Rare Privilege: Deciding Between HBS, Stanford

Stanford Graduate School of BusinessHOW DO PEOPLE DECIDE BETWEEN THE TWO BEST BUSINESS SCHOOLS IN THE WORLD?

Indeed. Deciding whether to be in Boston or Palo Alto can be a true dilemma for more than 150 lucky applicants every year—just as it can be a challenge for any MBA candidate to choose among several schools that have extended invites.

Consider Liza, a 27-year-old applicant who has to decide by Feb. 20 whether she is going to HBS or Stanford this fall. “It feels pretty unbelievable because the whole application process was so long and stressful,” says Liza, who asked that her real name not be used. “I just worried so much about it and never imagined I would have these options. I am very fortunate to have a choice. Liza, who works in Boston for an investment management firm, initially got the first piece of good news on Dec. 10 from Derek Bolton, head of MBA admissions at Stanford.

“I had heard that Bolton called people the day before the official notification on Dec. 11,” says Liza. “But I kept telling myself not to freak out if the call didn’t come. I had a work meeting and had just gotten into the office, and I got up to get a coffee and my phone rang. It said Palo Alto.”

“This is Derek Bolton,” the voice on the other end of the line said.

‘GETTING ACCEPTED FELT LIKE I WAS IN A DREAM’

Bolton, she recalls, spoke as if she didn’t know who he was, shared the good news, and then said, “I hope you’re having a good day.”

“I’m having a great day now,” she recalls saying.

“I couldn’t wait to get the official letter the next day so I had proof it actually happened. Afterward, I felt like it was a dream. That was a huge weight off my shoulders.”

The following day on Dec. 11, Harvard was to release its decisions by noon. “I was so stressed out that I decided not to go to work in the morning,” she recalls. “I met my boyfriend at 11:55 a.m. at a Starbucks and we logged in to my online account together at exactly noon.”

Harvard ShieldSINCE ACCEPTANCE, CALLS FROM STUDENTS AND ALUMNI TO LOBBY HER

HBS said yes, as well. “I got a call that evening from the person who interviewed me and then a couple of calls from alumni to congratulate me over the course of the next couple of days.”

Since then, Liza says, she has received about six to eight phone calls from students and alumni at each school. “Most of them just say, ‘Congratulations! It’s a great accomplishment,’” she says. “They talk a little about their experience and they say it was among the best years of their lives. A few of them have asked if I’m 100% going to their school. I tell them I am still deciding between schools.”

Though she feels no pressure from the phone calls, Liza says that both schools have called alumni who work for her employer. “They’ve told them to talk to me and convince me to go to that school. It is really nice that they care enough to do that.”

THE JOY OF ACCEPTANCE HAS SHIFTED TO THE ANXIETY OF THE DECISION

Asked if she knows why both HBS and Stanford want her, she says, “Who knows at the end of the day why you get in. I think it’s because I have a pretty exceptional academic record and from a statistical standpoint my GPA and GMAT scores are top end. I had all the academic cred and my essays and interviews balanced that academic perspective. They showed I was a person who was really looking to go to a school to develop and grow as a person and was very open to the transformational opportunity the school had to offer.”

The unbridled joy she felt at getting accepted to both schools has now shifted to anxiety over a decision that is due on Feb. 20. “I am truly undecided,” she concedes. “I was leaning toward Harvard and I went to a brunch with Stanford alumni in my area and now I am totally confused. I just keep going back and forth.”

She says she is trying to make lists of pros and cons in her head, but finds it difficult to come up with many negatives for either school. “On any criteria, a school might be slightly stronger than the other, but it’s close,” says Liza. “For Harvard, the main pros are that is where I live and that is where my family lives. Harvard has some really strong recruiting services, and I like how large the network is.”

About the Author...

John A. Byrne

John A. Byrne is the founder and editor-in-chief of C-Change Media, publishers of Poets&Quants and four other higher education websites. He has authored or co-authored more than ten books, including two New York Times bestsellers. John is the former executive editor of Businessweek, editor-in-chief of Businessweek. com, editor-in-chief of Fast Company, and the creator of the first regularly published rankings of business schools. As the co-founder of CentreCourt MBA Festivals, he hopes to meet you at the next MBA event in-person or online.