MBA Admissions: Learning From Failure

It’s tempting to gloss over all past mistakes or errors in judgment when you’re immersed in the MBA admissions process; after all, competition for a place in a top program is fierce and no one relishes the notion of painting themselves in a less-than-flattering light.

The good news is, more and more business schools realize that failure represents a learning opportunity for all—from industries to individuals. The December edition of Deans Digest, published by the Graduate Management Admission Council, looks at research from several B-school professors convinced that “To Fail is to Learn.”

“There’s a lot of evidence that suggests that you really don’t learn from success, because you are often unable to attribute the cause,” Rita McGrath, who teaches management at Columbia Business School, said in an interview.

On the other hand, things that go wrong can serve up valuable lessons, as “Success often is a consequence of something that failed earlier.”

Haas School of Business dean Rich Lyons has suggested to Deans Digest that business schools should also consider failure in their MBA admissions process. When admitting students, Lyons said, “increasingly, it’s the case that you can’t have stumbled. [The usual mindset is that] if you got a C in a class, didn’t do so well on the GMAT, or had some interruption in your career path, you won’t land where you want to land.”

To address that potential pitfall, the Haas School of Business now makes the study of failure a priority. One of four core principles of the school’s revised core curriculum is that students should be encouraged to “question the status quo,” defined as “being able to envision a different reality, to take intelligent risks, and to learn from failure.”

Far from being a disservice, being up front about your mistakes can definitely go a long way toward minimizing the damage and maintaining  your shot at admission into a top program. In an interview early in the year with Bloomberg Businessweek, Stacy Blackman says that if you explain the blemishes on your application the right way, you can actually boost your chances of getting in.

So as you finalize those essays or prepare for MBA admissions interviews, focus on embracing the positive aspects of your past mistakes and show how you used the incident as an opportunity to learn and grow. It just might be the factor that differentiates your candidacy amid a sea of so-called “perfect” applicants.

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