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UC Berkeley Haas Essay Analysis, 2016–2017

UC Berkeley Haas Essay Analysis, 2016–2017 - mbaMissionDespite the trend in recent years of MBA programs streamlining the essay portion of their application down to just one question, the Haas School of Business at the University of California (UC), Berkeley, continues to present a more traditional suite of prompts. It has made some minor adjustments this year, however, by offering a new option for its second essay (trading its request for a “proud accomplishment” story for one about being challenged by and responding to a different perspective) and subtly rephrasing its career-related and optional essay questions. What remains constant is that Haas gives its applicants the leeway to present a well-rounded picture of themselves and of their formative experiences to date. You must therefore ensure that as a whole, your essays touch on a range of stories and qualities that complement each other so as to provide an accurate representation of who you are today, the student you expect to be in business school, and the professional you will be for the rest of your career. Read our full analysis of Haas’s essay questions for this season to get a fuller understanding of what the school wants to learn from its applicants.

Essay 1: If you could choose one song that expresses who you are, what is it and why? (250 words maximum) Your song can be in any language, from any culture, and does not need to contain lyrics. The strongest responses will focus on answering why this song expresses who you are.

To start, we must make one thing very clear—the admissions committee is not using this question to judge your taste in music! If you like ’90s grunge, and your admissions reader enjoys Broadway standards, the difference in your musical preferences will be completely irrelevant. We should also note that the song or artist you choose does not need to be readily recognizable. The second part of the prompt even states directly that candidates may select freely from the world’s full canon of music—even instrumentals! What is important is that the song you select is truly meaningful to and representative of you.

By posing a creative question of this kind, the Haas admissions committee is giving you a wide open opportunity to offer an appealing, and perhaps even fun, metaphor. The school is not demanding to be impressed with your musical taste or knowledge. This means you should not dedicate too many words to discussing the song itself and should instead simply introduce the song, explain in a concise and straightforward manner why it is important to you, and then share several key experiences that relate to and support your musical choice.

Although the school allots merely 250 words for this essay, you do indeed have plenty of room to name a song and offer a few clear examples from your life as evidence that you embody the spirit of that song. That said, do not merely present a list of accomplishments or experiences, but rather strive to engage your reader in a brief narrative that validates the link between those stories and the piece 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.

Several years ago, this directive was a standalone prompt for the school, but this season, it stands as just one choice for applicants’ second essay, as it also did last season. 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 assume that the admissions committee will automatically 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 time when you were challenged by perspectives different from your own and how you responded.

In business school—as in life in general, in fact—you will encounter people who think differently from you, operate according to different values, and react differently to the same stimuli. And success in an endeavor often involves evaluating and even incorporating the views of others into one’s efforts, but it can also result from resisting opposing perspectives. With this essay prompt, Haas is hoping to learn how you act when faced with such differences, using the principle that past behavior is a fairly reliable predictor of future behavior. In the Haas MBA program, you will definitely need to navigate and consider differing opinions in the course of analyzing case studies, completing group projects, and engaging in other activities both inside and outside the classroom. Do you tend to hold firmly to your convictions, debating divergent views and attempting to persuade others to your mind-set? Or do you readily receive contrasting opinions, taking time to weigh them and consider their applicability to the situation in question? We recommend using a narrative approach to share with the admissions committee a situation in which you faced a perspective that deviated from your own and how this difference influenced your subsequent thought processes and actions.   

Keep in mind that “challenging” here does not unequivocally imply a heated conflict or fight. It simply means that the perspective you encountered varied significantly from your own and therefore made an impression on you. As a result, you may have changed your decision on an issue or altered your course of action, or you may not have but were more cognizant of an alternative view that informed how you later approached a different situation. You do not need to paint yourself as a loud or aggressive individual who clashed with another but simply illustrate a situation in which you were presented with a conflicting point of view and gave it meaningful thought. Whether you were ultimately swayed by that view (or not) is not the issue, and neither response would be “right” or “wrong” in the admissions committee’s eyes.   

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

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 career plans. How have your past experiences prepared you to achieve these goals? How will Berkeley-Haas help you? (500 words maximum) You are encouraged to reflect on what it is you want to do after business school, including the types of roles, responsibilities, and organizations that are of interest. Through this essay we hope to learn about your professional journey to date and how an MBA will facilitate your success—broadly defined—in the future.

Haas has once again tweaked its career-focused essay prompt, which last year asked, Tell us about your path to business school and your future plans. How will the Berkeley-Haas experience help you along this journey?  This year’s question has flipped the order of the queries, focusing on candidates’ career goals first and then on their background and connection with the school. At their core, though, the two questions are largely the same. The school asks applicants to share their professional aspirations, address relevant aspects of their background, and explain why an MBA (and specifically, a Haas MBA) is critical to their success. We do not believe that the order in which these three issues are presented in the final essay matters, just that they are all fully and clearly conveyed.

Basically, Haas wants to know about your goals and why you need its MBA program in particular to facilitate or accelerate your career. The school suggests that you walk a few steps in your post-MBA shoes by considering the “types of roles, responsibilities, and organizations” you would enter rather than imagining a more general and perhaps nebulous ideal. 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.

Be sure to relate your strengths to your stated targets, showing examples from your existing professional life and, in some rare cases, personal interests. Definitely take the time to research your desired path and potential firms, if you have not done so already, to understand what is involved and the skills and qualities required. 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 explain your aspirations on a much more profound level 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: Use this essay to share information that is not presented elsewhere in the application, for example:

  • Explanation of employment gaps or academic aberrations
  • Quantitative abilities
  • For re-applicants, improvements to your candidacy

Interestingly, Haas has slightly altered the presentation of its optional essay prompt for this application season, switching from a question to more of a directive, though the content requested is not that different from in previous years. The change may simply be an attempt on the school’s part to focus applicants more specifically on the information it deems most useful by offering examples in the form of bullet points. No word limit is offered for this essay, but do not interpret this as a blank-slate invitation to dump every bit of remaining information about yourself that you feel the school is lacking. And however difficult, avoid the temptation to simply reuse a strong essay you wrote for another school here or to offer a few anecdotes you were unable to incorporate into any of your other Haas essays. Be judicious in your use of this opportunity, and only submit an optional essay if you truly believe a key element of your story or profile is needed for Haas to have a complete and accurate understanding of you as a candidate. In our mbaMission Optional Essays 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.

For a thorough exploration of the academic program, merits, defining characteristics, crucial statistics, social life, academic environment, and other key aspects of UC Berkeley Haas, check out the mbaMission Insider’s Guide to the UC Berkeley Haas School of Business.



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