Haas’ Optional Essay: Addressing Barriers Of Power & Privilege

Incoming full-time MBA students bonding over team-building games at Berkeley Haas Courtesy photo

At a glance, it looks like Berkeley Haas went from three required essays to two, keeping its poetic “six-word essay” prompt and distilling its question around post-MBA goals. But the remarkable addition is a unique and evocative series of optional essay prompts that, with exacting focus, seek to uncover the less visible forces that shape candidates’ lives, decisions, opportunities and character.

For quick context, the new prompts to optional essay #1 ask candidates to answer three questions by choosing from a list of options:

  • What is the highest level of education completed by your parent(s) or guardian(s)? 
  • If you were raised in one of the following household types, please indicate. (e.g. single parent; foster care; extended family member; and other options)
  • If you have you ever been responsible for providing significant and continuing financial or supervisory support for someone else, please indicate.

Haas frames the essay questions by underscoring its commitment to diversity and its defining leadership principles, and cites a holistic approach to application review that “will consider achievements in the context of the opportunities available to a candidate.” It also gives applicants up to 300 words to elaborate on any of their responses, or the option to “expand on other hardships or unusual life circumstances that may help us understand the context of your opportunities, achievements, and impact.”

As former Associate Director of Admissions at Berkeley Haas, I’m not surprised by these prompts, nor the laser focus on distinctive characteristics that impact first generation students and others from less privileged households. It’s a powerful recognition that up and beyond your test scores, transcripts, and career achievements, prospective students come from very different backgrounds and life circumstances that shape both their character and decision-making in invisible ways.

In positioning its essay question in this way, Berkeley Haas signals its desire to hone in on the path that students walked to better understand who they’re reading. 

It’s also a way for the admissions committee to recognize the challenges certain applicants face to get to where they are – even when students themselves don’t see them as distinctive or noteworthy. For example, I worked extensively with first generation college students for my doctoral degree, and a common theme was that many don’t recognize how unique their stories are. A student may be aware of the power structures and dynamics of privilege, but not necessarily of the challenges she’s overcome – because it’s ‘just her life’ and she’s busy living it. To an outsider, sometimes there’s a wow factor to a circumstance or experience in a student’s background that they themselves are too ‘in it’ to recognize, and it speaks volumes to their tenacity, determination and resiliency.

Why does this matter to Berkeley Haas admissions? 

For one, it informs admissions reviewers of the other responsibilities candidates may be juggling outside academic endeavors, providing a window into a student’s socioeconomic history and other less visible factors that shape their choices, opportunities and achievements. Socioeconomic barriers, for example, can contribute to things that might be missing from an application but, in context, convey bigger picture understanding, such as, a student who wasn’t so involved in extra-curricular activities as an undergrad was working simultaneously to pay for college; or another who is repaying high undergrad loans didn’t take a GMAT more than once because of the fees.

Haas’s new questions are also deeply rooted in the history of the UC system, which was created to make higher education available to all California citizens. The UC system at large wants to create and cultivate a community that reflects the diversity of its population. At the undergrad level, two-thirds of the population must be California residents, yet those quotas don’t exist at the graduate level. At the undergraduate level, some 42% of UC students are first generation; compare this against 27% at other selective institutions or 18% at private universities – that’s significant. At the graduate level, Berkeley Haas recognizes that its pipeline now includes more students from a first-generation background. These questions also show a lot of compassion in terms of how Haas itself wants to do its holistic review. It gets to trying to create a level playing field for all MBA applicants.

It’s also deeply resonant with the Haas culture, and the defining principles that guide it (see this recent article, Where Culture Really Matters: Berkeley’s Haas School by John A. Byrne). Haas values attracting students with greater social awareness, and that goes to its defining principles of ‘beyond yourself,’ and challenging the status quo – and the status quo is that there’s a dominance of white men at board room tables; through this new set of questions, Berkeley Haas is at the forefront of addressing inclusivity in b-schools and beyond.

By no means should you be deterred if you’re someone from a privileged background. 

Please don’t be deterred by this set of questions or misread that someone from a background of relative privilege won’t have a shot at admission. Whether you’re someone with privilege or not, you can express your values, political engagement, awareness of social justice, and/or access to education in terms of social mobility – all of which are very important to Haas. Haas wants students who demonstrate self-awareness and community engagement, which is an invitation to recognize your privilege and convey a deep understanding of what that means to you.

For example, walking through the halls of Haas, and you’ll see stickers on staff and Faculty’s doors that read “Ally,” which signals this person is an ally to those with undocumented status, or LGBTQ individuals, or other marginalized communities. Berkeley really fosters that climate of inclusion, empathy and compassion. Even if you don’t identify as a member of a marginalized group, it can be valuable to show you are an ally.

What’s more, the essay prompt at the end of the optional series invites many types of possible responses. So even if you’re someone from a privileged background, you may also want to share a hardship, such as overcoming dyslexia; if the highest GMAT you ever achieved is a 660, that can be something you’re justifiably proud of given the reading difficulty you’re overcoming.

The new slate of essay questions really speaks to the type of class that the Berkeley Haas MBA strives to craft. It’s also in recognition of the huge range of students applying to business school, and a drive to support the admissions committee with a full and rich understanding of who each applicant truly is. Accept the challenge – and opportunity – to convey this level of introspection and purpose, and you increase your chances of admissions success.

Sharon Joyce is a director at MBA admissions coaching firm Fortuna Admissions and former Berkeley Haas Associate Director of Admissions. Fortuna is composed of former admissions directors and business school insiders from 13 of the top 15 business schools.


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