Why She Chose Stanford Over Harvard For Her MBA

It’s a choice that few MBA candidates get to make: Deciding whether to go to the Stanford Graduate School of Business or Harvard Business School. 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% (see Rare Privilege: Deciding Between HBS, Stanford).

Anneke Jong

Anneke Jong on why she chose Stanford over Harvard (LinkedIn photo)

After gaining that privilege and attending the Admit Weekends at both Harvard and Stanford, Anneke Jong, then a consultant for Deloitte, had no doubts. Now a project lead at Microsoft, her reason for selecting the GSB gets to the major differences between the two elite MBA programs — it also has provoked responses from HBS fans who say she got at least some of her reasons wrong. And while Jong made her decision years ago, her argument for Stanford holds just as true today as it did when she made her choice.

Here’s what she wrote on Quora.

Stanford was by far my top choice, for the following reasons:

1. It’s small, and I really like small schools. I went to a small school for undergrad, and it was great for me. You get a lot more personalized attention, you don’t fall through the bureaucratic cracks, you develop better relationships with your professors and peers. Having gone to Admitted Students Weekend at both Harvard and Stanford, I can tell you the difference between a big school and a small school is palpable, and a small school is definitely better for me.

2. Stanford has strong programs in social enterprise and entrepreneurship. Although other schools have these programs too, I think Stanford’s are the best. When I went to the info session for Harvard’s social enterprise initiative they pretty much all but said, “We’re just as good as Stanford!”

3. The collaboration between graduate schools at Stanford is pretty unique. Stanford has a top-notch engineering school and design school, and both of those collaborate frequently with the GSB to create unique classes and experiences that help people start real businesses. I’d recommend reading up on one class called “Entrepreneurial Design for Extreme Affordability.” It’s awesome.

4. The location pretty much can’t be beat. Not only is the weather beautiful, but being centered in Silicon Valley and near lots of venture capital firms is really helpful. The environment is ripe for starting businesses and/or getting in on the ground floor of a business, and that’s really exciting.

5. Stanford has a strong international focus. Unlike other top schools, Stanford requires you to do an international experience (working, trekking, interning, volunteering, etc.). In fact, they make it so easy that students usually do more than one.

6. I think Stanford does a good job handpicking its student body. Generally, I’ve been really impressed by the people that got in, and it’s clear to me that the admissions office reads each application carefully. When I talked to the Dean of Admissions at admit weekend, he started quoting stuff from my application. Seriously. Also, when I visited Harvard, I noticed that a lot of students and admits were relatively young (0-2 years out of undergrad). Since the business school learning experience is largely driven by your peers, it’s important to me that my peers are people I can learn from — people who’ve had experiences and know what they’re talking about. I remember when I was a year out of school — I thought I knew everything. Now I know that I didn’t know squat. If my education is going to be about learning from my peers, I’d prefer to go somewhere where the students skew a little older and have more experience.

One caveat: Although Stanford was the best choice for me, and I do love it for all the reasons I said above, I want to emphasize that all of the top business schools are amazing, and you’ll probably love wherever you go. My friends at other top schools would all probably recommend their schools just as strongly. The bottom line is: Definitely have a top choice or two, but don’t worry about it too much. There are lots of ways that each school is unique and you can pretend that the decision is drastic. But ultimately, they’re more similar than they are different, and you’ll probably be happy with either.

Ben Burns, a Harvard MBA, takes issue with some of Jong’s perspectives (LinkedIn photo)

Not so fast, replied Ben Burns, who graduated with his MBA from Harvard in 2015 and is now a product lead at Bose Corp. “These are all good points to use to help you decide,” he wrote, “and points 1 through 4 I fully agree with. 5 and 6, though, are a little off the mark — the international focus/experience and peer-learning factors are truly excellent at Stanford, but are matched or exceeded at Harvard.”

He added:

Specifically, on #5: at HBS international students and case studies are plentiful, and a high-quality international project is mandatory and provided by the school.

On #6: At HBS there are no people with under 2 years of experience — perhaps one or two students out of 900 — and about 10% of people have 2 years. The rest are 3-10 years out of college, maybe 4-5 years out on average. You spend the entire first year at HBS in class with the same 90 people (10% of the class), a randomly chosen group where you’re virtually guaranteed to bond and learn deeply — this has peer-learning advantages over Stanford, where this exclusive period only lasts a month or two. Then in your second year (and for extracurriculars) you mix with the full class of 900, which can be an advantage over the GSB if you value more diversity and a better opportunity to find a specific niche.

Burns, however, wasn’t the only commenter to take issue with some of Jong’s points. Arvin Abarca, CEO at GrandVoyage in Barcelona, weighed in as well. While Abarca does not have an MBA per se, he went to Stanford for its Executive Program for Growing Companies and earned a graduate diploma in e-business and social media from the University of London.

His reply:

As Ben says, all great up until #5. As an ‘international’, I’ll say the idea of international top schools in the US have is laughable. Project? trekking? are you serious? Just the fact that you dare to mention those as deep intl. experiences shows how clueless about that students at these schools are (take no offense, your reply is overall very good and spot on)
Many MBAs in Europe, or I’d just say, rest of the world, have the option to exchange for a year. Both HBS and the GSB are brutally closed. They consider a 30% intl. students as a global experience. It’s like saying that 7 republicans, 1 independent, 1 anarchist and 1 democrat is a fair and balanced debate.

(The latest class profiles show that 36% of the MBAs at Stanford are international vs 39% at Harvard).

Want international? Check INSEAD or IMD.

Average age used to be 26 for Stanford, youngest of the top and 27 for HBS. Again, none of them can brag about really experienced students. They go for the very fast trackers and don’t want to risk. Saying Stanford students are brilliant is true, compared to HBS students? pretty much the same. The only reason Stanford is more selective is just because it’s smaller, not because it has a bigger applicant pool.

Another point I’d add up in favour of Stanford is the more relaxed atmosphere. HBS used to get rid of 10% of those in the first year to increase competitivity. At Stanford is considered that the rat race was how you got there, no need to keep on stressing, if you were not brilliant and commited you just wouldn’t be there.


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