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

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CA: How many essays, rough estimate, do you think you’ve read personally in your years in admissions? Of those, how many would you say you remember right now? What makes an essay memorable?

MB: I’ve been at Haas now for seven years. I probably read 500 to 1,000 applications in a cycle. We’ll call it over 3,000. There are only a handful of essays that really stand out to me in terms of remembering exactly what their responses were. What I remember about them is the way that they made me feel.

There’s this great quote that I just came in contact with again recently. It’s a Maya Angelou quote, she says something to the effect, people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget the way you made them feel. And that is what I take away from some of those essays.

This year, one of our essay questions was about six word stories. Essentially, what is your six word story. While I may not remember more than a handful of those six word stories, I remember the way they made me feel. And that’s the connection that I have to some of those admitted students.

CA: It feels like that ties into what you just said about taking that risk and making yourself a little bit vulnerable as a means to connecting with the people who are ultimately reading your essay.

MB: Exactly. One of the things that I try to do, and know our team tries to do, is model that. When we are out on the road and when we are doing our presentations or if we’re talking one on one with a candidate, we will share our less than perfect self. We will give examples of our six word story. So that people will have a better sense of what we are looking for, what we mean by being authentic and vulnerable.  It is important that we live and breathe it in the same way that we expect our candidates to.

CA: What, from your perspective, is the greatest pain point in the application process at present? Are you doing anything to help mitigate that for applicants?

MB: A pain point is certainly the anxiety and stress around the process and not knowing what happens after you hit submit. Feeling like it’s me versus them, me versus the admissions committee. Any time I can, I will try and take the opportunity to reassure candidates that we are on the same team, in the sense that we want them all to succeed. I actually want to admit them. Whatever information I can provide to people to help them submit a stronger application, I’m going to do that.

For the past couple of years we have had something called our application boot camp. It’s an eight step process put together by the admissions committee to help make applying to business school, whether that’s Haas or elsewhere, a little less intimidating. The boot camp includes checklists, it includes questionnaires to help people think about their personal brand, it includes thought questions to do candidates’ own self-reflection. Allowing candidates to think about why they want an MBA and what are the criteria that are most important to them as they consider business school. We have a template that candidates can provide to their recommenders to help them talk through how they might reflect on some of those questions, as well.

These are things that can help applicants apply to Berkeley Haas, and ultimately we know that that will also help applicants apply elsewhere as well. We think that’s OK. We are not in the business of trying to sell every single candidate on Berkeley Haas. We believe in graduate management education and want to help people find the program that is the right fit for them. I think the application boot camp has been a great success for us, and more so for the candidates. I think it is helping to give candidates some very practical tools, to help in the application process.

A candidate has access to the boot camp tools, once they engage with us.  We will follow up with an invitation to the boot camp. So if they just register for more information, if they come to one of our events, at that point we’ll follow up with the information.

Get advice on how to prepare for the Haas interview on the next page.

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.