He Got Into HBS, GSB, Wharton & Booth. Now He Has To Decide Where To Go

Justin: That’s really good advice.  You mentioned the student cultures; I’m interested in your thoughts on that subject. You hear a lot of folks say the HBS students may be more serious, more competitive, and the Stanford students are more laid back.  Do you buy into that at all?

Betsy: It’s easy to stereotype, and I think you are going to get some of both at each school. But let me tell you my experience of working with Stanford students, it’s not just the balmy palm trees and atmosphere around here. It isn’t that they are that much more laid back. Remember, this is a class of students, many of which have never seen a “B“ in their lives.  They are very competitive to have gotten there – some of them are competitive athletes – these are people who are at the top of their game.  They are not by nature a laid-back group of people. A lot of the work that I did at Stanford GSB was with first-quarter students, who are just being introduced to the curriculum and realizing how much work it actually is, at least in the first two quarters.  And how much pressure it is to do everything and meet everyone and get your work done and do your group projects. It’s a pretty intense place no matter what, but yes, Harvard is a little more east coast and Stanford is a little more west coast; you’re not going to get out of that part.  It’s a California ambiance at Stanford and Harvard, you’ve got to remember, it snows there too!

John: If I can interject a little bit, I can say without question the academic rigor of the Harvard program is much more significant than the Stanford program. Many students have said that.  There is a forced grading curve at Harvard, there is not a forced grading curve at Stanford; grades are disclosed at Harvard, they are not disclosed at Stanford, and I can tell you my professor friends at Stanford have said that it’s a much more easy-going program.

Betsy:  Yes, it’s true, there is a forced grading curve at Harvard, but at Stanford there are courses where students have to rate their peers. And that I have seen.  Academically, the academic weightiness of the faculty might be a little higher, but I don’t know if that really matters to you as a student. Yes, they do have a forced grading curve and it’s intimidating, but people get used to it and you figure it out. I just want to make sure that people know that at Stanford when people are rating your peers; that is also pretty intense as well.

Justin: Along lifestyle lines, do folks talk the same about the social vibrancy and the atmosphere at both schools or does some of that HBS grade disclosure and maybe the more rigorous academic environment cut into that social lifestyle for a lot of students?

Betsy: I don’t think so. I was really amazed even a million years ago when I went there how much fun Harvard is. What happens, is if you put 80 people into a room (this true also at Stanford) you put these people into a room and they are all somewhere between 26 and 30 years old, and they’re co-ed, and they’re from all over the world, and they’re smart and working really hard, people find ways to have fun, because it’s a very intense environment. So you work hard and you play hard.  I think that you will see a lot of social activities; it’s not all competition all day, every day. Not at all!  You’ll see when you get there for the admit weekend. I would have a hard time saying that one school is a more fun population than another.  John’s nodding, he approves!

John: Because at Harvard, even though you work harder, you’re going to play harder and have a lot of fun.

Justin: It’s obvious that HBS has a much larger alumni base, but you hear some people say that maybe Stanford’s alumni are more responsive.  So I am interested in your thoughts on this, and is this something that you’ve gotten the same vibe of?

Betsy: To answer the question, do they have different alumni bases, I think that the Stanford’s smaller alumni base is probably to an advantage; it’s a little bit tighter knit and they’re going to lend a hand a little bit more, but I don’t think it’s to the extent of Tuck. I think that Tuck is in a class by itself. I’m not going to say that Harvard alumni are not that helpful; I think that it really depends on who you ask.  With schools like Tuck, it really doesn’t depend on who you ask—the CEO will respond to your call.  I think with Harvard and with Stanford, if you’re going to call Mary Barra, who runs General Motors and is a Stanford graduate, she probably isn’t going to return your call. If she had gone to Tuck, she probably would.  That’s the way it works with both Harvard and Stanford; it really depends on who you call and I think the younger people are definitely more responsive.

John: I do think Stanford has a closer-knit alumni group, in part because it is smaller, in part because one measure of alumni loyalty is the percentage of alumni who give back to the school, and Stanford is double the rate of Harvard. And I think that tells you a lot about the commitment that the MBAs at Stanford have to each other. And because it’s a smaller school, you’re going to end up knowing more people than you would at Harvard. Sectionmates know each other very well at Harvard, but there are a lot of people who go through Harvard you don’t really know at all. I think that’s rarer at Stanford due to the size of the class.

Justin: On fellowships, it’s need-based aid at HBS and Stanford, there’s not much known about it, so I’m interested in your thoughts. Does it seem to be competitive with merit-based aid at other top schools, and is this need-based aid negotiable at all.

Betsy: They have to be competitive; it’s market-based, they understand, it is a business school, but exactly how it’s done, I don’t think anybody really knows. But I do want you to know that it is negotiable, that Harvard and Stanford are very concerned about losing candidates to each other. You are really in the driver’s seat in that way. This isn’t just the case with Harvard and Stanford: some schools will need some proof. If you say, I got $X from school Y, some schools will definitely need to see that you’re not just bluffing. Not that you would, but it’s not a game and the schools take it pretty seriously.  So yes, you will be able to do some negotiation, in of course, a very diplomatic way.  They’re not going to un-invite you to the class, that’s not going to happen, but at the same time, you want to keep good relations on all sides. But you also want to get as much money as you can. This is not an inexpensive proposition, and you should be very clear that money is involved.

John: So Betsy, how does that conversation sound?  How does Justin approach that conversation with a Harvard and a Stanford?

Betsy: If you do meet any people from the admissions committee when you are on campus or at the admit weekend, I think you can mention it. You can say, “I’m looking at both schools, and I am interested in a lot of different things, but the money is an issue [and if you’ve already got the number], can you match it? That would be a material difference to me. You ask that question in a very polite way, and a firm way. Really, you don’t try to be a hard ass about it, you just be very frank and very open and say this is the situation. If it’s a really wide gap, say “This is a wide gap and that’s material.” And if it’s not just a wide gap, say, “I think it would be really great if you could help me out here.” Be very down to earth in the way you do it; they really want to get you to come to their school, I can’t guarantee any of it, but they will probably be positive.

John: Justin is in an interesting situation because he has a great job at a global company of renown, so I would presume you’re getting well-paid for that job and he is going to be in a need-based pool where people are coming from non-profits, government jobs, jobs that don’t pay nearly as well, people from international locales where compensation might be less. What if, in fact, he gets no financial aid from Harvard and Stanford, would you advise that he borrow the money, just goes, and does it regardless?