting. Financial aid is especially important to me due to some family & personal obstacles. So I think most likely, there’s a 90-95% chance that it’s between those two.

Betsy: Here’s what I told you on the phone when we talked about this: I agree with you, I think it’s highly unlikely you’re going to get zero financial aid from either or both Harvard and Stanford. Given that, I think that the opportunities in the world and in your life are too good from those two schools to turn down. You have to have a really, really good reason to not want to go to one of those two schools.

Justin: That makes sense and I would agree with you there. So Betsy, at some point post-graduation I would like to end up on the east coast, maybe within five years or so after finishing school. There’s a lot of folks who say [with] Stanford, 60% of their graduates stay on the west coast and a lot of HBS folks are all over the place, do you think the HBS name may be stronger on the east coast, or over the past few years has the Stanford reputation become very prominent as well on the east coast?

Betsy:  I think that for the most recent generation of people who have graduated within the last five or 10 years, Stanford really has a similar reputation to Harvard.  I think that you will find though, on the east coast there is a smaller absolute number of Stanford graduates anyway, [because of the size of the school]. Coming from the east coast myself and living on the east coast for almost all of my life, and then having moved to the west coast 10 or 15 years ago,  I can understand why people, once they get to the west coast they don’t want to go back because it’s really seductive here. It’s not just the weather—there are a lot of opportunities.  Does it hold as much weight as Harvard does on the east coast?  That’s not the reason that there are fewer Stanford graduates.  I think that there are fewer as a percentage of Stanford graduates on the east coast than on the west coast is because California is so seductive and there are so many opportunities. People just love being out here.

But if you’re committed to going back to the east coast and you have a career here now, after five years I don’t think Stanford would put you at any disadvantage to Harvard if you go back to the east coast.

Justin: Absolutely, thank you. By the same token, it seems that a lot of people do choose Stanford over HBS because it is located right in Silicon Valley. For students who are interested in VC or technology, is Stanford that much of a leg up? Or over the past few years do you see HBS maybe closing the gap on Stanford?

Betsy: If you’re right here in Silicon Valley there are a lot of tech companies that are right around here. But I’m going to answer a different question: it depends on what you mean by tech.  If you mean big tech companies, I think both schools have great access to big, or even medium-sized tech companies.  If you are talking about brand new startups, they are all very local.  One of the reasons I say that is because they don’t recruit.  So if you are interested in relatively new companies, or companies that students start in business school, then obviously location matters.

At the same time, the resources are there on both coasts for people who are going into entrepreneurial ventures. Yes, Stanford is the school for entrepreneurship, I think that’s perhaps its middle name, but also Harvard has the Arthur Rock Center for entrepreneurship, and students have told me—I had a student I worked with who started a business while she was in second year and she said she was offered so many resources from the school, there were so many ways they could help her start her business. She ended up not starting it in the end, but she felt very supported by the local community at HBS.

So, yes, it depends on where you want to be when you do your startup. You’ll end up starting up in Silicon Valley if you go to Stanford and if you go to HBS you might end up anywhere in the world – including Silicon Valley.  There are plenty of people around Silicon Valley from Harvard.

Now I’m going to turn it back to you. You mentioned to me that you were interested in private equity.  Is that still on the table? Because there’s a lot of private equity on the east coast, more financial-related businesses are on the east coast.  I even know that myself, because I came from finance and there’s still just fewer opportunities on the west coast in that field. PE is still a finance-driven hiring process.