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.

  • worldlyone

    I agree. This site is really glamorizing too much.. and doing a big disservice to candidiates, like they have hit the jackpot . I am few years out of B school and I know HBS grads stuck in horrible middle management jobs and Booth grads who work for Groergetown MBA bosses
    I suggest the P&Q writers work in the real Biz world !

  • Truman the Tiger

    Lots of excuses and assumptions in these posts. Sounds like you haven’t even tried to apply for a job. You should probably take the PhD offer and coast on the taxpayer’s dime for a few more years.

  • My pleasure. Good luck to you. We’re rooting for you!

  • M7md 3li

    Thank you for taking time out of your day to reply to me. I really appreciate it!

  • Read these two pieces:

    MIT: http://poetsandquants.com/2016/10/12/meet-mit-sloans-mba-class-2018/

    Chicago; http://poetsandquants.com/2016/10/05/meet-chicago-booths-mba-class-2018/

    As an aside, I will say that Booth has had remarkable momentum in the past five to ten years. Even as a proxy for popularity, our Meet the Class story on Booth has gotten more than 70,000 views vs. 23,000 for MIT Sloan. And there is no question that Booth has consistently ranked above MIT now for quite a few years in every one of the most influential rankings.

    The lower acceptance rate at MIT is a function of the school’s smaller class size and its location in Boston.

  • rita

    Sorry John I meant the differences between MIT and Booth

  • Rita,

    That’s a great question. Only today we published a piece on Stanford GSB with profiles of a dozen students in the latest entering class. It offers great insight on the school’s culture and why people chose to go to the GSB. We had earlier published a similar piece on Harvard Business School. Have a read and I think you’ll discern the differences:

    Stanford: http://poetsandquants.com/2017/02/22/meet-stanfords-mba-class-2018/

    Harvard: http://poetsandquants.com/2016/10/19/meet-harvard-business-schools-class-2018/

  • rita

    How would you categorize the cultural differences between the two schools? I did go to admit weekends but curious about your thoughts

  • So I would definitely apply to 2+2 and use your essay to eloquently describe your fears and worries. Don’t give up on the possibility of landing a job. There are many employers out there who vehemently disagree with Trump’s policies and would be willing to hire you. The hard part may be finding that opportunity. In the meantime, you can use the PhD route as an option. If you can win deferred admission, at least you would know that in a couple of years you’ll be going for your MBA at a great school–even if you need to go to Canada for a job in the meantime.

  • M7md 3li

    Hello John thanks for the detailed reply, I might have not been clear in my description, i’m currently attending mizzou, not an ivy league place and I’m in the final semester of my masters. I’m just on an f1 student visa. If I don’t transfer to PhD immediately after, the visa would end. I checked the 2+2 program, I think the problem would be finding a job in this climate as an engineer from the middle east region under the Trump administration with companies thinking twice before hiring anyone from the region due to the current visa, travel issues .

  • JohnAByrne

    If you want to get into an elite MBA program, you’ll have to rack up two to four years of work experience. So it seems your fork in the road right now is 1) Do you go into a PhD program, or 2) Do you try to leverage your degree in a difficult subject and land a solid job. If I were you I would apply to Harvard’s 2+2 program (see our story below–you have six weeks until the deadline), Yale’s Silver Scholars program, and to Stanford’s for deferred admission. It sounds like you are in a very good place right now so you would be applying from a position of strength. The only immediate hassle is the GMAT. Not knowing what your GMAT score is, it would be difficult for me to tell you what your odds are. But with a high GPA, a STEM degree from an Ivy League School on full scholarship, the force is with you!


  • Ruben

    Never ceases to amaze me how people obsess and agonize over tiny differences in job placement, school culture, and network between the top schools. Yet the most important driver of success is YOU, not the school you went to or the network you are a part of. And in a job market where the returns for skills and knowledge are increasing, YOU can invest in yourself by getting the best education – that is choosing a school where you will learn and grow the most.

    I graduated from a top school a few years ago and by now no one cares. But the skills and knowledge I acquired continue to give me a leg up at work and on the job market (i work in data analytics).

  • HarvardWinsAgain

    Popular preference looks like Harvard > Stanford > Booth > Wharton.

    And this guy specifically behaved that way. Toss up between H & S went to S and he researched Booth more than Wharton.

  • M7md 3li

    Hello John, i just checked your linkedin and it looks like I’m attending the same school you went to (Missouri). I’m currently finishing my MS in Mechanical Engineering (and got accepted for phD). I’m an international student from Egypt (currently scared to go back home for fear of reentry issues, as even non listed people form listed countries have experience).

    I am 24 years old, have not taken the GMAT test yet, but with a high GPA. I have no work credentials as there is barely any opportunities back home and companies are loathe to hire a non-green card holder in engineering. I’m wondering what would my handicap would be at attending an ivy league school with full scholarship (currently a teaching assistant so tuition waived here).

    P.S. Thanks for creating this wonderful website.

  • JohnAByrne

    These are both great schools and you can’t go wrong. I wouldn’t say one carries more prestige over the other. But there are some significant differences between these two schools, ranging from size and location to the student cultures. You really need to visit each campus, spend time with students and faculty before making a choice between Booth and Sloan.

  • JohnAByrne

    We hardly think Justin has hit the pinnacle of his career achievement. He has a great future ahead of him and getting an MBA is just one stop in the road of a rather long journey. But getting admits from all four schools you apply to at the the most selective schools in the world is a very nice place to be.

  • Katie

    I sense a bit of envy here. Give credit where credit is due.

  • rita

    What are your thoughts on Sloan vs Booth? Sloan is certainly more competitive than Booth but you can’t ignore the #2 Booth ranking. Are they generally on par or does one carry more prestige?

    I am looking to head towards tech or social impact

  • MBAObserver

    Congratulations – quite a feat to be accepted into all of these schools! Best of luck in the future

  • nothing_to_see_here

    I have friends and colleagues that have graduated from every single one of those schools… I get it, great job bro! But please P&Q, stop making this sounds like our man here has hit the pinnacle of his career achievement so far!

    All four are great schools, and graduates from all four schools can be found in every industry and in company of all sizes. Stop reinforcing this stereotype that “Booth = Quant” and “GSB = Tech Startup / VC”.

    To Justin –

    Getting into a great MBA program is the beginning of a great journey, heck, it’s the beginning of the beginning of a great journey. An MBA is a great platform to help you achieve your career aspiration – nothing more. How you choose to enrich yourself during your two years in an MBA program matters far more than which of the four schools you choose, and how you choose to conduct your career afterward will outweigh any degree you received from any institution by many orders of magnitude.

    Put it this way, getting an MBA from one of these schools is kinda like getting the keys to a Ferrari, but how you drive it and what road you choose matters far more in terms of getting to where you want to go.

  • Sort of

    No Question H/S are a league above the others. But Wharton is only a hair above B/K/S. It’s less common, but I’ve seen numerous people choose the other 3 over Wharton even when $$ was not a factor.

  • ron wed

    Wow, talk about an interviewee coming off as insufferable and egotistical.

    I bet H,S,W, & B are thrilled about admitting this bozo after seeing this interview has been published…

    Also, love that he is complaining about qualifying for scholarship $ aid when he supposedly has a successful business with multiple US locations… Something doesn’t add up.

  • Yes, I would love to wade through that data myself.

  • Source

    Where is the source? I’ve never seen this, just self-reported and self-selected snapshots.

  • slayer

    no need for that. there are cross admit data from large, representative samples available that tell us how people actually choose between these schools.

  • Femi Brinson

    Go Dawgs!

  • I think this is largely a function of financial aid. If HBS and GSB offers him nothing, he would in all likelihood have to borrow six-figure debt to go to one of those schools. That is something not everyone is wiling to do. While the payback is obviously there, some students do not want to put themselves into a six-figure hole by graduation. That’s reasonable, for sure.

  • All this depends, of course, on what you want. If you are headed to tech and love entrepreneurship, Stanford would be hard to beat. If you are headed into a finance role, Wharton or Booth could concavely come first. And if one school gives you a full ride or a lot of money and your family circumstances make financial aid important, you would choose the program that doesn’t burden you with a lot of debt.

  • Which school would you choose?

    On our Poets&Quants’ Twitter feed, I put up a poll last night. Here are the results so far:

    HBS: 41%
    GSB: 35%
    Booth: 15%
    Wharton: 9%

  • PaulSBodine

    Way to go, Justin 😉

  • not really

    um is it really a dilemma?!? the order is clear

    Harvard/Stanford > Wharton >> Booth

    Few choose Wharton over H/S and few choose Booth or any other top b-schools over H/S/W.

  • Agnostic?

    I found it funny how he was “agnostic” between the four and then admits it’s 95% HBS or GSB.

  • Uherad

    and still need an MBA!!! Kind of rich parents kid feel inferior and need prestige. He did not found the firm, it was founded by his parents..

  • Sara

    Wait. He founded a venture firm so successful it has operations in eight cities but he expects to qualify for need based aid??

  • Mike P.

    What a douche