Berkeley Haas Essays: Strategy & Tips

By - Aug 7, 11:26 AM Comments [0]

 Berkeley Haas is 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. 


Register today to join our live strategy session discussing essay advice for Berkeley Haas, Duke Fuqua, UCLA Anderson & Yale SOM on August 12 at noon ET. Previous sessions from our MBA Admissions Essay Masterclass series are available on Fortuna’s YouTube channel.


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.

Haas required 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.

NEW Haas 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 ambiguous nature of this question is a purposeful contrast to last year’s framing, which established that Hass is ‘redefining leadership’ and went on to articulate its value proposition as a set up to inquire ‘how a Haas MBA would enhance your leadership profile.’ This year, instead of explicitly stating what Haas values and cares most about (although note that is still reflected in the intro to all essays), Haas invites you to articulate your values around leadership within the context of what you’re hoping to develop (with ­– unstated but implicit here – a Haas MBA).

The set up to this question, and its reference to the last 10 years, is subtle but important – in citing that ‘the definition of successful leadership has evolved over the last decade and will continue to change,’ Haas signals that traits such as flexibility, growth mindset, and inclusivity are at a premium. Those who are being successful right now are comfortable navigating in a sea of uncertainty and prepared to adapt to the changing times.

It’s a reflective piece, and again, you have only 300 words to convey your point. You’ll want to speak with precision and authenticity about ways you’re hoping to enhance your leadership profile. Approach this with some humility in thinking about leadership. Has there ever been something you’d have pushed more successfully over the finish line if you had X or Y under your belt? Or an instance where you sense your impact could have been much greater with the benefit of Z? Not necessarily something transactional, but something more experiential or that you’d gain in a relational context? If you think of the MBA experience as a huge learning laboratory, what might you want to perfect over the last few years that will set you up for success? In doing so, how can you convey a nuanced understanding of what it means to be a successful leader?

Optional Essays: Optional Information #1: We invite you to help us better understand the context of your opportunities and achievements: [6 multiple choice questions]… 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 max)

While this section is lightly rephrased from last year’s (pay special attention to the introduction to these essays), the spirit behind the asking is the same: to hone in on the path that students walked to better understand who they’re reading. In Optional essay 1, Haas seeks to uncover the less visible forces that shape candidates’ lives, opportunities, decisions, and character. 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. Socioeconomic barriers, for example, can contribute to things that might be missing from an application but, in context, convey bigger picture understanding. 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 not to consider the first question optional, 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, 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, and the chance to get your questions answered? Register for the live MBA Admissions Essay Masterclass, this Wed., Aug. 12, where my Fortuna Admissions colleagues and I discuss essay strategy for Berkeley Haas, Duke Fuqua, UCLA Anderson & Yale SOM.

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.


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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