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New MBA Essay from Berkeley Haas – Analysis & Strategy

At first glance, it seems that Berkeley Haas went from three required MBA essays to two, preserving its poetic “six-word essay” question and distilling its prompt around post-MBA goals.

But the notable addition is a focused and unique series of optional essay prompts that seek to uncover the less visible forces that shape applicants’ opportunities, decisions, character and lives.

To offer some context, the new prompts to optional essay #1 invite candidates to answer three questions by selecting from a list of options:

  • What is the highest level of education completed by your parent(s) or guardian(s)? 
  • If you were raised in one of the following household types, please indicate. (e.g. single parent; foster care; extended family member; and other options)
  • If you have you ever been responsible for providing significant and continuing financial or supervisory support for someone else, please indicate.

Haas frames the essay questions by reinforcing its defining leadership principles and commitment to diversity, and cites a holistic approach to application review that “will consider achievements in the context of the opportunities available to a candidate.” It also gives candidates up to 300 words to further elaborate, or the opportunity to “expand on other hardships or unusual life circumstances that may help us understand the context of your opportunities, achievements, and impact.”

As Berkeley Haas’s former Associate Director of Admissions, I’m not surprised by these prompts, nor the exacting focus on distinctive characteristics that influence first generation students and others from less privileged households. It’s a powerful acknowledgement that prospective students come from very different life circumstances and backgrounds that shape both their decision-making and character in invisible ways – up and beyond transcripts, test scores and career achievements.

By positioning its essay question in this way, Haas signals a desire to better understand who they’re reading by uncovering the path that students walked.

It’s also a method for the admissions committee to honor the challenges certain candidates encounter to get to where they are – even when students themselves don’t see them as noteworthy or distinctive. During my doctoral degree I worked extensively with first generation college students, and observed a common theme that many don’t acknowledge the uniqueness of their stories. A student may be aware of the structural dynamics of privilege and power, but not necessarily of the obstacles she’s overcome – because it’s ‘just her life’ and she’s busy living it. But to an outsider, there can be a wow factor in an experience or circumstance of a student’s background, which they themselves are too ‘in it’ to recognize, and it speaks volumes to their resiliency, determination and tenacity.

Why does this matter to the admissions committee at Berkeley Haas? 

For one, it reveals the other responsibilities candidates may be juggling outside academic endeavors, providing a window to admissions reviewers of a student’s socioeconomic history and other less visible factors that shape their achievements, opportunities and choices. For example, socioeconomic barriers can influence things that might be absent from an application but, in context, provide bigger picture understanding, such as, a student who is repaying high undergrad loans didn’t take a GMAT more than once because of the fees; or another who wasn’t so involved in college extra-curriculars was working simultaneously to pay for college.

Haas’s new questions are also rooted in the history of the UC system, which was created to make higher education available to all California residents. The UC system writ large wants to develop and nurture a community reflective of its population’s extraordinary diversity. Two-thirds of the school population must be California residents at the undergrad level, yet those quotas don’t exist in graduate school. Some 42% of UC students are first generation at the undergraduate level, which is significant compared against 27% at other selective institutions or 18% at private universities. At the graduate level, Berkeley Haas acknowledges that its pipeline now includes more first-generation students. In terms of how Haas itself wants to do its holistic review, these questions also show a lot of compassion. The school wants to create a level playing field for all MBA applicants.

It’s also in tune with the Haas culture, and the defining principles that guide it (see this recent article in Poets&Quants, Where Culture Really Matters: Berkeley’s Haas School). Haas values attracting students with greater social awareness, and that echoes its defining principles of ‘beyond yourself’ and ‘challenging the status quo – and part of the status quo is the reality that white men still dominate representation at board room tables. This new optional essay puts Berkeley Haas at the forefront of addressing inclusivity in b-schools and beyond.

If you’re someone who comes from privilege, by no means should you be deterred by this question. Nor should you misread that candidates from a background of relative privilege won’t have a shot at admission. This is also your opportunity to convey your values, awareness of social justice, political engagement and/or access to education in terms of social mobility – all of which are important to Berkeley Haas. Haas wants students who demonstrate community engagement and self-awareness, which is an invitation to acknowledge your privilege and convey a sincere understanding of what that means to you.

Walking through the halls of Haas, for example, you’ll see stickers on faculty’ and staff’s doors that read, “Ally,” which explicitly conveys this person stands in solidarity with LGBTQ individuals, those with undocumented status, or other marginalized groups. Berkeley really fosters that climate of compassion, empathy and inclusion. It can be valuable to show you are an ally, even if you don’t identify as a member of a marginalized community.

Notice, too, that the essay prompt at the end of the optional series invites many kinds of possible responses. For example, you may consider sharing your reality of overcoming dyslexia; if the highest GMAT you ever achieved is a 660, it might be something you’re justifiably proud of given the reading difficulty you’re overcoming.

Berkeley Haas’s new optional essay really speaks to the type of class it strives to craft. It’s also an acknowledgement of the huge range of students applying for the MBA, and a push to support the admissions committee with a rich and nuanced understanding of its applicants. Accept the challenge – and opportunity – to convey this level of purpose and introspection, and you stand to increase your chances of admissions success.

Fortuna Admissions Expert Coach Sharon Joyce is former Associate Director of Admissions at Berkeley Haas.

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