Breaking Down the 2012 Short Answers for Haas

Okay, so here we are, ready to analyze another set of essays ... err, Short Answers.  We were prepared to sit this one out, but we've been getting a ton of questions about the always daunting Haas application, specifically the five Short Answer questions.  (For the Career Goals essay, you can track down our very public thoughts on traditional career goals essays and/or consider becoming a client of ours!)

So, as a public service (and chance to show off, of course), here is a breakdown of Haas' 2012 Short Answers: 


Before you can race to the Short Answers, you have to really understand the Four Principles.  On the one hand, we are happy to see them front and center, because the Four Principles are what make Haas "Haas" and we we love Haas.  On the other hand, it was disappointing to see them go up in lights because it stripped our clients of an advantage (if you have read our Columbia or Ross breakdowns, you will see this is a running theme).  We've known for some time that the Four Principles should guide all answers on a Haas application, not just one question (last year it was Short Answer #3), so now everyone else knows it to.  Alas, great essays are about knowledge + skill + hard work, so we're okay with the playing field being leveled on the first point. 

To take it a step further, what do the four principles mean?  Here is how Haas words it: 

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.

Here is how we see it: 

·       Question the status quo – This comes from being such an innovative b-school.  Tech heavy, access to Silicon Valley, global in reach, caring about social values.  This is our favorite principle for essay-writing because its all about being innovative, taking a risk, stepping out in the void, rising to face a challenge, leading, and so on.  

·       Confidence without attitude – A byproduct of having the former CTO of Goldman as its dean, Haas is all about proper preparation for making an impact in the workforce.  Rich Lyons (the dean) knows that arrogance and swagger and “paper prestige” won’t get you anywhere once you start sitting down with recruiters and then go on to join a professional team.  This question is ideal for someone with rock star credentials looking to show humility.  

·       Students always – This is a nod to the student-friendly culture of Haas, but I’ve always believed this is here more for them to show off than for you to do likewise.  A brief mention somewhere – anywhere – in the application is usually enough. 

·       Beyond yourself – This is about social justice and making an impact beyond your own life.  Most candidates will want to talk about the broader world and making an impact, whether in a short answer or in the Why Haas part of the career goals essay. 

So once you have that as your guiding star, you can get into the essays. 

SHORT ANSWER 1 - What brings you the greatest joy? How does this make you distinctive? (250 word maximum)

We literally have two pages of information that we share with our clients about this essay but the big takeaway here is that you want to write about a true passion or interest ... yet still lay down the ground work for your long-term career goal.  The mistakes that applicants are making over and over and over lately is to draw too tight of a line from short-term goals to long-term goals.  You don't have to prove how management consulting will help you run a professional soccer team one day ... you have to prove you love soccer and will devote your life to getting to the place where you can run a team.  Long-term goals are not about drawing tight lines, they are about drawing swooping arcs ... arcs back to WHO YOU ARE and WHAT YOU LOVE.  Admissions officers simply do not want to see anymore "Short-term I want to be an investment banker and then long-term I want to be an even more successful and powerful investment banker" type goals.  So what we are starting to see is that the b-schools are leading the horse to water and then making the horse drink.  Last year, Haas asked for applicants' greatest "passion" and everyone wrote how passionate they were about crunching numbers and making deals.  Ugh.  Now they are using the word "joy" and really spelling it out.  

Of course, what will happen now is that people will include weird stuff that doesn't inform their vision.  So if you read this, know that you aren't writing about joy in "work" (as in your current job) but joy in "passion - that to which you are willing to devote your life."  If you do that, and make it personal (ie, distinctive), you will crush this short answer.  

SHORT ANSWER 2 - What is your most significant accomplishment (250 words)

Many see this as the kid brother of the famous HBS Essay 1 that asks for three accomplishments.  Really, its more like a relative of the old Ross Essay 2, which asked for a significant accomplishment ... as well as leadership indicated and impact on organization.  If you focus on those two things - as well as the guiding Principle of "Confidence without attitude," you will likely have a strong short answer here.  

SHORT ANSWER 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)

Well, we obviously have our "Challenge the status quo" question.  That's really all you need to know.  Well, that and how to nail an Impact Essay.  (Hey, can't give it all away for free:)

SHORT ANSWER 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)

"A student of your own failure..."  Wow.  Let's just translate that to "Tell us about a time you screwed up and what you learned."  Done and done. 

What makes this one tough is not the flowery prose that Haas is deploying, but rather the tiny word count.  Normally, a “mistake” or “failure” essay is about 400-600 words and allows for a pretty elaborate set up, an introduction of the mistake made, an explanation of why it was made, then what you learned from it, and finally, what you would do again if given the chance.  Clearly, you can’t include all of that information.  So what is most critical?  It starts with understanding the tone and meaning of the question.  Why is Haas including this, of all things?  It has to do with b schools “getting younger” and the accompanying quest for maturity - the need to measure a modicum of social intelligence.  As average ages dip, EQ seems to drop right along with it.  By asking a candidate to be introspective, humble, willing to admit failure ... it can be very telling. (As an aside, this is why you don't want to duck the question and prop up something weak.)

Our advice is to get right to it: About 100 words to describe the situation and then about 150 words to talk about what you learned and how you moved forward.  Good luck - this is a tough task indeed.  

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

Geez, Haas, how many questions do you need to ask?  Okay, for this one, let's comment on a broader trend, which is that b-schools are tired of "so I picked up the biggest shovel and boy did I start digging!" leadership examples.  Simply working your butt off is not really that impressive, yet many candidates seem to mistake work ethic for leadership.  It's *part* of leading, for sure, but leadership is about so much more than that.  Here's a list of leadership styles: 

  • Leadership through empathy (putting yourself in the shoes of others and understanding what they need)
  • Leadership through thoughtful solutions and persuasive articulation of those solutions (the 1-2 punch of "persuading others")
  • Leadership through action (make no mistake, this is still good, and often how you bring it home)
  • Leadership through language (talking brilliantly)
  • Leadership through charisma (charming the hell out of everyone so that they go “this is our leader!”)
  • Leadership through authority (the cheapest and weakest form of “leading” is just telling people what to do because you are authorized to do so)

In life, we see way too much of Leadership by Authority and in applications we see way too much of Leadership through Action.  Here, Haas is affirming as much by saying "tell us about bringing people along for the ride."  Focus on empathy examples that are accompanied by a blend of actions, thoughts, and persuasive communication. 

We wish you luck as you embark on the difficult Haas Adventure.  Also, don't forget that there is a career goals essay to write (we just didn't cover it here).  

If you are interested in becoming a client of Amerasia Consulting Group, please email for information on prices and services, or to request a free initial consultation.