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Berkeley Haas Essays: Strategy & Tips

Berkeley Haas added a new video essay to two required essays.

Berkeley Haas has been at the forefront of addressing inclusivity in business school and beyond, seeking to create and cultivate a community that reflects genuine diversity in every sense of the word. As such, Haas is looking for candidates who demonstrate self- and situational awareness, which is an invitation to be both introspective and authentic across your essays – and certainty to do your research beyond a cursory website review. 

As former Associate Director of Admissions at Berkeley Haas, I think this suite of Berkeley Haas essay questions is excellent. Let’s talk strategy — what Haas is looking for in each of its new questions and how best to tackle them.

Context matters: Decoding the Berkeley Haas Essay Questions

First, don’t overlook the valuable context that Haas offers up in the brief intro to its essay questions, which conveys the school’s defining leadership principles and interest in fit (mentioned twice). The school has long put a premium on challenging the status quo (first of the four principles) – and is signaling core elements that Haas students and alumni embody. You’ll do well to keep these in mind in your storytelling.

Essay #1: 

What makes you feel alive when you are doing it, and why? (300 words max)

I love the wording of this question – any opportunity to learn about what ignites the spark in a candidate is really exciting to read. (Remember that most Haas admissions readers will be plowing through some 2,000 application essays in a single cycle.) It’s also evocative of the iconic Stanford GSB essay, ‘what matters most to you, and why?’ – which similarly gets personal and requires a profound level of self-reflection and sincerity. This question also underscores that Haas is looking for people who will actively contribute to the community and beyond, not just in the classroom. Your intellectual acumen and accomplishments being a given, what are you passionate about and why does it ignite that aliveness in you? This essay prompt allows the admissions team to understand ‘what makes you tick’ up and beyond what they’ll glean from your academic record and work history.  

A successful essay will share a specific and personal experience that helps the reader get to know you better, giving insight into your character, values, or how you would uniquely contribute to the Berkeley-Haas community. Given that you only have 300 words, the maxim to ‘show not tell’ is critical here. You want to bring the reader on the experience with you so they can smell, taste, feel and connect to whatever it is you’re describing – what it felt like to summit that mountaintop and peer into the volcano’s smoky belly, or the felt experience in a devotional act of creation that erased any sense of time. And unless it’s deeply sincere and will ring true, a community service moment or tutoring exchange isn’t necessarily the place to shine the spotlight. Dig deep and dare to have a little fun here; your voice can convey your personality.

Essay #2

How will an MBA help you achieve your short-term and long-term career goals? (hard cutoff at 300 words)

Leadership was the topic of Berkeley’s second essay last year. Now that the video is covering that theme, the new Essay #2 asks, “How will an MBA help you achieve your short-term and long-term career goals? 

Last year, this was a question embedded within the application and was 150 words on immediate short-term goals. With the word count expanded to 300, this question is likely probing more deeply to see if applicants have realistic goals that can be met through the program at Haas.

Although the prompt asks, “How will an MBA help…,” this essay is really looking beyond the credential of the recognized degree. Berkeley wants to know what skills you will build or enhance and what experiences you will leverage in pursuit of career goals. It’s important to be specific. Make sure you call out what specific aspects of Berkeley ’s MBA program will bolster your success after graduation.

We sometimes suggest citing companies that heavily recruit at Haas when applicable as a way of showing your awareness of the school and the link between your goals and what is achievable. For the budding entrepreneurs, perhaps mention Haas alumni entrepreneurs who are working in a similar space.

Our take on the rationale behind this question is this:  The committee wants to know if your personal and professional goals are aligned with the program at Haas and how you will leverage the Berkeley MBA experience to achieve them.

Essay 3: VIDEO (new in 2023)

The Berkeley MBA program develops leaders who embody our four Defining Leadership Principles. Briefly introduce yourself to the admissions committee, explain which leadership principle resonates most with you, and tell us how you have exemplified the principle in your personal or professional life. (Not to exceed 2 minutes.)

Haas has joined the growing ranks of B-schools offering or requiring videos. This is s a useful way to assess poise, presence, and judgment as well as  the thoughts and information you share. It’s also a way to enhance authenticity. While essays can now easily be cranked out with ChatGPT (although we definitely don’t recommend it), an effective and personal video is harder to automate.

The video can also be a fun and fresh way to express your excitement about Haas. The Defining Leadership Principles are a distinctive draw that attracts students to Berkeley, and these provide a framing device for creative ways to share your enthusiasm.

Be succinct. Two minutes may seem like a lot when you’re staring into the eye of the camera with admissions on the line — but it’s really not. With only that short window to work with, don’t try to address all four of the principles. Instead, focus on one of the principles and demonstrate how you reflect it with clear and cogent examples. 

Once you’ve sketched out your thoughts and know what you want to say, practice!  As noted the evaluation of these responses are likely to be graded on communication skills and poise as much as on content. And if you’re a bit intimidated about talking on camera or mastering the technology, Fortuna has you covered. Our fellow coach Cassandra Pittman explains how to ace your video here, and Karen Hamou offers advice on what to wear.

Additional Essay #4:

Can you please describe any experience or exposure you have in the area of diversity, equity, inclusion, justice, and belonging whether through community organizations, personal, or in the workplace? (300 words max)

One of the goals at Berkeley Haas is to develop leaders who value diversity and aspire to create an inclusive environment in which people from different backgrounds feel welcomed and supported.

Some or many applicants will not have direct experience in supporting DEI, especially international candidates for whom the concept may be new.  Even so, it’s important to demonstrate awareness of the importance of diversity and inclusion and to share one’s own exposure to the concepts and perhaps how they hope their time at Haas will add to their ability to be inclusive leaders. 

Remember that diversity can be much broader than race, gender, ethnicity, or sexual orientation. Feel free to explore differences in national origin, class or lived experiences and the lessons you learned from these experiences.

Optional Essays:

Optional Information #1: 

Has invites candidates to provide additional information to to help them nderstand the context of their  opportunities and achievements by answering six short multiple choice questions. These ask about:

1. The highest level of education completed by your parent(s) or guardian(s).

2. The most recent occupation of your parent(s) or guardian(s).

3. The type of household you were raised in.

4. The primary language spoken in your childhood home.

5. If you have you ever been responsible for providing significant and continuing financial or supervisory support for someone else.

6. Additional detail on the circumstances above, or any other hardships or unusual life circumstances that may help us understand the context of your opportunities, achievements, and impact. (hard cut-off at 300 words)

Optional Information #2

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. (no word count)

The spirit behind the asking both of these optional essays is the same: to better understand the applicant by homing in on the path that they have walked through life.  This includes the challenges certain applicants face to get to where they are – even when students themselves don’t see them as distinctive or noteworthy. It’s a recognition from Haas of the huge range of students applying to business school, and a desire to support the admissions committee’s decision-making by supplying a full and rich understanding of who each applicant truly is and the circumstances that shaped their lives. You’ll do well to respond to the first question,  while avoiding the second unless you have something truly relevant to add that isn’t elsewhere addressed.

If you’re feeling equal parts inspired and intimidated by all of these essays, , take to heart these unscripted remarks from Berkeley Haas’s Pete Johnson, Assistant Dean for the Full-time MBA Program and Admissions. Speaking to Fortuna’s Matt Symonds at the CentreCourt MBA Festival in New York, Johnson offered the following advice: 

“Be courageous. I think a lot of applicants say ‘well, you know, I’m an engineer but what I really want to do is work in digital music,’ and they write it out and they show it to their partner or whoever who says, ‘no don’t write that, they’ll think you’re crazy!’” says Johnson. “When somebody really tells us what they’re enthusiastic about it literally leaps off the screen when we read those things.”

Want more free advice?

View our MBA Admissions Essay Masterclass on Berkeley Haas, Duke Fuqua, Yale SOM & UCLA Anderson.

All sessions from our MBA Admissions Essay Masterclass series are available on Fortuna’s YouTube channel. 

For more tips and prompts for getting started, check out our two-part series on MBA essay writing:  Writing a Powerful MBA Essay: Part 1 – The Essentials and Writing Powerful Essays – Part 2: The ‘Introduce Yourself’ Question.

Updated October 2023

Fortuna Admissions expert coach Sharon Joyce is former Berkeley Haas Associate Director of Admissions. For a candid assessment of your chances of admission success at a top MBA program, sign up for a free consultation.

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