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Be sure to read my Key Posts on the admissions process. Topics include essay analysis, resumes, recommendations, rankings, and more.

October 29, 2012

Haas MBA Class of 2015 Admissions Essays: The Song Remains the Same

Haas always asks weird questions. Years ago, they asked who the applicant would invite to dinner and why. Last year, it was “What brings you the greatest joy? How does this make you distinctive? “ Each year brings some new weirdness. Hence their song remains the same.

I had a dream. Crazy dream.
Anything I wanted to know, any place I needed to go
Hear my song. People won’t you listen now? Sing along.
You don’t know what you’re missing now.
Any little song that you know
Everything that’s small has to grow.
And it has to grow!
California sunlight, sweet Calcutta rain
Honolulu Starbright – the song remains the same.
Sing out Hare Hare, dance the Hoochie Koo.
City lights are oh so bright, as we go sliding… sliding… sliding through.
-Led Zeppelin, The Song Remains the Same

Well, since Berkeley Haas has decided to ask applicants about their favorite song, so this blog post will be infused with music.   Set back, relax, I will keep it musical and hopefully valuable.  I have  taken the questions from the Haas website.

BILD: Are you Berkeley enough?
Before discussing BILD (Learn more about Berkeley-Haas’ Defining Principles), I could not ask for a better start to our musical journey than DJDAVE and LeaCharles’ Berkeley Enough (Fog and Smog), which will give those not familiar with town of Berkeley some possible insight.

I have visited Berkeley since I was a child and lived there at various times in the 1990s, so the following remarks reflect that.  If you do not know, Berkeley, also known as the Peoples Republic of Berkeley, is one of my America’s most liberal, alternative, progressive, freaky, eccentric, left-wing, drug infested,  intellectual, health food conscious, and gourmet cities. It is thus a place with very different sides to it. North Berkeley towards the hills is very affluent, while southern Berkeley merges into Oakland, a city with a long and troubled history of poverty and violence. If you are looking to go to school in one of America’s safest cities, Berkeley is not it. Students are regularly victims of crime. This could be true of any urban campus in America, so understand that Berkeley is a highly urban environment and not just a relaxed college town filled with happy old hippies drinking gourmet coffee and smoking medical marijuana, Bay Area entrepreneurs working on the next big thing, and hardworking students.

My Interactions with the Haas Community: You can read testimonials and  results from clients admitted to Haas here. I experienced the energy of Haas students when I attended the end of the Japan Trek (I was a sponsor) parties  in April 2009 and  March 2012. I saw great diversity and real sense of enthusiasm amongst the participants.  You can find my Q&As with Haas students,  MBA 2010 and MBA/MPH 2009. I also visited Haas in the summer of 2011 when no students were there. It was a really useless visit as part of a conference I attended. Visiting schools when they are not in session is not particularly effective unless you have great face time with the admissions staff. I had face time, but that wasn’t so usefu l either. My student sources are much more useful to me.
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.
I think it is worth considering these four values when thinking about your fit for Berkeley.
Question the status quo: Haas values change agents and non-conformists. This fits both within the larger prevailing worldview of UC Berkeley, the Bay Area, and the Silicon Valley. This value also directly relates to Essay 3 below.
Confidence without attitude: Haas values humility. It is important that you don't come across as an arrogant person or egotistical leader type person in your essays. That might fly for HBS, but not Haas. Stanford Professor Bob Sutton’s No Asshole Rule surely applies at Haas. It should be reflected in the way you present yourself in your entire essay set.
Students always: Haas like UC Berkeley itself is place that values both a sense of curiosity and a passion for learning. Your intellectual capability matters at Berkeley. This directly relates to Essay 4 below.
Beyond yourself: Haas values people who are engaged with the world and want to make a difference. Those who have demonstrated a commitment to some issue or activity beyond their own personal concerns will be looked upon favorably. This should be reflected in your goals (Essay 5),  a personal perspective you have,  and/or your  extracurricular activities.

Essay 1: If you could choose one song that expresses who you are, what is it and why? (250 word maximum)
“Pick a song that is meaningful to you — it doesn't have to be popular, in English, or even have lyrics.”
Anytime you are given a question where you are asked to give something symbolic meaning, the first thing to do is think about what you want to express through the song. For example, if your objective was demonstrate your commitment to peace and social justice, you might pick Bob Dylan's Blowin’ In The Wind:
How many roads most a man walk down
Before you call him a man ?
How many seas must a white dove sail
Before she sleeps in the sand ?
Yes, how many times must the cannon balls fly
Before they’re forever banned ?
The answer my friend is blowin’ in the wind
The answer is blowin’ in the wind.
Yes, how many years can a mountain exist
Before it’s washed to the sea ?
Yes, how many years can some people exist
Before they’re allowed to be free ?
Yes, how many times can a man turn his head
Pretending he just doesn’t see ?
The answer my friend is blowin’ in the wind
The answer is blowin’ in the wind.
Yes, how many times must a man look up
Before he can see the sky ?
Yes, how many ears must one man have
Before he can hear people cry ?
Yes, how many deaths will it take till he knows
That too many people have died ?
The answer my friend is blowin’ in the wind
The answer is blowin’ in the wind.

In this case, you might explain when Dylan's first caught your attention. What it means to you and how it relates to actions you have taken in your own life.  This is just one possible way of answering this question.
Your musical selection does not need to have lyrics and does not need to have lyrics in English. Even if the song has lyrics, my suggestion would be only briefly explain the meaning of those lyrics because  you should really using most of your word count to explain what the song means to you.
I think the advantage of a song without lyrics, say a jazz instrumental or a classical composition (Western, Indian, Chinese, Japanese, whatever), is that it allows for easily focusing on what the song means to you. For example, I might use a song by India’s master violinist L. Subramaniam to discuss how the way the music effects me to express who I am. I might discuss 2-3 qualities about myself that are reflected in his music.

Clearly with compositional works, you have great freedom to attach any meaning you want it to it.

For songs with lyrics that are not English, there is no real difference between them and songs that are. You need to provide a brief explanation of what the song means.

I see two very different, but equally viable ways to actually think about this question within the greater context of the overall essay set:
For those who want to use Essay 1 to be the core operating logic for their entire essay set I would picking song whose theme relates to a dominant idea that connects to your professional goals and past actions. This is not easy to do, but if you were, for example, also applying to Stanford, it  might very well be that the answer to what matters most you in Essay 1, could become the theme for this essay.  This requires some real planning and having the time to really make the connections between at least Essay 1 and Essay 5.
For those who simply want to answer this totally twisted question and get on with the rest of their essay set,  I would suggest that unless something occurs to you immediately, work through the rest of the essay set and then figure out what value(s) or quality(ities) about yourself that you have been unable to communicate elsewhere in the essay set.  Assuming you have a list of few such qualities, I would then start to think about music and come up with some options.
Again, I think both ways are equally viable.  The point is to give Haas admissions insight into what kind of person you are. Whatever kind of person that is, I suggest it be someone who fits at Haas.  On that basis, I can’t recommend picking any music from GWAR:

But hey, maybe someone can make that work.  If you get into Haas using a song by GWAR, let me know. Drinks are on me.

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

With all your power
What would you do?
-Flaming Lips, Yeah Yeah Yeah Song

This is actually a totally standard issue essay topic.   What have you done (with your power) so far?  Where have you had the biggest impact and/or what accomplishment is most meaningful to you?
Some key things to keep in mind when answering this question:
-An Accomplishment can reveal your potential to succeed at Haas and afterwords.
-An Accomplishment can reveal your potential for contributing to your classmates.
-Everyone has had accomplishments, so the more unique the accomplishment, the harder it will be for you to compared to others.
-What you consider to be your greatest accomplishment is a real test of your self-awareness and judgment.
Brainstorm possible answers
The first thing you need to do is think of the accomplishments. These will eventually take the form of stories, so that is what I call them.  Your accomplishments maybe personal, professional, or academic. While it is very important that your accomplishments be distinct so as to reveal different things about you, there is no single formula for what their content must be.
Here are my criteria for thinking about whether an accomplishment is a good topic for this essay:
Ask yourself  what skill, value, or unique experience is being showcased by your accomplishment: Your accomplishment needs to reveal valuable things about you. Some will call these selling points, but more specifically they consist of skills, values, or unique experiences. One might use a specific accomplishment to emphasize one’s leadership skills, another to show one’s ethical values, and another to explain a significant barrier that was overcome. The point is that each accomplishment must at its core reveal something key to understanding who you are. Pick the one not covered by other essays and  that you think will have the most impact.
Ask yourself what potential for success in the MBA program or afterwords is being demonstrated: You may or may not be directly stating this in the essay, but you should think about what the accomplishment reveals in terms of your potential. Haas Adcom will most certainly be considering how your accomplishment demonstrates your potential to succeed in the MBA program  and afterwords, so you should as well. One key way of thinking about the MBA application process is to see it as a test of potential. Potential itself can mean different things at different schools and so you must keep in mind differences between schools and in particular must pay close attention to what schools say really matters when they assess applicants.  Please keep in mind that a core part of your own application strategy should be determining which parts of you to emphasize both overall and for a particular school. In the case of Haas, consider BILD  above as well as Haas&#8217 ;s general admissions criteria.
Just as with potential, think about whether your accomplishment demonstrates your ability to add value to other students at Haas: It is not likely or necessary that you will be explaining how your accomplishment will be contribution, but rather this is a strategic consideration. Think about whether your accomplishment demonstrates how you will likely add value to other students Haas experience. Not all accomplishments will have this quality, but many will.
If your accomplishment meets at least the first two of the above criteria, you likely have a good topic. That said, I have two simple tests for determining whether an accomplishment really belongs in this essay. The first is whether Haas really needs to know about this accomplishment. After all, you might consider getting the love of your life to marry you to be one of your most substantial accomplishments, but will Adcom care?  The second and final simple test I have for determining whether an accomplishment really belongs in this essay is based on the idea that something that is totally obvious about you to anyone looking at your resume and transcript is probably not worth mentioning. If you were a CPA, having an accomplishment that merely demonstrated you passed the CPA exam would be rather dull. Instead it would be important to show something more specific that reveals something that is not obvious by a mere examination of the basic facts of your a pplication.
Finally, as I mentioned above what you include here is a real test of your judgment, so think deeply and come up a unique accomplishment that reveals something something about you that will compel admissions to want to interview you.

ESSAY 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)

To make change, you can’t let anything stop you. I have to say that I love this question. Berkeley  is a place for those who are not traditional and are flexible in their thinking. If you are a maverick, a risk-taker, or simply unconventional in your approach to adding value, this essay option is for you. Show how you alter the very rules of something that you have been a part of and had a positive impact as a result. Leadership is often tested most profoundly in situations where one has to go against "common sense," organizational tradition, and/or the interests of others. In one way or another show how you possess the courage to act in the face of opposition.
As I mentioned above, this essay question directly relates to BILD in terms of questioning the status quo.  Given the limited word count here, I would suggest the following kind of structure:
1. Identify the specific situation and exact nature of the established practice or thought you questioned. Keep in mind that while you questioned something within in an organization, it might very well be the case that what you questioned impacted a third party. For example you might question a best consulting practice of your consulting firm in relationship to a specific client.  So the impact you had might have been on that third party.
2.  Explain what actions you took. Think of this in terms of what you said and did.  You may find it useful to discuss how your organization reacted, but I suspect there will be limited word count available for doing this.
3. Explain the positive  impact of  your actions. This question assumes you succeeded because your actions created positive change.  This can’t be a failure story. As I noted in 1 above, the impact might not necessarily be primarily on your organization, but could also be on a third party. For example, an M&A banker might question a valuation method within his own team and then get that valuation changed to positively impact a client.
For those also applying Stanford, it is highly likely that Stanford Essay 3 and Haas Essay 3 will be on the same topic. The Haas version will just likely be shorter.  Even if you don’t apply to Stanford, you might find my extended discussion of  Stanford Essay 3 helpful.

ESSAY 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)
You might very well succeed from the perspective of others, but fail from your own perspective.
It is critical that you learned something meaningful about yourself. And your learning about yourself should be important, otherwise you role as a student would be what? Therefore the key constraint of this question is that whatever the failure is, you have learned something important from it.
You should discuss how you applied your lesson because they are specifically asking for you to discuss the impact of the failure on your own development.
I would, in fact, argue that the heart of any sort of “failure question,” whether it is an essay question or an interview is what you learned. Also depending on what your role was, how you reacted is also very important.
The basic components of an answer:
1. Clearly state what the situation was.
2. Clearly state your role.
3. Clearly state your failure.
4. Explain what you learned.
5. Explain how your failure impacted your subsequent development.
This quite a bit to do in limited word count so obviously you need to effectively summarize and analyze here. Keep descriptions brief and to the point.  Make sure you are giving as much attention to your failure as how reflecting on it impacted you subsequently.
Finally, cliches are boring, so don’t write stuff like “Rome was not built in a day and neither was I.” Here is a song about that:

ESSAY 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.)

Doing it your way is what any goals essay should be about.  With the exception for the need to discuss your past experience and Berkeley specific content, please refer to my analysis of Stanford Essay 2 for formulating a goals essay.
Regarding 5a., Berkeley asks for you to explain how your professional experiences can be leveraged to support your goals.  Therefore you need to specifically discuss particular aspects of your past professional experience.  For those looking to make a career change, think of this in terms of transferable skills.  For those who will be continuing with their present careers, think of this in terms of showing how what you have done so far will help you reach the next level of your career track.
Regarding 5b., keep your Berkeley specific content focused on explaining how Haas will help you with your goals. Haas provides online resources to help you, but in addition, if possible I suggest you visit, meet alums, and/or communicate with current students to become informed about the program. While it is important to show what steps you have taken, it is equally important to make a clear case for why Haas is the right school for you. See the Berkeley MBA Student Blogs.  Also take a look at the various institutes and centers connected to Haas. Those who read Japanese should most certainly visit the Haas Japanese website and Haas Japanese students/alumni blogs.
Warning: One problem with a question like this is that some applicants will write too much about their past experience at the expense of fully explaining their goals or why they want to go to Haas to achieve those goals.
You have 750 words to answer this question, so make the most of them and convince admissions that Berkeley is really your first choice. Those who have visited Haas and/or networked with students and/or alumni will have a distinct advantage in making that case over anyone who simply cuts and pastes some class names into their essay.

Reapplicant Essay: We strongly recommend that you submit a statement outlining how you have improved your candidacy since your last application, as the Admissions Committee will be looking for substantive change in your qualifications. You can use the optional essay question to provide this information.

The whole point of reapplication is to give Haas another chance to love you. Reapplicants should see my reapplication guide. Use this space to specifically explain what has improved about you since you last applied. You can certainly mention improved test scores, but I would not use very much of your word count for that. Typical topics include: development of a new skill, promotions that demonstrate your potential for future success, involvement in an extracurricular activity, learning significantly more about Haas, and why your goals discussed in Essay 5 now are better than the ones you presented last time. They want to see career growth or at least personal growth. Help them want to give you a chance.

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)
Sorry, no song with this one.
While this question is optional, most of my clients write about something here.  Beyond any explanation for any negative issues,  feel free to write about any extracurricular activities, professional experiences, personal experiences, and/or other matters that you can add here to provide another positive perspective about you. This is a completely open question. While you might very well need to tell the admissions something negative, such as an explanation for a low GPA, I would suggest using at least part of it to tell them something positive about you. Feel free to write on any topic that will add another dimension to Admissions’ perception of who you are. I would not treat it as optional unless you truly feel that the rest of your essays have fully expressed everything you want Haas to know about you. I don’t suggest writing about something that would be obvious from reviewing your application, instead tell Haas that one or two additional key points that will give them another reason to admit you.
You need not use all 500 words here.
Warning: Using another school’s essay here would be a bad idea if it is at all obvious.  Think of this as the place to discuss anything about you that you really want admissions to know, but could not discuss elsewhere.  Don’t be boring and don’t repeat stuff they already know about you.

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)
Sorry, no song with this one either .  If you need to write this, beyond mentioning ways you obtained quantitative skills in your work or in school (when it is not obvious),  I would provide a plan for addressing your weakness in this area.  If you GMAT Quant score is in the 80% range or higher, I don’t think you really need to write anything. If you do need a plan for fixing your problem, I would highly recommend looking at MBA Math.

-Adam Markus
I am a graduate admissions consultant who works with clients worldwide. If you would like to arrange an initial consultation, please complete my intake form. Please don't email me any essays, other admissions consultant's intake forms, your life story, or any long email asking for a written profile assessment. The only profiles I assess are those with people who I offer initial consultations to. Please note that initial consultations are not offered when I have reached full capacity or when I determine that I am not a good fit with an applicant.
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