Harvard Business School vs. Stanford Graduate School of Business | TopMBA.com

Harvard Business School vs. Stanford Graduate School of Business

By Pavel Kantorek

Updated April 5, 2021 Updated April 5, 2021

In the world of higher and business education, can there be any names more illustrious than those of Harvard and Stanford? Separated by the width of a continent, these two are united by their prestigious status as the high watermark of learning and research.

The annual QS Employer Survey reveals that MBA employers feel much the same about Harvard Business School and the Stanford Graduate School of Business (Stanford GSB). Such a reputation comes for a reason though; this pair is known for producing some of the world’s foremost business leaders and innovators.

To pick a winner would be as disingenuous as it would be impossible, but if you’re among the elite of candidates trying to pick between the two, what are the key differences?


Harvard Business School

Stanford GSB



Founded in 1908, Harvard Business School was the home of the world’s first MBA program.  It is famed for the development of the case study method.


Founded in 1925 by a group of business leaders gathered by Herbert Hoover in order to stem the tide of potential business leaders heading east


Boston, famously known as the Athens of America for its intellectual and cultural strength.

At the heart of Silicon Valley in California, roughly equidistant from San Francisco and San Jose.

QS Business School Rating

Consistently number one in the US & Canada according to employers. Part of the ‘elite global’ group of top schools.

Number three in 2012/13 in the US & Canada for overall employer recognition. Part of the ‘elite global’ group of top schools.

Full-time MBA course duration

24 months. Core courses in year one, followed by elective courses.

24 months. Core courses in year one, followed by elective courses.

Total tuition fees



Average graduate salary



2013 fees and salary data, rating from 2012/13 QS TopMBA.com Global 200 Business Schools Report

MBA curriculum comparison

Harvard Business School

In the first year of the Harvard MBA, all students follow the same core MBA curriculum. These cover the basics: finance, leadership and organizational behavior, strategy and entrepreneurship etc. Students also take part in the year-long series of ‘FIELD’ courses, which require students to put their knowledge into practice – developing a product or a service for a global partner organization and designing and launching a microbusiness.

A huge range of elective courses – of which students can take up to five a semester – is available in the second year covering traditional areas and managerial competencies. 17 of these are field courses. Students can also step away from the traditional MBA curriculum by cross-registering to do relevant programs elsewhere at Harvard or at MIT’s Sloan School of Management or even the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.

Provided the right criteria are met, candidates may pursue dual degrees in public policy or administration-international development, law, medicine or dental medicine.

Harvard is known for its case study method, which employs case studies from a range of companies, nonprofits and governmental organizations, with constraints and incomplete information factored in. Students are allowed to warm up in small groups before the class meets to hammer out potential solutions. Classroom participation is key here, and can account for as much as 50% of a student’s grade in some courses. Students can expect to study 500 different cases over the course of the program. Over 80% of the world’s case studies are developed by Harvard Business School faculty.

Stanford GSB

The Stanford GSB MBA curriculum is focused on providing a personalized experience to candidates. In the first year, the course is divided into three main parts. First is ‘General Management Perspectives’, a series of courses which focus largely on looking at oneself as a manager and a leader. At the center of the program here is the Critical Analytical Thinking (CAT) course. This looks at the issues and challenges that arise in management outside of any specific discipline. This is followed by ‘General Management Foundations’, in which disciplines are set, but candidates are offered a number of options to tailor the courses to their needs and ambitions.

Graduation also requires candidates to participate in a global experience. This can be in the form of a four-week overseas project during the summer working with a partner firm, a trip with classmates to discuss major issues with business leaders, a similar trip with classmates focused on social innovation and coupled with a short project, or participation in a short exchange program with Tsinghua University in China.

The second year of the MBA curriculum consists of electives in the usual areas. Students may take up to 18 courses, as well as compressed courses – one or two- week seminars with a faculty expert. Students may take a handful of courses – accounting for up to 12 class units – from other discipline areas at Stanford. 

Students can put credits towards joint degrees (in which credits may count towards both subjects) or dual degrees (where credits only apply to one subject). Joint degrees options with the MBA are law, education, public policy, computer sciences, as well as environment and resources. Dual degrees combine the MBA with another program at a different school to which candidates have also been accepted.

Stanford GSB and Harvard Business School admissions


Harvard Business School

Stanford GSB

Number of Students



Average Age



% Female



Average Years Work Experience



% International



Nationalities Represented



Average GMAT Score



2013 data, except average age (2012).

Stanford GSB and Harvard Business School admissions are, as you might expect, very competitive. Of 7,108 applicants to Stanford, 406 made the cut – a record high, while 932 of 9,315 were successful in the Harvard Business School admissions process.

Academic rigor is at the heart of both schools’ admissions process. Only the most elite of the Indian Institutes of Management, at which the competition for places is famously competitive, can lay claim to a higher average GMAT score than one finds at these two elite schools, where only a score well in excess of 700 will do for most. The difference between the two is nominal.

On average candidates at both schools have around four years’ management experience behind them and will be approximately 27 years old – about the mean for schools in the US & Canada.

While the cohort at Stanford GSB possesses a slightly higher proportion of international students (42% over 34%), students of slightly more nationalities (60 compared to 54) made it through the Harvard Business School admissions process.

In terms of the women in the classroom, Stanford GSB hovers around the regional average for the US & Canada, while Harvard Business School’s percentage of 41% exceeds it. Efforts to tackle gender inequality at the latter have largely been focused on current students – though an effect on Harvard Business School admissions and applications cannot be ruled out, and indeed there has been a single year increase in the proportion of female students.

QS Global 200 Business Schools Report: Specialization MBA rankings

MBA Specialization

Harvard Business School

Stanford GSB

Corporate Social Responsibility









Information Management






International Management









Operation Management






Specializations MBA rankings taken from 2012/13 QS Global 200 Business Schools Report

As part of the QS Global 200 Business Schools Report, MBA rankings are compiled across 10 different specializations according to employers. These confirm the strength of both schools’ global reputation, with neither failing to make the top 10 in any of the 10 specializations.

Harvard takes the top spot in the specialization MBA rankings an incredible four times (CSR, entrepreneurship, leadership and strategy), while Stanford leads the way in innovation.

These MBA rankings reinforce the global cachet these two schools possess across the board.

Other programs at Harvard Business School and Stanford GSB

Programs other than MBAs are available at both schools. At Stanford GSB, as well as various executive education courses and a four-week summer school for general managers, an accelerated 12-month program aimed at mid-career professionals known as the MSx program is on offer. Students on this program – which has been run since 1958 – have an average of 12 years’ experience, with the minimum requirement standing at eight.

A PhD program can also be undertaken. Stanford is, of course, a powerhouse of research in many departments, and this includes business and management. Doctoral candidates choose from one of seven areas on which to focus, though cross-disciplinary research with other concentration areas and departments is strongly encouraged. Around 100 students form the PhD community.

Budding entrepreneurs can take part on the Stanford Ignite program, a short certificate program on commercializing ideas – reflective of Stanford’s Silicon Valley location.

At Harvard Business School, eight doctoral programs are on offer, and similarly, cross-disciplinary forays are encouraged. The course emphasizes research and therefore students are not required to undertake any work as research assistants (though there is a teaching requirement). Harvard Business School PhD students may use facilities at the nearby Massachusetts Institute of Technology. A range of executive education courses are also on offer. The narrower focus at Harvard represents its more traditional academic focus.


The 2012/13 QS Global 200 Business Schools Report is based on the opinions of 3,305 actively hiring MBA employers.

The results clearly show that Harvard Business School and Stanford GSB are leaders in the world of the business education. Harvard finishes top in North America, while Stanford is third – though it occupied second place in 2011/12 and may well climb back to its traditional standing in the next edition of the rankings.

The difference here is largely nominal, however – if you have either of these schools on your CVs, employers are going to pay attention. It seems Stanford GSB graduates are slightly quicker off the mark; 92% find full-time employment within three months, while the equivalent figure for Harvard Business School is 74%.

MBA salaries

Graduates of both of these schools can expect to command handsome MBA salary packages.

The latest figures (for the 2012 cohort) show that Stanford GSB graduates just edge it in terms of MBA salary, earning US$129,692. Harvard Business School alumni will hardly be looking down the back of the couch for coins, though, with an equivalent MBA salary figure of US$120,000.

In the US, only Wharton and Kellogg can match Harvard’s figure in this respect. However, in Europe, graduates of Ashridge Business School and IMD, as well as the Macquarie Graduate School and HKUST from the Asia Pacific region, edge them out.

Fees and funding

An education such as one would expect from these two schools isn’t going to come cheap. Indeed, you can expect to be parted with US$112,350 to study at Harvard Business School, while Stanford GSB fees are to the tune of US$119,100. Return on investment in MBA salary figures alone will make up for this, not to mention the first-class MBA education.

Both schools are generous with aid. 65% of Harvard students receive some sort of aid, and the school has a need-blind admissions policy, with financial awards being need-based. Students are expected to have saved some money from their previous three years of employment. They may also apply for Harvard University scholarships and a loan scheme in association with Harvard University Employees Credit Union, which offers private loans to international students.

Stanford GSB similarly offers need-based fellowship and loans to students – both from the school itself and from external partners. All students are also eligible for non-need based loans. Around 50% of students receive fellowship funds, and over two-thirds borrow. Students who enter the non-profit sector or public service sectors may be entitled to loan forgiveness. Again, students are encouraged to save well in advance.

Interested in studying at one of Europe's top schools? How do INSEAD and London Business compare >

Download the QS Global 200 Business Schools Report for more on the world's top business school >

This article was originally published in April 2016 . It was last updated in April 2021

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