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Admissions Director Q&A: Morgan Bernstein of UC Berkeley / Haas

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CA: So, you’ve got three data points, the first read, the second read, and the interview evaluation. What are some of the thornier cases when you really are having a lot of discussion at the committee level?

MB: There’s always a lot of discussion at the committee level. We typically receive around 4,000 applications a year, and our acceptance rate is somewhere in the 12 to 13% range. That’s hard. It means that we have to say no to a lot of highly qualified candidates. I think that part of the reason why we bring everyone back to the committee is because we want to hear from different people. Something that I may see as standing out about a candidate may not be as important to someone else or they may have a different vantage point. I think it could just be how we evaluate someone’s work experience or their leadership potential or their cultural fit. I think that having so many touch points and having so many people touch it really allows for us to calibrate and make decisions that help to curate a diverse class.

CA: Can you tell me a little bit more about your team, the admissions committee? How many people work in admissions overall, what are the different roles? And has this number changed in the recent past, and how might it change going forward?

MB: The admissions team overall, for the full time program, is about 15 people, throughout the year. That’s the admissions committee members and the operations team members. The operations team are the folks who are setting up the files. They are the ones who, if you call in and you have questions, are on the front lines, talking to you. They are doing advising if you come to campus and want to meet with somebody in person. So they are actually the people who most of our candidates have probably interacted with at some point, whether that’s by email or phone.

Separately from the operations team, we have the admissions committee members. Committee members recruit. We travel domestically, internationally, and we read, and then select the class. One of the common responsibilities is that we all recruit and travel, we all read files, and we all participate in the selection process. Within that we each have different areas of focus. Se we have someone on our team who really focuses on the marketing and communication, someone on our team who focuses on our diversity outreach and partnerships with MLT and the Consortium, and so on. A lot of areas of focus align with someone’s previous expertise or area of interest.

CA: How does your team approach the essay portion of the application specifically? What are you looking for as you read the essays? What are common mistakes applicants should try to avoid? What is one key thing they should keep in mind as they sit down to write the essays?

MB: This is probably our favorite thing to talk about because I think it’s definitely the area of the application, perhaps other than the standardized testing, that causes the most anxiety. I would start by saying that, and I’m stealing this advice from another admissions director who shared it at a prior event I attended, there’s so much stress around the essays, but it’s rare that somebody is ever going to get denied because of a bad essay. An essay can definitely help move the needle in terms of getting you in. But on the margins, if it is just a mediocre essay, you are not going to be denied because of it.

I thought that was an interesting approach because I do think there is so much pressure that gets put on the perfect essays. It is true that a standout essay can definitely sway things positively. But it is important to remember that the essays are just one data point in the application. Much like the tests or the resume or letters of recommendation are each just one data point.

Specifically about the essays though, the essays are really where the applicant comes to life. It is one of the few, if not the only part of the application that candidates have complete control over. Your GPA is fixed. You can’t really change that. Your test scores, you can study all you want but ultimately you don’t control that outcome. Letters of recommendation, same thing. So I think it’s really important for the candidate to take a step back at that point when they get to the essays and say, well I have complete control over this, what do I want them to know about me.

One of the things that I see happening a lot is candidates will sort of segment out different elements of the application and approach them each separately without thinking about how all of the pieces fit together as a whole. It is so important when it comes to the essays, to think about how each of those essays complements one another, how they reinforce something that it articulated in another part of your application, and really just to take that step back and think about the bigger picture.

There is really no right or wrong way to approach the essays because they are so personal and individual.

Essays that stand out the most, for me, are the ones where the candidate wasn’t afraid to show a little bit of vulnerability. Often, candidates think that in the application process they can only showcase their best, most polished, perfect, 100 percent, straight A student self. But that’s not what business school is all about. Business school is actually about failing and growing from those mistakes. It’s about taking risks. It’s about stepping outside your comfort zone. So to a certain degree we are looking for evidence of that. We are looking for evidence of failure and then resilience, of learning and growing and taking those risks, prior to getting to business school. Essays that have stood out the cycle are the ones where candidates have not been afraid to show their less-than-perfect self.

Lauren Wakal
Lauren Wakal has been covering the MBA admissions space for more than a decade, from in-depth business school profiles to weekly breaking news and more.