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Who Gets into Stanford GSB?

by Vantage Point MBA, Apr 11, 2024

You may have seen this article on Poets & Quants, which shared some eye-opening data from our peer firm, Fortuna Admissions, about who gets into Stanford GSB and Harvard Business School. In a nutshell, the article proved that, while these two uber competitive programs tout their diverse class compositions, in reality they show a clear preference for certain backgrounds. Well, that’s disheartening, huh?

Yes, it certainly can feel a bit unfair. At this stage in the game, you can’t change where you went to college, and you may or may not have time (or the desire) to switch jobs. So, does that mean you should give up on your dream of attending one of these top programs? We’re not in the business of sugarcoating things – the chances of getting into HBS or the GSB are small for even the most qualified applicant.

We are in the business, however, of helping applicants increase their chances. And we think this research can be used to help you do exactly that. Here are our four actionable takeaways from the research about who gets into Stanford GSB and HBS:

#1 – Successful applicants have a proven track record of outperformance. If you can’t do this through the selectivity of your undergrad or employer, find another means to demonstrate you are the ‘best of the best’.

Perhaps the most notable takeaway from this analysis is that a disproportionate number of HBS’ and Stanford’s classes attended a small subset of highly selective US undergraduate institutions. For instance, 53% of Stanford’s class studied at just 19 institutions (Ivies and similarly competitive public and private institutions). Further, the employer names on your resume matter, a lot. Half of HBS’ class worked for one of 20 companies (MBB, bulge bracket banks, big tech) or the military.

So, what if you didn’t go to an Ivy League school or work at McKinsey? Fair or not, admissions officers are using such credentials to determine which candidates consistently excel relative to an intensely talented peer set.

The key is to think about times (note we said times, plural) where you stood out from the pack and make sure these are highlighted in your application. Maybe you were a standout competitor in a college sport while maintaining a stellar GPA, for instance. Or you work at a slightly less impressive firm but rose through the ranks more quickly than anyone at your level has before. These types of accomplishments should be reiterated across your resume, essays, and recommendations (as appropriate).


#2 – International applicants who have never studied or worked in the US bear an additional burden of proof to show they’ll fit in and be competitive at HBS or the GSB.

Another takeaway that, frankly, surprised even us was that many (33%-50%) of the ‘international’ students in each school’s class had studied in the US for undergrad. Amongst the remainder, only select international universities (Cambridge, McGill, the IITs, etc.) had more than one admit per class.

If you are an international applicant without US-based college or work experience on your resume, the bar is just higher, plain and simple. Take great care to highlight any and all cross-cultural work or extracurricular projects you’ve been involved with, notably those that required communicating in English. Beyond just participating in such projects, demonstrate that you had a material impact on the outcome, influenced other stakeholders, etc.

#3 – For overrepresented groups, differentiation versus peers becomes the name of the game. That will usually come from stories outside of work.

This is not all to say that, if you went to Stanford and work at Goldman Sachs, you are automatically one of the lucky few who gets into Stanford GSB or HBS. A big, yet unavoidable shortcoming to this analysis is that the authors have no way to know what the pool of applicants looked like. It’s possible that those with MBB experience are overrepresented in the class because they were overrepresented in the applicant pool.

We’ve worked with a lot of management consultants and private equity associates – trust us when we say that the hardest part of the application journey for these individuals is differentiating themselves from equally qualified peers who have worked on similar cases or deals. Telling a story about how you flawlessly led a workstream on your latest case is unlikely to set you apart.

In our experience, the difference makers for those from overrepresented groups are twofold – the stories you tell in your essay(s), which should overwhelmingly come from outside of work, and the quality of your recommendations. Successful essays (the writing of which deserves an entirely different article) present a clear and coherent picture of who you are, NOT what you’ve done. They also strike a tone of humility, collaboration, and impact.

When it comes to who gets into Stanford GSB and HBS, particularly amongst candidates with similar resumes, we cannot stress the letters of recommendation component of your applications enough. Make sure your recommenders highlight what differentiates you from other people at your level (9 times out of 10, perhaps more, this is NOT the quality of your analytical output, for example). These differentiators should feel authentic to you and be supported by strong, specific examples. It is hard and takes real investment to write a stellar recommendation – above all else, make sure you choose recommenders that will take this to heart.

#4 – Carefully think about when to apply, considering whether another year of experience would put you in the sweet spot for HBS / GSB given your background.

Lastly, and particularly for those from a crowded space like management consulting, give real thought to when you apply. Fortuna’s research showed that schools like HBS may not be as reticent to admit older applicants as common industry knowledge suggests.

In our experience, candidates who have fewer than average years of work experience (4.7 years is HBS’ average at matriculation, for reference) can have more difficulty coming up with defining leadership stories and articulating a nuanced vision of the change they plan to drive in the future.

We’ve found that year two on the job after college is when people begin to get a sense for where their passion lies and/or what their ‘superpower’ is. Consciously trying to gain experience in a focus area or leveraging a unique ability during their third year in the workforce can make all the difference when it comes time to writing your HBS and GSB essays (and can also strengthen the quality of your recommendations). Again, this isn’t an exact science, just something to consider as it relates to your own profile.

If you’d like an honest assessment of whether your profile aligns with who gets into Stanford GSB or HBS, as well as advice on optimizing your chances, reach out to request a consultation.