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Harvard vs. Stanford: Which one is right for you?

by John

Key differences between Stanford and Harvard college admissions

I’ve finally enabled comments on this site, so please leave me thoughts, questions, and more!

Slight change of pace today. Instead of the standard focus on college admissions topics, we’ll talk about life in college itself.

Stanford or Harvard? Harvard or Stanford? It’s a question that many people debate. Obviously, getting into either is a significant accomplishment that can’t be won without a great admissions strategy.

But everyone needs a better understanding of what they’re getting into. In this article, I’ll address the key academic and cultural differences between the two schools. Hopefully after reading, you’ll have a clear idea of which one is a better fit for you.

I cover Harvard vs Stanford and not, for instance, Harvard vs Yale because the differences between Stanford and the top Ivies (HYP) are pretty significant, while the differences amongst the top Ivies is, in my opinion, marginal

The academic differences between Stanford and Harvard

1. Stanford has an engineering program, while Harvard doesn’t (not really, anyway)

This will make a big difference if you want to pursue studies in, say, mechanical engineering or electrical engineering. These are intensive majors, and will leave little time for anything else. But if intensive engineering really isn’t your thing, this won’t make a big difference to your decision.

Yes, it’s been brought to my attention that over the last few years, Harvard has turned their engineering “division” into a formal school. And while it has grown somewhat in the last 2 years, their is still a world of difference (with respect to quality of faculty, research funding, total educational resources, and breadth of student body) between Harvard and Stanford engineering.

2. Harvard has stronger teaching in most humanities and social science subjects

This is a generalization, and based only on my observations of Harvard and my 4 years at Stanford. Their undergrad teaching in the ‘BA’ subjects is simply of a higher quality – primarily a result of being able to attract by far the best professors (which in turn attract the most talented grad students who often do a bulk of the teaching).

3. Harvard is more academically competitive with respect to GPA, class standings, etc

Simply the result of an academically stronger undergraduate body. When you reach a “tipping point” of the number of highly-focused, hard-working students, it contributes to an overall student body that is simply harder-working, more academically interested, and so forth.

This is both a pro and a con. You may work harder, but ultimately have less to show for it.

4. Stanford encourages more academic exploration than Harvard

It’s easier to switch majors, you can “shop” classes for longer, and its easier to craft your own study program. In addition, Stanford has plenty of student-initiated courses on all sorts of interesting topics as well as many interdiscplinary programs.

This is great in one sense because you get to dabble in many different areas, truly explore your academic and intellectual interests, and so forth.

The con is that, relative to Harvard, you may not develop sufficient depth in any one area.

The cultural differences between the two

1. Stanford is more laid-back

This goes hand-in-hand with the earlier point about academic competitiveness. Stanford students are simply more cooperative, friendly, and generally relaxed relative to their Harvard counterparts. While Stanford can be known for the “duck syndrome” (calm above water, paddling furiously below water), this still pales in comparison to the daily intensity that is Cambridge.

2. Harvard is somewhat more integrated into its neighbor city (Boston)

Stanford is pretty much a bubble. San Francisco is 45 minutes away by car, and most students don’t own a car. However, Harvard and its surrounding area is much more pedestrian friendly, and you’ll be exposed more to Boston and its city life than Stanford students with SF.

That’s not to say that Stanford has nothing to do – it’s just that your campus years will be focused, literally, on-campus.

3. Stanford has a history of entrepreneurship, while Harvard focus on more traditional careers

If you’re looking to do something off the beaten path, Stanford will have more resources and better mentorship to help you get there. Harvard is more focused – both its institutional resources as well as its student body – on standard career paths like business, government, etc.

That’s not to say you can’t have a successful corporate business career from Stanford or be a famous entrepreneur from Harvard. I’m talking more about the norm – not the exception.

That ends our discussion today. I hope that’s provided you a better view on the key differences between the two schools, so you can make a more informed decision (and also, use this info to write better college admissions essays!).

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