Wednesday, August 15, 2012

UC Berkeley Haas 2012-13 Essay Analysis

Here's a short write-up on the Berkeley Haas essay prompts for the application for the class entering in the fall of 2013.


(the school's own instructions) 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).

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

Most will be intimidated by this question, and probably because they are approaching it the wrong way.  The key is not to figure out a song, and then ask yourself what it says about you.  Instead, the key is to forget about a song while you determine what you want to say about yourself in this essay. Only once you have figured that out should you consider what song to use. Doing this - and in this order - will make the task of finding a song that expresses who you are and writing this essay easier.

You may choose a song with lyrics that mean something significant to you, a song that reminds you of (or was even playing during) an important time in your life, or a song with cultural or social meaning for you. No matter what you choose, I think they key is what you say about yourself in this essay. 

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

This may be personal or professional, and it is wise to keep in mind the word "significant" as you choose the topic.  Be clear in your response how this particular accomplishment was significant to you. Did you learn from it, did it allow you to then move onto a bigger challenge, or was it in some other way memorable and/or important to you?  The "biggest deal" might not be enough here: there should be a measurable take-away that has a strong impact on your strengths or skills, your leadership or teamwork ability, or the way you communicate with others or even view challenges. 

Writing in a typical story order (introduction - what was at stake - your particular role - the steps you took - the eventual result - the impact of that result on others - the impact on yourself) is probably appropriate if you are writing out a first draft, but for the finished product, you may need to rework or reorder some of the story details in order to fit it into the school's tight 250 word limit while also maximizing the impact of your story.

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)

A quick read through Berkeley's Defining Principles is all it takes to see the emphasis Berkeley places on innovation.  Read as well (Executive Director of Admissions) Stephanie Fujii's comments on the Berkeley essay set, and as well this interview with the school's dean,  Rich Lyons and you'll see that Haas values people who are willing to take risks to achieve something big that'll have a considerable impact on those around them. 

To answer this question, you need to cite a time when a) you had an idea that involved something new - a new way of doing things, or a new way to approach an existing problem, b) implementing that idea would require changing something already established, c) you did in fact take concrete steps towards realizing that idea and d) the steps you took produced a measurable outcome.

Size or scope is not necessarily the defining factor of a great story here - you don't need to have changed the world through the actions you took. Instead, what is important is that you could create a new idea, and follow through on implementing it. Once again, just as you did in essay 2, show here that your actions resulted in making your division, department, company or industry better in some way - hence the "positive change" part of the question.  

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)

Let's break down the first sentence into a few important parts.  "Your own failure" means you need to write about a time when you were unable to accomplish a goal, or something you or others expected you to be able to do. "Were a student of X" means that you learned something demonstrable from the experience.  Now let's turn to the second part of the question.  "Specific insight" means that you learned something specific about yourself or your surroundings, and "shaped your development" means that you were able to internalize and apply this learning, in such a way that you could be more effective in a future situation.  All of these elements should be present in this essay, which may involve a personal or professional topic, so while you have a lot of options, be careful in choosing the episode which best answers to all the parts of the question and shows your learning and development in the best possible way.

A few things to consider as you approach this essay.  1) Don't write about someone else's failure, or a team failure to which you were only loosely connected. Instead, write about a time when you genuinely could not do what you set out to. It'll make the resulting learning that much more effective.  2) Once you find your own failure, when you writer about, don't try to blame it on someone else.  

Finally, when brainstorming possible topics, it is probably better to think about the second part of the question first, rather than trying to come up with a failure at the start. In other words, ask yourself what strengths, skills and characteristics you have now that may be worth presenting.  Where did these things come from, or how did you learn them? In more than one case I am sure, you will find you have developed significantly from learning something - and a period of learning often follows a period of failure.  Some reverse engineering may help you to arrive at a good topic, which - importantly, allows you to show off what makes you special and unique today.

5. a. 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.)

This is a typical goals essay, with a generous word limit (750 words total). Although this amount is actually reduced from previous years (where applicants had 1,000 words) it is big enough that some may consider this the landing spot for their first goals essay, even if the other questions aren't done until after other schools have been finished, due to the topics and tight word constraints presented in them.

When drafting out your first attempt, start with a) who you are now professionally, b) the short-term and longer-term goals, c) the strengths and skills you have gained up to now that are relevant to these goals, d) the strengths or skills you need to gain, and e) how an MBA is needed and in particular f) how Berkeley is the best place for you to get the education you need.

Most of my other MBA essay analyses have some detail on the goals essay, so I won't go into too much additional comments here, save for two.  1) In terms of the goals, think big.  Berkeley embraces innovation and people who have the spirit to accomplish big world-changing things.  So, if you have big goals, show them. Be sure at the same time to show how their MBA will help you to accomplish them, and also be sure to show that these goals are something you can achieve based on strengths and skills gained up to now.  2) Give specific reasons as to why you are attracted to the Berkeley Haas MBA in particular.  You have the word count to do it - so don't skimp when it comes to giving clear and well-thought out examples of how Berkeley is a better fit for you, and a necessary step to where you want to be in the future.

Optional Essays:

1. (Optional) 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)

Balance across the essay set is important, and considering that this is a very open-ended optional essay, some applicants may use it to round pout their self-presentation, after reviewing the contents of all the other essays they wrote.  I'd advise something slightly different: that the wise applicant should have a balanced presentation (i.e. personal and professional) across essays 1-5, and this optional essay can then be used to point out a problem (choice or recommenders, etc) or better yet an additional strength that comes from a professional or personal experience that couldn't be fit into any other essay.  Remember this last point, and don't just repeat something that is already well-developed elsewhere in your Berkeley application.

2. (Optional) If not clearly evident, please discuss ways in which you have demonstrated strong quantitative abilities, or plan to strengthen quantitative abilities. You do not need to list courses that appear on your transcript. (250 word maximum)

Clearly evident quant skills would, for most, come from your GMAT quant score or university transcript.  If this is the case for you, you may not need to write anything here.  But, if neither shows strong quant skills, you may emphasize work experience or additional courses you have taken. There is an option to write about something you will do.  If you need to take this route, be specific as possible, to make your answer feel like more than just a vague promise. 

Good luck on your Berkeley application!

John Couke