It’s a choice most MBA applicants get to make when they are admitted to several schools: Which one do you say ‘yes’ to?
Harvard or Stanford?
Wharton or Columbia?
Chicago Booth or Northwestern Kellogg?
Virginia Darden or Duke Fuqua?
These choices are closely guarded secrets in the world of MBA admissions, but for the first time Bloomberg Businessweek today (Jan. 28) sorted through its most recent survey data to find answers to these often agonizing decisions. Of course, the choices reflect only those students who happened to be in the polling sample and who also responded to the question. Still, this is pretty interesting data that can supplement the more typically revealed information on yield rates–the percentage of admits to a single school who actually go.
The results of these school rivalries come from the latest graduating class of MBAs at the top schools in 2014. So the decisions reflect choices made in 2011 and 2012 as the Great Recession was losing its grip on the economy. There’s no reason to think these contests have changed all that much since then, though you can never be sure given the large sums of scholarship money now being rewarded to fight these battles. Nonetheless, as BW’s Jonathan Rodkin notes, “Few things are a purer indicator of which school is truly most desirable than where the most sought-after MBAs—the ones with their pick of highly selective schools—chose to go.”
The biggest margin of victory–or defeat if you are measuring it from the loser’s perspective–was UC-Berkeley’s Haas School vs. UCLA’s Anderson School. A 35-point spread separates the two best University of California MBA programs, with 54% going to Haas and just 19% headed for UCLA. That difference could narrow in future years because UCLA only recently began to more aggressively use scholarship cash to get the best students.
Behind these battles are a lot of intangibles. As Dan Bauer, founder and CEO of The MBA Exchange, a leading MBA admissions consultant, points out: “Applicants admitted to more than one MBA program tend to make their final decision through head-to-head comparisons of key aspects. Near-term comfort vs. long term rewards. Academic strength vs. brand equity. Historic reputation vs. current media buzz.”
Scorecard: Harvard — 22% Stanford — 56%
When it comes to Harvard and Stanford, the results give the West Coast school a big edge—mainly due to the increasing popularity of both entrepreneurship and tech. Of the 63 applicants in BW’s sample who were admitted to both schools, 56% headed to the land of palm trees and warm weather, while only 22% chose Harvard Business School. Even more interesting, 22% of those students went elsewhere. While observers have said that Stanford has been winning this battle of late, with HBS’ 90% yield rate the difference is quite a surprise. In fact, Stanford’s margin of victory here is second best, with a 34-point spread. (See Rare Privledge: Deciding Between Harvard & Stanford).
“Harvard hates losing,” says Sandy Kreisberg, founder of HBSGuru.com and a prominent MBA admissions consultant. “To the extent this is true, it explains Harvard’s recent obsession with entrepreneurship and its classic response flooding the market with scholarship dollars. An entrepreneurial dual admit might use a Stanford admit to test Harvard’s so called need-based admission scholarship grants.
Kreisberg also speculates that some are making the decision because the first year workload at Stanford is generally considered much lighter. “Harvard is a vacation where you have to dress up for three hours a day,” quips Kreisberg. “Stanford is a total two-year vacation. What i’d like to know is the H/S split among international admits. My guess is Harvard does better there because it’s a more powerful global brand.”
In any case, to be a dual admit to the two best business schools in the world is exceedingly rare. In a typical admissions cycle, as many as 4,500 candidates apply to both MBA programs at HBS and Stanford. Little more than 150 applicants gain the privilege of being dual admits, according to estimates by MBA admission consultants and students. That’s an acceptance rate that hovers around 3.3%—well below the overall acceptance rates of 12% at Harvard and 6.5% at Stanford.
Bauer thinks that Stanford is winning largely because of the perception that HBS is the old standby at the top of the heap, while Stanford is the relative new kid on the block. “There’s no denying the appeal of the “coolness” factor among admits whose background and potential earn offers from both elite schools,” he says. “Cool school beats old school.”
Stanford’s win over Harvard doesn’t come as a shock to Adam Hoff, an MBA admissions consultant with Amerasia Consulting Group. “This doesn’t really surprise me because Stanford has long struck me as being more curatorial in building a class,” believes Hoff. ” It’s a much smaller school that puts a huge premium on fit and how students will mesh together – I’ve long used the analogy that while most admissions offices are like customs agents (stamping the appropriate passports as they come through), Stanford’s is like a wedding planner putting together the seating chart for the reception dinner.
The result of all this is twofold, according to Hoff. “First, they are far more likely to spot a tried-and-true HBS student and just say ‘great, go to Harvard’ and ding that person, and second, because they are playing an active role in determining fit, they often are better at identifying who really wants to go to Stanford. I have received anecdotal evidence from clients that both of these schools – yes, even these great titans – will ‘play defense’ and ding someone that they think is going elsewhere. I just think GSB is both more adept at getting that intel and also more able to sort through it due to the smaller numbers they are dealing with. Honestly, I think these numbers would start to even out if HBS simply asked its candidates at the essay stage ‘Why HBS?,’ as, like Stanford, they will be able to more easily sort out who has true and piqued interest in what their program specifically has to offer beyond just being one of the best.”