Rare Privilege: Deciding Between HBS, Stanford


“The pros for Stanford are that it would be pretty exciting to spend two years in a place I have never lived before. It would be great to be in that warm California environment. All the alumni emphasize why a great community it is. You see everybody every day and you get to know everyone in your class because it’s much smaller than Harvard. And it’s just that much harder to get into than Harvard.”

She thinks she will stay in finance or investment management, but isn’t 100% certain. “I’m hoping the business school will help me decide. I think either school would be very good for finance. Maybe Harvard has a slight edge, but I don’t think my career aspirations are strong enough to favor one school over another.”

Ultimately, a personal situation could influence her call. Liza has been in a four-year-long relationship with a “significant other” who lives in Boston. “My boyfriend wants it to be my decision,” she says. “He doesn’t want me to make a decision because of him.


Like Liza this year, Matt Saucedo got the call from Bolton and an invite from HBS last year. The then 23-year-old Deloitte consultant graduated magna cum laude from UCLA with a degree in communications only two years earlier and had applied to only two business schools in the first round.

He’s now in his first year at Stanford, and the phone call from Bolton seems to have played a role in the decision, though it was just one of many factors he considered. “It was that personal attention that really got me,” he says. “He really seemed to care and really wanted me to go to Stanford.

“But entrepreneurship has always been something I want to get into and Stanford is leading the way in entrepreneurship. Harvard’s got a lot of cool things going on, including the new innovation lab and the Rock Center for Entrepreneurship. At Stanford, they spoke more about the business school’s connection to the D-school and the schools of engineering and computer science.

“I also think you can get a more well-rounded education at Stanford. Harvard is all case study and I wasn’t sure I wanted to have case studies for all my classes. Stanford’s approach to recruiting seems more interactive. At HBS, it still feels like it’s the standard investment firms and consulting companies. At Stanford, it seemed like you could get more support if you wanted to do something more unique.”

“The smaller class size was also really big for me,” he says. “Going to UCLA, I had the massive sink-or-swim undergraduate experience. But when it comes to getting my MBA, I wanted the personal attention that comes with smaller classes.”


These are all judgment calls, as you would expect, calls that could go either way. When Alexandra Daum was making the decision between Stanford and Harvard—for the second time in her life after being accepted to both universities for her undergraduate education—she identified two issues that seemed most important to her on the second trip, this time for business school: the potential connections she could make with fellow students and the academic rigor in the classroom.

“For me, the most important factor was the strength of the potential connections I would make with fellow students and the breadth of people I would have the opportunity to meet during my two years,” says Daum, who went with Harvard and now is in her second year there. “After all, you are with those people in a concentrated environment for a two-year period. I visited the schools believing that if I made a strong connection with 10 or 15 people during my time on campus, that would be a deciding factor. I figured it would be representative of the general pool. After visiting both campuses, I found the majority of those connections to be students bound for HBS.”

The most telling discovery she made was during her visits to classes at both schools during events for admits. “I wanted to make sure that the academic experience was really positive because you do end up sitting in classes three hours a day,” she says. “I was blown away by the full immersion you experience in an HBS classroom. Everyone was listening and attentive. It is clear people are respectful of the process, and it’s clear they are all in.”


Daum came away from Palo Alto with a different impression, a function perhaps of the non-grade disclosure policy at Stanford along with the lack of a grading curve.  “At Stanford, the classroom environment was very different,” she says. “It didn’t seem to be the priority. Three students in a row passed on cold calls by the professor. That is something that really doesn’t happen at HBS. Every student  may not do his or her reading particularly thoroughly every single night, but I have never been in a class where someone has been cold called and has passed. The Stanford class I visited was a pre-selected class by admissions for admitted students so it scared me that if this is what they are putting forward, what would all the other classes be like?”

“For me, I need that peer pressure. If I went to a school where it was okay to pass, I could go into this spiral of also not doing my reading. I’m not making a comment on the individuals at the two different schools because if HBS students were given the choice, I’m sure they would pass more and do less homework too. But there is definitely an inherent respect for the classroom here that makes it seem like passing is just not an option.”

And yet Daum, who will be working for Bain & Co. in San Francisco after she graduates with her MBA from Harvard, says she was “definitely leaning” toward the West Coast school. After passing over Stanford for Harvard for her undergraduate studies in linguistics, she had felt “a little bit of regret that I hadn’t gone West and tried something new. I also wanted to do something that was for me outside the mold. Sitting in that class at Stanford was the last thing we did on my two and one-half day visit at the school. I sat there thinking I want to go here, but I really can’t if this is what class is like.”

About The Author

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.