How To Tackle The New Berkeley Haas MBA Essays

UC-Berkeley Haas School of Business

To kick off the 2019-2020 application season, Berkeley Haas refreshed all three of its essay questions (two required, one optional). Gone is the tricky, Hemingwayesque six-word story prompt and the invitation to describe your immediate post-MBA career goal. The spirit of Haas’s optional question remains intact, yet it is distilled from nearly 200 words of explicit context-setting (for a 300-word response) into two elegant sentences. 

As former Associate Director of Admissions at Berkeley Haas, I think the new suite of questions is excellent. Let’s talk strategy – what Haas is looking for in each of its new questions and how best to tackle them. 

New Haas essay #1: What makes you feel alive when you are doing it, and why?

I love the wording of this question – any opportunity to learn about what ignites the spark in a candidate is really exciting to read. (Remember that most Haas admissions readers will be plowing through some 2,000 application essays in a single cycle.) This question also underscores that Haas is looking for people who will actively contribute to the community and beyond, not just in the classroom. Your intellectual acumen and accomplishments being a given, what are you passionate about and why does it ignite that aliveness in you? This essay prompt allows the admissions team to understand ‘what makes you tick’ up and beyond what they’ll glean from your academic record and work history.  

Given that you only have 300 words, the maxim to ‘show not tell’ is critical here. You want to bring the reader on the experience with you so they can smell, taste, feel and connect to whatever it is you’re describing – what it felt like to summit that mountaintop and peer into the volcano’s smoky belly, or the felt experience in a devotional act of creation that erased any sense of time. And unless it’s deeply sincere and will ring true, a community service moment or tutoring exchange isn’t necessarily the place to shine the spotlight. Dig deep, and dare to have a little fun here; your voice can convey your personality.

New Haas Essay #2: At Berkeley Haas, we are redefining leadership. We value different opinions and perspectives, recognizing that we always have more to learn about others’ lived experiences and histories. We encourage speaking up and listening, and courageously use our power to address barriers and drive change for positive impact. Tell us how a Berkeley Haas MBA would enhance your leadership profile, incorporating specific examples.

The context Haas offers in the set-up for this question is vitally important. The school has long put a premium on challenging the status quo (first among its four defining leadership principles) – and the status quo continues to perpetuate inequity and power dynamics that privilege certain groups and marginalize others. Berkeley Haas is at the forefront of addressing inclusivity in b-school and beyond, seeking to create and cultivate a community that reflects genuine diversity in every sense of the word. As such, Haas is looking for candidates who demonstrate self- and situational awareness, which is an invitation to recognize your privilege and convey a deep understanding of what that means to you as a leader. 

In phrasing this question, Haas is looking to see that you’ve really done your research, up and beyond the cursory website review. You only have 300 words, and you’ll want to get specific, not speak in generalities on how its guiding principles resonate. Whether it’s getting involved with the annual Women In Leadership conference or working with Severin Borenstein at the Energy Institute, you’ll want to speak with precision and authenticity about ways you’re hoping to increase your leadership profile. In doing so, how can you convey a nuanced understanding of what it means to be an ethical leader who values the opinions and perspectives of others? 

New Optional Essay: In addition to the two required essays, candidates who wish to tell us about how they have responded to hardships or unusual life circumstances are encouraged to complete the optional essay. This information will provide context to your opportunities & achievements and contribute to our holistic review of your application.While this question is substantively rephrased from last year’s optional essay, the spirit behind the asking is the same. In asking this question, Haas seeks to uncover the less visible forces that shape candidates’ lives, opportunities, decisions, and character. This optional essay is 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. Socioeconomic barriers, for example, can contribute to things that might be missing from an application but, in context, convey bigger picture understanding. As I wrote previously on Haas’s optional essay when it made its debut, it’s a recognition from Haas of the huge range of students applying to business school, and a desire to support the admissions committee’s decision-making by supplying a full and rich understanding of who each applicant truly is.

If you’re feeling equal parts inspired and intimidated, take to heart these unscripted remarks from Berkeley Haas’s Pete Johnson, Assistant Dean for the Full-time MBA Program and Admissions. Speaking on the Admissions Director Panel at the CentreCourt MBA Festival in New York, Johnson offered the following advice: 

“Be courageous. 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 when we read those things.”

For more tips and prompts for getting started, check out our two-part series on MBA essay writing:  Writing a Powerful MBA Essay: Part 1 – The Essentials and Writing Powerful Essays – Part 2: The ‘Introduce Yourself’ Question.

Sharon Joyce, Fortuna Admissions

Sharon Joyce, Fortuna Admissions

Sharon Joyce is an Expert Coach at MBA admissions coaching firm Fortuna Admissions and former Berkeley Haas Associate Director of Admissions. For a candid assessment of your chances of admission success at a top MBA program, sign up for a free consultation.

About the Author...

John A. Byrne

John A. Byrne is the founder of C-Change Media, a global digital media company of higher education content. C-Change now has five websites, including Poets&Quants, and the author or co-author of more than ten books, including two New York Times bestsellers, and is the former executive editor of Businessweek, editor-in-chief of Businessweek. com, and editor-in-chief of Fast Company. He also is the creator of the first regularly published rankings of business schools.