I was lucky enough to gain acceptance to three business schools in round one: Harvard, Stanford and Chicago Booth. But in the lead up to the notification dates for these schools, I was wracked with nerves; I’m sure many of you will empathise. The relief of getting into these schools was significant – and very much celebrated! But once the euphoria had evaporated, and the excitement subsided, it quickly sunk in that I needed to make a decision. After visiting the schools and researching them extensively, I could very much picture myself commencing with any of them in the coming fall.
Like most engineers, I turned to a spreadsheet to support my decision making. I brainstormed a total of 25 criteria on which to evaluate each school and assigned a weighting factor based on their relative importance to me. These criteria covered everything from teaching methods and resources for starting a company, to the relative challenges of maintaining a long-distance relationship (cost of flights, time difference, etc.) and the weather. In doing this, I relied on the work done by a previous dual admit, which I found on the Poets & Quants website, and just modified the criteria, weightings and scores to suit my preferences.
As is the norm when you’re admitted to business school, I had students and alumni ambassadors reach out, keen to offer their perspective and answer my burning questions. So along with my own independent research, I used a series of Skype calls with these ambassadors to help me to land on scores for each school. These interactions were useful; however, I had to remember that it was their role to “sell” their school on these calls, and to get me to sign on. At times, it was difficult to tell if what they were saying was completely genuine, or if it was “spun” to deliver a more positive point of view.
ON HIS SCORING SHEET, HBS & GSB SCORED ‘DECISIVELY HIGHER’ THAN BOOTH
As it came time to tally up the scores for each of the schools, I found that the Stanford and Harvard scored decisively higher than Booth. However, Stanford and Harvard were practically indistinguishable: 7.39 vs 7.36. Now I expected the numbers to be close, but I could hardly feel comfortable basing one of the biggest decisions of my life on a margin of less than 1%!
While my scores for Harvard and Stanford were essentially the same, the spreadsheet exercise provided a comprehensive view of the advantages and drawbacks of each school. Further, I made a couple of useful observations:
- I noticed that although the overall scores were similar, I scored Harvard higher on outward facing measures (such as brand recognition and alumni network size), whereas I scored Stanford higher on inward facing criteria (including cultural fit and the quality of the learning environment).
- I realised that endlessly researching the schools was not going to add much value. At this stage, I wasn’t likely to learn anything from additional research that would sway my decision.
I’d learned a lot from the spreadsheet exercise and from speaking to students and alumni, but I was going to need a different approach to make this decision.
EMOTIONALLY TRYING TO ADMIT MY LIMITATIONS
I spent several weeks reflecting on where I want to take my career and where I need to develop in order to get there. I had done this to an extent through the application process and in preparation for the interviews, but this time I felt I had to dig a bit deeper and face up to some uncomfortable truths. What are the things that I’m objectively good at vs the things that I just think I’m good at? Or the things that I’m actually good at vs the things that I want to be good at?
At times, it was emotionally trying to admit to myself where my limitations are – but I’m glad that I went through this process as it has provided me with greater clarity on where I need to focus in the coming couple of years. It also delivered clarity on which school is right for me. An MBA from either school would certainly be a life changing experience, but Harvard felt like the safer option, whereas Stanford would be a leap outside of my comfort zone.
After visiting the Harvard campus and researching the school, I could certainly see myself addressing many of my gaps there, but I was left wondering whether the academic rigor of the program and ubiquity of the case method would offer the right environment for me to grow practical skills for starting a new business or developing and launching a new product. I’ve thrived in an academically demanding environment before, and I’m confident that I could do so again – but I’m convinced that a thorough, hands-on application of knowledge is key to really unlocking the potential of my MBA.
WHY I FINALLY PICKED STANFORD
At Stanford, I saw myself facing challenges that I wouldn’t find anywhere else: challenges that are substantially different to those faced in my corporate oil and gas career. Courses like “Design for Extreme Affordability” offer me the opportunity to get hands-on experience innovating and developing new products and businesses to solve real-world problems. While traditions like “Talk” will require me to develop my story-telling skills and allow myself to be vulnerable around people with whom I have little familiarity. I ultimately chose Stanford because I believe that my experience there will be more frightening, more uncomfortable, more challenging and ultimately – more transformational. That to me is the most important consideration when deciding where to spend the next two years of my life, and hundreds of thousands of dollars in opportunity costs (direct costs, and foregone salary and benefits).
When it came time to accept the offer to Stanford – and decline the once in a lifetime offer to Harvard – I remember sitting there at my computer for over an hour. I was recapping on two months of anxiety over this decision, second-guessing the logic behind my decision, and just asking myself “what if?” I finally ratified my decision and the weight of the last couple of months was lifted. Since then, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed being part of the Stanford pre-matriculate community: it’s a group of outstanding people from all walks of life, who – just like me – are ready to dive head first into the upcoming challenge.
There are many people out there who would easily choose Harvard for the brand, or Stanford for its linkages to the tech industry, and there’s nothing wrong with that – if those are the things that they really value. But the decision for me was a little more nuanced and challenging. Ultimately though, I landed on a decision that was best for me, given my background, and what I hope to take away from my MBA experience.
Dane Renner is an MBA candidate at Stanford Graduate School of Business (class of 2019), an experienced chemical engineer, and an LGBTI+ advocate. His stats are off the charts: He racked up a 3.8 GPA in commerce and engineering at the University of Auckland in New Zealand as well as a 770 GMAT (44V/50Q). In addition to Stanford, he was admitted to both Harvard Business School and Chicago Booth School of Business. This is the first of a five-part series by Renner who will chronicle his interview preparation, with recaps of his HBS and GSB interviews, how he decided which school to attend and what he intends to do to prep for his MBA experience.