Meet UC-Berkeley Haas Gatekeeper Morgan Bernstein

The view of the newly enlarged Haas courtyard from the top outdoor deck of Connie & Kevin Chou Hall

What are some of the international destinations you and your team will visit this year?

We typically split up the international travel based on regions’ applications that we read, because that gives people the opportunity to make some of those connections. They may recognize names or applications down the road. I’ll be heading down to Latin America this year, where I also went last year. Pete Johnson, assistant dean, and I will be heading down to Chile, Brazil, Argentina. I’m not sure if we’re going to do Mexico or not. It’ll probably be about a week, one of those trips where it’s a different city every day — depending on flight connections!

We’ll be having specific information sessions for candidates and we all will meet with alumni — it’s important to maintain relations with the alumni network on top of admissions, because we do rely on our alums for so much. They do most of our interviews for us, so this is a great chance to thank them and engage them and get them excited for the year ahead. Much like we need to ramp up and get excited for the year ahead, we have to get them ready and excited.

You must have many stories of meeting and admitting interesting people who end up being important to Haas.

This is unrelated to my travels, but just this afternoon I was sitting in my office and a student comes in. I recognize the face but there’s a lot of students, and I think one of the hard things about admissions is that we work so hard to get them in, and then our handoff is really orientation. At that point they engage with the program office, academics, faculty, student services, but not admissions — unless they are a student volunteer. So this student comes in and it’s graduation week and I recognize the face but I can’t place it, and he says, “Morgan, do you have a couple minutes?” And I’m like, “Sure, come on in,” and I’m thinking, “Who is this?” and I’m racking my brain. And he gives me his name, and I remembered him instantly, and it was his second year and he was graduating, and I said, “How’s it going? Congratulations!”

And he sits down and says, “You know Morgan, you may not remember this, but two years ago you called me on a Wednesday, I was committed to another school, my bags were packed, and I was almost out the door. But I was on the Haas waitlist and you called me and you admitted me, and that call changed my life.” And he literally started crying in my chair, and he said, “I just wanted to thank you and the admissions team for giving me this opportunity.”

He touched on what I truly think makes Haas so special, which is that so many people come to Haas for professional transformation. You have a vision of what your career is going to be like afterwards. And he talked about this transformation that he underlined as being incredibly personal, and how it wasn’t what he expected, but it was the most poignant takeaway from his business school experience. And he talked about a job that he’s going into post-MBA at IDEO doing people-centered design work, and he said, “This wasn’t a field that I could have ever even imagined before coming to business school. This isn’t what I wrote my essays about, this isn’t the trajectory I thought I was going to be on — but then I had one class and one conversation and that completely changed the course of my professional career, and also of me. It changed me.”

For three minutes we shared this moment. And he was crying, and I started crying. And I thought, “This is why we do what we do. This moment.” It meant so much, because it is hard — in admissions we work so hard to get to know people through their application, and you get really lucky if you actually get to meet them in person at one of your admit events or if they come up and introduce themselves at orientation, but a lot of people who we “get to know” through their application, we don’t actually get to know in person.

If you ask any admissions officer at Haas why they do what they do, they’ll tell you it’s for the students. It’s because of the students. And so to have moments like this, even if it took two years for this student to drop by my office and introduce himself, that will be enough positive energy to carry me through summer travel.

So when you talk to students before they come to Haas or at orientation, let them know you want to hear these stories.

I have the good fortune to address all of the students during orientation, to kind of welcome them and sort of send them off, and I made a joke this year in my speech about admissions being “empty nesters,” that we send the baby birds off to fly, “But don’t forget to call home.” I did that in jest hoping that a few students would occasionally stop by, and since then we have had more students stopping by than we’ve ever had! We love putting faces to names.

Berkeley Haas has been an elite school in the rankings for some time now. Do the rankings affect your job — do you think about them and about what your decisions will mean for the school’s standing?

I’d be lying if I said the rankings didn’t affect my job to a certain degree. Everyone in the school plays a part in how the rankings are calculated. Would I say that it’s something at the top of my mind as I’m reviewing applications or making admissions decisions? No. But we in admissions have input into how the rankings are calculated with GMAT scores, GPA, and a few other elements.

Are we admitting people with great numbers just to keep the numbers up? Definitely not. GMAT, GPA, those are important but they are not everything. What we’re looking for is fit. We aren’t as direct about it in our application in the sense that we don’t ask you, “Tell me how you align with Confidence Without Attitude, and give me an example of Questioning the Status Quo,” you know, from our Four Defining Principles. We wanted to be a little more subtle. But we definitely carefully craft our essay questions and our interview questions to get at culture fit.

That’s also why we have students and alumni conduct most of our interviews, as opposed to the admissions committee. We get to know you on paper, but the people who have been through or are in the program are the ones who we think can best assess culture fit in person.

So there’s no secret code to getting in, but is there something that gives a candidate an edge?

If there was a formula for getting in, if all you had to do was input some data and out comes a decision, I wouldn’t have a job. Sometimes I wish it was that simple because I can be incredibly indecisive! But luckily that’s why I have an admission committee. And it’s important that people recognize that it’s a diverse committee making these decisions, and everybody is looking for something a little different. So anybody that goes to interview, which is typically around 30% of our candidates, they will be talked about by the committee.

My personal bias is, I am really touched by people who are willing to show a little bit of vulnerability. I think the candidates sometimes are so focused on portraying their 100% perfect self in the application, focused on achievements and awards and all of the amazing things they have done — and that’s great. But I think that needs to be balanced with a little bit of realism, because business school is not about being perfect, and if you’re going to come to Haas and not take any risks, you’re not a candidate that is a good fit. Show me evidence of taking risks, of stepping outside your comfort zone, of failing — I think you can learn a lot about a person’s character from how they recovered in the wake of a failure or a time of difficulty, personal, professional, etc.

When a candidate is willing to share that less-than-perfect self with us, that’s what leaves a lasting impression for me.