Harvard Business School vs. Stanford GSB

by Vantage Point MBA, Dec 29, 2022

VPHope

With Round 2 deadlines approaching in less than one month (!!), we’re in peak essay iteration mode with many of our clients. For those who are applying to both Harvard Business School and Stanford GSB, the question often arises of what makes these two world-class, uber competitive institutions different from one another. What ‘type’ of applicant appeals to each program? Is it appropriate to use similar essay content for both of their open-ended prompts?

As MBA admissions consultants, we’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on the answers to these questions and how to help clients incorporate the nuances into their applications. We’ll be the first to admit that the differences are subtle, yet important. Here is what we’ve found through our experience working with clients who have been accepted to either or both program(s).

Harvard Business School vs. Stanford GSB – Hear It from the Horses’ Mouths

It may seem obvious, but in our experience many applicants fail to read and internalize what the schools’ themselves say they are seeking in successful candidates – it’s right on their websites. Doing so is actually incredibly informative and we even do this each year (perhaps multiple times) to keep it fresh in our minds.

Here is what HBS shares as to the qualities it seeks in applicants (condensed slightly for brevity):

‘Habit of Leadership

Leadership may be expressed in many forms, from college extracurricular activities to academic or business achievements, from personal accomplishments to community commitments. We appreciate leadership on any scale, from organizing a classroom to directing a combat squad, from running an independent business to spearheading initiatives at work. In essence, we are looking for evidence of your potential.

Analytical Aptitude and Appetite

Harvard Business School is a demanding, fast-paced, and highly-verbal environment. We look for individuals who enjoy lively discussion and debate. Our case and field-based methods of learning depend upon the active participation of prepared students who can assess, analyze, and act upon complex information within often-ambiguous contexts.

Engaged Community Citizenship

So much of our MBA experience – including the case method, section life, and student-organized events – requires the active collaboration of the entire HBS community. That’s why we look for students who exhibit the highest ethical standards and respect for others and can make positive contributions to the MBA Program. The right candidates must be eager to share their experiences, support their colleagues, and teach as well as learn from their peers.’

Here is how GSB describes its Evaluation Criteria (also condensed slightly for brevity):

‘In our application, we seek to learn about how you think, how you lead, and how you see the world.

How You Think

As you complete your application, please think about the times you have taken the initiative to learn new things, to solve challenging problems, or to develop new insights. What have you discovered? How did you share what you learned? Why does it matter to you and others? We would like to learn about these experiences to help us understand how you might contribute to our learning community both inside and outside of our classrooms.

How You Lead

Since we believe that past actions are the best predictor of future actions, we want to learn about your past actions — about how you have created positive change in the organizations and communities in which you have been involved. Leaders guide others to reach a common goal and can be found at all levels and in all areas of an organization. You do not need to hold a specific role nor reach a certain level or title to show leadership. We look for examples of when you have taken initiative, persisted through challenges, engaged others in your efforts, and supported those around you. No matter where you have demonstrated these behaviors — at your university, in a professional role, or maybe during an extracurricular activity — we want to learn the impact you have had and why it matters to you.

How You See the World

Your values, beliefs, identity, and ambitions will help shape your journey and enrich the perspectives of your classmates. We provide the opportunity for you to share what matters most to you and your aspirations in your essays. We are interested in how your background has shaped your path so far and has guided your dreams for the future.
We seek to admit candidates who bring diverse perspectives and experiences to the MBA class because Stanford’s collaborative educational process leverages the breadth of students’ backgrounds to deliver a range of insights and approaches to real-world problems. Through this diversity, defined in the broadest terms, you can begin to understand the experiences of others, to challenge your own assumptions, and to develop new ways of seeing the world.’

Harvard Business School vs. Stanford GSB – Commonalities and Contrasts

In contemplating these two sets of ‘criteria’, you can see that there are certainly commonalities. And we’ll acknowledge that it’s often possible to carry over some of your essay content from HBS to Stanford (or vice versa). But as the saying goes, there is more than one way to peel an orange and, in our experience, that very much applies to how each school evaluates candidates. Demonstrating that you understand this through the way you write each school’s essay (while always remaining true to your authentic self, of course) is a key to successful applications.

For instance, it’s clear (and not unexpected) that leadership is central to what both programs seek. However, the language they use to describe leadership is an important signal for how to approach each school’s essay. HBS uses language that is more focused on consistency across settings and concrete accomplishments related to leadership – in other words, they want to know what you’ve done in a leadership capacity and the concrete impact your actions have had. The GSB on the other hand, intentionally asks about how you lead. They want you to describe your leadership style, including how you communicate with and inspire others. Said concretely, the difference is in the ‘what’ (HBS) versus the ‘how’ (GSB). You may tell the same story in both essays, but, in our experience, it is a best practice to tailor the details you choose to share within each story to align with each school’s contrasting focus.

Another commonality that sneakily doubles as a contrast is the way each program seeks to assess the impact you will have while on campus. HBS emphasizes that it wants people who have the analytical aptitude to quickly formulate and coherently communicate an idea or opinion, as is critical to success in a case-based classroom environment. The GSB, on the other hand, wants to understand your background and how it has shaped the diverse perspective you would bring to campus (of course they also require you to be analytically minded and a strong communicator). The latter, in particular, forces you to ‘go deep’ and get a little (or a lot) uncomfortable.

To define this further, perhaps you tell a story about how you courageously voiced a dissenting opinion in front of a senior audience. For HBS, you might share the logic you used and the resulting impact of your choice to speak up (i.e., a business decision was altered in a way that was ultimately successful). For the GSB, you might share how, growing up, you watched your mother learn to advocate for herself, which inspired this to be a core value of yours. You could then share how you chose to voice your dissent in a respectful, collaborative way that left people open to your point of view.

Hopefully that analysis helps you distill down what distinguishes these two highly competitive, elusive programs from one another so that you can tailor your essays accordingly. We are still accepting hourly clients for Round 2 and have many successful outcomes with these schools to draw upon as we help you optimize your applications. If you’re struggling to tailor your essays to Harvard Business School vs. Stanford GSB, reach out to request a free consultation.