When asked why one business school is not like the other, most applicants will talk about things like scores, job placement, industries that grads go into, location, weather, and a few other things. What prospective applicants are less likely to mention is class size.
This is always surprising to us, because out of all the criteria for choosing a business school, this is where you see the greatest difference from school to school.
In the extreme case, of all the top schools, Harvard Business School (HBS) is the largest with some 930 students in a typical class, while little ol’ Berkeley-Haas has roughly 330. For the top ten schools, the average is ~500; while for the top 20 schools, the average creeps down even lower.
There are also a few surprises there. Did you know that NYU Stern has 317 students in the latest class, making it lower than average, while Columbia Business School is about double at 782? (For many of us, NYU has always felt so much bigger. We think this perception has a lot to do with the fact that Columbia, overall, is a much smaller university than NYU. For those not familiar, New York University has ~27,000 undergraduates while Columbia has a paltry ~9,000 undergraduates.)
So, how does this manifest? Given their scale, schools like HBS, Columbia, and Wharton (916 in the latest class) are “big enough to be small.” This means that there are enough people there to support every interest you may have, both personal and professional. For example, Wharton has a chocolate club, a cocktail club, and a cigar club (do we see a theme)—and just given the size of the school, this means the clubs have a lot of people in each.
For Haas, Dartmouth Tuck (289 students), and Cornell Johnson (292 students), even if they have a chocolate club, a cocktail club, or a cigar club, there is a strong chance only three of you will attend the meetings, and likely the same people will be at every club. (As an aside, we once had an applicant who wrote on his Cornell application that it was his intention to start a cocktail club when he gets there. We are not saying that the Cornell adcom is filled with whiskey aficionados, but he got in!)
In short, at a large school, you will find more fellow students interested in what you are interested in, no matter how niche.
Of course, the flip side is that the large schools are “big enough to be too big.” The reality is that at some of these really large schools, students graduate without knowing all of their classmates. It is not unusual for HBS graduates to talk about how close they are to the 90 folks in their section, while they only know a small portion of the rest of the class.
A subtler point: at really large schools, you have a chance of finding a lot of people just like you—which means that you don’t have to spend as much time with people not like you. For example, if you’re from Israel, at these big schools you may only hang out with other Israelis; while at other schools, you are forced to basically hang out with everyone.
This simply doesn’t happen at schools like Northwestern Kellogg (559 students), MIT Sloan (484), or Stanford (436). At these schools, you really will get to know everyone. We are not saying you will like everyone, but you will get to know everyone.
In the end, a big or small class size should be an important consideration—one that most applicants don’t take into account. Our advice is to consider it when applying.