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Berkeley Haas: Looking for leaders as California faces up to its problems

Updated: Feb 1

If only I had a dollar for every time someone asked me: “You’re based in Europe. What do you know about American business school culture?” I usually roll my eyes and then point to the US admits and glowing reviews on my Poets&Quants profile.

Actually, I’ve got more exposure to US business schools than almost anybody. Over the years, I’ve attended classes and hung out with students and staff at most of the top business schools there.

So when I landed at San Francisco Airport last month, everything felt as usual. But as I ventured from my hotel in the Mission district of San Francisco to downtown Berkeley, there was a different atmosphere. Homeless people lined the streets hawking everything from digital cameras to crack cocaine. It’s fair to say the Golden City has changed since my last visit.

“Homeless people lined the streets hawking everything from digital cameras to crack cocaine”

Later, sitting at a bench by the William & Janet Cronk Eastern Gate of Haas Business School, opposite UC Berkeley’s Memorial stadium, the university’s campus is as charming as ever. A squirrel pauses in the courtyard for a nibble as it hops between trees. The beautiful California sunshine washes over friendly folk who chirp “hello” as they walk by. In fact, California gets so much sun that it’s enduring its biggest drought for decades.

Anyway, I’m here on business. Lining the path to Haas business school are lamps each sporting one of the school’s four “Defining Leadership Principles”: Question the Status Quo, Confidence Without Attitude, Students Always, and Beyond Yourself.

As I absorb the atmosphere, I begin to understand the ethos behind these four principles that form the backbone of the Haas culture:

- On the West Coast there’s an ever-present culture of innovation that constantly Questions the Status Quo. After all, Silicon Valley is a short train ride from here.

- Then, there’s the confidence of the people here in a place where life is good (if you’re not homeless). But it’s tempered by a “California cool” vibe that softens people’s attitude, especially compared to many other American cities. It’s Confidence without Attitude.

- Haas candidates are encouraged to be Students Always, a sign of just how much the school values curiosity and open-mindedness. Mixed with the accomplished, supportive community, it’s a powerful combination.

- Finally, a value perhaps borrowed from the wider UC Berkeley university: Beyond Yourself. From the eco-friendly cups in the café to the DEI initiatives signposted around campus, the school oozes responsibility for the collective good.

As I finish my walk around campus, the squirrel gone to find another snack, I am left with the curious feeling that Haas will be a leader as California faces up to its problems. Then, I reflect on how this culture should find its way into your essays.

How school culture plays into your Haas MBA application

The University of California Berkeley Haas School of Business’s values and school culture are crucial to understanding what the school expects from MBA applicants.

The Haas application features four essay prompts which are totally different from other schools' MBA applications:

Required Essay 1: What makes you feel alive when you are doing it, and why? (300 words maximum)

Think back to the defining leadership principles. Which activities and stories can you write about that demonstrate these traits? Then, consider the future. How will this affect your career and personal decisions going forward? Being unconventional here will make you memorable, which works in your favor.

Required Essay 2: What kind of leader do you aspire to be and why? (300 words maximum)

This essay is an excellent place for you to position yourself according to the school’s “Defining Leadership Principles”. So, before you start writing, think about how you can position yourself as an out-of-box thinker and innovator who “Questions the Status Quo”. Perhaps you have examples of tackling problems “Beyond Yourself”. Maybe you have an anecdote demonstrating “Confidence without Attitude”. Or that you’re looking to expand your horizons as a “Student Always”.

You’ve only got 300 words here, so it’s generally best to focus on one or two particular leadership traits, and give a proper explanation of why these matter to you. Don’t try to convey every trait or your essay risks sounding like a laundry list, which won’t be impactful!

Optional Essay 1: Please elaborate on any of your above responses. Alternatively, you may use this opportunity to expand on other hardships or unusual life circumstances that may help us understand the context of your opportunities, achievements, and impact. (300 words maximum)

Culturally, Haas is a tremendous champion of inclusivity and diversity. They know that not everyone starts at the same place, and everyone’s journey differs. Therefore, most of my clients focus on the second part of this prompt: hardships or unusual life circumstances, using it to dig deeper into their essay narrative.

The key is to understand that you don’t necessarily have to be a minority applicant to create a compelling essay here. Perhaps a change in your parents’ employment status affected how food was put on the table, or a visit to a friend overseas changed your perspective on community work. Focus on showing personal development and resilience.

Optional Essay 2: This section should only be used to convey relevant information not addressed elsewhere in your application. This may include an explanation of employment gaps, academic aberrations, supplemental coursework, etc. You are encouraged to use bullet points where appropriate.

Treat this optional essay like that of any other school: only write what’s strictly necessary. Explain any factors mentioned in the prompt if they apply to you. Don’t waffle on, don’t repeat yourself, and if you’re a reapplicant, Haas recommends that you use this space to discuss how your profile has changed since you last applied.

For other schools, if your direct manager can’t provide a letter of recommendation, you would include that in the optional essay. However, for Haas you can address that in the application portal’s “supplemental information” section.

Jon Cheng:

Our Senior Admissions Consultant Jon Cheng is a graduate of Berkeley Haas. During his time there, he was also an Admissions Evaluator. I sat down with Jon to pick his brains about MBAs, and Berkeley Haas in particular. You can watch our chat in the video below.

Stanford is next door:

If you're considering Berkeley Haas for its location in California, you're probably considering Stanford also. Check out our essay analysis for Stanford's notorious "What Matters Most" essay.


Consistently ranked among the T15 business schools, Haas Business School’s MBA program is extremely selective. The way to stand out in the admissions process is to find the right cultural fit, so use the school’s Defining Leadership Principles as a guide.

Not everyone can visit in-person or take an MBA tour to experience these principles first-hand. If you want professional guidance to build a narrative that aligns with the Haas philosophy, schedule a free consultation to discuss.

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Hi, I'm Sam.  I'm the founder of Sam Weeks Consulting. Our clients get admitted to top MBA and EMBA programs.

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