Harvard & Stanford MBA: Dual Admit Success Lessons
Each year, the SBC client pool includes candidates admitted to both Harvard Business School (HBS) and Stanford Graduate School of Business (GSB). We call these “unicorn” applicants dual admits. Several SBC dual admit clients who achieved this impressive feat have received large scholarships, too. A recent SBC All-In client who was admitted to both HBS and the GSB shared:
“ I have heard back regarding FinAid as well. GSB offered me $50K per year, so $100K in total and HBS is not final yet, but they have forecasted $47K per year as well, $94K in total. So, really great news.”
In any era, dual HBS and GSB admit success is rare. Chiefly because both schools are highly coveted and have near single-digit acceptance rates. Thus, gaining admission to both programs is a statistical longshot. What makes it even more complicated is that HBS and GSB look for different things in candidates. Plus, each has a distinct evaluation process. It’s extraordinary for one candidate to have the key success factors that both schools seek.
As we marvel at these success stories, we seek to learn from these case studies. SBC has poured through each of these dual-admit client applications to unearth what factors predict such impressive results for both Harvard and Stanford. Some admit triggers remain similar in the MBA admissions landscape over time while other admissions levers and priorities evolve from year-to-year; this deep-dive dual admits study seeks to shed light on both.
Curious about your chances of getting into a top B-school such as HBS or Stanford GSB? Contact us to talk strategy with a free 15-minute advising session with an SBC Principal Consultant.
Admit Triggers Change
One of the former HBS Admissions Officers who now works on our SBC team reflected on her time reviewing applications, “The class demographics certainly shift over a period of time, sometimes driven by HBS priorities. External factors can also drive demographic shifts.” Factors include professor feedback about student fit, recruiters swinging towards or away from hiring MBA grads, and/or “in the news” trends.
There’s no doubt that the recent US Supreme Court (SCOTUS) decision striking down affirmative action will place more emphasis on an applicant’s personal story, in which the nuances of their identity, inspirations, challenges, and lessons learned are explored. There has never been just one single application bucket, such as race alone, that is a dealmaker.
In that spirit, the SCOTUS decision should not erode the admissions practices of MBA programs, which will surely work even harder to ensure a fully representative student class. HBS and the GSB have always valued a multi-faceted human experience paradigm for MBA admissions—long before the SCOTUS decision came down. The dimensional structure of our SBC system has allowed our clients to earn the admit by sharing how their own backgrounds, perspectives, and lived experiences matter.
Against the backdrop of our ever-changing society and economic realities, here we explore seven key learnings from 21 exceptional dual-admit candidates to provide inspiration and guidance for prospective MBA applicants.
HBS and GSB Dual Admit Study by SBC
This new study captures a larger sample size than before: 21 dual admits to HBS and GSB from Rounds 1 and 2 of this past season. Our group of 21 included six international applicants and fifteen US applicants. Seven are female, two identify as an underrepresented minority (URM), and two identify as LGBTQ+. Interestingly, there was no difference in admit potential between round 1 and round 2 with HBS and the GSB for our sample size.
We based our dual admit findings on the following:
- a thorough application review,
- clues from client interviews, and
- what AdCom disclosed to our clients on any admit calls.
In previous years, our dual admit data presented the hard inputs of career, academics, tenure, and extracurriculars as the first four application levers, followed by softer qualities of character, ambition, big-picture awareness, and emotional intelligence. That sequential framework is no longer predictive for MBA admissions today, and so we made a change.
Gone are discrete buckets of admit predictors. Intersectionality and cohesiveness are inherent to every single dual admit success case. What’s here to stay is an admissions process that seeks relevant and compelling lived experiences. In this study, we present the following seven dual admit application learnings, reflecting a further progression toward contextual and character-based qualities.
- Compelling work responsibilities
- Evidence-based passion or purpose
- Momentum in career trajectory
- Quality character themes across domains
- Asserted a distinct value for the student class
- Within range for academic stats
- Authentic storytelling to captivate the reader
Lesson 1: Compelling work responsibilities
Our dual admit crop comes from a mix of typical MBA-oriented firms and non-traditional employers. Traditional career paths included blue-chip companies such as McKinsey, Deloitte, private equity firms, and those who progressed to a second employment role, such as venture capital or non-profit, after the finance or consulting foundation.
Non-traditional employers (e.g., industries outside of consulting and finance) included six from household names in the tech industry: media tech and general tech. Five other non-traditional profiles are from mission-driven employers; these societal impact profiles encompass agro-sustainability, tech solutions for health-impaired populations, and niche industry disruptors.
While recognizable employers represent the majority of our dual admit profiles, it’s clear that familiarity of the employer isn’t a requirement across the board. In every dual admit profile, we saw clear strategy-related work initiatives as well as cross-functional exposure.
The one resounding theme though is the caliber of recent work responsibilities and how transferable and relevant those professional contributions would be to the MBA student class.
Among both the traditional and non-traditional applicant pool, half of all applications conveyed values-based post-MBA career aspirations that had been practiced to some extent pre-MBA through exposure and interests.
Lesson 2: Evidence-based passion or purpose
“Some of these clients just amaze me,” shared a former HBS Admissions Officer on our SBC team. “I’d say the common theme is impact-orientation: a desire to have a positive impact via their future career goals that feels authentically woven into their narrative and therefore, feels achievable, because it’s backed up by their experiences to date. These are big dreamers and idealists but their visions for their futures build from where they’ve been and what they’ve done. HBS and the GSB like big dreamers but also do-ers — These applicants effectively demonstrated both.”
Similar to past dual admit studies, we see that none of these admits described their current careers or future aspirations as a specific job. It was much more vivid than that. They felt driven to make an impact on people and their industries. They wanted to shift mindsets and behaviors and change the world. Even those applicants in blue chip companies, such as Deloitte or private equity companies, had treasure-filled work exposure. Think of things such as working in the hottest growing product area for clients wanting tech innovations using artificial intelligence.
Another dual admit client viewed his traditional career path as motivated by his childhood, where commercials and television ignited his fascination with consumers and refined his own voice. And yet another traditional applicant merged his passion for culture and his pilot status to become a top performer for travel-sector client work at an MBB firm. Deeply-traumatic childhood memories of a parent’s health setbacks were explored by another dual admit as motivation for a career path in global healthcare innovation.
Lesson 3: Momentum in career trajectory
Applicants in this dual admit study ranged between three and five years of post-college work experience, with half of the applicants only holding three years upon application submission. This lower work tenure average might be due to economic realities. Young professionals consider this an ideal time to reposition their careers for a few years while the economy recalibrates.
Interestingly, this early career shift correlates with faster than typical career progression for these dual admit applicants. Every dual admit case this season showed strong career progression, including at least one promotion in between one and three total employers before submitting applications. About half of the dual admits held Manager, Lead, Product Manager, and/or Head titles at the time of their application positions. Others were Associates, Senior Business Analysts, Sr Associates, Sr Consultants, or the equivalent.
Indeed, there is a psychological advantage to applying for the MBA program in a timely fashion. As another former HBS Admissions Officer on our SBC team shared of her days reading files, “One of the things we considered while reviewing the applications was whether or not the applicants were applying because they had limited job options or because getting an MBA was an intentional part of their larger vision.”
Lesson 4: Quality character themes across domains
The journey at HBS or the GSB is more than just acquiring an MBA degree; it’s about personal growth and professional development. The dual admit success stories were able to showcase what they consider important across not one but multiple domains: personal, professional, and/or community. Our clients often describe a core passion and/or a driving motivation shared through several examples across these spheres.
Societal impact and extracurricular activities are not standalone dealmakers for admissions success. Those activities should be built into the application so they are an extension of the themes in professional and personal spheres. Recent community service efforts were not a prerequisite necessarily. Five of our dual admits had very light or even no recent social impact endeavors. Light community impact can absolutely be overcome by character themes in professional and personal examples.
Contributing to the broader community happens continuously. It’s not about saving the world for an eye-catching nonprofit. It’s about representing who you are and what you care about in conscious ways that enrich the communities that surround you.
One dual admit has entrepreneur parents who had constant failures during his childhood. He used those difficult formative experiences to find purpose in his finance profession and to give back to others with a financial literacy nonprofit and microfinance advocacy work.
Another dual admit had a strong story of promoting women as she is the eldest in a large family and was raised by a single working mom. She parlayed those experiences into gender advocacy during college and her professional path in work with women and, more broadly, connecting with different cultures and nationalities in her career.
Another dual admit who lacked extracurriculars altogether conveyed in his materials a few community-building activities, such as college fundraising and being a football season ticket holder as a proud alum. Referencing every day, endearing reflections can show humility.
Lesson 5: Asserted a distinct value for the student class
Successful admits recognize they need to stand out from the high-performing applicant pool. Admit decisions are so granular with HBS and the GSB that each applicant should carve out their value proposition carefully, much like a start-up defines worth relative to other competitors in a business plan.
For example, a tenured media tech applicant, whose network includes industry titans, conveyed what leadership on the HBS campus would be by bringing thought leaders together for a streaming symposium.
An international applicant inspired us when her essays revealed why her career path in sustainability relied on experiences volunteering in refugee camps.
Another applicant conveyed strategic knowledge of the airline industry, ensuring the readers would see his niche expertise as a travel space disruptor and pay less attention to his overrepresented functional career path of management consulting. Meanwhile, a healthcare-tech innovator described his professional and personal experiences in a way that ensured clarity of his role as a life sciences leader for the MBA program.
Lesson 6: Within range for academic stats and college
Undergraduate GPAs ranged between 3.6 to 4.0. Fifteen applicants submitted GMAT scores ranging between 710 and 780, with 46 quant being the lowest math subsection score. Six submitted strong GRE scores of 163+ on each subsection.
There is no static list of feeder colleges. Only four applicants are Ivy grads, and those candidates were admitted not because of the Ivy degree but rather for their life experiences, both professional and personal. All other dual admits were graduates of the top 50 US or equivalent European colleges.
Lesson 7: Authentic storytelling to captivate the reader
Both HBS and GSB applications allow a candidate to demonstrate that they have some imagination and ability to intrigue by telling an interesting story that sticks in the memory of the MBA Admissions reader.
A former HBS Admissions Officer on our team shared, “I believe it’s true that all people, and therefore all admissions boards, love a great story. It’s a way to bring life to your application and show the realness of who you are during what can be a dry process. I recall a story of an applicant engineering a soccer ball that could be kicked around and then used to provide electricity for a short period of time. He wanted to bring this technology to underdeveloped areas in Africa.”
Authenticity is critical to a candidate’s MBA narratives of where they’ve been, where they are, and where they want to go. MBA programs look for candidates who share and connect those dots in honest, thoughtful, and self-aware ways. We see our SBC clients achieve authenticity through candor, vulnerability, and connection across the application touchpoints.
Candor involves unflinching forthrightness and sincerely sharing those elements of yourself with MBA admissions committees. They ask: What problems in business and/or society am I excited to help solve? Many candidates come into the application process trying to guess what MBA admissions committees want to hear. While it’s helpful to understand a school’s culture and priorities, we always ask clients: What is it that you want to say?
Vulnerability has the power to transform us from two-dimensional pieces of application paper into three-dimensional human beings. We often see picture-perfect and almost “armored” applicant profiles. If you’re already perfect, why get an MBA? Our dual admits acknowledged they were not perfect in their essays by conveying authentic opportunities for growth through self-reflection. Consider thoughtful disclosure of any failures, setbacks, and transformational times.
MBA admissions readers want to be inspired. Share how experiences have allowed you to grow and crystallize your life’s work and passions that you’re focused on for the MBA journey and beyond.
HBS or GSB: Which Did They Pick?
We can’t disclose the breakdown of HBS vs GSB acceptances, but we asked a former HBS Admissions Officer on our SBC team if HBS Admissions knows why a candidate declined HBS for another program, such as Stanford.
“All the admissions teams are a bit obsessed with the declines and where they land!” she shared. “This info was certainly collected from the candidates. And while each school might try to address the ‘why’s,’ it often came down to personal preference (the candidate has family from the region) or even weather. Sometimes the decision was related to the focus of the curriculum or the job/company prospects post-graduation. And those are wise things to consider when making a decision if you’re lucky enough to be admitted to multiple schools!”
Still undecided? Described as “deftly-written with a ton of useful info side-by-side,” this Which MBA: Harvard vs. Stanford comparison is rich with information, including candid insights from the former HBS and GSB MBA Admissions Officers on the SBC team.
There is no magic formula that guarantees admissions success. But as these “dual admits” prove, your own deep and broad lived experiences, when positioned optimally, can help tip the odds in your favor.
In the meantime, check out our winning HBS application essays and GSB application essays from successful admits. And don’t miss How to Get Into HBS, featuring advice from a former HBS Admissions Officer on our team. You can find additional application advice on our application cheat sheet hub. Also, view the latest on MBA rankings by program here.
Stacy Blackman Consulting offers multiple services to meet your MBA application needs, from our All-In Partnership to hourly help reviewing your MBA resume. Contact us today for a free 15-minute advising session to talk strategy with a Principal SBC consultant. Meanwhile, here’s a snapshot of the caliber of expertise on our SBC team.