The Haas School of Business at the University of California (UC), Berkeley, always marches to its own beat with its application essay prompts. The admissions committee has stuck with its format of short essays of 250 words each this year, though the total number of these essays has dropped from five to four, and the first one has a particularly quirky prompt. In addition, the school’s longer, two-part final essay has a reduced maximum word count this year (from 1,000 words to 750). As you prepare to write your Berkeley-Haas essays, recognize that despite the brevity of these pieces, they offer a lot of opportunity to discuss your life experiences. Take the time to brainstorm thoroughly and develop a full understanding of what you want to say—and in which essay you want to say it—before you start writing. Attempt to provide new information and/or a new experience in each essay, and this will help keep the reader engaged and learning about you.
From the admissions committee: “At Berkeley-Haas, our distinctive culture is defined by four key principles — Question the status quo; Confidence without attitude; Students always; and Beyond yourself. We seek candidates from a broad range of cultures, backgrounds, and industries who demonstrate a strong cultural fit with our program and defining principles. Please use the following essays as an opportunity to reflect on and share with us the values, experiences, and accomplishments that have helped shape who you are. (Learn more about Berkeley-Haas’ Defining Principles).”
1. If you could choose one song that expresses who you are, what is it and why? (250 word maximum)
As absurd as this prompt may seem, you will obviously want to take it seriously. Rather than trying to identify what might be an impressive or interesting song in and of itself, stop, think about the various facets of your character and then back into your choice. Ask yourself what defines who you are and then work to find an appropriate song that reflects and reveals these elements—preferably one that you are sincerely connected to or that triggers some kind of strong response in you. To add another level of creativity, consider different versions of the same song and the different singers who have performed or recorded it. (For example, the famed song “New York, New York” has been recorded by a number of artists over the years and in different languages—not that we are suggesting this song!) If the lyrics of a particular song seem to match well with your personality, you may also be able to identify a version of that song with a certain style, tempo or featured instrument, and these elements can further illustrate your personality. There is no “right” song in the eyes of the admissions committee. Your task is to find one that serves as an avenue for discussing your character and to clearly explain how and why it does so, using examples.
2. What is your most significant accomplishment? (250 word maximum)
Your most significant accomplishment can be from any sphere—professional, community, academic, personal. As discussed in our introduction, be sure to represent different dimensions of your candidacy as you respond to these short-essay prompts. In other words, whichever aspect of your profile you choose to highlight here, it should be one that is not represented elsewhere in your application. (Note: you can tell two stories from the same “venue,” but they need to represent your skills/talents in different ways. Mentorship is a different skill than business development, for example, but both can occur in the workplace.) The key to this essay is choosing an experience that is simple but powerful—one that speaks for itself and draws the reader in, allowing him/her to draw a clear conclusion about your capabilities. Even with just 250 words, you can sufficiently recount a story that accomplishes this goal.
3. Describe a time when you questioned an established practice or thought within an organization. How did your actions create positive change? (250 word maximum)
To successfully respond to this question, you do not need to present yourself as some kind of rebel or rabble-rouser—the admissions committee is not asking for a time when you actively or vehemently disagreed, but when you questioned—and you can challenge authority while acting diplomatically. What is important to Berkeley-Haas’s admissions committee is whether you have the strength of character to stand up for what you feel is right. So, you will need to show that you were not afraid to stick your neck out, to take a risk, while also showing a certain level of diplomacy. So, if you have a story about a time you blew the whistle on a fraud, this would be a fitting experience to share, but we expect that most candidates will instead have relatively simple stories about instigating less dramatic—yet still meaningful—changes within their companies. For example, maybe your firm originally had a “trial by fire” culture that left newcomers floundering, and you launched a system of training modules that facilitated and standardized the process of bringing new hires up to speed.
An important thing to note is that the admissions committee wants to know that your actions resulted in positive change. You will therefore need to demonstrate a very clear relationship between your questioning and positive changes that occurred as a result. Be sure to spend some time focusing on the manifestation of your actions—the change itself is not nearly as important as how you brought it about.
4. Describe a time when you were a student of your own failure. What specific insight from this experience has shaped your development? (250 word maximum)
Berkeley-Haas is yet another school to ask candidates to discuss a failure this application season. Clearly, the schools believe that managing failure well is an important factor in being prepared to succeed. As we have stated in other essay analyses we have written, the schools do not want you to hide your failures or blame others. They want to know that you can take responsibility and learn when things go wrong. An effective essay will tell a story that involves clear forward progress and then a sudden derailment just as success is near. If, by contrast, an idea never got off the ground in the first place, it cannot truly be called a failure—just a bad idea.
Many applicants feel that failure is the most difficult topic to write about, because few have had “heroic” failures (e.g., you left your job to start a nonprofit that could not raise the necessary funds and had to fold)—which are relatively easy to write about and reflect well on the candidate—and instead have had embarrassing failures (which applicants typically should avoid sharing). So, what is the right kind of failure to discuss, if you do not have one of the heroic variety?
The first thing to do when trying to identify which failure experience to share is to analyze your successes. Most successes that are worth discussing were hard earned, meaning that they most likely involved some failures along the way—you may have simply forgotten about some of the failures you experienced as part of the successes you ultimately achieved. For example, the popular new product that you launched may have initially been mispriced; you may have encountered production delays that you should have been able to avoid; you may have had trouble convincing a single retailer to sell it or originally targeted the wrong venues. These are just examples, of course, but the nature of business is that projects are revised, deals are delayed, efforts are stymied.
To write a strong essay response to this question, you must clearly convey your specific actions and intentions, thereby revealing a sincere effort on your part that yielded unexpected results in the end. The admissions committee wants to know that you are a student of your failure, so, even in this short space, you must reflect on your actions and discuss what you learned and how you would apply that knowledge going forward.
5. a. What are your post-MBA short-term and long-term career goals? How have your professional experiences prepared you to achieve these goals?
b. How will an MBA from Haas help you achieve these goals? (750 word maximum for 5a. and 5b.)
Because Personal Statements are similar from one application to the next, we have produced the mbaMission Personal Statement Guide, which helps applicants write this style of essay for any school. We offer this guide to candidates free of charge. Please feel free to download your copy today.
For a thorough exploration of UC Berkeley-Haas’s academic program/merits, defining characteristics, crucial statistics, social life, academic environment and more, please check out the mbaMission Insider’s Guide to the Haas School of Business.