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Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley, Essay Analysis, 2020–2021

Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley, Essay Analysis - mbaMissionThe Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley, has made some slight adjustments to just one of its application essay questions this year, but the core of the query remains essentially the same—candidates are asked to explain how the school will help them become a successful leader. For its first required essay, Berkeley Haas wants applicants to dig deep on a personal level and discuss something about which they are passionate. The admissions committee then takes an interesting approach to the optional essay, offering both a short, multipart questionnaire (which is less complicated than it might seem at first glance) and a straightforward prompt that invites applicants, if needed, to address any unclear or problem areas in their profile. Together, the essays should allow you to offer insight into who you are as an individual and who you hope to be as a future business leader, to complement the information presented in your resume, recommendations, and basic stats. Our more detailed analysis follows…

Required Essay #1: What makes you feel alive when you are doing it, and why? (300 words maximum)

Perhaps you are familiar with the psychological concept of “flow,” which is a mental state people enter when they are completely immersed in and focused on something they enjoy and are enthusiastic about—it is also described as being “in the zone.” With this question, Berkeley Haas is basically asking you to discuss what puts you in the zone. If you are truly excited about something—and, we would assume, therefore engage in it on a regular basis—writing about it should not prove too challenging. Like all other application questions, this one has no “right” answer, so do not try to guess what you think the school wants to hear. Authenticity is key to your success here. Note that the prompt includes the words “when you are doing it,” so although you may feel strongly about certain causes or values, such as animal rights or environmental matters, for this essay, you will need to discuss an activity rather than an ideology.  

The school does not stipulate that your topic needs to come from a specific area of your life (e.g., professional life, community service, personal life). We appreciate that you are likely passionate about your career, but this is not automatically your best choice for a topic here, especially given that the school’s second required essay offers a better opportunity to discuss your professional side. What Berkeley Haas wants to learn from this essay is what gets your heart pumping and mind revving. Enthusiasm and intensity can be very inspiring and energizing and can lead to big ideas and actions. Sharing what incites such feelings in you gives the admissions committee an idea of where you might someday make an impression on the world, how you might leave your mark—especially once you are equipped with all you will gain and learn during your MBA experience.

That said, do not worry if the thing you feel so fervently about might initially seem commonplace to someone else. For example, perhaps you feel passionate about basketball. Because this is an interest anyone could share and enjoy, you might have concerns that it could sound pedestrian or unremarkable—and for many, this is a completely unremarkable pastime and one they should not write about. If, however, you can show that you have engaged with basketball in a way that takes the activity well beyond being a commonplace hobby and that it is something you connect with on a deep level and in various ways (perhaps having played for many years, you now coach youth teams from underprivileged neighborhoods in your community), then it most definitely becomes an acceptable discussion topic. In such a case, basketball could be used to reveal intensity, dedication, commitment to yourself and others, growth, longevity, and/or resilience. Of course, we are offering basketball here just for illustration purposes. We imagine you likely feel the flow when engaging in a completely different activity or even in disparate activities that are unified by a single behavior, such as when you are creating something or perhaps motivating others. The options are very much endless.

Once you have identified the passion you wish to discuss, avoid simply telling the admissions committee about it and instead illustrate how it manifests in your life. For example, rather than starting your essay by stating, “I have been watching and playing basketball since I was a child,” you need to create a more vivid impression of your dedication and involvement, such as “From playing with my brothers after school to varsity ball in college to now coaching a youth league in my community, I can hardly remember a time when basketball wasn’t an integral part of my life.” Or consider a more narrative approach, such as, “Dripping with sweat, I thrust my right arm up and knocked the basketball away, just as the buzzer sounded.” Once you have set the scene and presented the object of your fervor, you must then explain why you connect with it so strongly or so well. Perhaps it gives you a sense of peace or purpose, or it makes you feel connected with others in a meaningful way, or it allows you to challenge yourself mentally or physically. A successful essay response will not only paint a clear picture of your passion but also highlight the elements of your personality that make it significant to you.

Required Essay #2: The definition of successful leadership has evolved over the last decade and will continue to change. What do you need to develop to become a successful leader?  (300 words max)

The Berkeley Haas admissions committee has severely cut back the preamble to this essay question and now presents the central query in a much more bare-bones way. We are merely making an assumption here, but perhaps too many applicants fixed on the descriptors, albeit loose, that the former preamble included (notably, “speaking up and listening” and “courageously us[ing] … power to address barriers and drive change for positive impact”) and felt compelled to parrot them back to the admissions committee, rather than providing their own, true opinions on what defines an effective leader. The open-endedness of the current prompt removes the opportunity for such subconscious mirroring. So, without doing so directly, the school is in part asking candidates, “How do you define a successful leader?” By presenting the traits and skills you feel you must gain or hone to become one yourself, you are simultaneously telling the school that these are the traits and skills you believe make or distinguish a successful leader.

Although the school does not explicitly ask that you discuss leadership within the context of your career for this essay, we do believe that focusing on your professional experience is best here. After all, you are not applying to business school to get better at your extracurricular pursuits! And with only 300 words for the entire essay, you will need to keep your message succinct and direct. This is certainly not the place to try to impress the admissions committee with a detailed story about a past leadership success. Instead, strive to briefly convey the leadership abilities and mind-set you already possess, to set the stage for your discussion of the elements you hope to acquire in the MBA program and how the school can help you do so.

Interestingly, the admissions committee has removed its previous request for “specific examples” of why the school is the right place for you to advance your leadership experience and knowledge. Most applicants likely anticipate benefiting and learning from a variety of aspects of the Berkeley Haas experience and that not all of these can be easily linked to a particular resource or opportunity. The new wording of the prompt provides some leeway to discuss those more ephemeral elements as well as more concrete ones. Either way, for you to know (and therefore be able to explain) that Berkeley Haas can provide the development you require, you must be knowledgeable about what the program offers. So, doing some focused research to identify the resources, events, and other factors that align with your needs and interests would be helpful in preparing to write this essay. To a degree, this query covers some of the elements of a traditional personal statement (why do you need an MBA, and why our school?), so we encourage you to download a free copy of the mbaMission Personal Statement Guide, which outlines ways of approaching these topics effectively and offers several annotated example essays. You might also wish to claim a free copy of the mbaMission Insider’s Guide to the Berkeley Haas School of Business for an in-depth exploration of the program.

Optional Information: We invite you to help us better understand the context of your opportunities and achievements.

  1. What is the highest level of education completed by your parent(s) or guardian(s)? 
    • Did not complete high school
    • High school diploma or equivalency (GED), associate’s degree (junior college), or vocational degree/license
    • Bachelor’s degree (BA, BS)
    • Master’s degree (MA, MS)
    • Doctorate or professional degree (MD, JD, DDS)
  1. What is the most recent occupation of your parent(s) or guardian(s)?
    • Unemployed
    • Homemaker
    • Laborer
    • Skilled worker
    • Professional
  1. If you were raised in one of the following household types, please indicate.
    • Raised by a single parent
    • Raised by an extended family member (grandparent, aunt/uncle, niece/nephew, cousin)
    • Raised in a multi-generational home
    • Raised in foster care
  2.  If English was not the primary language spoken in your childhood home, please indicate.
  3. If you have you ever been responsible for providing significant and continuing financial or supervisory support for someone else, please indicate.
    • Child
    • Spouse
    • Sibling
    • Parent
    • Extended family member (grandparent, aunt/uncle, niece/nephew, cousin)
    • Other
  1. Please elaborate on any of your above responses. Alternatively, you may use this opportunity to expand on other hardships or unusual life circumstances that may help us understand the context of your opportunities, achievements, and impact. (300 words maximum)

Additional Optional Information: This section should only be used to convey relevant information not addressed elsewhere in your application. This may include explanation of employment gaps, academic aberrations, supplemental coursework, etc. You are encouraged to use bullet points where appropriate.

Although Berkeley Haas’s first optional essay prompt is somewhat elaborate, it is not necessarily all that complicated, and we imagine it will offer some applicants an easy way of highlighting particular elements of their background without having to try to fit them into a different essay. The school clearly wants direct information and basic explanation(s) from this option, so simply answer the questions and succinctly provide any necessary clarifications using the allocated word count. The second optional essay prompt asks applicants to focus specifically on information they deem most “relevant,” and the lack of a word limit means candidates can fully explain whatever they feel the admissions committee truly must know to be able to evaluate them fully and fairly, though the note about using bullet points implies that succinctness would be appreciated. This is not, however, a blank-slate invitation to dump every bit of remaining information about yourself that you feel the school is lacking. Also, avoid the temptation to simply reuse a strong essay you wrote for another program here or to offer a few anecdotes you were unable to incorporate into your other Berkeley Haas essays. Be judicious in your use of this opportunity, and submit an optional essay only if you truly believe a key element of your story or profile is needed for the school to have a complete and accurate understanding of you as a candidate. Consider downloading your free copy of our mbaMission Optional Essays Guide, in which 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. 

The Berkeley Haas application also includes the following question:

Briefly describe your immediate post-MBA career goals. (150 words maximum)

Although this is not technically an essay question, given the brevity of the response to it, we wanted to offer a little guidance on how best to respond to the prompt, so that you make the most of the limited space available. The admissions committee wants to know that you have given your post-graduate professional life adequate consideration and have a clear and achievable goal in mind—and this prompt is simply a no-nonsense request for you to demonstrate this. So think about what you truly want to do with your career in the short term and state this aspiration directly. Then provide sufficient context to show that your stated goal aligns with your existing skills and profound interests, especially once they have been augmented by an MBA education. This will show that your professed objective is achievable and lend credibility to your statement.

Because this prompt involves a common element of a textbook personal statement essay, we encourage you to download a free copy of the mbaMission Personal Statement Guide, which offers advice on brainstorming and crafting your response to such queries, along with multiple illustrative examples.

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 to help you develop this high level of preparation, we offer our free Interview Guides! Download your free copy of the Berkeley Haas School of Business Interview Guide today.




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