Category Archives: UC Berkeley Haas

How do I answer that?? Tough MBA Essay Questions Round-up 1: Haas, Chicago, Duke & MIT

– Cecilia Wu Tanaka

As you’ve probably seen by now, MBA application questions run the gamut from straightforward (“Tell us about a meaningful leadership experience”) to the bizarre (“If you could have dinner with anyone, living or dead, whom would you choose, and what would you order?” (an old Haas question)). MBA programs, unlike other academic programs, focus on the individual. To be successful as a business person you’ll need not only intelligence and the hard skills of leadership, but also sound personal character and an attractive personality. Many of these “stranger” or more difficult essay questions are trying to get at those more personal aspects of your background. In this post I’ll discuss some of the less straightforward essay questions that are out this year:

University of California, Berkeley, Haas

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

The purpose of this question is the same as the “dinner” question I cited above. Basically, they are trying to learn more about who you are as a person: what are your values? What do you care about? What are you like, not just as a professional, but as a person?

When you choose your song, be sure to choose a song by its lyrics – the words – rather than by the tempo of the song. In other words, don’t select an upbeat song to show that you are an upbeat person. Rather, find a song whose words best capture who you are. And the song does not need to be in America’s or UK’s greatest hits lists. It can be an old song, a folk song, a song that is popular only in your country, or even a song that was passed down through your family. My point being, it is not the song that matters but rather how you can use your selection to talk more about who you are.

For example, I’ve always loved the song True to Your Heart by 98 Degrees, ever since I saw the Disney film Mulan when I was younger. Of course, if you read the lyrics literally, the song is a love song, but I have applied the message to life in general. The lines “Open your eyes / your heart can tell you no lies” basically tell my life story of fighting back against my family’s traditional teachings to create the life that is true to me. If I were to write this essay, I would mention only briefly what this song is about and then spend the rest of the essay explaining how I’ve developed this belief in my own life, and how I have lived by this philosophy, bringing in my own life examples.

The University of Chicago Booth

3. Presentation/Essay
The Chicago experience will take you deeper into issues, force you to challenge assumptions, and broaden your perspective. In a four-slide presentation or an essay of no more than 600 words, broaden our perspective about who you are. Understanding what we currently know about you from the application, what else would you like us to know?

This, too, is a question asking you to tell them more about who you are. Chicago’s other essay questions will ask you about (Q1) your professional goals, (Q2a) a challenge you’ve overcome, and (Q2b) an experience which has transformed your way of thinking. Presumably, you will cover some of your professional career in any of those 3 questions. Now, this Presentation/Essay question is a chance for you to supplement the information already provided in Questions 1-2a & 2b. What else would you like the admissions committee to know about you, that isn’t already apparent in the other essays? What is compelling or essential information about you? I recommend presenting or discussing a few things about you – for example, perhaps you’re wildly creative, and have been building and inventing small things on the side since you were a kid, and you also love all types of adventure sports. Or, maybe you wrestled with a rather difficult childhood illness or condition and this has led you to a life-long dedication to volunteer work, something that has also taken you to many diverse communities in and out of your country. The activities you present about yourself will be vehicles to show your character, values, and/or personality. For example, something as common as a life-long hobby in tennis can be a way of showing your unrelenting dedication to excellence; a series of solo backpacking trips in developing countries can convey your spirit of adventure and curiosity in less privileged cultures. In the end, it is not what you write about that will make you stand out, but how you write about it – by allowing the admissions committee to get a sense of the person behind your application.

Duke Fuqua

Long essay 1. The “Team Fuqua” spirit and community is one of the things that sets The Duke MBA experience apart, and it is a concept that extends beyond the student body to include faculty, staff, and administration. When a new person joins the Admissions team, we ask that person to share with everyone in the office a list of “25 Random Things About Yourself.” As an Admissions team, we already know the new hire’s professional and academic background, so learning these “25 Random Things” helps us get to know someone’s personality, background, special talents, and more.

In this spirit, the Admissions Committee also wants to get to know you—beyond the professional and academic achievements listed in your resume and transcript. You can share with us important life experiences, your likes/dislikes, hobbies, achievements, fun facts, or anything that helps us understand what makes you who you are. Share with us your list of “25 Random Things” about YOU.

Please present your response in list form, numbered 1 to 25. Some points may be only a few words, while others may be longer. Your complete list should not exceed 2 pages.

Duke makes it very clear here that they are trying to learn more about you beyond your career and academic experience. They are not looking to see how unusual you are; they simply want to get to know you. When approaching this question, think of all the things that define and characterize you. The Random Things can range from your favorite book to your favorite hero, from your most embarrassing moment to the experience that changed your life. They can include relevant information about your identity or life like the fact that you were adopted or are an American child of multiracial parents or a former semi-finalist for American Idol. I recommend mixing the topics (small, big, funny, dark, touching, inspirational, etc.) so the admissions committee can get to know you on different levels. In the end, just make sure that the list portrays you as someone who would be an interesting addition to the entering class, and who will fit in with the team-oriented and collaborative community at Fuqua. (Too many facts painting you as a brooding, dark person who likes to be alone probably will not get you admitted!)

A helpful guide is this post written by Fuqua Director of Admissions Megan Lynam, where she provides some actual examples of fellow Duke colleagues’ 25 random things about themselves.

MIT Sloan

Cover Letter

Please prepare a cover letter (up to 500 words) seeking a place in the MIT Sloan MBA program. Your letter should describe your accomplishments, address any extenuating circumstances that may apply to your application, and conform to standard business correspondence. Your letter should be addressed to Mr. Rod Garcia, Senior Director of Admissions.

This will be covered in a future blog post, but let me touch upon this question here. Though not listed as one of the main essays, this classic MIT question is, basically, one of the main essays. It’s their substitute for the goals essay and it is also a way for them to get an overview of your qualifications and to see how well you are able to promote yourself (something that will be useful once job recruitment time comes).

A cover letter is designed to sell a candidate. Without embellishment or arrogance, you will need to sound a bit stronger than you normally would in a regular goals essay. You need to start the letter with the “60 second elevator pitch.” That first paragraph needs to grab the reader’s attention and make him/her interested in reading more about you. How would you summarize what you have been doing, what you have achieved, and in what way(s) you have made impact? In the rest of the letter, explain to Mr. Garcia why they ought to be interested in you and what you have to offer: what you have achieved, what you want to achieve in the future, and how you can add value to MIT’s community.

When considering appropriate topics for your essays, especially in essay sets that ask you more personal questions, be sure to efficiently and wisely use all the questions to present your candidacy as a balanced whole.

I will do another round up of difficult MBA essay questions within a week.

Cecilia Wu Tanaka is co-founder of Reve Counseling and a veteran graduate admissions counselor. Prior to starting Reve 7 years ago she headed up a $1.25 million counseling department at the largest test prep company in Asia. In her previous life, she sat on various admissions committees at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, conducted interviews for the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, and directed the interview program at Harvard Medical School.

Haas Business School Essay Question Analyses and Deadlines, 2011-12

Haas, for the first time this year, has clearly laid out the core principles that define their culture. While they have always looked for a certain set of qualities in the admissions process, they say that this is the first time they are actually articulating them. As you explore Haas, please take some time to study their 4 guiding principles and see how they might match your own philosophy and experiences:

Important Dates

Deadline Decision Notification
Round 1 October 12, 2011 January 12, 2012
Round 2 December 1, 2011 March 1, 2012
Round 3 January 18, 2012 April 12, 2012
Round 4 March 7, 2012 May 17, 2012

Essay Questions

Haas has renewed most of its essay questions this year. My comments and advice are in orange. The black text is from the Haas website.

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. What brings you the greatest joy? How does this make you distinctive? (250 word maximum)

This is an open-ended question and there really is no trick to it. To give you some point of reference, in the past this question used to be “What are you most passionate about?” The question is designed for the admissions committee to get to know you better, to understand what makes you “tick” (what motivates, excites or fulfills you) and to get a sense of what you value. What brings you the greatest joy could be creating something from scratch, beating your own time in an athletic endeavor, playing your favorite musical instrument, or parenting your children or helping the elderly. Remember that the purpose of the application is to let the admissions committee get to know and like you, and not necessarily to impress them. Use this essay to tell them who you are.

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

What have you done that you are most proud of? In many cases this is a professional accomplishment, however, it doesn’t have to be. Whatever topic you use, consider the following: qualities shown and skills exercised; impact made (whether on yourself or others (or both)); obstacles overcome.

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)

This question supports Haas’ principle of questioning the status quo. UCB believes that true innovators are those who are not afraid to challenge convention. Have you ever introduced change or tried to bring about improvement to an established or conventional practice? What kind of resistance did you encounter and how did you deal with it? What was the outcome?

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)

This question supports Haas’ strong desire to recruit students who “have confidence without attitude.” To be “a student of your own failure” is to learn from your mistakes. Do not be afraid to talk about something that you really messed up on. The admissions committee will not be focusing on the mistake itself – they know that everyone makes them – but on the humility with which you recognized the failure and learned from it. 

5.   Describe a time when you led by inspiring or motivating others toward a shared goal. (250 word maximum)

Please note that this is not simply a leadership question but one that focuses specifically on your team skills as a leader. In what ways did you support your team members or subordinates to accomplish a goal? You will need to discuss your work leading and motivating your team members in writing this essay, rather than talking about your individual actions to reach the goal.

6. 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? (1000 word maximum for 6a. and 6b.)

This is a straightforward goals question that asks you to talk about the interrelation between your career experiences, future goals, and a Haas education. How are they connected? How did your professional experiences lead you to the career goals that you now have, and how are those goals now leading you to make an application to Haas’ MBA program?

UC Berkeley Haas School of Business 2009-10 Deadlines and Essay Question Analyses

Haas is a great option for those of you interested in learning about innovation within a general management program at a top university. It’s also well known for its diversity and small and collaborative student body. To top it all off, Berkeley is in one of the greatest cities in America! No, Haas is not paying me to say all this but I decided to write something when, talking to some of my new students, I realized that there are a number of people unfamiliar with the Haas MBA program. Some of my most impressive students have gone on to Haas over the last few years (and love it and have done well) and so I have a pretty good impression of the school.

Below, please find the deadlines and essay questions along with my comments in orange:

**The on-line application will be available mid-August, according to their website.**

Deadlines (before midnight Pacific time)

Round 1:     October 20, 2009   (decision date: January 27, 2010)

Round 2:    December 10, 2009   (decision date: March 17, 2010)

Round 3:    February 2, 2010   (decision date: April 28, 2010)

Round 4:    March 10, 2010   (decision date: May 19, 2010)

Fall 2010 Essay Questions

Listed below are the supplemental questions, short answer questions, required essays, and optional essays for the fall 2010 application.

Supplemental Questions:  [ I will not provide any comments to the Supplemental Questions as they should be self-explanatory; brief answers and lists are fine here.]

  1. If you have not provided a letter of recommendation from your current supervisor, please explain; otherwise, enter N/A.
  2. List in order of importance all community & professional organizations and extracurricular activities in which you have been involved during or after university studies. Indicate the nature of the activity or organization, dates of involvement, offices held, & average number of hours spent per month.
  3. List full-time and part-time jobs held during undergraduate or graduate studies, indicating the employer, job title, employment dates, location, and the number of hours worked per week for each position held prior to the completion of your degree.
  4. Please explain all gaps in your employment since earning your university degree.
  5. Beyond the courses that appear on your academic transcripts, please discuss other ways in which you have demonstrated strong quantitative abilities.
  6. If you have ever been subject to academic discipline, placed on probation, suspended or required to withdraw from any college or university, please explain. If not, please enter N/A. (An affirmative response to this question does not automatically disqualify you from admission.)

Short Answer:

  1. What are you most passionate about? Why? (250 word maximum)

Haas wants to learn more about you through this question. There is no right or wrong response, and the answer could be something concrete like a hobby or it could be completely abstract, like a life philosophy or belief. Whatever you choose, it should be something that will allow the admissions committee to understand you better. I do have this piece of advice, though: choose something that will balance out the rest of your essays, and it is great if you have something personal to talk about. If you look at the rest of the essay question set, you’ll see that most of the questions ask about career-related experiences. I would avoid saying things like “I am most passionate about working hard” or “I am most passionate about my career”; you want to show that you have some balance in your life!

2.    Tell us about your most significant accomplishment. (250 word maximum)

When choosing a topic for this question, be sure you don’t overlap with the innovation question below (#3) or the leadership question (Required Essay 1). You can select a non-work experience to discuss as well. For example, if you feel that your greatest accomplishment is overcoming a long-term illness or some other personal obstacle, you can certainly use that story for this essay.

3.    At Haas, we value innovation and creativity. Describe a time when you created positive change in a group or an organization. (250 word maximum)

They changed this essay question slightly this year (in the past they asked for a creative problem-solving/solution example); the question seems a bit more open-ended now. Haas is a school that prides itself on innovation, and so likewise they are looking for applicants with the same mindset. What is an example of a time when you took initiative to introduce something new? They are looking for examples of new and creative solutions or ways of doing things. Try to think of a time when you changed something, created or invented something, thought of a new solution (etc.). Discuss how you thought of this and implemented it and briefly what the impact was. 

4.    What steps have you taken to learn about the Berkeley MBA program, and what factors have influenced your decision to apply? (250 word maximum)

Quite frankly, a number of applicants apply to Haas with a personal preference for Stanford. The two schools share many similar qualities, including an innovation-based curriculum, small community, and location near Silicon Valley. Haas needs to be sure that you are sincere about your interest in their school, that you are not considering it simply as a safety net in case you don’t get accepted to Stanford! This is why you are asked here to write a separate essay simply discussing how you have researched their program and how you decided to apply. (Please note this is different from the goals essay in which you explain in more detail how you will use the resources at Haas.) Be sure to mention any campus visits, conversations with Haas students, alumni/ae, and/or staff, attendance at Haas events, etc. And be sure you sound sincere and specific.

Required Essays:

  1. Give us an example of a situation in which you displayed leadership. (500 word maximum)

This is a straightforward question in which you have to talk about a time when you took initiative to create a positive impact. The best example should be a recent experience from work, although the most important thing is to look at the rest of your essay set to see what examples you have already used. Make sure that whatever example you use that you show balance and sufficient professional leadership experience.

2.    What are your post-MBA short-term and long-term career goals? How do your professional experiences relate to these goals? How will an MBA from Berkeley help you achieve these specific career goals? (1000 word maximum)

This is also a straightforward question asking about your goals, how your experiences have led you to your goals, and how you believe you will use the resources at Haas to help you reach those goals. Since Haas has a relatively unique curriculum and philosophy, make sure that you convey well the fit between their program and your professional and academic goals.

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)

This is a very open-ended question and you may write another essay here. Look at the rest of your essay set; if there is another compelling story which you have not had a chance to tell, please use this space to write it. If you feel the regular essays already represent you fully, then don’t feel obligated to write this optional essay. It is better to leave it blank than to write another essay that doesn’t add significant value to your candidacy.

Reapplicants: Please read the specific instructions on Haas’ website regarding materials to update.