Who Gets Into Harvard & Stanford’s MBA Programs Might Surprise You

Who really gets into Harvard & Stanford's MBA programs

Symonds: Well, yeah, but there’s a school like the University of Oklahoma that had three admits to Stanford last year. They were all in mechanical or chemical engineering. Perhaps there are only three that applied. You would have expected close to 60 applicants from the University of Oklahoma, so if you look at their admissions success rate, they perhaps had enjoyed far more success. That would certainly be true for all of those Chilean graduates from Pontificia. To get five into the Stanford program in a given year is a phenomenal number, but it is, very top-heavy for 15 to 20 schools, and you don’t then see that sort of eclectic spread now.

It would be very interesting to ask Harvard and Stanford MBA students what they want. Do they say, ‘Yeah, we actually feel that we’ve got far too much of the Ivy League here, far too many of the familiar faces. I’m looking to build up a network that’s not just international, but even across the best schools in the country.’ Or would they say, “This is how it should be. I want to be surrounded by Ivy League undergrads in my MBA classroom.’ As we then follow that pipeline through, there’s also an important stakeholder in all of this: the recruiters. I think one of the themes we draw is the upper hand that certain applicants have, either from their school networks or their employers. They have great networks that they can tap into, people that can speak on their behalf, and I think with even the best efforts of Kirsten at Stanford or Chad Losee at Harvard, those are very important voices that they need to listen to. So you do wonder if there’s this sort of self-serving bubble.

Of course, the schools are capable of change. If we were looking at these numbers 10 or 12 years ago, both schools would have only had 30% or 31% women in the MBA classrooms. We’re now looking at between 41% and 43% in the Class of 2021, record numbers at both schools. Stanford brought in 47% women to this year’s MBA classroom. I think they would admit that with the efforts that they’ve made, and the success that they’re starting to see with that move towards gender balance, I think, for them, the battleground now is minority students.

Byrne: Matt, I would bet that more minority candidates and more women come from these other schools that are less represented in the sample. So in other words, if you are a white male applying from Oklahoma, applying from Rutgers, applying from a state college without a national reputation, your chances of getting in are even slimmer than these statistics would suggest because I would bet that a lot of the people coming from the onesies and twosies schools are minority or female.

Symonds: Well, I guess you’re laying down the challenge for the next deep dive that we do for 2021 to bring in those sort of components. There’s something else I found fascinating. Harvard and Stanford, perhaps more than the other M7 schools, have seen a fairly dramatic decline in the number of international applicants. Yet, both Harvard and Stanford have kept their international intakes fairly strong and stable.  In the case of Stanford, as we show here, 42% of the class. A considerable number of them, I think, will be dual citizens, but what really struck me was that, of those international students, almost half of them had studied undergrad in the United States. So there’s still that endorsement of top schools in the U.S. That’s what we feel most comfortable with. That’s where we’re recruiting from, and that really sort of comes through in those numbers.

Again, Stanford, with a much smaller class, had this spike in Chilean students. I think there were a handful from three or four institutions in the U.K. There were very small numbers from India. We maybe didn’t pick up a few Chinese applicants, or applicants that don’t have the same level of visibility on the LinkedIn platform, but for Harvard, about a third of the international students had studied in three countries: India, the U.K., and Canada. That’s an achievement for Canada, which has a population of 37 or 38 million, compared to the 1.3 billion in India. So to get 22 Canadian admits from nine universities to Harvard is impressive. As you go down the list you’ll find, Brazil is number four, and Australia is in the top five or six. Clearly, there’s an advantage for that international applicant who has already completed their undergraduate education in the United States. It felt a little disingenuous in that they are talking about such a strong international pool, and yet a great many of them are likely to have already had a footprint in the U.S. when they applied.

International MBA students at Harvard and Stanford

International MBA students at Harvard and Stanford

Byrne: What did you find were the dominant majors among the enrolled MBA students?

Symonds: Economics was the clear, clear winner among the top feeder schools. You had big numbers from Yale, from Princeton, from Harvard, that studied economics. The further down you went, it was interesting that a school like Duke had great diversity, with such student majors as Chinese studies and archaeology. That was quite an eclectic mix there. I think many of the schools that provided applicants in ones or twos, that’s where you would see the BBA program from schools like Texas, Berkeley, and Michigan. You’d see a lot of engineers from the international crowd, but yeah, economics was a clear winner, and those that have the patience can go through all 300-plus universities because we actually identified. We share every single major or degree that people had taken. I think that matters too, that you’re not seeing many studying Art History. We’ve seen the shift already away from liberal arts through more and more successful applicants at these top schools with a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering or Math) background. That certainly came through. For Wharton undergrads who got into Harvard and Stanford, the top major was finance. I think that was similar at NYU, and then history was the most recurrent undergrad at a school like Dartmouth.

Most popular undergraduate majors for Harvard and Stanford MBA students

Most popular undergraduate majors for Harvard and Stanford MBA students

The final point on this slide (above) really interested me, apart from my spelling mistake on HBS admits. Harvard admits in the Class of 2020 who had an Ivy League undergraduate education typically had less work experience than the non-Ivy League graduates. Now, part of this could be explained, by the 2+2 deferred admissions program at HBS, where individuals are applying in the senior year of college. They don’t have four or five years of professional experience. So they’re relying much more heavily on academic achievement when they look at those seniors applying at that early stage. That could have some impact, but just this idea that if you have an Ivy League education, maybe you can get away with six months less in work experience on your resume, and that will be fine for Harvard.

Then, there is the employer side of the study. McKinsey, BCG, and Bain, we’re looking at two sets of numbers for each of these feeder companies. The bigger number, in the case of McKinsey, is 29 to Stanford and 82 to Harvard Business School (see below slide). That is the number of successful admits that had McKinsey on their resume since graduating from college, whether they started their career, and then moved on and did other things. The smaller number is how many students came directly from those top feeder employers. But McKinsey, BCG, and Bain are absolutely dominant. It speaks to a number of factors: the networks that those individuals benefit from, but clearly these are among the most prized employers for graduating college students, and they have very rigorous recruitment standards.

The case method that you have to sort of really dive into for your MBB interviews, I think that provides a level of reassurance for the admissions office. If you were good enough for McKinsey, Bain, or BCG, you’ve already got a head start. The admissions office is looking for those voices of experience and perspectives from the top consulting firms, and that includes Deloitte on the list. They made a great showing among the Big Four in both of those school lists. They’re number four on the Stanford list. They’re number five on the Harvard list.

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