Harvard vs Yale vs Princeton vs Stanford


These 4 schools seem to be the most desirable and well-regarded universities for nearly all students applying to the US. How do they compare? Is there a clear winner? Where should I early?

From what I’ve heard/researched

Ranking/Reputation wise, they seem to vary. Princeton is 1st for undergraduate rankings. Stanford and Harvard are usually 1st= for world university rankings. And Yale seems to be falling in their rankings in general.

School wise. Princeton and Harvard are known to be very competitive and cutthroat while Yale seems very communal and relaxed. Stanford seems to be in the middle.

Career wise. Princeton for science/engineering. Harvard for finance/economics. Stanford for computersci/entrepreneurship. Yale for humanities.

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Interesting question - I spent nearly 4 months thinking about this from the time I initially was accepted into Harvard early action around December 15th till the day I committed to Harvard. I was deeply appreciative of the exciting choice I faced and am sure that no matter which of these places I chose, I would have had a great experience. I also consider Wharton in this mix as well. In saying that - how did I choose?

Firstly, education is an investment in yourself and your future. It is important to consider the reputation and resources of your university and how you might be able to contribute to them and develop as a learner and a leader. I started by consulting a lot of rankings:


World Reputation Rankings

The Times Higher Education World Reputation Rankings 2016 employ the world’s largest invitation-only academic opinion survey to provide the definitive list of the top 100 most powerful global university brands.

All the universities mentioned above are utterly incredible and would be a true privilege to attend. However, you have to start any decision from data initially so these rankings let me make my first cuts which were Columbia and Duke. Columbia and Duke tended to underperform need-blind Ivy League schools with larger endowments as well as both Oxford/Cambridge and MIT/Stanford and reputation rankings tended to support this.

Secondly, I considered what country I wanted to be in. Simplifying what was a very complex decision, I decided that the global hubs of finance and entrepreneurship were in New York City and Silicon Valley (USA) and these hubs tended to be growing faster in influence and talent than the UK. This is debatable obviously but generally based on cross-yield data and international applicant numbers to respective countries, as well as considering where most massive companies and organizations have their HQ (Goldman Sachs, United Nations, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Tiger), I felt reasonably confident that the US was a better bet. Also, coming from New Zealand, the UK was a more easy, comfortable cultural fit and I actively wanted to challenge myself. Lastly on this point, US schools have financial aid for international students meaning the cohorts are more diverse generally making for a more interesting experience. For these factors, I cut out the UK and Cambridge.

At this point, I am considering Harvard, Penn (Huntsman), Princeton, Yale, Stanford.

I actually signed up for university preview tours (the 2-3 day events colleges put on for pre-frosh [students admitted considering entering into freshman year]) for all of these universities and headed to the US with my Dad.

Upon going to Princeton, I realized that I didn’t want a small town vibe in my university experience. Princeton is location in Princeton, New Jersey which is about 1 hour from New York City. I figured if I was traveling all the way from New Zealand to the US, I may as well fully immerse myself in both an intense academic and metropolitan environment. Despite Princeton’s epic academics, leading endowment per capita and very attractive ORFE program, based on the physical campus and where it was located, I gave it the cut.

Yale’s preview event “Bulldog Days” was mind-blowing, fun and informative. I thoroughly enjoyed it and made a lot of good friends who I still talk to a lot these days. My main qualms with Yale were the relative weakness in engineering, pure mathematics, computer science and statistics which were all areas I was very interested in pursuing. I also felt that Yale had a very big focus on “happiness” and “balance” over “ambition” and “competition” to the extent that it seemed almost a bit too relaxed. Lastly, I felt if I wanted to go to a place with so much gothic architecture, I may as well have gone to Cambridge (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EqsTatw-RTI). I must admit that having gone to Harvard my post Yale reflections may be just a little bit biased… :slight_smile: Yale gets cut.

Next came Stanford. To be honest, Stanford is pretty phenomenal at virtually everything these days. Living on the West Coast and the East Coast are two very different environments. The former has quite a focus on venture capital, high technology, entrepreneurship and has delightfully sunny weather. The latter has quite a focus on government, hedge funds, investment banking, management consulting, biotech (although big hubs in SF) and bounces between searing summers (in the 20 to 30 C range) and freezing winters (-5 to -15 C range). Computer Science is a massive part of Stanford’s campus culture just like Economics/Government is a massive part of Harvard’s campus culture. At this point in my life, the focus on finance, government, economics and the excitement of a true Winter Christmas experience pushed me East. Stanford got the cut.

Finally, Penn (Huntsman) and Harvard. I think the Huntsman program is incredible - it would have allowed me to continue to develop my French with a very specific focus on linguistic development, study at Wharton (the world’s best undergraduate business school) and also pursue a BA in international studies. It also offered an intimate class of Huntsman peers who benefit from fantastic advising, support and a wonderful community which is disproportionately international compared to the rest of Penn. I found the preview days wonderful and loved my peers and Philadelphia. Huntsman is roughly as difficult to get into as HYPSM although admission rates aren’t disclosed.

Ultimately, I decided that while I liked Huntsman, I would rather be in an environment like Harvard where every student is admitted equal into the same undergraduate program. Being in a community of 1600 vibrant, talented, passionate individuals to me sounded more exciting than being in a community of 50 in the Huntsman tucked away as a part of Penn. Penn is wonderful as well but typically for dual admits between Harvard and Penn, roughly 4 choose Harvard for every 1 that chooses Penn. I believe strongly that you’re a function of those you surround yourself with and Harvard does a fantastic job of recruiting a diverse class of leaders within a wide variety of fields and being a part of that ecosystem was simply too exciting to turn down.


Harvard ultimately won for me because I loved the Applied Mathematics program (https://www.seas.harvard.edu/programs/applied-mathematics) which offered a mathematically rigorous lens through which I could study economics. It also offered arguably the strongest on-campus recruiting process (http://ocs.fas.harvard.edu). I was also very excited to leverage Harvard’s wonderful economics research opportunities. For my broad interests in economics, finance, government and politics, I felt I had found my home.

I have always been very happy with my choice! (Harvard '16 A.B./S.M. :wink: )


My take on the comparison when I was making my choice was a bit different. For the same reasons that you’ve said about rankings, Yale took a back seat, but between Princeton, Harvard and Stanford I weighed them differently.

At Princeton the most common majors are public policy/economics. At Harvard the most common majors are economics/social sciences. At Stanford the most common majors are computer science/engineering related. This, I believe, gives a strong idea of the University strengths.

I would put Harvard first for economics/finance, and Stanford first for engineering/science (including Computer Science - it doesn’t really fit into a category in my mind). That was certainly how I made my choice, anyway - being more interested in STEM. In my mind, Princeton was slightly behind, but much more similar to Harvard in strengths.

Comparing these places is super personal, though. You’ll excel anywhere if you work hard and work smart. All of these places are amazing, and any kind of comparison is personal and quite subjective.


It really depends on who you are as a person - finding the best fit is very important and that can only be determined after a long chat - so message me.

If you are applying from New Zealand, Harvard and Yale tends to accept recruited athletes in the early round - your best bets of getting into a school if you are at that level would be to apply to Stanford or Princeton, with Princeton being the easier choice in general. That being said, only one or maximum of two normal students (non-athletes) are accepted at any of the HYPS schools in the early round.


The most important piece of consideration is what @victor.li mentioned about finding the best fit.

I graduated from Princeton, and to be completely honest, probably wouldn’t pick it I had a chance to do it all over again, in many respects. While academically it was a great fit for me, socially and culturally it wasn’t so much up my alley. I spent more weekends than I can count taking the train up to NYC to go to jazz clubs and the museums and to just enjoy the city in general. I didn’t like “The Street,” I didn’t wear Ralph Lauren anything, I had never heard of lacrosse, and I absolutely didn’t wear Uggs and pearls together (yes, that was a popular Princeton look in the early 2000’s). Later in college, I interned at Jazz at Lincoln Center, and found myself crashing on NYC friends’ couches two nights a week so I could work as a true part-time associate on days I didn’t have class - it was like I was the city mouse trapped at the country mouse Ivy.

So why did I pick Princeton? I wanted to get into the number one school, I wanted to say I had studied at the best undergraduate history program, and felt that strategically, I had the best chance at getting into Princeton compared to the other schools you mentioned in your question (this was due to Princeton’s jazz ensemble, which I was a member of for a bit). These are all not particularly very good reasons to pick out a school, and ultimately it cost me some sense of community that I missed out on in college. While I am proud that I went there and feel very fortunate that my efforts to get in were viewed favorably by the university, maybe I would have been happier at Columbia. I certainly would have spent a lot less time and money on New Jersey Transit!

The point is that you need to first consider what is most important to you in a school, and while “#1” feels really good in many ways, in the end, you need to be in environment where you will thrive. So consider what you want and what you care about, then compare that to the top ranked schools, and weigh those options accordingly. After a certain point, there is a law of diminishing returns in comparing HYPS and trying to game it.



This is a fantastic discussion! I am pinning this to the top of this category so others can find it easily :smile:


I Attended Stanford (JD) Yale (LLM) Harvard (JSD) all excellent schools for law, Princeton doesn’t have a law school so I wouldn’t know about the 4th contestant; focusing on the other 3 I would put it at #1 Harvard, probably the most competitive law school in the world an done of the hardest places to study #2 Yale, excellent staff, facilities and lecturing. #3 Stanford an excellent institute but not very competitive I would rate Stanford more for technologically advanced subjects or Advanced business related subjects.