UC Berkeley Haas Essay Analysis, 2015–2016

*Please note: You are viewing an essay analysis from the 2015-2016 admissions cycle. Click here to view our collection of essay analyses for the current admissions season. 

The Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley, continues to offer an “old school” set of essay questions. The school’s admissions committee therefore seems to be a real maverick, resisting the move to requiring just one long essay—as many MBA programs have done in recent years—and instead posing three essay questions, one of which involves three options. The whole thing is so 2009. With this surfeit of questions comes opportunity, however. The UC Berkeley Haas essay allows you to present a fuller picture of who you are and the experiences that have shaped you. As always, think carefully about what you want to reveal to the admissions committee. With each question/essay, you want to be sure the admissions committee is learning something new about you! This does not mean, for example, that you can share only one story from your work environment, but it does mean that you can relate only one project management story from any environment. Consider your essays as a collective whole to ensure that you are presenting a broad representation of yourself/your experiences that draws from multiple areas. Read on for our full analysis of Haas’s application essay prompts for this season.

UC Berkeley Haas Essay Analysis, 2015–2016Essay 1: If you could choose one song that expresses who you are, what is it and why? (250 words maximum)

Let us begin by making one thing very clear—the admissions committee is not interested in evaluating your taste in music! If you like ’80s glam rock, and your admissions reader enjoys jazz standards, the difference in your musical preferences will be completely irrelevant. We should also note that the admissions committee definitely does not need to readily recognize the song or artist you choose. What is important here is that the song you select is truly meaningful to and representative of you.

By posing a creative question of this kind, all the Haas admissions committee is doing is giving you a wide open opportunity to offer an appealing, and perhaps even fun, metaphor—not to try to impress them with your musical tastes or knowledge. So, do not dedicate too many words to discussing the song itself. Simply introduce the song, explain in a concise and straightforward manner why it is important to you, and then reveal several key experiences that relate to and support your musical choice.

In the 250 words the school allots for this essay, you have plenty of room to name a song and offer a few clear examples from your life that reinforce or substantiate the thesis that you embody the spirit of the song. That said, do not merely present a list of accomplishments, but instead strive to engage your reader in a brief narrative that validates the link between your experiences and values and the song you have selected.

Essay 2: Please respond to one of the following prompts (250 words maximum):

a. Describe an experience that has fundamentally changed the way you see the world and how it transformed you.

Interestingly, this was a standalone essay question for the school last year, whereas this season, it has been relegated to merely a choice and the maximum allowable word count slashed from 500 to just 250. If you select this option, your essay needs to be about change. And to show how you have changed, you will need to offer not just the “after” but a clear “before and after” scenario. Do not just assume that the admissions committee will understand that you had a powerful experience. You will need to figuratively hold the admissions reader’s hand, lead him/her through the situation—being sure to explain how you originally perceived the world before the incident—and then describe the “transformative” moment when everything changed, leading to new and different behaviors and perceptions on your part.

Begin your essay by narratively building up to that pivotal moment or experience, showing how you previously viewed your world. Then, share the story of the deeply influential experience that sharply contrasted with your perceptions at the time, leaving you no choice but to change your views. The experience you describe can be professional or personal, and it can be something you did or that happened to or around you. Although the catalyst itself is important, the admissions committee is far more interested in your capacity for change. Take care not to focus exclusively on recounting the experience, and be sure to devote a good portion of your essay to responding to the second half of the prompt: how the experience transformed you. Haas is not expecting you to have become a completely new person, but the admissions committee does want to know that you are open to the world, critically evaluating your thoughts and adapting when necessary. Your narrative should demonstrate some or all of these traits!

b. Describe a significant accomplishment and why it makes you proud.

This classic essay question was also a standalone prompt last application season. So many schools used to pose this query, but now Haas is one of the very few that still does. Why not give applicants a chance to showcase their best professional accomplishments as they apply to a school that is meant to be a catalyst for professional success? The school has made one key addition to the query, however, and now asks applicants to explain why they feel pride in the achievement.

Your response should be very straightforward. Describe the accomplishment, using a narrative approach to illustrate how you achieved your goal, and then share why this particular victory makes you feel proud. Keep in mind, however, that this is not the place to brag. The admissions committee should understand that you performed very well without your explicitly saying so! Present what you did, how you did it, and why the experience is particularly meaningful for you, rather than claiming that you are so great—this will show both that you are an elite performer and that you are appropriately humble.

Remember, any great accomplishment is hard won. If your story does not involve a clear challenge or conflict, it is not the right story to share. You do not want to portray yourself as a combative hothead, of course, but you do need to show that through your efforts, you encountered difficulties and ultimately overcame them. And yes, you can do all this in just 250 words!

c. Describe a difficult decision you have made and why it was challenging.

If you choose to respond to this essay prompt, you will need to share an anecdote in which something was at stake—the reader must feel and understand that your decision involved some level of risk. If you faced no possibility of negative ramifications, reaching your decision could not have been very challenging, as the school’s question specifically stipulates. You can use a story from any facet of your life—professional, community, or personal—and once you have chosen an experience to explore, focus on the challenge involved. Reveal your thought process so that the admissions committee can understand how you made your decision. Also, know that your decision does not need to have been proven right. You could even show that all the options available to you at the time were less than ideal and explain how you optimized the imperfect outcomes. The key is that your reader understand your thought process and learning. If you consider an anecdote from your life and feel that it does not encompass a “sharp” enough set of conflicting options, definitely pick a different story to share. We suspect that few applicants will choose this essay prompt, but those who do should be able to hit a home run with it, if it is executed properly.

Essay 3: Tell us about your path to business school and your future plans. How will the Berkeley-Haas experience help you along this journey? (500 words maximum)

Last year, Haas posed a very similar essay question: What is your desired post-MBA role and at what company or organization? The school then requested that applicants address relevant aspects of their background, something they would do for the company that would exceed what other employees could offer, and why an MBA (and specifically, a Haas MBA) is critical to their success with the firm. At its core, the current version of the prompt is not terribly dissimilar from last season’s.

Basically, Haas wants to know about your goals and why you need its MBA program in particular to facilitate/accelerate your career. However, the school asks you to discuss your career path in an indirect way—essentially forcing you to walk a few steps in your post-MBA shoes, rather than imagine an ideal now. Haas appears to be pushing candidates to really think about their long-term aspirations and consider the plausibility of their paths, possibly to lessen the chance of admitting those who do not have sufficient direction to succeed.

First, you should relate your strengths to your target company, showing examples from your existing professional life and, in some rare cases, personal interests. Definitely take the time to research your desired firm to understand what it seeks and the values it holds dear. Avoid clichés like “I am tech savvy and dynamic and would be a perfect fit for Google.” Such declarations are way too superficial—you must show a profound understanding of your target company to demonstrate the “fit” that will impress the admissions committee.

This essay question ultimately reverts back to pretty typical personal statement phraseology. And 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.

Optional Essay: Is there any other information you would like to share that is not presented elsewhere in the application? You may also use this essay to provide further explanation of employment gaps or your quantitative abilities. (500 words maximum)

However difficult this might be, avoid the temptation to simply reuse a strong essay you wrote for another school here or to take the opportunity to offer a few anecdotes you were unable to incorporate into any of your other Haas essays. Instead—if you truly need to—use this essay to address any lingering questions that an admissions officer might have about your candidacy, such as a poor grade or overall GPA, a low GMAT score, a gap in your work experience, etc. In our mbaMission Optional Statement Guide, available through our online store, we offer detailed advice on when and how to take advantage of the optional essay (including multiple sample essays) to help you mitigate any problem areas in your profile.

And for a thorough exploration of the UC Berkeley Haas academic program/merits, defining characteristics, crucial statistics, social life, academic environment and more, please check out the mbaMission Insider’s Guide to the UC Berkeley Haas School of Business.

The Next Step—Mastering Your Berkeley Haas Interview: Many MBA candidates find admissions interviews stressful and intimidating, but mastering this important element of the application process is definitely possible—the key is informed preparation. And, on your way to this high level of preparation, we offer our free Interview Primers to spur you along! Download your free copy of the Haas School of Business Interview Primer today.

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