How to Answer the New Berkeley Haas MBA Essay Questions

July 26, 2019 | by Sharon Joyce

Berkeley Haas revamped all of its essay questions for the 2019-2020 application season (two mandatory, one optional).

Gone is the invitation to outline your immediate post-MBA goals and the tricky, Hemingwayesque six-word story prompt. The sentiment behind  Haas’s optional, two -sentence question remains intact, albeit slightly  distilled from almost 200 words of explicit context-setting for a 300-word response.

As a former Associate Director of Admissions at Berkeley Haas, I believe the current suite of questions is fantastic. Now, let’s discuss strategy – what Haas is looking for and how to best approach each question. 

New Haas essay question #1: What makes you feel alive when you are doing it, and why?

I love the phrasing of this question. Any opportunity to understand more about what ignites passion in a candidate is particularly exciting to read, especially when considering that most Haas admissions readers will be combing through some 2,000 essays per application cycle. This inquiry also underscores that Haas is seeking students who will purposefully contribute within their community and beyond, not solely within the classroom. Your intellect achievements being a given, what are you passionate about and why does it ignite that aliveness in you? This essay prompt gives the admissions committee a chance to better discern ‘what makes you tick’ up and beyond your academic history and professional trajectory.  

Given that you have only 300 words to work with, the maxim to ‘show not tell’ is imperative. The goal is to take the admissions reader on a lucid experience with you so they can sense and connect to exactly what it is you’re describing – what it felt like to summit that mountaintop and gaze into the volcano’s smoky belly, or the viceral experience in a devotional act of creation that caused time to stand still. Unless it’s profoundly sincere and will resonate, a community service moment or mentoring exchange might not necessarily be the place to shine the spotlight. Delve deep, and challenge yourself to have some fun here; your authentic voice can really relay your personality.

New Haas Essay Question #2: At Berkeley Haas, we are redefining leadership. We value different opinions and perspectives, recognizing that we always have more to learn about others’ lived experiences and histories. We encourage speaking up and listening, and courageously use our power to address barriers and drive change for positive impact. Tell us how a Berkeley Haas MBA would enhance your leadership profile, incorporating specific examples.

The context Haas presents in the set-up for this essay is significant. The school has historically placed a premium on questioning the status quo (first among its four defining leadership principles) – and the status quo continually perpetuates inequality and power dynamics that marginalize certain groups with privileging others. Berkeley Haas is on the front lines of addressing inclusivity in business school and beyond, with aspirations for cultivating a community that embodies diversity across the board. Because of this, Haas is searching for candidates who possess self- and situational awareness, understand their unique privilege and convey a deep understanding of how that translates into becoming a future leader. 

In constructing this essay, Haas is seeking to understand that you’ve genuinely done your due diligence, above and beyond the high-level website scan. You have 300 words, and you’ll need to be specific. Whether it’s getting engaged with the annual Women In Leadership conference or partnering with Severin Borenstein at the Energy Institute, you’ll want to talk with authenticity and precision about you’re specifically planning to elevate your leadership profile. Doing so will ensure you convey a nuanced awareness of what it means to be an principled leader who gives deference to the impressions and viewpoints of others. 

New Optional Essay Question: In addition to the two required essays, candidates who wish to tell us about how they have responded to hardships or unusual life circumstances are encouraged to complete the optional essay. This information will provide context to your opportunities & achievements and contribute to our holistic review of your application.

While this question is significantly reworded from last year’s optional essay, the spirit behind posing it remains the same., Haas is seeking to unveil the less salient factors that mold applicants’ paths, opportunities, choices and constitution. This optional essay is a means for the admissions committee to understand the myriad of challenges particular candidates encounter en route to getting where they are – even when those prospective students themselves don’t recognize them as noteworthy. For example, socioeconomic obstacles can contribute to aspects that might be missing from an application but contextually express a bigger picture understanding. As I previously wrote on Haas’s optional essay upon its debut, it’s an acknowledgement from Haas of the substantial range of candidates applying to business school, and a desire to support the admissions committee’s decision-making process by supplying a rich and full understanding of who each candidate truly is.

If you’re feeling intimidated and inspired in equal measure, consider these spontaneous remarks from Berkeley Haas’s Pete Johnson, Assistant Dean for the Full-time MBA Program and Admissions. Speaking on the Admissions Director Panel during the CentreCourt MBA Festivalin New York City, Johnson proposed the following guidance: 

“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!’ When people do that, it goes flat. When somebody really tells us what they’re enthusiastic about it literally leaps off the screen when we read those things.”

Fortuna Admissions coach Dr. Sharon Joyce is the former former associate director of admissions at Berkeley Haas.

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