Harvard vs. Wharton: A Guide for Pre-Consulting/Finance
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You’re a rising senior in high school and have checked almost every box for college admissions. You’re near the top of your class after a hefty load of AP classes, you have top SAT scores, and despite this your extracurriculars are still the most impressive part of your application.
You vacillate between telling your friends “finance,” and your family “consulting.” You can rattle off the entry-level salaries for Goldman, Bain, McKinsey, JP, and BCG. You tried reading Security Analysis but threw it to the side when you found it made your head hurt. You downgraded to The Intelligent Investor and it served you perfectly.
You’ve excelled in high school, but you have bigger aspirations for your career. You want to make Jordan Belfort look like a chump. Now the only thing left to decide is whether to apply to Harvard or Wharton.
This is a classic decision that most finance or consulting prospects find themselves facing. Wharton is fabled as the best business school in the world, but Harvard just has that prestigious aura about it that makes you feel like after graduation you’ll be unstoppable. Harvard has produced the wealthiest alumni of any college in the world, yet Wharton’s curriculum directly teaches you almost everything you need to ace that technical interview. The question remains: which will help me maximize my success in either finance or consulting?
This post will break down both schools both in terms of the experience they can offer you, as well as how well each will ensure you make it to the top of the finance/consulting hiring game.
Below is some basic information about each school. Note that the data on Harvard is for the undergraduate class as a whole, which includes many students that do not pursue finance or consulting.
|Tuition and Board||
Total Class Size
Median Class Size
Students that are aiming for finance or consulting usually enter Harvard as economics, government, or applied mathematics concentrators. Students that are aiming for these fields at Wharton concentrate in any of Wharton’s 20 concentrations (though most concentrate in finance).
Are your career prospects a larger contributor to your college decision than your general happiness at a school?
Perhaps this post will conclude at the end that either Harvard or Wharton is unequivocally better on the basis of its maximization of your future earnings. But is that the most important thing to you? If so, then by all means continue reading the rest of this post to determine all of the mechanics that factor into the comparison. But most likely you care a lot more about your college experience in addition to your future prospects. As such, you might find that while a school is definitely better for your career path, if it’s a place that will make you miserable for four years, you might want to consider another option.
Do you actually want to do finance or consulting?
While you might now consider finance and consulting your only options for the future, this might change once you get experience working in either field. Indeed, your knowledge of each field is most definitely extremely skewed based on the media and your second-hand information/observations from older friends. Finance or consulting is not right for everyone (even those that really enjoy quants) – if you don’t fully know that this is the only thing you like to do, then choosing a school purely on the basis of this career choice is a bit naïve.
School Experience Comparisons
Harvard is located in a relatively busy New England town right outside of Boston. It features tons of restaurants perfect for college students (though maybe not their budgets) as well as a host of shopping, events, and attractions right across the river to Boston (total transit time, about 10 minutes). Harvard’s campus is mostly self-contained, though students will traverse through Cambridge to make it to some classes.
Wharton (UPenn) is located in West Philadelphia, which again offers all of the accommodations one would expect in a city. West Philadelphia is definitely a cheaper place than Cambridge, but not by much. Some students express safety concerns at Penn, though it does employ one of the nation’s top-rated security forces.
If you’re looking to constantly be in a city, Wharton might slide ahead. But many students can prefer having both a smaller town and access to a city, as found at Harvard. Cambridge is also a generally cleaner place and is much more “walker-friendly.” Just on the basis of location, Harvard is the clear winner.
Wharton (in CollegeVine’s opinion) is the best undergraduate business school in the world. Its 20 concentrations offer exposure to fields that most students only glimpse through a summer internship. For example, most finance internships (and especially their interviews) will expect a basic understanding of accounting principles (how the three main statements work together, etc.). Almost every Wharton student (provided they paid attention in Accounting) is prepared to ace these questions. Wharton, however, is a much more difficult school. Partly because of its competitive atmosphere, and partly because it has less grade inflation, pulling a 3.5+ GPA can be challenging at Wharton.
Harvard on the other hand is a liberal arts institution. The closest its students can get to finance is within the statistics or econ departments, and even then it’s a stretch to learn technical skills for finance. Classes like Capital Markets or Corporate Finance come close but just don’t stack up to Wharton’s fundamental courses. Harvard’s classes are definitely much easier to do well in. Harvard does have a lot of grade inflation, and its Dean admits the median grade is an A-. Harvard also offers a range of courses across varying fields and indeed its econ concentrators are usually also taking computer science or humanities courses. But this inter-disciplinary study is also offered at Wharton, as students can also take classes at the College of Arts and Sciences.
Some may say that Harvard’s courses are more intellectually stimulating, but that’s a bit of a stretch. There exists no tangible difference between Penn’s CAS courses and Harvard’s liberal arts courses. As such, Wharton is basically Harvard with a legitimate business program, albeit more difficult. The clear winner for academics is Wharton.
Activities and Extracurriculars
Harvard boasts over 400 student organizations, and the most D1 sports of any school in the country. Its activities range from performance groups, to student activist groups, to pre-professional organizations. It also has many clubs geared towards finance and consulting, particularly the Harvard Financial Analyst Club (HFAC), Veritas Finance Group (VFG), Harvard Investment Association (HIA), and the Harvard College Consulting Group (HCCG).
UPenn has about 300 organizations students can join across every area that Harvard touches. It also has 40 Wharton organizations which offer an even greater pre-professional focus that the clubs at Harvard. Wharton’s clubs also have a particular emphasis on alumni relations, such that joining any “association” at Wharton provides a ton of connections specifically within a highly focused field (for example, the Wharton China Business Society).
You can describe Harvard’s activities as broad, and Wharton’s activities as deep (at least for business/finance/consulting). Depending on what you’re looking for, either is a great choice.
Wharton has the benefit of being a small school within a big school. Indeed, Wharton students make up their own community (at times a bit cliquey), which can prove useful when all of your friends are studying for the same Management final. Wharton also benefits from having a great resource network, which it extends internally to its students; indeed the Wharton buildings are some of the nicest on campus. Wharton also has an extremely competitive culture and some students express unhappiness from the seemingly endless competition that ensues until senior spring.
Harvard has no small school component to it (rather the small community factors are created by the clubs and organizations), so you often will find that you are studying completely different things than those around you (unless you’re an econ or CS concentrator). Some people really enjoy the diverse element to Harvard. There is definitely a less competitive atmosphere (though some Harvard students will argue against this to the death), and the culture pushes you to explore your intellectual passions more than winning the internship game.
Do you prefer a small, targeted, sprint for glory, or an open, gradual, intellectual stimulation? There’s no clear answer and both provide their own benefits to different people.
One win for Harvard, one win for Wharton, and two ties – oh, you knew we were going to give you a balanced answer. Well, you’re in luck; we won’t be so balanced for future prospects. The following analysis assumes that both schools are exactly the equal, and the sole goal of the student is to maximize his or her long-term career prospects.
Wharton is slightly more prestigious than Harvard for finance in today’s world due to its superior reputation for the technical (quants/programming skills) elements of finance. But in the arena of consulting Harvard is high above Wharton, and the combined effect gives the edge to Harvard.
Once again, Wharton students are weakly preferred to Harvard ones in finance for similar reasons, though the embedded Harvard network in finance firms means that Harvard students do have more unconventional (i.e. not solely based on their external merit) pathways into finance internships. In consulting, Harvard holds a commanding lead, and even students studying non-business, non-technical majors like history or gender studies can get consulting internships if they have strong academics and leadership.
Network and Alumni
Harvard’s network in both consulting and finance is fundamentally stronger than that of Wharton, though the gap in finance has narrowed substantially over the past 20 years. Within a decade, the strength of the two networks in finance could converge, but Harvard still holds the edge.
Wharton has the more rigorous technical curriculum and its students graduate with more specialized business skills (mainly because Wharton is a dedicated school for business whereas Harvard only has the economics major to loosely imitate that). In the past, Harvard’s broad based liberal arts curriculum and approach to education (which resulted in superior networking, relationship building, and people skills for its graduates) conferred a massive advantage in real-world business, but thanks to technology, those skills have been de-valued relative to technical and business strategy skills.
Harvard definitely has the overall edge, largely because of its commanding advantage in consulting. For students definitely committed to finance, Harvard and Wharton are more or less equivalent. For students that are relatively stronger at networking and have good soft skills, Harvard’s superior network and easier curriculum can pay off. For students with stronger math and technical skills, Wharton offers the highest “peak” position at the end of their four years in school.
Of course each school is right for different people. Talk to current students or visit and sit in classes at each school to get a feel for the culture and atmosphere. The most important factor in the end should be your happiness, so you should do everything you can now to best determine which school will be the right fit for you.