Harvard MBA vs Stanford GSB vs Wharton MBA: Which one is right for you?

Harvard MBA vs Stanford GSB vs Wharton MBA

It’s become so common for MBA applicants to bunch Harvard, Stanford and Wharton together, that there’s now an acronym (HSW) to refer to the 3 without wasting too many syllables. But there are several differences across the 3 most prestigious business schools in the world.

How do the Harvard Business School (HBS), Stanford Graduate School of Business (GSB), and University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton stack up against one another? We looked at the statistics, but we also tried to see how they are different, or similar, in various aspects. Here’s what we found out.

Harvard vs Stanford vs Wharton MBA

Comparison & Differences

B-school / Criterion HBS GSB Wharton
Applications (Class of 2017) 9,686 7,899 6,590
Enrolled 948 407 861
Female students, international students 41 pc, 34 pc 40 pc, 40 pc 43 pc, 32 pc
GMAT range, median GMAT, median GPA 510-790, 725, 3.7 570-800, 733, 3.75 620-790, 732, NA
Work experience, range 4.1 years, NA 4 years, 0-17 years 5 years, 0-16 years
Most common educational degree Business/economics Humanities Humanities

Sources: Various websites (see “Resources” under main article)

Brand and prestige

All the three schools have more or less equal brand strength, though, outside the US, HBS may have the edge. With the increasing business opportunities in Asia, HBS holds a slight advantage in branding, particularly among international students and students planning to work outside the US. However, for MBA aspirants who plan to work in the US, GSB might be the preferred choice.

Wharton has had to counter the idea that “Harvard and Stanford are for CEOs, and Wharton is for CFOs” and that it is a mainly finance school. But it has confronted the reputation issue spiritedly by taking up a professional market research initiative. Wharton now continues to hold its own in the US and outside against its two better-known rivals.

Often, GSB’s low acceptance rate (5 percent, 2016) is put forward as an argument about its “superiority” to Harvard (11 percent) and Wharton (13 percent). However, the Harvard camp counters this by pointing to HBS’ global reputation. Whartonites can always point to a Forbes report that many, if not most, billionaires in the finance industry graduated from their school.

Rankings agencies have their own take on the standings of the three schools. Here’s how the schools fared in 2015:

Ranking Harvard Stanford Wharton
Financial Times 1 4 3
US News 2 1 8
Bloomberg 1 7 5
Forbes 2 1 7


Business School Culture

The atmosphere is more mellow, more informal, and less competitive at GSB than at HBS, writes an admissions blogger. GSB has a smaller full-time student body (around 400 students) than HBS (950), which helps maintain high interaction levels between students and their peers and professors.

Wharton, which typically admits about 850 students annually, has a competitive environment like HBS. In a Princeton Review study, Wharton students recorded the highest aggregate competitive index score.

In some ways, GSB is less bureaucratic in its approaches. This becomes apparent from the very start to those selected. The Dean personally calls each successful applicant and gives him or her the good news a day before the official announcement.

HBS too calls, a few hours after it publishes the results online, and it is often the person who interviewed the candidate or a school alum, rather than the Dean, who makes the call. Of course, HBS is the stuff of dreams for many bright and ambitious students, and it is often impossible for those selected to choose another school over HBS.

Business School Location

The presence of venture-capital companies close to the GSB campus is often mentioned as one reason why students there show greater inclination toward entrepreneurship. Many of them are also keen on technology, and why wouldn’t they be, with their school located in the heart of the Silicon Valley.

Besides the salubrious entrepreneur climate, another advantage that GSB students enjoy is good weather. And they boast about it, too, when asked why they think GSB is better than HBS: “California sunshine is much more preferable to two New England winters (during the two-year MBA program)!”

Among the three university cities, Stanford’s Palo Alto has the warmest annual temperature at 21.2 degrees Centigrade, followed by Boston (HBS) at 14.8, and Philadelphia (Wharton) at 13.25. Palo Alto’s average rainfall of just 16 inches compares with Philadelphia’s 41 inches and Boston’s 44 inches. So, weather-wise, Stanford wins hands down.


Collaboration between schools under Stanford University, including its business, engineering, and design schools, helps GSB maintain a holistic approach to business education.

An admissions expert says that GSB has a more customizable curriculum than HBS. At HBS, the first-year curriculum is more rigid. HBS also almost exclusively uses the case-study method. GSB and Wharton have more flexible curricula and use a mix of teaching methods.

Classroom experience

HBS and Wharton have larger classroom strengths (about 950 and 850, respectively) compared with GSB (about 400). But it is HBS that has unmatched academic rigor in its classrooms. Students seem more involved, and the competitiveness and peer pressure help many students perform to potential.

Dual-admits to GSB and HBS say they found the classroom atmosphere completely different in the two schools during campus visits. One of them describes attending a GSB general management class on a campus visit, and says she felt a lack of seriousness among some students. This visitor came away feeling that GSB was hardly the most studious of campuses.

However, a counterargument is that GSB students have a healthy informal relationship with professors and enjoy their study experience. Students don’t feel intimidated, and this environment is sometimes wrongly interpreted as “laid-back.”

Student selection

Of the three b-schools, GSB, among the three schools, is the most difficult to gain admission to, as the acceptance rates show. It prefers candidates with some work/business background to relatively young and inexperienced applicants. On the other hand, HBS often takes in applicants with less experience but with excellent academic and other achievements.

Among the three schools, GSB is more likely to accept applicants with a liberal arts background and from nontraditional employment sectors. However, the applicant’s fit is an important criterion.

Wharton has shown a preference for international cultural experiences among applicants. Other things being equal, strong women candidates also tend to do well during the admissions process. Career changers also feel welcome.


GSB is more likely to inspire its students to become technology entrepreneurs, while HBS and Wharton send their students to topnotch consulting companies or to Wall Street.

In view of the type of branding, HBS is perceived to have a broader placement reach, not just within the US but also outside. GSB has a West Coast-centric image, and at least some applicants appear to be concerned that they would be confined to the West if they went to GSB. Moreover, the international job market seems to have a slight preference for HBS over GSB, which is often the domestic US market’s favorite school.

HBS offers its students a wider alumni network, particularly for finance and consulting connections, than GSB.

Program cost & salary

GSB has the highest total cost of attendance at about $109,000, followed by Wharton ($105,000) and HBS ($102,000), for the class entering in 2016. A majority of graduates of all the three schools find positions in the finance services industry and earn a median starting base salary of $125,000-$130,000 annually, often with sign-on bonuses of around $25,000.

So, Harvard or Stanford or Wharton: Which school is better for you?

A 2014 article in P&Q describes how an MBA aspirant and ex-employee at McKinsey, Steven Pearson, evolved 21 criteria to compare HBS and GSB, ranging from “snob factor” to alumni network. He scored both schools one to ten under each criterion and weighed each attribute according to its importance to himself.

Both schools scored nearly equal total points on Pearson’s table. But Pearson joined HBS, because it offered him a different experience—he could move to Boston from his comfort zone on West Coast. After analyzing all the science in making the choice, Pearson found that it was ultimately a matter of which school you “feel” you should go to. It is not about the best school but the school that is best for you.

It is a rare privilege to be accepted at one of the three schools named here. Very few get the green signal from both HBS and GSB: of about 4,500 applicants to both these schools annually, only 150 (3.3 percent) get admitted to both.

Not long ago, a Bloomberg BusinessWeek survey found that of a sample 63 applicants who were accepted at both HBS and GSB, 35 chose GSB and 14 chose HBS and, interestingly, an equal number, 14, opted for other schools. This last category of applicants probably found schools that was a better fit for them.

Obviously, Wharton, HBS, and GSB are all great schools. However, there is one game changer: scholarship. Financial assistance from any of the three schools may help an applicant make up his/her mind and choose one school in favor of others.

Related post:
MBA startups from Harvard, Stanford, MIT, Wharton rake in millions
How I chose between Stanford GSB and Harvard MBA
What Stanford GSB looks for in MBA applicants
How to get into Harvard Business School from India
Resources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12 | Image credit: US News

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Sameer Kamat //
Sameer Kamat
Founder of MBA Crystal Ball. Author of Beyond The MBA Hype & Business Doctors. Here's more about me. Connect with me on Google+ | Twitter | Facebook | Linkedin


  1. Anonymous says:

    What are the chances of getting into hbs or stanford after completing CA?

  2. charishma says:

    I am studying BBA 1st year in JU CMS bangalore. i want to get an admission into HBS for MBA. what are the things i require i mean how much overall % and all

  3. Arundhathi says:

    what is a good gre score for stanford? I just want to make sure whether I should apply or not. Mine is 313 ( 155v / 158 q).

  4. Eshita says:

    Hey! I am high school passout and after my graduation, i’ve decided to pursue MBA from stanford university(i’ll try my best to get there) but, i am least aware of the exams, criterias , if they consider our high school or 10th grade marks ,how to apply , and yes! how to prepare. It’ll be great if you could help :-)

  5. Sameer Kamat says:

    @Charishma: Visit the Harvard MBA page. It has all the details you need on the eligibility requirements, exam scores and the overall application process. Additionally this article should help: How to get into Harvard Business School

    @Arundhati: Your score is quite low. Here’s the list of average GRE scores for the top universities.

    @Eshita: The 10th and 12th marks don’t matter as much as your final graduation grades and overall experience. Get a good understanding of what Stanford GSB looks for in MBA applicants

  6. Tara says:

    Hi Samir,
    I have an MBA from a top 10 B school, female, Undergrad was IT, and then 10 years work exp primarily with a large IT MNC – in human resources. I’ve risen to a leadership position now and want to join HBS / Wharton Stanford to change into general management. I have extra curricular experience throughout in culture. Does this count as ‘unique’ enough? Too high an exp for HBS so more likely to be accepted at others? How relevant will be my GMAT score?

  7. Harshit says:

    Hi sameer sir
    I’m currently an undergraduate at a grade university i m planning to take startup will top b schools consider startups as work experience what are my chances if i have 3.5 above gpa . I’m very keen to get into any top b schools as it was my childhood dreams . i had been working really very hard on my academics but kindly tell me in which ways i can improve my profile as student are there any chances of getting accepted . do research paper and un delegates add value to my profile

  8. Sameer Kamat says:

    @Tara: Most application reviewers tend to quickly skim though the details to get an overall idea of the candidates profile. And from the way you’ve presented the data, it may seem that you are the typical IT applicant profile.

    The fact that you are in an HR role changes the story. But you’ve allowed it to be overshadowed by the IT qualification and IT industry. Please don’t allow that to happen in the application.

    Admission officers are there to hunt needles in a haystack. But try to reduce that pile of hay and make it easier and faster for them to put you in the right applicant bucket.

    The bigger challenge here is that your program choice may be too aggressive. Your experience will be more than twice the class average for programs like Harvard, Wharton and Stanford. That reduces the statistical odds drastically.

    Your GMAT score will of course be important. But what’ll also be more important (and you’ve missed both here) are your accomplishments and your expectations from the degree (goals). Without those, the HR role will not matter much.
    @Harshit: Your startup experience will surely count. And here’s what you can do to squeeze out the maximum juice out of it. http://www.mbacrystalball.com/blog/2015/02/23/pre-mba-entrepreneurship-in-india/

    And here’s what you can do to improve your profile for the top schools?

  9. tara says:

    Thanks Samir, that makes sense. Would the accelerated program at Kellogg / Cornell And programs like Insead / IMD / LOndon business school be more relevant then?
    Do you think my long HR leadership experience (I have an international stint) and my experience in cultural co curricular activities throughout work will compel universities to consider me scholarship material? My primary goal is to move from HR to strategy and general management now.
    Also I seem to see partial scholarships evrrywhere.. Are full funding options available at any of these colleges?

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