Meet UC-Berkeley Haas Gatekeeper Morgan Bernstein

The percentage of minority students in the Berkeley Haas full-time MBA program has fallen each of the last three years, to 29%. Haas photo

You started as associate director of admissions for the Haas full-time MBA program in January 2011. How crazy was it to start in middle of a cycle like that, and did that affect how you adapted to and performed your job?

It’s super crazy, it’s really bizarre, because during that time of year, during leaving season when we’re reading applications which is October through April, more or less, we are working on them three days a week. And so to come into an environment where most of my team wasn’t even in the office, it’s hard initially. You don’t get that rapport, you don’t get to know people, to understand how things work.

Again, it definitely helped that I was a Berkeley Haas alumna, it helped that I had worked with some of the admissions team before, but it took a little while. Coming from corporate, going to work in higher education, things move differently. They move at different paces. Working for a public university, obviously, there are certain processes that we have to adhere to.

At the time, I looked up to Stephanie Fujii, who was the head of the department . She was a boss and a mentor, and she was also an alumna of the program who had worked initially and then come back. And my direct supervisor at the time was also someone who had left and come back, so there were enough people on the team who had followed different paths that I felt I was in good company. But I think it took until I got into my second full cycle before I felt comfortable. Also around that time is when I was promoted from assistant to associate director, and that was validation: I’m doing this, I’m doing a good job of this. And it was probably around then where I began to think, “Maybe I could actually do this forever.”

Something you can do for a living.

Something I can do for a living, maybe forever!

But not what you expected when you got your MBA. Is there a lesson there for current and future MBA candidates?

Literally up to today — and I know this sounds hokey, but — I feel so lucky to go to a job that I absolutely love. And I still have many friends who are unhappy in their jobs, and I pinch myself that I’m where I am.

What do you love most about working with students, and what is the biggest challenge?

I love working with students because they are so eager to be involved. I think this is just with MBA students in general, but particularly Berkeley Haas students — it’s what we are looking for when we’re screening for culture fit. And in my role I have an opportunity to work with students who have a particular interest in admission, or have a particular interest in diversity, or whatever it might be. So many ideas — and that’s what I love.

The admissions process is kind of cyclical, and if you’re not careful, you can get caught in rinse-and-repeat year after year. You’re recruiting, you’re reading applications, you’re yielding candidates, you’re forming a class, and then you start all over again. And so what’s great is having these students come in who have ideas and want to innovate on things.

The shadow side to that is that, as admissions officers, we see all of the cycles year after year after year. When you come in as a student — and really when students are in their leadership role, they’re only in that role for one calendar year — they come in super eager and they want to leave their mark and have an immediate impact. So they want to get involved in January when their leadership role starts, and they want to see the impact by May when they head off for their summer internship. And it’s really hard to set expectations with the students that a lot of the work that they are putting in now is building a foundation for future classes.

Let’s maybe take a step back and describe what the cycle is like for admissions folks. What is the “start” and what is the finish? Help the laypeople out.

It’s funny, the first year that I came back, I remember the students preparing to leave in May and some of them asked me, “Morgan, what are you doing for the summer?” — thinking that the admissions people got summer off, too. And I was like, “Well, I’ll be on the road traveling to 40 different cities this summer.”

I definitely did much more traveling when I was younger, before I was married with kids. I’m probably gone 50-75 days. It’s concentrated May through October. And that’s predictable — it’s not like in my earlier days when I was an investment banker! That would be, “Hey Morgan, I need you to go home and pack your bag and hop on a plane ton night.” There’s none of that, luckily, which makes it easy to balance work and family.

Basically, the cycle is June through May. June is when we reset for the coming year. We do most of our recruiting travel June through August or September. It seems like things keep getting pushed up earlier and earlier, but I’d say it’s concentrated June through September. Our first deadline is September.

We have a team of six to eight people who are doing the traveling. We do domestic and international sessions. It’s mostly all planned well ahead of time. May is actually a little light for travel, things start picking up in June. June pretty much is conference time. We have the Consortium Orientation Program in Orlando, we have the Forte Foundation MBA Women’s Leadership Conference in Atlanta, and we have the GMAC Industry Conference in Boston.  And there are a few other recruiting events we do, including another East Coast swing in June when we’ll hit up New York, Boston, and D.C.

Basically, it is rare over the summer to have more than two admissions officers in the office. In a team of seven, probably five of us are on the road, coming back from the road, or getting ready to go on the road.