Tackle The Berkeley Haas Six-Word Essay

Hemingway, by Lloyd Arnold, late 1939. Public Domain.

“The worst thing that you can do is be afraid and try to give the safe answer… Be courageous and tell us who you really are and what you want out of business school, and I think that you will find that strategy will take you all the way.” –Pete Johnson, Associate Dean of MBA Admissions, Berkeley Haas

Berkeley Haas showed some literary panache in posing a Hemingway-esque challenge to MBA candidates with this new essay for its 2017/18 cycle: “Tell us a six-word story that reflects a memorable experience in your life-to-date.”

Never someone to be intimidated by a challenge (literary or otherwise), it’s said that novelist Ernest Hemingway wrote the following when provoked by fellow writers to tell a full story in six words: “For sale: baby shoes. Never worn.” According to legend, Hemingway penned the story in a few minutes on a bar napkin and won $10 from each challenger in the wager.

It’s unclear whether you can submit your answer to Haas on a bar napkin. Though you do get 250 words to elaborate on why your six-word story is meaningful to you. The heart of the challenge, which replaces Berkeley’s “choose one song that expresses who you are,” is to distill an emblematic experience into something autobiographical and memorable.

So where to start? Berkeley Haas Associate Dean for the Full-time MBA Program and Admissions, Pete Johnson, offers this advice:

“Be courageous,” says Johnson, who spoke on the Admissions Director Panel at the CentreCourt MBA Festival in New York. “I think a lot of applicants say ‘well, you know, I’m an engineer but what I really want to do is work in digital music,’ and they write it out and they show it to their partner or whoever who says, ‘no don’t write that, they’ll think you’re crazy!’ When people do that, it goes flat. When somebody really tells us what they’re enthusiastic about it literally leaps off the screen.”

Haas’s six-word story is a pointed example of shorter not being simpler. Knowing that a good story conveys a beginning, middle and end, it’s a mighty feat in six words. To paraphrase a literary maxim oft attributed to Mark Twain, ‘If I had more time I’d have written a shorter letter.’ Morgan Bernstein, Executive Director of Full-Time MBA Admissions at Haas, supplies some great insight for the essays on the Haas website.

“There is no right story other than your own,” says my Fortuna Admissions colleague Sharon Joyce, former Associate Director of Admissions at Haas. “And this is not an exercise in grammar. So think first about what you want Haas to take away from the essay before you try to capture that experience in six words.”

In terms of strategy, Sharon advises to first think about a memorable experience and why it brought you great happiness, or proved to be a distinctly rewarding challenge. Then, allow yourself to play with possibilities. Allowing yourself to have a little fun and stay curious can go a long way toward replacing any feelings of dread (or, for the more quant-minded among you, terror). For some inspiration and amusement, view these clever submissions from a six-word memoir contest featured on NPR, which includes, “Met wife at her bachelorette party.”

“The six-word essay prompt allows the admissions team to understand ‘what makes you tick’ above and beyond what they’ve already gleaned from your academic record and work history,” says Joyce. “This might be an opportunity to share an experience where you went beyond yourself to succeed, or grew in confidence from a lesson in failure. Write not what you think sounds so very b-school, but rather share your sense of purpose and authentic self.”

If you’re ready to write like Hemingway, remember that he’s also credited with proclaiming, “The first draft of anything is sh@*.” It’s almost always true, even for the writer who knocked out one of his most memorable stories on a napkin.

Fortuna AdmissionsMatt Symonds is a Director at MBA admissions coaching firm Fortuna Admissions, a dream team of former admissions directors and business school insiders from 12 of the top 15 business schools. He is the author of “Getting the MBA Admissions Edge,” and co-organizer of the CentreCourt MBA Festival with Poets & Quants.