• Bryan Wang

PART IV: Applying (And Getting In) To Haas

In Parts I to III, we covered the Haas admissions process and underwent a deep-dive on the academic and resume sections. For the concluding half of the Haas Application series, we will be focusing on the essays, the most important element - in my opinion - in making your application stand out and securing a spot in the Haas undergraduate program.


In Part IV specifically, we will cover 'Essay A'.


Specifically speaking, the Haas application traditionally requires you to write two essays. You are given three prompts: A, B, and/or C. A is mandatory, and you have your pick of writing either Essay B or Essay C. Each essay is limited to 500 words maximum.


Here’s what Haas has to say about the Essays Section:


The essays are the principal means we have of gaining insight about each applicant and their interests and reasons for applying to the Haas Undergraduate Program. The Haas essay question was created to provoke honest, thoughtful responses to help us get to know you. In addition to content, essays are evaluated for critical thinking and writing ability, skill in organizing and presenting thoughts and the relevance of your answer to the question posed.

Haas essentially wants to evaluate your fit in the program.


And fortunately for you, Haas literally outlines four principles for doing so on the very front page of its own website.


Question the Status Quo: Demonstrate that you are an innovator, a creator, and that things as they are currently aren’t - and never will be - good enough.

We thrive at the epicenter of innovation. We make progress by speaking our minds even when it challenges convention. We measure success not by incremental progress but by disruption of mindsets and markets.

Confidence Without Attitude: Demonstrate that you are as much a leader as you are a team-player, someone who is willing to learn through mistakes and has the heart and courage to accept when they’re wrong (and be better for it).

We make decisions based on evidence and analysis, giving us the confidence to act without arrogance. We lead through trust and collaboration.

Student Always: Demonstrate that you are constantly searching for answers - not just through classes but through people, experiences, and stories - and that are you always hungry to learn more about the world.

We are a community designed for curiosity and lifelong pursuit of personal and intellectual growth. This is not a place for those who feel they have learned all they need to learn.

Beyond Yourself: Demonstrate your self-awareness that this is not about about you; it’s about us, and what we as a community can do for others. No business is built on one person. As much as we deify business titans (re: Bill Gates, Elon Musk, etc.), businesses are built on the backs of teams, families, and communities. Businesses should also serve the communities they are part of, and that means acting in the best interests of not only shareholders but also employees, laborers, customers, indirect customers, and more. This is perhaps the most distinctive element of Berkeley Haas’ culture, but it’s one more and more businesses are adopting (even demanding).

We shape our world by leading ethically and responsibly. As stewards of our enterprises, we take the longer view in our decisions and actions. This often means putting larger interests above our own.

When thinking about Haas’ 4 Principles and how you align with them, practice envisioning your stories and experiences and the many ways you have personally lived and breathed these values. Show. Do not tell.


On that note, let’s now take a look at each prompt, explore some best practices tailored for each one, and see how you can organically weave a story - all the while imbuing the above four principles into your essays to maximum persuasive effect.


PROMPT A: Describe your immediate post-undergraduate goals. Why is a business degree from Berkeley-Haas essential in helping you achieve these goals?


PROMPT B: Tell us about a time when you had to admit to others you made a major mistake. Describe the situation, how you handled it, and what you learned about yourself.


PROMPT C: Provide us with a specific example of how you helped to foster an environment where differences are valued, encouraged and supported. Describe the situation and the role you played. If appropriate, describe any outcomes.


PROMPT A


This is basically a “Why Haas” question. How will Haas help you pursue and fulfill your professional goals and ambitions upon graduation? And why is it necessary?


This is the key part; if you want to do investment banking or consulting or product management or sales or marketing or any other number of business-oriented roles, you don’t necessarily need a business degree. Plenty of Econ, Pol Econ, and Environmental Econ majors place into these roles and industries. Even students from the Humanities - like History, Pol Sci, English, Gender and Women’s Studies, Chicano Studies, etc. - and STEM work in these roles.


Business roles straight out of undergrad truly are remarkable, because literally anybody can do it. This is why - for this essay - you need to go beyond the job.


For starters, let’s break down this essay into two main parts, then drill further into each one.


What do you want to do after graduation?


So many students think giving a vanilla answer - like consulting, product management, or god forbid investment banking - is enough for them to skate by the essay portion and get into Haas.


WRONG.


That is literally the worst thing you can do to yourself.


First, so many other students fall into that trap, making you indistinguishable from the rest of the pack.


Second, it’s lazy and derivative (everybody wants these roles, verbalizing it in word that you want it only makes you seem even more like a boring, typical candidate).


And third and finally, it’s not compelling — it doesn’t tell a story of who you are, why you are here, and the purpose you’re trying to live out.


I know, I know.


I’m telling you to not write about things that literally every Haas kid ends up doing.


It’s hypocritical. Contradictory. Nonsensical.


So what should you write about? To be perfectly honest, you could write about how your dream job is to join Bain and conduct procurement analysis for a random German manufacturing plant, or perform due diligence on private equity investments (which sounds cool, until you do it, upon which you will question why you wasted your time trying to break into this space when you could have done literally anything else).


Or you could write about… something you actually want to do. And then proceed to not follow your heart after graduation because it doesn’t pay well, and you need to support your family, pay off your student loans, and be able to somewhat afford basic living conditions (after tax, rent, utilities, and saving for retirement) in the Bay Area (or wherever else you choose to live upon graduation).


So, it seems you only really have two options:


Follow your heart, even if you don’t follow that same heart after graduation. Haas truly doesn’t care, and won’t rescind your degree if you lied and said you wanted to work in a social impact venture capital fund but you actually joined Alpine Investors — although, to be perfectly honest, that would actually be really funny if Haas had that data so they could see what percentage of students actually followed their own words.


OR you can straight up tell Haas that you actually want to work in consulting, investment banking, or any other ‘traditional’ prestigious role. You may get in — I know friends who have copied this approach and were admitted. To pull this strategy off, you have to be exceptional (re: unblemished GPA, strong resume and extracurriculars, etc.). It’s like dating — if you’re attractive, you can [somewhat] get away with being incredibly boring. Even then, there are some exceptions.


Like most things, it pays dividends to take a balanced approach. The above situations may be the two extremes, but between them lie a spectrum of possible strategies.


For instance, you could talk about consulting and social impact, advising nonprofits, and providing a strategic business perspective to optimize impact in the social sector. You could talk about venture capital and impact investing, or joining / building a startup in a specific space and vertical (perhaps with a social impact lens), ad infinitum


Strike a balance between the warm, fuzzy feeling of what you want to do with the cold and calculating reality of business, of what you have to do.


Recognizing this inherent conflict between the two goals will help you become more self-aware, not only as an applicant but also as a student, prospective job hunter, and leader.


I personally wrote about growing up in a one-room apartment in San Francisco, learning the value of early childhood education and lack of equity in education and technology access for BIPOC and working class, low-income families. I talked about how this inspired my desire to build products and teams that could close these gaps, and eventually lead a VC fund focusing on social impact investments centered in K-12 Education and Ed-Tech. I also wrote that while these were my mid-term to late-term ambitions, my immediate goals were to gain valuable business and communication skills through consulting, and in the process build powerful networks and communities that would help me get to where I needed to go in order to at last fulfill my ultimate ambitions.


Ugh, so Machiavellian.


In my opinion, I personally have not really done a great job following this vision. And perhaps that’s okay. Plans change. People change. If anything, treat this part of Prompt A as a mere suggestion for the blueprint that is your life.


Don’t take it too seriously, and don’t treat it as gospel.


Be as genuine as you can in this particular moment, even if that may not be who you are when you graduate. Trust me — your final two years at Cal, and Haas, will CHANGE you. And for better or for worse, the you writing these essays will 100% not be the same you when you walk and finally graduate.


Takeaways:

  • Tell a story: have a clear beginning, middle, and end that explains your purpose, immediate post-graduate goals, and perhaps even future goals if applicable

  • Make sure your goals match your story and the Haas brand. Haas prides itself on its expertise in social impact, sustainable finance, startups, etc. Align your goals with what Haas is known for and good at — otherwise, why bother with Haas?

  • Your goal should be genuine, but also undeniably strategic. You could work in any number of roles and industries - consulting, IB, finance, sales, marketing, healthcare management, startups, venture capital, PE, social impact, real estate, technology, energy, ad infinitum - and the world really is your oyster.

  • Pick something you WANT to do, then be SPECIFIC. If you want to do consulting, drill into what types of consulting you want to do (re: growth strategy, brand strategy, technology strategy, M&A strategy, etc.). If you want to do startups, what kind of startup do you want to build/join? And have an answer for WHY.

  • It’s okay to NOT know what you want to do after you graduate. This is the part where Haas applicants tend to struggle most, because let’s be real: how can most people be ready to envision life after college when they’re not even halfway through it? That’s why your answer for this essay doesn’t have to be THE answer to your ultimately college questions (re: what the hell am I doing after I’m done here). Pick something that is already beginning to capture your interest. When in doubt: choose consulting, add a social impact flourish and/or synthesize an element of your existing interests with it. For instance, one of my friends wrote a brilliant essay about designing plushies in high school and how she wants to work in consulting, learn key business skills, and ultimately enter media and directly advise artists and creatives.

  • You do not need to name names. You don’t need to name-drop any consulting companies, investment banks, tech titans, up-and-coming startups, or other big brand businesses to make a point. You can, if you want. But you don’t have to. In fact, I would even avoid naming names. It honestly sounds silly to write an essay about how you want to join the Goldman Sachs when you probably don’t know how to properly describe what investment banking even is. And to that point, giving yourself flexibility gives you more credibility; by not naming names, you aren’t pigeon-holing yourself, but you have concrete interests, and you see Haas as instrumental to pursuing said interests.

On that note, once you’ve determined what you want to do with your life - or just made it up on the fly, which by all means is a legitimate strategy - you will need to align it with the Haas brand and the business school’s core competencies.


That is…


How does Haas help get you where you want to go?


The second part of Prompt A is basically “Why Haas?”


Here, you must pinpoint what makes Haas Haas, and why it’s valuable, rare, and inimitable qualities make it imperative to your education and professional ambitions.


I can’t give you tailored advice in this section, as your answer to this part heavily depends on your answer to the first part of Prompt A, but below I will provide some actionable takeaways, and general best practices, that hopefully can help you in your research, brainstorming, writing, and editing process.


Takeaways:

  • Do your due diligence. Find out what makes Haas stand out from other business programs and similar departments within the UC Berkeley academic ecosystem. Don’t just write about basic "I searched Haas on Google" items, like: rankings, prestige, job opportunities, network, vibrant and ambitious student community, etc.

  • Dig deeper. And then go even deeper. Don’t just talk about courses — write about WHAT courses catch your interest. Don’t just talk about faculty — talk about WHICH professor inspires you (re: maybe you’ve done research under them, taken their classes, or are just fascinated by their work). Don’t just talk about the student community and network — provide real, detailed, lived experiences that bring these benefits to life. There are so many SPECIFIC things one could talk about Haas, but most applicants gloss them over.

  • Imagine you’re looking through your online dating messages, and all your matches are just rattling off one liners copied straight off of r/Tinder. Yeah, maybe some of them are cute enough to merit a second chance. But for the most part — yeah, no thanks. You want someone to like you for YOU, and to prove that they know who you for who you really are (or at least make an effort trying). Now put yourself in Haas’ shoes. A student wants to join your program. But all they write to you is empty platitudes sourced from the Haas website and vague, generic statements about culture and prestige. To make a long story short: Be specific. And then get even MORE specific.

  • There are four general dimensions in which you can detail the “why’s” of Haas: Academics, Faculty, Professional Development, and Community.


Academics: On top of a Core Curriculum (re: classes you have to take in order to graduate), Haas offers a number of fascinating electives - from VC and Corporate Finance to Marketing and Nonprofits and a lot, lot more - where you can delve deeper into areas you’re truly passionate about. Its Core Curriculum provides students’ a bird’s eye view of running and operating a business, which is perfect for people interested in startups and building/scaling enterprises. And if you’re interested in, say, in the nonprofit space, then you can write about classes like UGBA 192A (Leading Nonprofits) and UGBA 192B (Strategic Philanthropy). If there’s one thing I’ll give credit to Haas, it’s the breadth and depth its electives offer. Check them out here for inspiration on structuring an ideal future schedule at Haas, and how it aligns with your professional goals and ambitions!


Faculty: Smaller + intimate class sizes help facilitate greater potential interaction between students and faculty. And for many prospective business students, the opportunity to build relationships with star professors adds another compelling, yet under-utilized reason, to earn a B.S. under Haas. Perhaps you’ve done research with a Haas professor. Or maybe you’ve heard great things from your upper classmate friends/mentors who rave about a certain professor or two. Mention these things! Be specific. Many Haas professors are national, if not global, experts in their fields of expertise. Haas prides itself on its world class faculty, so don’t be afraid to get to know them! Bonus points if you’ve interacted with professors before you even get into Haas — it shows initiative, and it also shows that you really genuinely care about learning from them, and specifically them. If you want to get involved in research, check out this link!


Professional Development: This is perhaps the single greatest reason why most students want to join Haas, yet it’s still one of the least understood. Haas doesn’t get you into consulting or banking — you do that yourself. What it can do is provide you a network that can empower these kinds of opportunities. In my Haas orientation, the first thing we were told was that the single largest reason for Haas alumni employment is through referrals… made by same year class-mates. It’s a stunning stat, one that elucidates how important relationships are in the business world. But, quite simply put, we learn most from the communities we part of, and Haas is absolutely a great community to learn from (if you’re very professionally-minded). On top of soft networks, Haas also provides specialized programs and centers that offer more in-depth guidance on tailored topics. If you’re interested in social impact, for instance, check out Social Sector Solutions (it says MBA students only, but many undergrad students have applied and got in), where a team of business students are coached by McKinsey consultants to solve a real-life case for social sector organizations and nonprofits. There is also the Center for Responsible Business, Center for Social Sector Leadership, Center for Equity, Gender, and Leadership, Berkeley Haas Entrepreneurship, Garwood Center for Corporate Innovation, Fisher Center for Real Estate and Urban Economics, and many, many more. Check them out, and see if they align with your professional goals! This is also a great way to show Haas you’ve done your research, and you know the business school inside-out.


Community: Like mentioned above, the Haas community is ‘one-of-a-kind’. There are also institutional ways Haas tries to make the community more intimate and tight-knit, such as through cohort programs, HBSA socials and events, and more. If you have friends in Haas, I absolutely think mentioning them - and how much you’ve learned and grown from them - could be a key asset in this section. It shows that you have a personal, human connection to Haas, and what that relationship means for you. It’s intimate, and something that gives more context, and richness, to your lived experience as a candidate.

While you’re workshopping ideas, make sure you ultimately align them with Haas’ 4 Principles. For instance, do your professional goals highlight commitment to ‘challenging the status quo’, or perhaps acting ‘beyond yourself’ (notice how saying you want to join consulting/banking do neither of these two things, so you will need to spice things up if you want to impress admissions).


You may also organically see how focusing on Academics/Professors can embody ‘Student Always’, and how other reasons why you want to join Haas align with the other principles.

The key to answering Prompt A is going above and beyond answering the initial question posed — when asked “Why Haas,” go beyond the vanilla response of prestige, classes, professors, etc. Provide additional layers of detail and context, upgraded by research and personal experience, that make you stand out from others. When asked “What are your goals,” be prepared, again, to be hyper-specific and align your ambitions with Haas’ principles.


While you’re doing all this, be sure to assess how your words convey the weight and impact of Haas’ 4 Defining Leadership Principles.


Concluding Thoughts


Hopefully you now have a better understanding of how to tell your story - through your Resume and Prompt A’s Essay - and how to tie all that with Haas’ 4 Principles.


In Part Five, we will cover the next essay (your choice of Prompt B or C), and in Part Six we will cover the 'Optional Essay' as well as additional information (re: interviews, final tips and tricks, etc.) and my concluding thoughts.

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