Which Top Business School is Right for You?
Against all odds, you hold an offer from both Harvard Business School and the Stanford Graduate School of Business.
And with that, you’ve entered the hallowed ranks of the “double admits,” which, while a straightforward-enough idea, doesn’t quite do justice to the incredible achievement. Not only does this stick two proverbial feathers in one’s cap, it offers two golden opportunities to make a transformational next step in your career.
But more importantly, at this moment, it demands that you make an incredibly stressful decision.
How should a person with dual admits to HBS and GSB proceed?
Our guiding light at Admissionado is to always aim high, and choose the best school you can get into. Our deep experience in the MBA admissions consulting world supports this stance: You are guaranteed to be challenged more, find greater opportunities for enrichment, and forge deeper connections if you surround yourself with excellent peers, faculty and alumni.
This is, admittedly, complicated when you get into two top schools. HBS and GSB are both widely considered among “the best MBA programs,” as indicated here, here and here. So how in the leadership-loving, excellence-achieving WORLD does one choose between two top schools?
Flip a coin?
Close your eyes and meditate for 30 seconds, and whichever school flashes in one’s mind is the winner?
Break out some gnarly SWOT analyses?
Answer – Yes. The path to choosing between MBA heavyweights will fall somewhere in the middle of these three approaches. Taking both a quantitative and qualitative approach to the decision making process is only natural, as choosing an MBA program means balancing a business investment against a transformational, personally fulfilling life chapter.
A difficult and daunting process? Yes. But fear not. We have the criteria laid out for you to consider your options.
Top Business Schools by the Numbers
Let’s take a tour of the numbers. This is B-school, after all.
Profiles – The Class of 2022
Starting with class size. Stanford’s class of 2022 welcomes 436 new students, compared to Harvard’s class of 2022 welcoming 723 students this year. An important caveat is that Harvard’s average class size is 930 students, but they offered the year’s admitted students the option to defer for one year due to the pandemic. So were it not for COVID-19, class size becomes even more significant differentiating factor.
From there on out, the demographics of Stanford and Harvard’s MBA classes are largely the same. Stanford’s class of 2022 is 47% women, Harvard’s is 44%; Stanford’s incoming class is 35% international students to Havard’s 33%; Stanford’s incoming class is 37% people of color compared to Harvard, at 45%. This is true more or less across the board when it comes to elite MBAs—class size is going to be the biggest differentiator.
Tuition, Cost of Living, and Expenses
There’s no way around it: Pursuing an MBA is expensive, and HBS and GSB are no exceptions. HBS tuition is a little over $73,000 annually, but after factoring in insurance, materials, and cost of living, the school estimates the cost of one year attendance at a little over $111,000.
Stanford GSB tuition, on the other hand, is…about the same. $74,000 in tution, and $118,000 in total expenses. Perhaps that $7K a year in savings looks enticing right about now, but given the large return on investment you expect to achieve in your post-MBA career, this becomes less of a deciding factor.
The Extras: Extracurricular Opportunities and Global Immersions
International treks and global immersions are a major selling point of top-tier MBAs. But it’s worth noting that they incur additional costs on top of tuition, and they are both required parts of HBS and GSB’s MBA curriculum.
Stanford’s Global Management Immersion Experience (GMIX) and Global Study Trips range from 4-week summer sessions to more compact 10-day trips.
Harvard’s FIELD Method is also a curricular requirement, and involves a “one-week immersion” on-site.
Beyond international offerings, there are other “optional activities” to consider, such as domestic career treks, club activities or job and internship interviews that may include travel costs, fees or other expenses. However, because these types of programs exist at all top MBA programs, their mere existence doesn’t really tip the scales in either direction. You’ll have to look more closely, and see which school offers more programming in your specific countries and industries of interest.
The B-School Campus Vibe
There is a distinct and unmistakable “vibe” evoked by each top business school. HBS sports an old-school, ivy-covered reputation. And on the West Coast, you have the shiny, tech-driven sheen of GSB.
One school’s culture might resonate more strongly with you. But it’s worth digging deeper, past the surface level appearances, to make the final call. Qualitative comparisons of key academic offerings at both schools can reveal subtle nuances that could move the needle when deciding between the two:
As we discussed earlier, class size is a key differentiator between many programs. Harvard’s large class size is by design. Harvard celebrates its larger class size on their website: “HBS is a big place. We think it’s one of the great advantages of our program (lots of students = lots of alums = a big global network for you to access).”
But the HBS Case Method and HBS “sections” manage to make a large class feel smaller. By working in assigned small teams, you can form strong bonds with a few classmates, which, coupled with the extensive network generated by larger class sizes, offers a “best of both worlds” scenario.
GSB’s smaller class size, on the other hand, makes it easier to achieve the closer classmate connections and one-on-one interactions with professors than if you are one of nearly 1000 full-time students. While GSB does offer optional team-based simulations and projects, the lack of an integral “small group” approach to classes puts the onus on the student to cultivate these experiences. This could be a good thing if you’re the kind of person who easily makes connections and feels confident in your ability to pick the people in your social group.
Location, Location, Location
Geographic location is one of the easiest (and most obvious) comparisons. In the HBS/GSB example, Cambridge and Palo Alto differ greatly in terms of culture and local industries.
Both HBS, located in Cambridge, MA, and GSB, in Palo Alto, CA, are located in relatively small college towns near larger cities. This means both schools grant a quieter, slower-paced environment in which to pursue your MBA, as opposed to a campus that drops you right into the center of a major city, like NYU Stern, UCLA Anderson or Chicago Booth. The value of studying in a smaller city comes down to personal preference, except in one key area: Ease of access to your post-MBA companies, internships or networking opportunities.
Relevant local companies are essential strategic features to consider when choosing a B-school’s location. Cambridge puts you near top consulting firms and a few hours by train from New York, whereas Palo Alto throws you into the deep end of the Silicon Valley tech scene. Depending on your specific career goals and targeted industries, the concentration of opportunities in these areas should not be underestimated when making your decision.
Home to Entreprenuers
In that vein, geographic location also plays a key role in assessing how each school can help you achieve your entrepreneurial aspirations if that’s your desired path.
You don’t need us to tell you that “Stanford” evokes words like “entrepreneurship,” “startup,” “tech,” and “venture capital.” It is much easier to network and invite prominent tech industry guests when campus is a mere Uber ride away from Silicon Valley.
This commitment to entrepreneurship also extends to hands-on opportunities. Stanford’s Startup Garage is an “intensive, hands-on, project-based course in which student teams design and test new business concepts that address real-world needs,” so you can get a head start on launching your company.
HBS has similarly robust entrepreneurial resources, but with a slightly different focus. The Arthur Rock Center for Entrepreneurship offers an accelerator, an annual venture competition, and entrepreneurs in residence, not unlike the Startup Garage. However, the profusion of healthcare companies in Boston and the proximity of MIT results in a slate of startups that are less focused on computers and more often built on scientific processes or medical patents. Even if you are interested in traditional tech, there is a case to be made that distance from the Bay Area—an area already saturated with countless tech ventures—can be useful to standing out in the startup game.
What Tips the Scale?
Can you make a wrong choice when picking between elite MBA programs? Not really, no. You will be challenged and equipped with the tools to make your mark on the world at either HBS or GSB. In writing your essays for these schools, you successfully argued why HBS or GSB would be your best choice, given your unique career goals and vision for the future. It was enough to convince both adcoms, so, why not read those arguments back and consider:
Which school—HBS or GSB—does a better job of selling themselves to you?