HBS and Stanford: Admitted to Both, Then & Now
Each year, the SBC client pool includes candidates admitted to both Harvard Business School (HBS) and Stanford Graduate School of Business (GSB). We call these rare, "unicorn" applicants dual admits. Many SBC clients who achieved this impressive feat have received large scholarships, too.
In any era, dual HBS and GSB admit success is rare. Chiefly, because both schools are highly coveted and have near single-digit acceptance rates. Thus, gaining admission to both programs is a statistical long shot.
What makes it even more complicated is that HBS and GSB look for different things in candidates. Plus, each has a distinct evaluation process. It's rare for one candidate to have the key success factors that both schools seek.
HBS and GSB Admissions officers are very savvy. They can assess whether the candidate has shown a consistent match with the school’s value system and core success factors through every application touchpoint.
Regardless of how you’ve shown leadership, HBS is really looking for a track record or habit, says a former HBS Admissions Officer now on the SBC team.
By contrast, we consistently hear from the former Stanford GSB admissions officers on our team about how the GSB seeks “diverse people who seek a transformative experience.”
Besides these realities, MBA application volume soared during the 2020-2021 admissions cycle. Plus, each class had fewer seats available due to the pandemic deferrals from last season. So, receiving admits from both HBS and GSB in this most competitive admissions season is extraordinary.
SBC reviews its admit pool each season to identify key trends and lessons. For instance, we recently wrote about how to demystify the HBS acceptance rate. These exceptional HBS and GSB dual admit candidates and their unique admissions stories offer clear guidance for prospective MBA applicants.
HBS and GSB Dual Admits Study: Then and Now
Several seasons ago, we developed a list of eight lessons for dual admits. Back then, the economy was strong, and MBA demand wasn’t nearly as robust.
With demand now surging, our team sought to stress-test the original eight dual admit lessons. Would the current season admits still reflect this eight-prong framework?
This new study captures a larger sample size than before: 14 dual admits to HBS and GSB from Round 1 in 2020. This was the most competitive admissions period due to the height of the pandemic.
We based our dual admit findings on the following:
- a thorough application review,
- clues from client interviews, and
- what AdComm disclosed to our clients on their admit calls.
The most significant changes in our findings for this current dual admit study happened in lessons #1 and 2. In fact, key differences appear across most of our eight lessons in this recent study. You can read about these changes below.
There’s no question that lessons #4 through #8 are still the areas in which the right application strategy has the most significant impact. These are also the areas over which applicants have the greatest influence.
Interestingly, these lessons have stood the test of time. They were as important several years ago for HBS and GSB admit success as they remain today. Those specific #4-8 lessons are the areas that a skilled MBA admissions consultant can meaningfully optimize for applicants.
Lesson 1: MBA-oriented employer or relevant professional experiences help.
In our pre-pandemic research of double admit clients, we said that an applicant doesn’t need to have “an undergraduate degree from an elite college, or come from a typical MBA-oriented firm or industry.”
This year, this first lesson has changed to include both pedigree and non-feeder profiles—with the caveat that MBA-oriented firms and experiences are evolving. We had more double admits this year who came from blue-chip companies such as McKinsey and megafund private equity firms.
While it's not a prerequisite or the leading influencer, most of our double admit clients came from MBA-relevant employers, functions, or work responsibilities. HBS and GSB may be becoming somewhat risk-averse given the current economic and pandemic climate, relying more on familiar roles and firms than they did before. MBA programs evolve in reaction to the biggest recruiters of MBA graduates.
There is no static list of feeder colleges or employers. But, the admission committee's familiarity with and respect for specific companies or job roles might influence dual HBS and GSB admit success.
This is by no means limited to the traditional industry pools of finance or consulting. Our current double admit pool included employers from the education and media tech fields. This may reflect the evolving landscape in MBA recruiting and employment at HBS and GSB.
In our earlier study, we shared that “Only one of the admits came from a firm known as a heavy feeder and recruiter for elite MBA programs. None of the others even had MBA graduates as supervisors.”
By contrast, 11 of the 14 dual admits this season came from recognizable or distinguished employers. This is also likely driven by MBA recruiting and employment trends at HBS and GSB. On college education, our earlier dual admit study noted that “None of the double admits we worked with graduated from an elite or Ivy League university. All the U.S. students in this group came from schools ranked between 20-50.”
Meanwhile, this season, only three of our 14 dual admits came from lower-ranked universities. Two of those three were international universities, such as Warwick in the EU or Waseda in Japan.
Five of the 14 admits came from Ivy League colleges or the equivalent, such as Stanford or Oxford. The remaining six had attended colleges in the top 50, such as Georgetown, NYU, and Northwestern. HBS and GSB may be more selective this year due to the applicant pool's high quality and size.
Lesson 2: GPA, test scores, and demographics are important but evolving.
Our gang of 14 included four international applicants and ten US applicants. Nine are female, and three are from an underrepresented minority (URM) group. The last time we did this dual admit study, we saw less representation by women and URMs.
The group also included both GRE and GMAT takers. Scores ranged from 690 to a 770 GMAT, with an average score of 730—a higher average than the 710 we saw several seasons ago. GPAs ranged from 3.5 to 3.9 or the equivalent for international students.
Lesson 3: There is a sweet spot with work tenure.
In our last study before the pandemic, we found that age skewed somewhat older for double admits. Back then, they had between four and seven years of post-college work experience. This season, we see a limited work tenure range, between two and six years upon applying. This season's average work experience is 3.9 years. That's lower than the 5.5 years average work tenure several seasons ago.
This lower work tenure average might be due to the so-called "pandemic mindset." Young professionals consider this an ideal time to escape their careers for a few years to do an MBA. We expect business schools to return to relative normalcy in fall 2021 and onward due to the vaccine availability.
Lesson 4: You don’t need to have saved the world.
Every double admit this season had modest extracurriculars. Think things like professional organization membership, music, sports, one-on-one mentoring, and low-level volunteering. We did see more political advocacy in our latest batch of dual admits, which makes sense, given it was a heated election year.
Contributing to one’s community or within a group one cares about is what matters. It's not about saving the world.
Whatever you chose, your extracurricular activities should resonate with you. Meaningful involvement offers a low-risk, high-impact way to exercise leadership and management skills.
Lesson 5: All dual admits demonstrated real character and a desire plus a track record of helping others.
When discussing their careers, these applicants avoided sharing the typical workplace accomplishment stories. Instead, they wove in anecdotes about helping others—mentoring, giving, or assisting in some way.
For example, one client explained how she declined an Ivy college admit for another college program—still a top 25 university—because of a full-ride offer, and she wanted to unburden her parents. Another dual admit chose to take a lower-paying job in an education fund instead of a management consulting role.
She wanted to do something about which she felt more passionate. Incidentally, this also connected to her post-MBA goals, so the trajectory appeared ambitious yet attainable.
Yet another dual admit client came from a traditional, over-represented feeder firm. He used his experience and accolades in the social impact space to set him apart through his insightful essays. That was enough to offset an otherwise typical industry profile and undistinguished university.
Lesson 6: They shared distinctive, personal stories and attainable goals.
Sure, their resumes may have said: Two years at McKinsey. But their essays got personal, bringing their true natures and trajectories to life. They told micro-stories that filled in the blanks. These applicants showcased what drives their future career goals and explained why they made specific decisions.
For instance, a more traditional applicant had had little time recently to make noteworthy community contributions. Still, he enhanced his HBS and GSB applications by using his remarkable identity-based contributions in college. During those years, he had worked to unify Arab and Israeli students and promote peaceful dialogue around conflicts in the region.
In each case, their stories told the “why” behind their prior actions. Yet, they also conveyed a clear picture of career aspirations. Goals made sense and appeared attainable given previous experiences and the track record of consistent actions they had taken.
Lesson 7: They painted a “Big Picture” focus, advancing impact beyond themselves.
None of these admits described their current careers or future aspirations as a specific job. It was much more meaningful than that. They felt driven to make an impact on people and their industries. They wanted to shift mindsets and behaviors and change the world. Think "big picture" themes, such as globalizing the reach of an industry, providing life-changing help to others, or easing political tensions.
One dual admit client wrote about why he wanted to help others who were less fortunate. He used such vivid terms that it could have been a script from a Netflix show.
Hobbies or extracurriculars can be windows into character qualities. For instance, one of our dual admits played tennis at a very high level throughout college and had a prominent athletic brand sponsorship.
There’s also a more consistent focus on purpose-driven career paths, with a desire for greater societal or global impact. We see a new emphasis on illustrating values-based decision-making and appreciation of a wide breadth of experiences, communities, and stakeholders. Respect for people and diversity appears through their actions over time.
Lesson 8: They were self-aware and likable, confident but also are open to growth opportunities
If you are already perfect, why get an MBA? No business school wants to admit even the most accomplished jerk. Our dual admits acknowledged they were not perfect in their essays by conveying authentic opportunities for growth through self-reflection.
While these applicants struck us as self-assured, they also came off as likable and realistic about their shortcomings. They recognized their need to try harder and look to others to offset weaknesses. Also, they understood that success often requires help from others.
For example, one client from finance talked about her middle-class, non-Wall Street upbringing. She wanted to show that she can relate to a wide array of communities and also that she had the grit and resilience to thrive on Wall Street in her finance role.
Another dual admit client, whose college and professional path were as sterling as it gets (pure pedigree), offset that "perfection" with fun hobbies such as Lego building. Referencing everyday, endearing reflections-- such as deriving fulfillment from mentoring a high school student or spending quality time with neighbors-- can show humility.
An international male applicant inspired us when his essays revealed the lessons he had learned about inequality for women in his professional journey.
Overall, these dual admits were people with whom you would want to work on a group project, organize a conference, or study for exams. In short, they are real, relatable people--with flaws and strengths--applying to b-school to get better and achieve more.
Go Ahead, Reach for the Brass Ring
While Stanford GSB and Harvard Business School are famously tough to get into, don’t let fear or low acceptance rates keep you from applying. There is no magic formula that guarantees admissions success. But as these “dual admits” prove, personality, passion, and a sincere desire to make the world a better place can help tip the odds in your favor.
In the meantime, check out our winning HBS application essays and GSB application essays from successful admits. And don't miss How to Get Into HBS, featuring advice from a former HBS Admissions Officer on our team. You can find additional application advice on our application cheat sheet hub.
For guidance on whether we can be successful with applying to HBS and the GSB, request a free analysis of your candidacy here. SBC is the only MBA admissions firm with a complete panel of former Admissions Officers, of which many specialize in HBS and the GSB.