Learn what’s new at Berkeley Haas, as well as tips for crafting admissions-worthy applications. [Show summary]
Eric Askins, the newly appointed Executive Director of Admissions at UC Berkeley Haas, explores the school’s full-time MBA program and its admissions policies, as well as how it’s adapting the MBA experience to COVID-19.
Interested in applying to Berkeley Haas? Read on for info about special programs and application advice. [Show notes]
UC Berkeley Haas has a new Executive Director of Admissions: Eric Askins, formerly Haas’s Senior Associate Director of Admissions. He’s here today to explore Haas’s full-time MBA program, as well as how the school is adapting to COVID-19.
Can you give an overview of the Berkeley Haas full-time MBA program for those listeners who aren’t that familiar with it and focus on its more distinctive elements? [2:37]
The first place to start is our location. Based in the San Francisco Bay area, our program is incredibly close to the center of innovation that exists out here. I think some of that is probably evident if you look at our outcomes. Berkeley Haas has graduates in tech. About 15 to 20% of our students each year are going into startups. But if you were to ask us for the most defining feature of our program, it’s likely our defining leadership principles (Question the status quo. Confidence without attitude. Students always. Beyond yourself.). It’s a set of culture-forward initiatives that we have here, about 10 years old now, that really hold our core values up-front. You’ll find, I think, very few programs that lead with values, and we’re certainly one of them.
What’s new at Berkeley Haas (other than lockdown, the pandemic, and smoky air)? [4:08]
Certainly, all of those things are new, and they are challenges. But there’s a silver lining in there too. Let’s talk about some of our academic programs first. Chief among the things that we launched in pilot mode last year that are truly new this year are a joint degree with our school of engineering, an MBA/MEng program. This program is two years, so no additional time. It is a cohort model that is part of the MBA cohort, so it doesn’t operate separately, which is really a great opportunity to continue to stay connected with the broader community here at Haas. Additionally, the students select from among seven different engineering programs to really give you that niche opportunity that you might be seeking and give you the skills that you need to take advantage of some of the great opportunities that exist in the career world.
You can go, let’s say, into electrical engineering/MBA, artificial intelligence/MBA, all kinds of different engineering specialties, including nuclear engineering, if that’s what you’re looking for. Chemical engineering. We took a nuclear engineer this year. This program launched in pilot mode last year. We didn’t recruit heavily for it. We simply listed it on our website. We are beginning to look at expanding it. We now have a cohort of about 30 students, 15 in each class here. There is a community. Although it’s new, it’s new with a community, which we think is really essential. Again, we’re very community-focused here at Haas, and we want you to be learning alongside others and learning from others as well as from our faculty.
How do you see the MBA/MEng program growing for the entering class of 2021? [6:00]
I think 15 feels like a pretty healthy number for us. We may move it up to 20 if we see qualified candidates in and around that space. We probably won’t move it beyond that. We have a successful joint degree already with our MBA/MPH, which is a master’s in public health. That’s been running for about 10 years and has an incredible community around it, and we typically don’t go over about 20 students in that group either. The goal here is not to create little segments of the MBA, but really to add value to the whole.
What don’t people know about Haas that you would like them to know? [6:36]
What’s known about our community is that a broad array of students come to this campus from multiple regions of the world and with diversity of perspective, personal backgrounds, and experience. And yet our outcomes seem to look very narrow to certain segments of the community. In fact, a lot of folks look at us and say, well, that school is very tech-heavy. Located in Silicon Valley, there’s that opportunity there, and certainly about 30% of our students are going into that space, but that leaves 70% of our students that are going into a wide variety of different things. Oftentimes, we find it difficult to raise those up in terms of visibility because entrepreneurship leads or tech leads. But you know, of course, as a top business school, consulting is a factor here. Sustainability, finance. We probably don’t talk about finance enough. We’re not in the conversation in some cases when it comes to schools that are considered finance schools. And yet the data that I see shows that our inroads for investment banking on the West coast are huge.
Approximately what percentage of the class went into investment banking? [8:09]
In terms of the percentage of the class and finance, about seven or eight percent of the class each year go in that direction. But if we flip the script there and take a look at the number of opportunities that are available in investment banking on the West coast, as I’m looking at internship data over the last couple of years, we’re holding about 20% of the market share when it comes to internships in investment banking out here. And every major investment banking institution has a West coast office located here in the region. In fact, if you want to look at where the IPOs are happening, where the big M&A is happening, it’s happening out here.
How can prospective students engage with the Haas community, given the fact that everything is virtual now, and the community can’t go to them, and they can’t go to the community? [9:35]
You hit upon exactly the right word, which is “community.” As a culture-forward, community-oriented program, this was the main challenge. We began exploring this back in March and April of this past year, along with other programs. I’m sure we weren’t alone. We feel that we’ve hit a nice stride with this. We have created opportunities for folks to engage with our admissions team through Q&A sessions with admissions officers. It happens twice a week. We have our virtual recruitment events where we are “traveling.” We are engaging with folks at different regions around the globe, through partner organizations, through our own events. Our students made themselves so available through a number of different platforms, including Slack, including Zoom. Specifically, they’re available through coffee chats that can be scheduled by any prospective student by just going to our Haas student ambassadors page, selecting which Haas student ambassador they want to talk to (their bios are listed there), and then scheduling one-on-one or small group time, depending on the amount of interest that’s available.
What I love about this is if you look at the silver lining on this, we were getting touch points only for folks who could make it to an event or who could travel all the way to the Bay area to visit with us on campus. We’ve seen an increase in the number of people that are getting one-on-one time with our community simply by being virtual. And by virtue of that, we’ve gotten opportunities to connect broadly with regions of the world that we didn’t travel to regularly. It’s really been a great opportunity for us to get to know the community out there who are interested in Haas and be able to deliver a one-on-one or a small group connection.
How has the coronavirus affected the Haas MBA experience? [12:04]
It’s been challenging. I’ll be honest with you. In June of this year, we announced a hybrid model program. That hybrid model was to entail small groups, which we defined as “pods,” shifting through campus at various intervals to keep within the health guidelines and regulations. By the start of our semester, the health circumstances here in our region of the world had deteriorated, and we were forced to shift to a completely remote model. Now this has been challenging, absolutely. We invested heavily in the technology to deliver our academic programming at the level that our students felt comfortable with, but it is the co-curricular and the personal engagement where we’ve struggled.
Now, I’m excited to share that we are finally in a phase in our health guidelines in our region where we can begin the process of bringing people onto campus in small groups. That phase we hit this past Tuesday. We’re excited for that, and we’re looking forward to what those phases will look like. They will not be as robust as we initially intended as we stay within the health guidelines that are in our area. But we’re excited, and our student body is excited. Everyone is anxious to connect again.
Let’s move to the application process. The Haas application has essays. It requires a resume, interview, and letters of recommendation. What is the purpose of those different elements? [13:50]
We start with the student’s story, their narrative. Where are they in their life today, their career, their motivations, their personal life, and where are they going to? Within that narrative, we see each of these components of our application as the structural elements of that narrative arc, the scaffolding. If you look at our essays this year, our first essay is asking you, “What makes you feel alive while you’re doing it and why?” It’s a personal essay. We’re seeking to understand your motivations. What’s driving you towards your future goals?
Our second essay is a leadership essay. It specifically asks for an opinion. What do you think the future of leadership holds? We are at an inflection point. We were framing this question as an inflection point based on the decade, because it’s a nice line to draw in the sand and say, “This is looking back. This is looking forward.” But even further, with this pandemic, this is a moment in time where business is going to look different in the future. We’re asking folks with that second essay, what does the future hold? Where are you heading? How do you see yourself in it?
If we started with the beginning, and we’re settled there and where you’re headed, everything in between is the structure that supports that narrative. That resume, that work experience, they give us an opportunity to understand the professional experiences that have triggered those motivations, that have supported those initiatives, that have built the skills towards your future goals.
When we come to the academic section, how have you demonstrated through your application the academic rigor necessary to manage our program? What are those indicators? What do those look like? We navigate those spaces in a holistic fashion. And by that, I mean, if within your standardized testing, you’re not demonstrating strong understanding of quantitative ability, but your professional experience is chock-full of data, work, and analysis, you have that quantitative exposure. We’ll look there, and we’ll look in the counter as well. If your professional experience does not demonstrate supervisory, but you demonstrated leadership attributes through extracurriculars or through clubs and initiatives that you participated in during your undergraduate, it adds there. I think to your point earlier, the candidates look at the application in a linear fashion. We pull that completely apart within our review process. We find that narrative journey that the candidate has shared with us, and we plug these pieces in where they fit. How do they support this narrative arc?
What is the most common mistake that you see in the applications that you review? [17:06]
I would say it comes down to that same narrative journey, but I’ll put it in the reverse. Candidates will look at our essays and they will wonder what we are looking for. If you don’t do that first step of self-reflection, “What story do I want to tell?”… You have to do some self-curation as well because all of us hold multiple identities and we seek to accomplish multiple goals. But we want to tell one story in this application. If you’re seeking what you think we’re looking for, already you’re starting in a false place. It’s almost impossible to construct a narrative that’s complete if you’re not starting from that first space of self-reflection and curation.
That curation shouldn’t bring you down to the elevator pitch. We’re not looking for the one-liner. There are over 300 words that you can give us in each of our two essays, 600 words in total. That doesn’t even account for all the free spaces within our application. There is space for you to tell us the multiple dimensions of who you are. But what we ask is that you provide a unified story across those dimensions.
In light of the pandemic and the crazy end to last year’s admission cycle (that never ended), are you going to read applications with a slightly different perspective, looking or weighing certain qualities more or less than in previous application cycles? [19:13]
Each year, we review our essay questions. This year, we spent a lot of time with our leadership essay, trying to decide whether or not we were going to explicitly aim towards asking a question about what people did during this particular period in time. We chose not to do that because not every story is for telling. Some stories are personal. Some stories are not appropriate for business school, and not everybody may feel that they have the same type of experience during this time. What we do know is that this is one of the few times where there has been a globally shared experience, where every person who is interacting with others in the universe is experiencing some effect of this experience.
We’re hopeful that in that process of self-reflection, our candidates will look at the leadership attributes and those defining leadership principles that we’ve got them written all over our application on our website, and carved into the cement outside of our campus, that they’ll look at those frames and look at this personal experience and see opportunities to reflect on some of those leadership principles. Whether or not they were in a leadership role or not, everyone has been called upon to be resilient in some way, shape, or form during this period of time. We’re going to be looking for that in the application. We’re going to be looking for people to tell us true and honest stories about their experiences. It would be surprising for us if folks don’t incorporate some component of what this experience has been for them.
What about applicants who can’t take the GMAT or GRE, in China or Iran? Do you have any plans to go test-optional? Or if you don’t, what should they do? [21:11]
I appreciate this question. We have certainly thought about it often at Haas. What does access mean, and how do we provide an opportunity for others? In the short-term, what we’ve done is extend our submission deadline for testing in our round one. Our round one deadline was September the 24th. We allowed students until October 15th to submit a test as we closely monitored the testing availability around the world. Through the data that we’ve looked at, it seems that many of the regions of the world do have some access to testing, although limited, although there are certain other complications there. And so at this time we are considering a test waiver.
Can you touch on the accelerated access admissions program at Haas? Who is it for, and how can one get in? [22:11]
How can one get in? That is the million-dollar question. I’ll start with who it’s for. As I’ve mentioned earlier, we ran some pilots last year. Odd year to run a pilot, to be honest with you, with everything else going on. But what I will tell you is we offered the deferred admission program, the accelerated access program, simply within the Berkeley community. If you went to UC Berkeley and you were in a graduating position, you’re either undergraduate or in a graduate school and had less than one year with work experience, you were an eligible candidate for this program. We wanted to see who’s out there, and we also wanted to teach ourselves how to read those applications. It’s a different story. We’re not looking at work experience in quite the same way. We’re offering the same essays, but the rubrics are different.
Update: As of January 2021 Haas has expanded its deferred admissions program and is now allowing all undergraduate seniors or final-year graduate students to apply for deferred admittance to the full-time MBA program.
We want to understand the different pathways for these individuals. I will call that pilot a success. We identified some amazing candidates, and it’s time to expand. As of now, the program is offered throughout the entire UC program, the entire UC system. Any undergraduate program here in the UC system is eligible. We are in discussion about that expansion. That expansion may in fact happen this cycle, or it can happen next cycle as we begin to figure out where our resources are available and how we can deploy them.
I do want to answer this other part of your question, which is, how does one present themselves to get into a program like this? What I love about this program is instead of reading the story of what you did, we’re finding that we’re reading the story of what you want to accomplish, what you hope to do. Being as an admissions officer and reading something like that brings you so much energy. Big people have lofty goals, certainly, but achievable goals, and the way candidates present that becomes very important to us. A successful candidate to this type of program, at least within our frame, is someone who has a clear sense of what they’re hoping to accomplish and can tie that back to what is present in their application. Their academics chiefly are going to be a larger portion, just based on what we have to work with. But also what else they’ve done during their time in undergraduate. What extracurriculars have they done? Have they begun taking steps towards this future goal? That all becomes part of the analysis for us.
In terms of the deferred admit program, when you’re talking about goals, are you talking mostly about the period before they go for the MBA? Or the period after they get their MBA? [25:24]
The question that we ask is about the period after the MBA. We do an interview for all candidates for that program. In those interviews, we go into a little more in depth about what they’re hoping to do in the time in between or what jobs they may have secured during that period of time, what they’re hoping to accomplish. They tend to, again, build a narrative for us, and it should be cohesive.
We lean into storytelling heavily within our academics, within our career management group. Storytelling is client relations. Storytelling is interviewing. Storytelling is selling yourself and getting yourself in the best position.
What would you say to potential applicants who want to apply this year who might feel they’re ready but are concerned about graduating into a weak economy or applying when deferrals have shrunk the number of available seats? [27:13]
That’s a challenging position for folks to be in: to decide, is this the time? I’m going to counter that and say that if the concern is a challenging economy two years from now, there’s an increased benefit to retooling and re-skilling and putting yourself in the best position to succeed. If the economy is in a challenging position, I think that’s going to affect folks differently based on the tools that they have and the skills that they have. And certainly here at Haas, we’ve put a lot of work towards ensuring that we are educating folks with that in mind, to navigate that new economy.
As far as the chances of being admitted in a timeframe in which there’s an increased number of applicants, I think that’s certainly the case. Applications to business school run counter-cyclical to the economy, so we do see a ton of that, an increase in the number of applications. We’ve seen it in our first round. But qualified candidates will always be under consideration. We make sure that we’re looking at opportunities, and if applicants are coming with strong candidacy, they’re going to have an opportunity here at Haas. In terms of the deferred program, those who deferred, we did a case-by-case basis this year. We didn’t do a blanket deferral. While we do have a larger number of deferrals than we’ve had in prior years, we don’t have a huge number to absorb as some other programs might.
What advice would you give to someone thinking ahead to a fall 2021 application, those that don’t feel they’re ready now? [29:56]
I think if you’re looking ahead towards business school, you have the benefit of understanding what business schools are looking for and how you might strengthen your opportunities when you do decide to apply. Within the professional sphere, I encourage folks to look at where progression and job growth can exist. Again, there’s some limitations based on the way the economy looks today. The other space that I encourage folks to look at is, if they’re thinking of a career pivot, this is the opportunity to test the hypothesis. Either through volunteer work, through small projects, maybe through communities and networks that they have, take a close look at what you might think about pivoting into and ensure that you’re aligned, that there is not just a return on investment but a return on fulfillment for those types of opportunities because we do seek clarity of purpose in our review process. We hope that you’ve done that work, and sometimes it takes some time. You may not get it right on the first time, and this is a great opportunity to test it.
What would you have liked me to ask you? [31:14]
I would love to be able to share a little bit about what our community has done during the time of this pandemic with Haas faculty academics. We started a speaker series, New Thinking in the Pandemic. We’ve run this about monthly for a few months now. It’s an opportunity for academics within our community, both our faculty and members of our alumni network, to share ideas on how we’re navigating this new world. Leadership in times of crisis. Taking advantage of our executive programs. Unfortunately, we’re not able to deliver some of their executive education due to the constraints of coming to campus, but we’re offering some of them within the free speaker series. You have the opportunity to think about how you lead teams that are dispersed or remote. We think that’s an incredible opportunity to begin to unpack what the future is going to look like and how we might leverage that. Members of our alumni network and members of our student community are actively engaged in supporting others during the time of this pandemic as well.
A recent grad from our program, Elisse Douglass, started a business, originally started as a GoFundMe for relief for Black-owned businesses in Oakland. It has now shifted to an investment vehicle to grow entrepreneurship within Black-owned businesses in Oakland. This is a reflection of the challenges that face small businesses during this time of pandemic when things are closed. Many of our current students are engaged in volunteer activity for communities outside that are challenged. I was really moved by this. Our admitted students who were not able to come to campus were able to create a sense of community during this summer, before they joined campus, including building out Haas swag Instagram filters, the opportunity to put a hat on or a glove on or a scarf on that you wouldn’t otherwise have been able to do because you can’t come to campus. The vendors are all closed, and we can’t produce these items the way we would have and to send them out to folks. It was student-driven, entirely admitted students who felt pride in the institution and wanted to share that with their community and their peers. I love the innovation that this has brought about and the sense of reinvesting in our communities.
Where can listeners and potential applicants learn more about Haas’s full-time MBA program or some of the other programs that we discussed? [34:34]
If you’d like to learn more, you’re welcome to visit us at Hass: haas.berkeley.edu.
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