Hemingway, by Lloyd Arnold, late 1939. Public Domain.
“The worst thing that you can do is be afraid and try to give the safe answer… Be courageous and tell us who you really are and what you want out of business school, and I think that you will find that strategy will take you all the way.” –Pete Johnson, Associate Dean of MBA Admissions, Berkeley Haas
Berkeley Haas showed some literary panache in posing a Hemingway-esque challenge to MBA candidates with this new essay for its 2017/18 cycle: “Tell us a six-word story that reflects a memorable experience in your life-to-date.”
Never someone to be intimidated by a challenge (literary or otherwise), it’s said that novelist Ernest Hemingway wrote the following when provoked by fellow writers to tell a full story in six words: “For sale: baby shoes. Never worn.” According to legend, Hemingway penned the story in a few minutes on a bar napkin and won $10 from each challenger in the wager.
It’s unclear whether you can submit your answer to Haas on a bar napkin. Though you do get 250 words to elaborate on why your six-word story is meaningful to you. The heart of the challenge, which replaces Berkeley’s “choose one song that expresses who you are,” is to distill an emblematic experience into something autobiographical and memorable.
So where to start? Berkeley Haas Associate Dean for the Full-time MBA Program and Admissions, Pete Johnson, offers this advice:
“Be courageous,” says Johnson, who spoke on the Admissions Director Panel at the CentreCourt MBA Festival in New York. “I think a lot of applicants say ‘well, you know, I’m an engineer but what I really want to do is work in digital music,’ and they write it out and they show it to their partner or whoever who says, ‘no don’t write that, they’ll think you’re crazy!’ When people do that, it goes flat. When somebody really tells us what they’re enthusiastic about it literally leaps off the screen.”
Haas’s six-word story is a pointed example of shorter not being simpler. Knowing that a good story conveys a beginning, middle and end, it’s a mighty feat in six words. To paraphrase a literary maxim oft attributed to Mark Twain, ‘If I had more time I’d have written a shorter letter.’ Morgan Bernstein, Executive Director of Full-Time MBA Admissions at Haas, supplies some great insight for the essays on the Haas website.
“There is no right story other than your own,” says my Fortuna Admissions colleague Sharon Joyce, former Associate Director of Admissions at Haas. “And this is not an exercise in grammar. So think first about what you want Haas to take away from the essay before you try to capture that experience in six words.”
In terms of strategy, Sharon advises to first think about a memorable experience and why it brought you great happiness, or proved to be a distinctly rewarding challenge. Then, allow yourself to play with possibilities. Allowing yourself to have a little fun and stay curious can go a long way toward replacing any feelings of dread (or, for the more quant-minded among you, terror). For some inspiration and amusement, view these clever submissions from a six-word memoir contestfeatured on NPR, which includes, “Met wife at her bachelorette party.”
“The six-word essay prompt allows the admissions team to understand ‘what makes you tick’ above and beyond what they’ve already gleaned from your academic record and work history,” says Joyce. “This might be an opportunity to share an experience where you went beyond yourself to succeed, or grew in confidence from a lesson in failure. Write not what you think sounds so very b-school, but rather share your sense of purpose and authentic self.”
If you’re ready to write like Hemingway, remember that he’s also credited with proclaiming, “The first draft of anything is sh@*.” It’s almost always true, even for the writer who knocked out one of his most memorable stories on a napkin.
Matt Symonds is a Director at MBA admissions coaching firm Fortuna Admissions, a dream team of former admissions directors and business school insiders from 12 of the top 15 business schools. He is the author of “Getting the MBA Admissions Edge,” and co-organizer of the CentreCourt MBA Festival with Poets & Quants.
One look at the first application essay question for the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley, this year may make applicants think the program has finally embraced the less-is-more movement in essays that so many other top schools have been joining lately. And to be fair, the total number of words allowed for Berkeley-Haas’s essays this season has gone down, but not by all that much—dropping from 1,000 to 806—so candidates still have a comparatively good amount of space in which to present a well-rounded impression of themselves to the school. Although the prompts have changed in wording, the kind of information the school wants to elicit seems largely the same. As always, you want your essays as a whole to encompass a range of stories and qualities that complement each other so as to provide an accurate representation of who you are today, the student you expect to be in business school, and the professional you will be for the rest of your career. What follows is our full analysis of Berkeley-Haas’s updated essay questions…
Essay #1: Tell us a six-word story that reflects a memorable experience in your life-to-date. Elaborate on why it is meaningful to you. (250 words maximum)
Tip: A successful six-word story will pique the reader’s interest in the forthcoming explanation. Together, the story and explanation will share a specific and personal experience that helps the reader get to know you better, giving insight into your character, values, or how you would uniquely contribute to the Berkeley-Haas community. View sample six-word stories and video tips from the admissions committee.
Before you start hyperventilating, let us reassure you that you absolutely can convey a meaningful and compelling story in just six words. Perhaps the most famous example of this is Ernest Hemingway’s famous “six-word novel,” which reads, “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” In fact, entire Reddit, Pinterest, and Tumblr pages are dedicated to these succinct narratives, and several publications and Web sites have regular contests to see who can craft the best six-word tales. So, Berkeley-Haas may not be the first to come up with the idea, but it does appear to be the first business school to make it a part of its application!
In addition to presenting several examples for applicants on its team Web page, the Berkeley Haas admissions committee offers two key pieces of advice for this essay in a video application tip: using contractions (e.g., it’s, can’t, won’t, didn’t) is totally acceptable, and perfect grammar is not necessary. These are both important space savers. Thankfully, the school also gives you a 250-word essay in which to further elaborate on your mini story, so you can expound on some elements of the narrative that may not be immediately understood, but take care to not use that portion of this essay response to simply retell your story in more detail.
Start by thinking carefully about how you want to present yourself as an applicant and an individual, and consider what you might say in your other essays for the program, to ensure that each piece you submit is complementary of the others and offers something different about you. You might consider this first essay the “colorful” essay and the others more “serious.” In this one, you have a special opportunity to provide a window into your life experience and personality. Your six-word story should captivate and intrigue the admissions reader, leaving him or her wanting to learn more. (Almost by definition, the reader will be enveloped in mystery!) Then, the second, 250-word portion of the essay should unravel any mystery, illuminate your character, and clarify the significance of the core narrative in who you are today, thereby giving the admissions committee a critical sense of understanding.
Essay #2: Respond to one of the following prompts: (250 words maximum)
Tip: Responses can draw from professional or personal experiences. Through your response, the admissions committee hopes to gain insight into your achievements, involvement, and leadership footprint.
- Describe a significant obstacle you have encountered and how it has impacted you.
If you choose to respond to this prompt, you will need to ensure that your essay conveys a sense of change, and to best demonstrate change, you must depict a clear “before and after” scenario. So, start by identifying a time when something stood between you and a goal you wanted to reach, or when something (likely unexpected) derailed your forward progress in an important area of your life. Consider incidents from your career, personal life, and community activities to find the one you feel is most compelling and reveals the most about you. For example, perhaps you faced a budget shortfall on a critical work project, clashed with a sibling over how to manage a parent’s health, or had a volunteer event you organized be jeopardized by budget or weather issues.
Begin your essay by providing some narrative context that sets the stage for the disruptive moment or experience, showing your progress and mind-set to that point. Then, describe the incident or issue that interrupted or threatened that progression and forced you to revise or abandon your original efforts. Next, detail your reaction and subsequent decision(s) and actions. Finally, share what you learned from the experience and how it has altered who you are and/or how you now view or interact with the world. Having an appropriate story to tell is only half the task. Berkeley-Haas does not want to know only that you have faced and overcome a significant challenge but also how that situation has contributed to the person you are today.
- Describe how you have cultivated a diverse and inclusive culture.
In business school—as in life in general—you will encounter people who think differently from you, operate according to different values, and react differently to the same stimuli. And success in an endeavor often involves evaluating and even incorporating the views of others in one’s efforts. With this essay prompt, Berkeley-Haas is hoping to learn how you view and deal with such differences, using the principle that past behavior is a fairly reliable predictor of future behavior. In the Berkeley-Haas MBA program, you will be surrounded every day by individuals who are unlike you in a multitude of ways, and you will need to work in tandem with and alongside these individuals when analyzing case studies, completing group projects, and participating in other activities both inside and outside the classroom. Note, however, that the essay prompt does not refer simply to participating in a “diverse and inclusive culture” but actually cultivating one. The admissions committee wants to know that you are comfortable within such a dynamic, of course, but seems especially interested in hearing from candidates who have stepped into some kind of leadership role to actively bring various people together in a harmonious and productive way.
Leadership does not need to have an official title attached to it, and it can be expressed in a community service or even family life setting just as much as in a workplace, so plumb all the different areas of your life for possible stories. Perhaps, for example, you organized a welcome-our-neighbors potluck block party in your neighborhood after a group of refugees moved in. Or maybe you instituted a mentorship program at your company, in which employees with different tasks and personal backgrounds were matched to learn from and support one another. Whatever your story, we recommend using a narrative approach to present it, but be sure to also share the thought process and motivation(s) behind your actions. This way, the admissions committee will take away both a clear picture of what you accomplished and the aspects of your character that inspired you and enabled your success.
- Describe a leadership experience and how you made a positive and lasting impact.
As we noted for the previous essay prompt, you can be a leader without having an official title of some sort, and you can act as a leader in your community service, personal life, or workplace, so take time to fully consider all the different areas of your life for possible stories before you start writing. Whatever the subject area, you ultimately want to offer a clear narrative that allows your reader to easily visualize your actions and motivations. The admissions committee wants to learn about you through your experience, after all, not hear platitudes about leadership. Also, Berkeley-Haas is not necessarily asking you to share your greatest triumph as a leader but rather the one that had the most meaningful and enduring influence. For some applicants, the two may be one and the same, but this will not necessarily be true for all candidates. And although one might assume that if your leadership resulted in a long-lasting, positive effect, you were likely successful in your core undertaking, again, this does not necessarily have to be the case. If your team failed to reach its intended goal, but the experience had a significant influence on those involved, that can be fodder for an effective essay as well.
Be sure that your description of the experience demands no more than one-half of your essay. The school is equally interested in hearing about the “positive and lasting impact” your leadership facilitated and also how you brought this about. So share your thought process and key decisions as well as the results, and keep in mind that the impact does not have to have been strictly on people. For example, you may have led the charge to clean up a local greenway and established a community group to ensure the ongoing maintenance of the area so that indigenous flora and fauna can thrive there. The keys to a compelling and successful essay response lie not in the size of the endeavor you led but in your actions and motivations, which will reveal important facets of your personality to the admissions committee, and to its ultimate significance—to you, to those involved, and to anyone or anything affected by the outcome.
Essay #3: (1) Briefly describe your immediate post-MBA career goals. (50 words maximum) (2) How have prior experiences motivated and prepared you to pursue these goals? (250 words maximum)
Tip: You are encouraged to reflect on both what you want to do professionally after business school and why this path interests you.
Yet again, Berkeley-Haas has reframed its career-focused essay prompt, this time removing the request to explain the school’s role in achieving your aims and narrowing the scope of the goal question to focus exclusively on your short-term plans—while also cutting back the word limit from 500 to 300 total. The school knows only too well that many candidates change their career goals during the course of the MBA program, given their exposure to new people, ideas, and options. Focusing on applicants’ immediate post-graduate aspirations allows the admissions committee to assess where the individual is right now in his or her thinking and development. Berkeley-Haas wants to know what skills and mind-set are being brought to the table, so to speak, perhaps to get an idea of the applicant’s potential not only in the stated area of interest but also in the many areas the candidate may have not yet considered but could be just as successful. The concept of motivation is also key, so you want to demonstrate that you are a forward-thinking, ambitious person who sees business school as a vital step on your professional and personal journey. Note that the essay prompt does not refer strictly to skills or qualifications but also experiences, implying that the admissions committee wants to know not just whether you are capable of doing the job you seek but also why you want that job. So be sure to respond accordingly, mentioning any life lessons, personal passions, and other stimuli that have spurred you to this point and inspire you to push still further.
Given that the word count for this essay has been restricted and the school does not explicitly ask you to detail your long-term plans or your vision for how Berkeley-Haas will help you reach your goals, we encourage you to think twice before using any space to address either of those topics and instead dedicate yourself to answering the questions it does pose in a thorough and thoughtful way. The elements this essay question demands are ones typically included in a standard personal statement essay, so we encourage you to download your free copy of the mbaMission Personal Statement Guide, which we created to help applicants write this style of essay for any school. It explains in further detail how to consider and present your career goals in essay form, with examples, so be sure to claim your complimentary copy today.
Optional Essay: Use this essay to share information that is not presented elsewhere in the application, for example:
- Explanation of employment gaps or academic aberrations
- Quantitative abilities
- For re-applicants, improvements to your candidacy
The optional essay prompt is the only one Berkeley-Haas has not tweaked this season, maintaining its directive approach in hopes, we believe, of focusing applicants specifically on the information it deems most useful and offering examples in the form of bullet points. This essay has no stated word limit, but do not interpret this as a blank-slate invitation to dump every bit of remaining information about yourself that you feel the school is lacking. And however difficult, avoid the temptation to simply reuse a strong essay you wrote for another program here or to offer a few anecdotes you were unable to incorporate into any of your other Berkeley-Haas essays. Be judicious in your use of this opportunity, and submit an optional essay only if you truly believe a key element of your story or profile is needed for the school to have a complete and accurate understanding of you as a candidate. Consider downloading your free copy of our mbaMission Optional Essays Guide, in which we offer detailed advice on when and how to take advantage of the optional essay (including multiple sample essays) to help you mitigate any problem areas in your profile.
For a thorough exploration of the academic program, merits, defining characteristics, crucial statistics, social life, academic environment, and other key aspects of UC Berkeley Haas, check out the mbaMission Insider’s Guide to the Berkeley-Haas School of Business.