Forster-Thomas Essay Coach Justin Marshall provides his tips on how to answer Haas’ MBA essays.

If Haas’s collection of essays were a meal, it would be Kaiseki.  For those whose knowledge of Japanese culture extends only as far as sushi, karaoke, and toilets that sing and flush themselves, let me explain:  Kaiseki is a traditional Japanese meal composed of seemingly countless courses, each one about the size of a walnut.  Because every course is so small, it’s easy to underestimate its powers. But sure enough, each one packs an amazing punch, from its nuanced flavors and textures to its beautiful presentation.

So yeah, that’s Haas: A whole lot of essays, most of them teeny tiny. But don’t underestimate them; like a Kaiseki chef, you’ll have to be an artist, delicately imbuing each and every essay with subtle textures and powerful flavors. Every word counts, and every essay should be able to stand on its own.


Essay 1: What brings you the greatest joy? How does this make you distinctive? (250 words)

In case you forgot that one of America’s top b-schools is located in Hippie central, Haas’ very first essay is here to bring you back down to (mother) earth.

But beware: Haas is looking for honesty here, not lip service. That’s why they changed the essay—for years, they asked what candidates were most passionate about, but they got tired of people writing about “helping others” or “the environment” or some other crap. So now they ask about joy, and that’s what you should talk about. If your greatest joy is helping others or the saving the environment, then talk about that—but you better be able to back up those words with evidence (action). More than likely, though, your greatest joy is something more “trivial”: cooking, kickboxing, playing guitar, running in the park. As long as it’s legal in the state of Alabama, that’s what you should talk about here, and the trick is to go deep—why is this your greatest joy, and how has it affected your mindset and perspective on life?

Essay 2: What is your most significant accomplishment? (250 words)

If you’re applying to Harvard, you’re in luck—you already have three accomplishments to choose from, each with a word count not much different than Haas gives you. But don’t overlook that four-syllable word: significant. Haas doesn’t want any old accomplishment here, they want to know what you see as the most important thing you’ve done—ever. So repurposing that essay about assisting in some M&A deal probably ain’t going to cut it. You need an achievement that either allowed you to grow and change (a defining moment in your life) or to have a profound impact upon others. Don’t be afraid to go back in time to your teen or even preteen years, as long as you can identify a defining moment that really changed your mindset, and then provide adult evidence of that mindset in action.

Essay 3. Describe a time when you questioned an established practice or thought within an organization. How did your actions create positive change? (250 words)

Here’s an important insight I tell all my candidates: Leaders are rebels. They don’t adhere to the status quo, they break from it, improve upon it, and make no apologies for doing so. That’s what Haas wants to see here. You need to find a time in which you thought and acted independently. It’s OK if you didn’t reinvent the wheel. Maybe you only added tires or treads. What’s important is that you explain how others thought, why you decided to break from that viewpoint, and how it turned out. It’s even OK if your initiative failed, as long as you successfully made people recognize that there was another way to look at things.

Essay 4. Describe a time when you were a student of your own failure. What specific insight from this experience has shaped your development? (250 words)

If most high-achieving young professionals have a weakness, it’s admitting that they have a weakness. As someone who is hyperaware of my own flaws (all 4,387 of them), this drives me crazy, and I enjoy nothing more than helping my candidates discover all the ways they’ve fallen on their asses throughout their lives. A true failure does indeed require you to fall on your ass, and if you blame it on the slick pavement, you failed to be a student of your own failure. You need to identify your own personal responsibility in the matter, even if you secretly think it was someone else’s fault (that in itself is a failure, by the way). Most importantly, embrace your failure. Don’t mitigate anything. Trying to make your failure sound not as bad as it really was is the biggest failure one can make.

Essay 5. Describe a time when you led by inspiring or motivating others toward a shared goal. (250 words)

If you think about it, every action of leadership requires you to inspire or motivate others in some form or another. The key to this one is that it must be a shared goal. That means this can’t be a story about how you got others to contribute to a cause only you care about. However, if you were able to inspire others to care about your own goal, thereby creating a shared goal, well then you get double bonus points. The important factor here is that you show how you did it, which demonstrates your personal leadership style. Did you push? Did you cajole? Did you make a trade? Did you nurture? There’s no one right answer—we just need to know that you know what works for you.

6. a. What are your post-MBA short-term and long-term career goals? How have your professional experiences prepared you to achieve these goals? b. How will an MBA from Haas help you achieve these goals? (1000 word maximum for 6a. and 6b.)

So much for Kaiseki. After all those little teeny essays, here’s a 1,000-word, American-sized, flame-broiled whopper. In the not-so-distant past, most schools had lengthy goals essays; these days only a couple still do.

Two important things here. First, unlike many goals essays, Haas wants you to talk about your past professional experiences. Don’t go overboard here (150-250 words is appropriate), and don’t just slip in all your professional achievements to make sure you squeezed ‘em in somewhere. Haas wants to know how your career prepared you for your goals. If you’re planning on making a career change, this might seem impossible, but it isn’t. Think about the skills, insights, and experiences you’ve gained that are universally applicable to any career—you’ll be amazed how many there are.

Secondly, don’t skimp on section b. If it’s less than 250 words, you won’t seem to have done thorough enough research on Haas. And since Haas knows they are often viewed as a second choice to other schools (such as their almost-as-crunchy neighbor, Stanford), you need to convince them that you really know the school and really want to go there. And no, using the word “really” a lot of times won’t do the trick. This requires research, folks, and showing that you know why Haas is just right for you. If you’re lucky, it will be—it’s a Helluva program.

See our Haas 2011-2012 MBA Essay Guide for more information.