mbaMission’s Exclusive Interview with UC-Berkeley Haas Director of MBA Admissions Peter Johnson

mbaMission was fortunate to have had the opportunity recently to speak one-on-one with Peter Johnson, Director of MBA Admissions at Berkeley-Haas. Here, we offer some highlights from the interview, followed by a full transcript.

  • Berkeley-Haas experienced a 7% increase in applicationj last year and expects that this years application volumes will be flat.
  • Berkeley-Haas made $1.6MM in loans to its students using its own funds, when the credit crisis hit and sources of funding became scarce.
  • Johnson discusses the application process and how he specifically reads an application, step-by step.

We will be releasing additional interviews with Admissions Directors in the coming weeks.

mbaMission: My first question is, what is Berkeley not known for that it should be known for, in your opinion?

Peter Johnson: There are many answers to that question, but our specific focus on developing leaders who understand how to create positive change in organizations would be the top of my list. All business schools will tell you that they are in the business of developing leaders, but our focus on developing people who are equally comfortable with strategic leadership, operational leadership and people leadership is somewhat unique, with the added focus on developing organizational cultures in which continuous innovation is valued.

mbaMission: Are there any specific areas that Berkeley has been working to strengthen recently? How are decisions made as to what to emphasize?

PJ: Some recent focus areas include growing the size of the faculty to enable more depth in certain discipline areas, continuing the close collaboration between the business school and some of the other amazing graduate programs at Berkeley, and expanding the range of experiential opportunities available to students.  Example of these include the Clean Tech to Market program, which gives Berkeley MBA students the opportunity to advise researchers at the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab on the commercialization potential of new energy technologies; and a significant expansion in the number of projects available in our International Business Development Program, through which our students do international consulting projects.  We’ve added nine new faculty positions this year alone, and will be adding additional positions to add additional depth to the elective curriculum.

Although the dean and the faculty drive the process of deciding what to emphasize, there is significant input from the business leaders on the Haas Advisory Board, the alumni, current students, and staff.

mbaMission: The Berkeley application includes some questions that allow the applicant to talk directly to the Admissions Committee, such as “What influenced your decision to apply to our school?” And I was wondering if people should feel disadvantaged if they haven’t had the opportunity to visit the school.

PJ: A candidate should not feel disadvantaged if they have not been able to visit, but all applicants should know that what we are very focused on is what they know about the Berkeley MBA Program and why it would help them to achieve their professional goals.  There seem to be many candidates out there who simply pick up the BusinessWeek top-ten list and apply to all ten [schools]. That’s not a good strategy. Because of the level of competition, we’re looking for people who actually know what is offered by our program and how we might help them achieve their personal and professional goals.
At some point in that process, visiting is a very good idea, of course.

mbaMission: That said, what percentage of applicants who are admitted to Berkeley have visited?

PJ: I don’t have very accurate statistics at hand, but I would guess that 70% have visited prior to being admitted, with a higher percentage of US candidates and a somewhat lower percentage of international candidates.  It’s definitely worthwhile for the purpose of understanding the program.

mbaMission: Switching gears, how are Berkeley students doing in the job market right now?

PJ: So far, so good. Despite the economic downturn, companies are still recruiting — although many of them were hiring for a smaller number of positions.  Our students really took full advantage of our career services program as well as their own networks, and I was impressed by how many of them really got to the right place at the right time when opportunities came up.  One trend we’ve seen in the Class of 2009 is that the percentage of students who took positions with consulting firms increased significantly, and McKinsey, Bain, and Boston Consulting Group were all among our top hiring firms this year.

mbaMission: What has been the faculty’s response to the financial crisis thus far, and have any plans been made to change the curriculum?

PJ: Although much has been done to use the financial crisis as a “teachable moment”,  I don’t think that what’s going on in the economy now is going to drive significant changes in the curriculum itself on a permanent basis. As early as September, the dean initiated a series of panel discussions with key faculty who are experts in particular areas. There was a panel discussion of faculty experts specifically about the financial services industry; there was another one discussing the government response to the crisis; there, another touched on international elements of this crisis. Each of them featured different faculty speaking to the crisis from their own area of expertise.

For example, on government response, we had Laura Tyson, a current faculty member who also sits on President Obama’s Economic Recovery Oversight Board (and was previously chair of the Council of Economic Advisors during Bill Clinton’s first term) and Janet Yellen, a professor emeritus who is currently serving as the president of the San Francisco Federal Reserve Bank.

What we’re not doing is responding to the fads of the moment. You hear some schools talking about MBA ethics pledges, and about how to avoid the lack of ethical behavior that led to the crisis. An emphasis on leading responsibly and paying attention to the consequences of your decisions as a leader are things that we’ve always talked about in our program.

mbaMission: What would you say to someone who is currently unemployed and maybe has been unemployed for a while, and is contemplating applying to Haas this year?

PJ: Well, my advice would be different depending on how much prior work experience the individual had and how long they had been unemployed. Being unemployed in itself is not necessarily a negative in any way, but what we are evaluating with all applicants is the strength of their work experience and their preparation careerwise, and also how much they’ve done toward preparing for their post-MBA career.  So, I’m not sure there’s a single answer to that question. It would be based on the circumstances of the individual.

mbaMission: Right, so you’re not saying that one is disadvantaged by being unemployed relative to others, even if they had the same position previously?

PJ: That’s correct. They are not disadvantaged. If someone has been laid off and has been out of work, we would be looking at the length of time they were not working; we would also consider what they had done during that period time they were not working to move their career forward or to prepare for their future goals.

mbaMission: Can you give me a few examples of what might be considered spending that time well?

PJ: Volunteering for community organizations, informational interviews in a new career field that the applicants hopes to switch into, a significant internship, paid or unpaid—all of these are things that we would view positively.

mbaMission: What about during a time when the job market is quite competitive—are you giving closer scrutiny to people’s goals, and would you be willing to listen to someone reason through more than one goal, particularly if one is in a field in which obtaining a position is difficult these days?

PJ: We’ve always been relatively focused on this issue, even when the economy is good. We’re always looking at the clarity of an individual’s career goals, how realistic they are, and most importantly, what has the applicant done to prepare themselves for a career transition. We look for level of knowledge about what it might take to make that kind of transition, understanding of what kind of skills would be necessary for a potential employer to seriously consider them, that sort of thing. It’s absolutely a critical piece of our review of candidates.

mbaMission: Are you sharing more files with Career Services these days?

PJ: Not more, but again, we’ve done this for a number of years. I talk with our Career Services director quite often, and we meet with her and members of her staff at various times throughout the year for training purposes as well as to talk about trends are in particular industries, what the recruiters are telling us about  specific skills or specific traits in the applicant pool they seek, and so on. None of this is new, however.

mbaMission: Can you tell me how an application is read at Haas, from delivery to decision?

PJ: Yes. Once an application has arrived and it is set up in a file and the documents are all matched, then it goes to a first reader. A first reader will do a complete review of the application and will make notes about what she or he feels are the significant key points, both positive and negative, for that application. It then goes on to a second reader, who does essentially the same thing, but with the prior information of what reader one said. So, if the first two readers both agree that an application is not competitive, then the process is usually done for that application.  With any other combination of assessments, the file goes either to a third reader for review, and/or on to an interview, after which we discuss it in the admissions committee.

mbaMission: Can you shed a little light on the interview itself—how it’s conducted and what one can expect?

PJ: Sure. Applicants should look at the interview much as they would a job interview. They can expect to get some questions about their past work experience, their career goals, and so on.  Since we evaluate a number of characteristics, there is no single set of Berkeley interview questions. That’s something of a myth. Each interviewer is asked to evaluate a candidate on a specific set of qualities, and they are things you would expect that someone would be judged on in a job interview as well: poise and presence, confidence, ability to articulate their thoughts, having clear career goals, etc. Each interviewer has the flexibility to choose those questions that they feel, for that individual candidate, will be most useful in getting at these bits of information. Typically, the interviewer only has the [applicant’s] résumé; the interviewer has not read the entire application. The applicant is getting a very fresh review from someone who only knows what that person has chosen to list on their CV [curriculum vitae].

mbaMission: When you receive an application, how do you read it? Where do you start, and what’s your methodology?

PJ: After I look at the cover sheet to get a sense of the stats, I always start with the academic records. And then I move on to the work experience, and then I look at the essays and the letters of recommendation. Since I’m not usually a first reader, I may then veer off and look at something specific that had been mentioned as a particular strength or weakness by one of the previous reviewers.

mbaMission: What are some of the common mistakes or red flags that you see or that you can warn against?

PJ: One mistake that we see fairly often is people who simply don’t take time to tell us enough about their professional experience. They make the assumption that we know from a job title what they actually did, and that’s of course not entirely true. Another common mistake we see is people who don’t really have a good understanding of what our program is all about and how it is different from other programs. We expect people to have at least done enough research to know why our MBA program might be a good fit for their professional goals as opposed to simply picking us off a list of top-ranked programs and sending an application. And so part of that, also, is making sure that you don’t have careless errors like telling us, gosh, Berkeley is your top choice and you just can’t wait to spend the next two years in New York—the kind of errors we see not infrequently.

Finally, I think a mistake that some people make in the process is thinking that a serious expression of their desire to come to our program will outweigh weaknesses in their application. For example, someone who isn’t well prepared quantitatively spends a lot of time convincing us how passionate they are about coming to Berkeley but little time addressing specific weaknesses. That’s usually not helpful.

mbaMission: How do you feel when people express that Berkeley is their number-one choice?

PJ: It’s difficult, given the nature of the application process. It doesn’t hurt them, but it is something we’d have to view with a big grain of salt.

mbaMission: Berkeley has four rounds—why is that? Can you reflect on the differences between Round 2 and Round 3?

PJ: Well, we added a round because we realized a few years ago that we had a relatively early Round 1. There were a lot of people who couldn’t quite make the Round 1 deadline, but the next opportunity they had to submit was in late January. And so we were looking to move the process forward a little bit chronologically, and we felt that it would serve a useful purpose in stretching out our review timeline. For smaller numbers of rounds, you get larger rounds in each group, and it’s easier to spread them out than to bunch them up as much as we were in three rounds.

I often tell applicants that the best time to apply is when you feel you’re ready to submit the best application possible. It doesn’t help you to rush to get an application in early and send us a half-baked submission.  I encourage people to take the time they need. That said, your chances are best if you’re not in Round 4. Typically, the percentage of people from Round 4 that get an offer of admission is quite a bit smaller, and part of that is simply because by the time we get to Round 4, we’ve awarded most of the places in the class.

mbaMission: Is the percentage of candidates accepted relatively equal among Rounds 1, 2, and 3?

PJ: Rounds 1 and 2, certainly. Round 3, it varies from year to year.

mbaMission: Can you report on the application volume in the past two or three years? What happened last year, and can you make any predictions for this year?

PJ: For fall 2009, our applications overall were up 7%, and we had a total of 4,064 applications. We’ve experience a steady upward progression over the last few years. It’s difficult to predict what’s going to happen this coming year. At the moment, I’m not seeing any particular signs that would suggest the size of the pool will continue to rise, so I’m not expecting that. Beyond that, I’m afraid my crystal ball is a little fuzzy!

mbaMission: Is there anything else you think people interested in Haas should know?

PJ: I personally believe that for many people, this is a good time to go to business school. I’m confident that the economy will have sufficiently rebounded in the next two years. I would encourage people not to be too put off by a competitive application process. No matter how many people apply in a given year, a strong application is a strong application.

mbaMission: One last question—can you update us on what’s happening with regard to international student loans at Berkeley and Haas?

PJ: Sure. Like many schools, we’ve been struggling to provide additional options for students who previously may have received a no-cosigner loan from one of the big lenders that have now ended their programs. So, as a stopgap solution, we made approximately $1.6 million in loans this year from our own funds for students who are not eligible for loans through the direct-lending program with the federal government. We’re also in negotiations with three different financial services institutions, looking to start a new loan program sometime during this coming year. How soon that might happen, I’m not able to say at this point, but I’m confident we’ll have something in place for the next cycle.

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