Just like the dreaded “What are your weaknesses?” question in job interviews, you might come across the “Describe a situation taken from your personal or professional life where you failed” during your MBA applications. MBA applicants often freak out when faced with this common admissions essay question because they fear that showing any weakness will ruin their admissions chances. It is never easy acknowledging personal weakness or disappointment. However, admitting to failure with honesty and humility can point to your self-awareness and ability to change. This article will help you turn an essay about a failure into your greatest triumph.
- Discuss a time when you faced a challenging interpersonal experience. How did you navigate the situation and what did you learn from it? (UPenn Wharton)
- Tell us three setbacks you have faced. (Harvard Business School)
Describe a situation taken from your personal or professional life where you failed. Discuss what you learned. (INSEAD)
- What did you learn from your most spectacular failure? (Judge Business School, University of Cambridge)
MBA essays on failure are usually the toughest to write for a number of reasons. The difficulty starts with primarily, the self-acknowledgement part, then, the second is telling it or penning it down for someone else to read.
People do not acknowledge failure that easily. It takes a lot of strength to acknowledge the fact that we have failed. It is from a failure that we learn our true strengths and our capabilities of bouncing back. Failure essays are asked with the intention to gauge the maturity levels of a candidate. This MBA essay is all about a self evaluation essay for a candidate. The idea that he/she can fail and write it down to be judged by others is in itself a huge effort by the aspirant.
MBA Failure Essay is a reflection of the magnitude of challenges that you have faced in your career. Hence, this is a reflection of your professional maturity. The most important thing to keep in mind about this prompt is that the essay need not be a sad story. Rather, it can be an inspirational one!
What does the Admission Committee want to know when asking about your failure?
Our achievements speak for themselves, but our setbacks also reflect many important aspects of our life. Primarily by asking these kinds of questions the MBA admission committee wants to know about your resilience, how you perceive failures and have you been able to learn from your failures. No one in this world is perfect, and failures provide a unique opportunity to identify one’s areas of improvement.
The MBA essay on failure usually does not limit to the incidence itself. It usually asks about your reaction and what you have learnt from that failure. The ways people handle their failure tell a lot about them. What’s most compelling to the admissions committee on the topic of failure is what you’ve learned from your experience, whether you’ve had to face your fears, and whether you’ve demonstrated the grit and persistence to bounce back and forge ahead with new awareness.
Some things that schools are trying to screen for:
- Are you the sort of person that gets bogged down by problems?
- Do you use difficult situations as a crutch to rationalize for a failure?
- Are you able to look back on a difficult situation and objectively learn how you could have done things better?
- How do you approach and resolve difficult situations?
So, which failure to write in your MBA essay?
This essay focuses on the failure corner of your life which has inspired you to transform a small portion of you, so depict how you have improved personally and professionally. Your failure story should not necessarily reflect your negative traits but it should show that at least you tried something with some planning and fair understanding of consequences.
Now, what you should be concerned about is, what failure story of yours should you include in your essay?
Well, the first thing an MBA applicant should think of is skipping any concerns regarding “How big failure is business school looking for?” or “What is the right failure to describe in an MBA application essay?” or “Should I write about real-case failure, if I am convinced that it would only harm my profile?”. All these concerns will direct to a completely wrong destination, because schools are only partially interested in the process (the case) and will be a lot more involved in the assessment of YOUR ATTITUDE.
Choose a story where your failure has resulted from good intentions such as leadership, initiative and risk taking attitude. You took an initiative, but it did not result in success. You need to explicate the advantage of the fact that failure too teaches you something good. If one is honest enough in one’s intentions, people will forget the mistakes one made; rather they will remember one’s efforts and good intentions over the result. Show that you are resilient and you have learned quite a good lesson from your mistake and you are confident enough how to deal with such incidents in the future.
Also, when thinking of the most appropriate failure case to describe, focus on the result, which followed your experience. You can choose the failure that:
- Taught you core competence/skill
- Impacted your development in one or other way (studies or career shift, new interests or activities practice etc.)
- Gave you deeper insight into your professional knowledge and skills
You want to choose something meaningful enough to discuss that has some depth to it, but without dwelling on the negative or painting yourself in an unredeemable light. You also do not want to choose something that has no impact. Being a perfectionist is not a failure for example, nor is your lamentable average GMAT score. It’s certainly a fine line what you choose to discuss in this essay, but the point is to demonstrate how you’ve grown from the experience.
2. How To Effectively Discuss Failures In Your MBA Essay
The best way to talk about failures and weaknesses – and, more importantly, the lessons you learned from these experiences – in your MBA admissions essay is by utilizing stories.
I believe that using stories in your MBA admissions essay is an effective tactic for persuading the adcom that you deserve a spot in their program. By using storytelling and choosing your stories wisely, you can make your essays stand out and increase your chances of being admitted to your number one MBA program.
What are stories and why use them in MBA essays?
Stories are a way to structure a past experience for the reader that is intriguing, compelling, and interesting to read.
They do not just tell your audience about events that happened in your past – after all, the admissions committee has your CV sitting in front of them already, which means they are aware of your work experience, where you went to school, and your most recent employer.
Instead, stories function to show the reader the underlying motivations behind the decisions on your CV. Even better, stories can help you reveal to the adcom how simple moments or entire life events that do not show up on your CV helped shape your personality, anchor your core values, and foster your growth as a person or professional.
By telling stories, you can both reveal these aspects and spark empathy. An empathetic reader will be more likely to be persuaded to accept you into their program. Thus, utilizing stories in your MBA essay is a winning tactic for success.
How to use stories in your MBA failure essay?
When using storytelling to discuss failures and weaknesses in your MBA essay, there are a few essentials to include.
To effectively discuss a failure, the following elements must be clear:
- The problem: Why did the failure happen in the first place? Why did you act as you did in that situation from your perspective?
- How you recognized the problem: How did you notice it was a problem? What further consequences did this problem have?
- How you overcame the problem: What did you do to solve this problem? What do you wish you would have done differently?
- The lesson you learned from the experience: What was your takeaway from this story? How would you apply this lesson in the future?
“I was humbled when I failed to implement a product’s preparation process at a retail store during a consulting project, leading to sales loss risks – besides client dissatisfaction. Later, the store’s manager eliminated parts of the process, completely redesigning it. His idea initially seemed like unfounded nonsense, as necessary data wasn’t being collected. However, the manager insisted on its success, so I tested his idea in two other stores: it was indeed agiler while maintaining effectiveness. I learned that listening to others is essential, even when our opinions diverge. The manager’s idea was subsequently shared with 300+ stores.”
The writer does an excellent job of including all of these elements:
- The problem: He designed an ineffective process and, more importantly, did not listen to an alternative suggestion from his subordinate.
- How he recognized the problem: The subordinate presented evidence of the effectiveness of the new solution.
- How he overcame the problem: He decided to test the idea in other stores, which led to success.
- The lesson he learned from the experience: He learned firsthand that listening to others is important, even if he has a different opinion on the matter.
As you can see, all of these elements must be present to tell an effective and compelling story about failure. If one or more of these is unclear or missing altogether, you will not be able to make an effective case.
- Ensure you provide takeaways for the reader, but avoid any negative takeaways – while the outcome may have been a failure, you must still show positive characters.
- It’s not about the story, it’s about you. So do not kill the entire word limit in simply explaining the story.
3. Common Mistakes in an MBA Failure Essay
Lack of actual failure
This is where most applicants go wrong—they choose a failure that is, well, not a failure, usually because they are afraid to admit something that really was a failure. Here are 2 signals of failures that are not genuine:
- Your failure is just a very very minor mistake that does not result in a real consequence or a meaningful lesson (for example, “Due to my oversight, the email I sent to my colleague had a minor typo in it.”)
- You try to position something you are secretly very proud of as a weakness (for example, “I often failed at work-life balance. I’m constantly on-call for my boss and colleagues who ask things of me at all hour.”)
Although it may seem tempting to tell a story in which your own failures are minimized, this type of response is unlikely to be effective, because it does not give you the chance to show self-reflection and personal growth. Moreover, an example where you give a ‘faux failure’ is much less likely to engage the reader than one where you describe a genuine failure of setback.
Worse than simply not wanting to own up to a mistake, some applicants think they can get away with the “humble brag” version of this essay—you know, where they present something as a failure while really showing off something they see as a strength.
Candidate A: “It was 2 am and the whole team was in the office, a sense of panic filling the air as we scrambled to pull together weeks of research and data. Even worse, this was the fourth time this month we had been forced to stay late to finish a client presentation, and it was my fault. I had brought in 10 new clients for pitches in the last 8 weeks, and it was simply more than my team and I could handle. As we finally wrapped things up an hour later, I resolved not to push the team, and myself, so hard in the future—it was important to find a balance. I learned my lesson about taking on too much…”
Candidate B: “An hour before my presentation, I suddenly became overwhelmingly anxious. This was the first time I would be leading the pitch, and among the clients were c-suite execs from one of the country’s biggest pet food manufacturers—we stood to lose millions in business if they didn’t like my marketing strategy, or if they didn’t like me! In the days leading up to the meeting I had been cool, confident, and sure of my skills; after all, I was the best member of my college debate team, and had been part of hundreds of presentations before this one. I had done the legwork and knew the material was good. But still, my hands were sweating, and my voice began to shake as I started the pitch. It went terribly. The client was unhappy, and requested we re-do much of the work. My boss later told me they came close to putting us on notice.”
The failure that the candidate B describes is hard-hitting, even a little embarrassing, and we know he probably learned a lot from that experience (which he’ll tell us about in the rest of the essay). Candidate A, on the other hand, while pretending to give us a failure, is really trying to tell us what a hero he is for winning SO much business the team couldn’t handle it. More importantly, he’s not demonstrating ANY of the qualities the adcom wants to see in this essay—he’s not self-aware, mature, willing to learn from his mistakes (or to even admit them), and he’s definitely going to get docked points for this.
Like the second guy, you want to admit a REAL failure—one that hit you hard and made you reassess. These are the moments where you learn the most, and therefore they make a much richer story for your application. Equally important here is that you OWN UP to the failure straight up – no making excuses. Adding explanations for WHY you failed, unless they are directly related to what you LEARNED from the failure, won’t help you. These are usually things like, “I was under a lot of personal stress” or “my boss probably shouldn’t have trusted me with that responsibility.” These come off as whiny more than anything else. Rather than explain your failure away, OWN it. Tell us straight up what you did wrong: “I should have prepared more, or prepared better,” or “I needed to learn to balance my responsibilities and manage my time more effectively.”
Improper focus on lessons learned
This error goes both ways: some essays transition way too fast to lessons learned (basically skirting right past the mistake) and others never make the transition. You must have proper tone and balance in this essay. Stand on your own two feet and be honest about making a mistake, but don’t forget to explain how you learned from it.
If you don’t eventually say what the crushing failure taught you, why are you writing about it? If the growth isn’t on display, the adcom can assume that it either didn’t make an impact (meaning the internal stakes weren’t high enough) or you are still doing the same things (obviously disastrous). Also, lessons learned are a great test on whether you are picking a true failure.
It is critical that you end your essay by describing what you have learned from your failure or setback and give an example of how you used your new insight. This is an expected topic even if it is not mentioned in the text of the prompt.
An average essay draws trite lessons. If you write about the shortcomings in your management style and ability to motivate the team, a run-off-the-mill lesson can be “each team member has a unique style and should be motivated accordingly.” A better response includes more details: Why did you fail to connect with the problem team member? Were there warning signs that you could have seen? A great response includes an example where you put your fix into action: you can mention, for instance, how you worked successfully with the same team member on a later project or were able to spot a potential problem early on in another team you managed afterwards.
By taking the courage to write honestly and directly about your failures, and then showing how you have put your learnings into action after the failure, you will have tackled this difficult essay topic successfully.
“In the course of only a few months, my Bain colleague Graham and I transformed an idea into a company. We raised $1.8 million in venture funding, brought together a powerful and motivated board (including a former postmaster general and chief of staff under Lyndon Johnson), and hired nineteen incredibly talented individuals. We built the most feature-rich and user friendly online address change service available to the forty-four million annual u.s. movers. By the late fall, revenues were growing nearly 50 percent month to month. This was not, however, sufficient to cover our cash burn rate. Though we had allocated resources with significant conservatism, we had always known that we would need an additional round of approximately $5 million to generate positive operating cash flows. In a series of frustrating setbacks, several strategic and venture capital investors’ pulled back their once overwhelming interest, leaving us with dissolution as our only option. Despite our profound feelings of loss, Graham and I approached the wind down with the same degree of professionalism and courage as our initial fund raising. We identified every stakeholder involved in our business, and made a joint decision that the welfare of our employees would come first and our personal financial considerations would come last. We leveraged our network of Atlanta business contacts to help each of our workers find jobs and arranged to sell the assets of the company to our business partner, Moving.corn, for enough money to avoid bankruptcy and return some money to our preferred shareholders. Despite the financial failure, the learning experience transcends the dollars and cents-Graham and I learned how to inspire a group of individuals to follow a vision and create something out of nothing. And we learned that, despite the risks and uncertainties we face, the only true mistake is to be afraid to make one.”