2012-2013 Berkeley Haas Essay Analysis

by on November 12th, 2012

At Berkeley-Haas, our distinctive culture is defined by four key principles — Question the status quo; Confidence without attitude; Students always; and Beyond yourself. We seek candidates from a broad range of cultures, backgrounds, and industries who demonstrate a strong cultural fit with our program and defining principles. Please use the following essays as an opportunity to reflect on and share with us the values, experiences, and accomplishments that have helped shape who you are. (Learn more about Berkeley-Haas’ Defining Principles).

So, truth be told… this stuff could apply (more or less) to every bschool. What bschool doesn’t value “confidence without attitude,” “candidates from a broad range of cultures, backgrounds, and industries,” etc.? I wouldn’t burn too much time trying to get into the heads of Haas here. The one point that may be worth extracting from this though is the overall vibe. If we were to reduce this thing to one defining concept that MAY separate it from HBS, Wharton, CBS, etc… it could be that the overall vibe at Haas is one micro notch less intense. Let’s not misunderstand. Folks who attend and graduate from Haas are every bit as bright and talented as the next guy. But the same way a New Yorker’s blood pressure can be assumed to be higher than your average Los Angelean’s, this may also be true of the kid who fits well with Haas. Uber-bright, uber-talented, uber-determined… but maybe a TOUCH more relaxed than the GUNNER equivalent.

1. If you could choose one song that expresses who you are, what is it and why? (250 word maximum)

Before we lunge into this one, let’s consider a few key points. Of all things that can be classified as “subjective,” taste in music sits somewhere near the top of that list. Why bring that up? Well, if you were to run an experiment with 100 different adcoms, presenting songs that they’ve heard of, admire, love, hate, etc… you would MOSTLY find responses that vary so much, it would lead to the exasperated conclusion that “well, it’s so subjective, isn’t it?” Conclusion: there isn’t a magic bullet “song” choice here that will cause the adcom guy to go “wow, kid loves The Beatles, I’m liking him already.”

The most uninspired advice anyone can give here is to “just answer the question honestly.” Please. When Apple comes up with clever TV commercials, they don’t just “tell people about the product.” They attempt to tantalize, with the end goal of boosting their brand and increasing sales. You have a goal here too—to tantalize, and improve your chances of admission. So let’s do that.

Point #1

A SURPRISING choice can have some value. If a male athlete Wall Street mover-shaker type were to throw down a JUSTIN BIEBER song… surely that would cause someone to lean forward. It’s already interesting. Why? Because it seems a bit unusual. It doesn’t quite fit. So, the converse here is also potentially true. A song that expresses longing, ambition, etc. may just seem far too obvious—annoyingly so.

Point #2

The OBSCURE SONG NO ONE HAVE EVER HEARD OF. I mean, the message here would need to be ridiculously interesting, because people will tune out the second they don’t recognize the band or title. This will of course be true (automatically) for international students who may be picking NOT-obscure bands in their native lands, but will be unrecognizable to U.S. peeps. If your reader is likely to NOT know the song or artist, the explanation for why this piece connects to you has to be amazing. In fact, this idea of “surprise” is equally relevant here. If it’s “down the middle” (obvious, too much in sync with what we might EXPECT from you given your profile), it’s gonna cause us to nod politely or worse, roll our eyes. But, if you go onto describe a song whose lyrics or sound/composition rattles your cages in a particularly INTERESTING way (i.e., a way that we could never predict), now you’re onto something.


LYRICS aren’t everything. Songs can represent moods, qualities, just by… what they are. Think of movie themes, or classical music. Sometimes a tune just… makes you wanna run a marathon. Inspires you to feel something by virtue of the chords, rhythms, etc. Absolutely 100% interesting to go that route too.

Concluding thoughts: if your explanation feels too programmed, it will fall flat. HAVE FUN with this one. Let it show your personality a bit. A song that expresses who you are shouldn’t represent your “desire to succeed in the world of business.” How boring is that?

Think of it this way… if this question were posed to you as part of a blind date questionnaire, how would you answer it? Imagine you are competing for the affections of a sexy boy or girl. And you’re competing with, say, 10 others who are all gonna answer this exact same question. What would your response be in THIS scenario to get that person’s attention? To get them to be intrigued about YOU?

There’s your answer.

2. What is your most significant accomplishment? (250 word maximum)

They haven’t said it, but it’s implied… “and why is that?”

What does significant mean? Well, we can’t JUUUUST take this at face value because we’re not in a vacuum. Your most “significant” accomplishment may truly have been turning off a hot water valve to save your younger sibling from getting irrevocably BURNED at a young age when you were five years old. But, as awesome as a story as that might be… it doesn’t necessarily tell us that you’re gonna be the guy who makes a splash in the business world once you graduate. And that’s ultimately the NERVE CENTER of everything here.

So, let’s consider a DIFFERENT question as we approach this. “Why should I believe that you will be successful in your career and therefore represent Haas well, boost our reputation, inspire brighter kids to apply, etc.?” We need to be SOLD here. The more we believe this, the more the ITCH flips the other way—it goes from your wanting Haas, to Haas’s wanting YOU.

Which accomplishment of your bespeaks the greatest promise for FUTURE success? Which accomplishment showcases your VALUE the most?

There has to be a balance here of two key things: (a) the impressiveness of the accomplishment itself AND (b) the demonstrable value YOU brought to the table. Let’s dig into that a little. If an accomplishment is amazingly impressive (making a delicious tart from scratch) but… anyone could have done it since the recipe is published online, then its impressiveness starts to deflate. Likewise, if you demonstrate a super impressive skill somehow (say inspiring a team to go from not at all motivated to being super motivated) that COULD be coooool, unless the “team” in question is a handful of five-year-olds who didn’t want to finger paint, but after you inspired them… they decided they wanted to finger paint. So, balance. Gotta be both.

Walk us through the accomplishment. Tell us why it was HARD, and hint (subtly or not so subtly) that not everyone could have pulled it off. Then as you take us through the stuff you DID, be sure to indicate your VALUE in such a way that we see what made YOUR involvement so critical.

In 50-75 words at the end, it may be interesting to address the “why” aspect. Why was this such a big deal? Why should it make US excited?

3. Describe a time when you questioned an established practice or thought within an organization. How did your actions create positive change? (250 word maximum)

It only reeeeeally works if you were alone here. The most effective responses highlight the opposition, the BRAVENESS of the idea itself, the extent to which your idea or action was surprising in light of the established practice, etc. There parts to nail here:

  1. What was the “established” part? Explain what WAS first, so we have context.
  2. Now explain YOUR idea, remembering to include the opposition and challenge throughout your experience fighting against the current.
  3. Finally, address the LASTING-ness of your efforts. It shouldn’t have just worked, but rather, made a real IMPACT; an impact that is felt long after the moment of change.

There are two key ART FORMS here. One is the art form of seeing an opportunity to create positive change… at all. It’s nice to see someone who has an eye for innovation, outside-the-box thinking, etc. Two, there is an art form to QUESTIONING long-held beliefs and earning the BUY-IN of folks who are used to a certain comfortable way of doing things. In your response here, we need to see these two things in action.

4. Describe a time when you were a student of your own failure. What specific insight from this experience has shaped your development? (250 word maximum)

The “student” aspect is easy to overlook. Bschool applicants are so accustomed to addressing “failures” they sometimes miss the nuance here. The key is to cut the chase and explain the failure quickly, get it over with. The key NOW is to dig into what you did NEXT.

Ever see “Batman Begins?” One of the tropes in the film is the question “Why do we fall?” … “So we can learn to pick ourselves up.” It is character-defining. Inside that “learning” moment. After you talk about your coolest failure, let’s now move into the things that went through your HEAD. Bring us back to that moment in time. Back to the time when you DIDN’T have the luxury of perspective that you do now. Now you are able to contextualize the whole thing, see exactly where you went wrong—back then you didn’t. This is what we wanna know about. At that moment in time, how did you respond?

For your THIRD section, now you can bring in the perspective you have “today.” The broader perspective. Surely you’ve applied the learnings from this moment to other approaches, experiences. Let’s hear about it.

Do not be afraid to trip and fall here. The bigger and more earnest the “belly flop,” the more credible you will come across. The KEY is the “getting up” part. Everyone is expected to make mistakes—big ones even. The guy who knows how to grow from it to improve is the one we wanna look at closely.

5a. What are your post-MBA short-term and long-term career goals? How have your professional experiences prepared you to achieve these goals?
b. How will an MBA from Haas help you achieve these goals? (750 word maximum for 5a. and 5b.)

Haas has shrunk this bad boy down a bit, and that’s good. By most crackling essays can be delivered inside 500-750 words. Now, this essay couldn’t be more standard. In other words, there’s nothing particularly strange here that’s too different from most other career goals, “why us?” type essays.

But let’s focus on one piece to hammer home an idea: “How have your professional experiences prepared you to achieve these goals?” This is a very straightforward question—and one that 90% of applicants somehow miss. We need to see evidence from your (recent) past that clearly demonstrates ways in which you are likely to accomplish the goals you’ve laid out earlier. It’s all about connecting past experiences to future goals. Show us specifically—literally LINK IT in a clean argument—how a certain experience/accomplishment goes TOWARD your case that you will succeed at your future goals.

Imagine this. Let’s say you’re eating at a fancy restaurant with a bunch of VIPs in attendance, and the head chef suffers an unfortunate heart attack… along with many of the sous chefs. They need someone to cook to save the day, so the owner quietly finds out from his casual diners who knows how to cook—and selects three people. These guys are now lined up and are about to make the case for who deserves to put on the chef’s cap and RUN the kitchen to save it.

Candidate 1 says, “Well, my friends call me the greatest amateur chef they’ve ever known—they prefer my food to the fanciest restaurants around town. I know how to prepare foods of ANY cuisine you can imagine, Thai, Indian, American BBQ, you name it, I can do it. I believe I am best for this job because I can prepare delicious food 100% of the time.”

Candidate 2 says, “My background is originally in the military. I successfully led battalions in high pressure situations, often times with troops that weren’t even my own due to chaotic conditions. Cooking is second nature to me. Prior to my army tenure, I was the go-to chef at the local fire station. I am best for the job because I know how to get the most out of people in tense situations.”

For me the choice is obvious—I want the military guy. The recipes will be there, all the materials are there—what this kitchen needs though is a LEADER. A guy who shines under pressure and can COORDINATE. The choice is simple because I can see the LINK between past experiences and the thing that’s needed now.

In your case, you will be laying out crackling goals that are gonna make our mouths water. But they’re only as effective as your convincing us that you can pull it off. Dipping back into a few KEY experiences is the way you’re gonna do that—but only if you CONNECT it all. We often see some amazing experiences and accomplishments, but by themselves, the link is sometimes not obvious. Make ‘em obvious.

Show us why we want YOU in that kitchen.


1. Please feel free to provide a statement concerning any information you would like to add to your application that you haven’t addressed elsewhere. (500 word maximum)

Haas is opening things up here. This may not be your typical “easy does it” Optional Essay prompt. Generally, we wanna tread carefully and never bore the reader with redundant stories or unnecessary fluff that they didn’t really ask for. And usually, the Optional Essay is the place to take RED FLAGS head on, quickly and confidently.

But here, there may be something you feel is missing from the rest of your app. But before you LUNGE at the opportunity, let’s add a key condition—something you haven’t addressed elsewhere that you feel is likely to IMPROVE your candidacy. Is there a key aspect of your profile that you haven’t touched on? Community service? A cool talent? Some insane amount of world travel, international experience? Something that will have obvious value when added to the Haas community?

Be sure that thing adds value. If it doesn’t, it could have the unintended effect of making the REST of your candidacy seem like it’s been maxed out. You want to have the OPPOSITE effect. Something new and fresh here that makes them go, “Wow, what ELSE does this kid have going on? Let’s bring him in and get to know him better.” As opposed to, “Oh, well now we know of a sort of impressive other leadership experience. Does this kid really not have ANYTHING else to talk about?”

See the difference? Whatever goes here should make your cool qualities seem endless! Not finite.

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