Harvard vs Stanford - An MBA Comparison | TopMBA.com

Harvard vs Stanford - An MBA Comparison

By Amelia Hopkins

Updated December 29, 2023 Updated December 29, 2023

Harvard Business School and the Stanford Graduate School of Business are two of the heavyweights in global business education. HBS was founded over 100 years ago, and enjoys a reputation as one of the best institutions on the planet, while Stanford’s Silicon Valley location makes it synonymous with technological advancements.

Both institutions lead the majority of the business school rankings - but how do their MBA courses differ?





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Boston, Massachusetts

Boston is one of the most historic cities in the USA and there’s plenty to keep you busy during your studies. Aside from the wealth of museums and galleries, the city provides easy access to the beautiful Adirondacks and it’s only a short journey to the bright lights of NYC. 


Stanford, California

Based in the heart of Silicon Valley and featuring an enviable year-round summer, Stanford is the favored location of those looking to enter the tech world. For those who don’t like the idea of a New England winter, or who just love the relaxed spirit of the West Coast - this could be the place for you.


Harvard is ranked first in the QS World University Rankings: Global MBA Rankings 2018 and Stanford is currently in fourth place.



For this year’s students, the average GMAT score at Harvard is 730, while the median GPA is 3.71. The most popular undergraduate major for students is Economics and Business (41%), and of all those who applied 11% received a place.


At Stanford the most popular undergraduate degrees are engineering, mathematics and the natural Sciences - almost 37% of students had this as their background. The average GMAT score is higher than Harvard, at 737; the median GPA is 3.74; and only 5.1% of those who applied were accepted.



There are a total 928 students in the current Harvard class, of which 42% are female and 35% are international.


Stanford is smaller than Harvard, with only 418 students in the current year. Of those, 40% are female and 41% are international.



The curriculum at Harvard Business School is constantly refreshed, keeping up with developments in the sector and maintaining a focus on the fundamentals of business. Rather than using a purely fact-touting approach, the institution focuses on teaching students how to think about business management - enabling them to develop and adapt throughout their lives. 

During the first year, students all follow the same course - the ‘Required Curriculum’ and ‘FIELD’. The first year provides students with a thorough understanding of general management concepts and includes a range of fundamental topics, including finance, marketing, leadership, negotiation and operations. FIELD complements this learning with smaller, hands-on team projects that focus on personal development and global immersions. 

In the second year, students can choose from a range of 120 electives in 10 subject areas, which build upon the concepts developed in the first year. They choose five courses per semester and can even register for courses at selected partner institutions - Harvard University’s graduate schools, the Sloan School of Business at MIT and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University all allow HBS students to register for their programs. There are also field-based learning opportunities to gain more concentrated expertise.


The first year of Stanford Business School’s MBA is structured similarly to Harvard’s, with the focus on building a general knowledge of business management. The major difference between the two institutions is that Stanford has a compulsory ‘global’ component. The first year provides a thorough grounding in understanding business, covering a similar wealth of topics: leadership, finance, organizational behavior, management, marketing and operations.

Stanford also has a “Global Experience Requirement”, which necessitates that students fulfil certain ‘global’ course components. This can be in a number of forms: The Global Management Immersion Experience, which enables students to spend four weeks during the summer working on projects for sponsoring organizations; global seminars, which provide small, group-learning experiences prior to the start of the course and culminate in an eight-10 day trip; a global study trip, where students spend eight-10 days in an intensive group-learning environment; or self-directed experiences, which allow students to choose their own path providing it complies with the requirements.

The second year of the program allows students to choose almost all their own electives. Stanford refreshes its electives yearly, to keep up to date with trends and developments with business. You can also take ‘compressed courses’, a series of two-week concentrated programs designed to build knowledge of a specific business topic. Students are also welcome to take courses at Stanford University or at partnering institutions such as Harvard, Johns Hopkins and Yale.

Teaching Style:


Harvard offers a ‘case-method’ teaching style, which entails enabling students to tackle problems themselves. In this way, they decide upon the best course of action without simply being told and are able to learn and develop from their choices. This enables them to develop their skills much more thoroughly than in a purely fact-based method. The instructor facilitates the learning and the development of business skills, without dictating to students what to do.

This method is much more rigorous of a learning approach because it is so unpredictable. Lecturers are experts in their fields, who are as reactive as they are prescriptive - finding teachable moments as and when they appear.


Stanford endeavors to tailor its educational approach to the specific situation encountered. Staff at the institution select the best teaching method for the situation, and as the website states: “Flexibility means you’ll learn in a variety of ways, and you’ll learn more effectively.”

Along with the teaching staff, the business school welcomes a roster of global thought leaders who participate in speaking events, seminars and class instruction.



The focus of Harvard’s MBA program is on collaboration and teamwork. The students and faculty teach and learn from one another, relying on individual responsibility for preparation of materials and active participation from each student. Full engagement and attendance is vital.

Harvard Business School states that ethics at their institution are taught ‘explicitly, not implicitly’. It’s vital to follow their community values, which are:

  • Respect for the rights, differences, and dignity of others
  • Honesty and integrity in dealing with all members of the community
  • Accountability for personal behavior


Stanford focuses on collaboration over competition. Everything from the focus on group projects, the wealth of student clubs, and the shared on-campus accommodation encourages teamwork and facilitates building relationships - not rivalries.

The location of the institution, in the heart of Silicon Valley, promotes a focus on technological advancement, innovation and creativity.

Student Life:


There are more than 70 clubs for students at Harvard, along with over 200 leadership positions in the Student Association. This provides ample opportunities to make long-lasting friendships and hone your managerial and communication skills.


Along with student government, Stanford also has over 70 student clubs and organisations - spanning everything from politics to rugby. The history of the institution means many traditions have endured to this day and the diversity of the community helps students to expand their horizons. 

Employment Outcomes:


Of the 2016 graduating class, 94% of students had received an employment offer and 91% had accepted those offers three months after graduation. The median base salary for graduates was a whopping US$135,000, with a median signing bonus of $25,000. Other guaranteed compensation totaled a median of $32,000 - which certainly makes the qualification’s $122,450 price tag seem worth it. Of the graduating class, 68% received a signing bonus and 13% received another guaranteed compensation offer.

The largest percentage of graduates pursued a career in financial services (28%), a number which has dropped in recent years: In 2012 the figure was 35%. The second most prominent sector was consulting, attracting 25% of graduates. The technology industry attracted 19%, which has grown rapidly since 2012 (12%). In terms of position, 29% are working in finance, compared to 35% back in 2012; consultants total 27%, up 2% since 2012; and 13% are working in marketing, up 4% since 2012.

Of the graduates, 86% stayed in the USA this year, 6% up on 2012. The majority of those (43%) stay in the Northeast e.g. Boson and New York City. The next highest percentage move to the West - California and the Pacific Northwest. The number of students moving to Europe has dropped by around 3% and currently only stands at 5% of the whole year. Asia has maintained around 5% for the last 4 years.


By three months post-graduation, 82% of graduates had accepted a job offer. The median base salary was US$136,000 with a signing bonus of US$25,000 and other guaranteed compensation totaling US$40,750.

In terms of industry, 33% of graduates moved into technology, 31% into finance and a further 16% into consulting - unsurprising given the location of the institution - the rest were divided among industries as diverse as media, healthcare and finance. Stanford graduates were much more globally mobile than Harvard's: 59% of graduates stayed in Western US, 15% moved to other parts of the USA and over a quarter (26%) moved outside the US.


This article was originally published in November 2017 . It was last updated in December 2023

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