Berkeley Haas MBA Essay Analysis, Your 2013-2014 App

Just because the Berkeley Haas MBA Essays haven’t changed much for 2014 doesn’t mean you can fake it in your app. Here’s how to crush them this round.

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

A surprise carryover from last year; we weren’t sure this question would have legs. But Haas seems to be learning something valuable about people through this question, so be it. Let’s dig in.

This is a perfect example of “WHAT you say doesn’t really matter… it’s HOW you say it.” Think about it, it’s impossible for the reader of this essay to be instantly familiar with every song ever written. Impossible. So, they may not recognize the song, that’s key assumption #1. One way around that would be for you to either force them to listen to the song, or read the lyrics. Annnnh! (That’s meant to be the grating sound of a buzzer, signifying “no go.”) You’re not gonna rehash the lyrics here, either.

Forget the song, folks. The key here to sell ice to these Eskimos.

There are so many ways to play this, it’s hard to crunch down to a single approach. Is it the lyrics that express who you are? Is it the feel of the song/melody? Is it something about the backdrop OF the song, such as when it was released and what it represents? Or a behind-the-scenes aspect of why or how the song was written, etc. Well, damn. It could be any of those things. And frankly even some thing that isn’t even on that list.

Doesn’t matter. Let’s look at it from a new perspective. What would you like the admissions committee to learn about YOU? What cool aspect or quirk would add some color to your profile? Start there, and work backwards. And don’t overthink it. Don’t get so specific that the LINK between that thing and a song is tenuous. The link is gonna be atmospheric. Think about a movie score. A movie score sits underneath a scene and brings it to life, but doesn’t do much more than that. In a lot of ways, movie score “expresses what the scene is.” Think of it that way. This of a song that is “your score.” A song that plays over a Powerpoint presentation of your BIOGRAPHY. What song captures all that?

Balance-wise, you’re gonna wanna go for something like this:

  • 45% – Explaining the “who you are” piece.
  • 40% – How the song captures that… what’s the link? Make us want to listen to this song.
  • 25% – Your relationship to this song, how did you find it, when did you make the connection?

This last piece may seem strange. But the closer you are to the song, the more impassioned this essay will seem. More authentic, and by extension, you will appear more human and likeable. If you truly worked this essay inside-out and just PLUGGED in a song that somehow fits the bill, it will seem… soulless. Pick a song you know and love. Again, the song you’d want to have played at your funeral to leave people with one final emotional memory of what you were all about.

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

You have competition here, folks. This is your chance to bring it. Your accomplishment needs to be two things:

  1. Must be very impressive. Toe-to-toe against ANYONE, it must be cool and impressive.
  2. It must say something cool about “the rest of you,” just by extension.

Let’s dig into each one.

#1: An impressive accomplishment. What’s a good example here? Well, we’re about to say something seemingly contradictory. There’s “universal” impressiveness, and there’s “relative” impressiveness. BOTH are okay! Universal impressiveness is something that is impressive no matter who you are or what your circumstances are. Did you found a company called “Apple” or “Amazon” that went public and make millions or billions of dollars per year? Guess what. That’s impressive. Doesn’t matter what your age is, nationality, where you grew up, what your story is, it’s impressive. “Universal” impressiveness.

What is RELATIVE impressiveness? Something that is more dependent on your own PERSONAL circumstances that may not be immediately impressive to someone, but once you look a little deeper, shows great promise in you and your abilities. Perhaps you didn’t found a company that went public, but maybe you grew up in a remote village in a developing country, and started a type of business that created tremendous value to a comparatively small number of people. Guess what, if you can demonstrate that you saw an opportunity, set a cool objective, overcame some challenges through initiative and leadership, you may come across as someone who may one-day found another type of company… that goes public. You can still show great promise through a less classic example of “impressiveness.”

But—and this is key—there MUST be evidence in your example of leadership potential. Drive. Smarts. Talent. There is no objective measure of this, sadly (unlike “the company that goes public,” which has more or less instant appeal). Instead, you need to demonstrate this value through your description of the achievement, establishing the circumstances smartly, providing a sense that if you hadn’t stepped in, your achievement may never have happened at the hands of someone else. There needs to be something about YOU that is special. That quality needs the spotlight. But don’t underestimate the readers of these apps. They’ve seen it all. And can spot potential no matter what the achievement. Either way, whether “universal” or “relative,” it’s gotta be COOL.

Onto #2: The achievement must allow us to say “Aha, this is the type of kid is gonna XYZ.” How to achieve that? Simple. Don’t focus on the achievement itself, but rather, on the special sauce that YOU possess that made that achievement happen. The achievement isn’t scalable; your potential, however, is. Focus on the actions, the decision-making, the evidence of leadership, the thing that YOU brought to the table that your colleagues didn’t have. That’s the stuff that the reader will grab hold of and APPLY to your tenure at Haas, and beyond.

You will want to include the following elements:

  • Explain what made achieving this thing… difficult
  • Explain the special thing that you brought to the table… to achieve this difficult thing
Essay 3: Describe a time in the last three years when you overcame a failure. What specific insight from this experience has shaped your development? (250 word maximum)

Not much room here. 250 words? We need to be efficient and effective. Let’s start with the nuts and bolts. What was the objective? What was supposed to happen for it to have succeeded? What happened? Why wasn’t this a desired result?

Notice how we haven’t asked for what LED to the failure. This is key. Do not get ahead of yourself. Just explain what happened, not why it went wrong.

Now in the NEXT section, you can get into the explanation for WHY it didn’t work. Why your decisions, your actions, etc. led to an undesirable result. Walk us through your decisions—yes, the bad ones. Walk us through why they seemed smart at the time. Seeing your comfort in letting us in on this uncomfortable secret is actually a GREAT thing. May seem counterintuitive, it may seem like you’re showing weakness. In fact, you’re doing the exact opposite. The guy who is comfortable explaining why he failed is the guy we trust to do it again… successfully. The guy believes himself to be infallible is a much higher risk—and remember, business schools don’t want high-risk applicants. They want the opposite. This is why it’s so crucial to trust us here. Show us why you made “the wrong decision.”

Now—in the next section (probably the final section)—show us how this experience has made you strong. Show us how this has led to some kind of systemic overhaul of how you approach similar (or even not-so-similar) situations. Show us an example if you can.

If you do these things, you’re gonna be golden. The only way to shank this essay is to sugarcoat the stuff you screwed up.

Essay 4a: What are your post-MBA short-term and long-term career goals? How have your professional experiences prepared you to achieve these goals?
4b: How will an MBA from Haas help you achieve these goals? (750 word maximum for 4a. and 4b.)

This is a standard version of this question. The only thing they’ve done is force you to split up your response into two pieces. Probably you’ll want a 500-550/200-250 split between the two sections.

Check out our take on a few similar versions of these—there’s absolutely nothing special about the way Haas is asking this:

Optional Essays:
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)

The school may be different, but the approach here is always the same.

2: 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)

No need to answer this if your quant scores already do all the talking.

If you are borderline or below borderline, you’ll want to posture very confidently. Quant abilities? No problem. Here are some details IN BETWEEN THE LINES of this resume bullet point, or this achievement story that speak to my quant abilities. Or, I’ve discussed with many MBAs what business school is like, what I need to do to crush it while I’m there, and have lined up the following to prepare.

It’s that simple. Either you’ve GOT it, and here’s the evidence (no excuses for low GMAT, low this or that. Just evidence), or you “don’t got it.” And if you don’t, piece of cake, here’s the plan. And some evidence elsewhere to show that I will be successful and can hang with the best of em.

You’re putting nervous parents’ minds at ease that you’re gonna take great care of their child while they’re away for the evening. Here are my credentials. And here are my plans for if something were to go wrong. No matter what happens, I’m prepared for everything, you need not worry. Your confidence in your own ability here will give THEM confidence. If you seem defensive, or like you’re overcompensating, it’s gonna show. “Low GMAT? No problem, I’ve got the quant thing licked and I’m gonna prove it to you. How many examples do you want? I could give you ten, but I have space here for two or three.” You get the idea. Confidence. Sell it.

If you’re giving a real-world example, show us how someone who LACKED quant skills couldn’t have succeeded. Gotta walk us through the way in which only a person with SOLID quant potential could have done what you did.

If you’re showing what you’re planning to do to shore up weakness, prove to us how and why you’re gonna succeed. Show us that you have a plan. Make it so that if we were deciding to BET on it, we’d put our money on you.

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