Essay Questions about Failure: Inspiration from J.K. Rowling

The Happiness Project blog alerted me to J.K. Rowling’s commencement address at Harvard last week.  I thought this was an enjoyable and inspirational read and it’s worth a few minutes of anyone’s time.  I also thought it was a great platform to talk about one of the most dreaded essay and interview questions:  “Tell me about a time you failed.”  …or some variation of this…for example Harvard asks, “What have you learned from a mistake?”.   We dread this question because it is so hard to truly be honest about failure when we are trying to put our best foot forward.

Of course, J.K. Rowling has a dramatic rags to riches story that most of us applying to business school, don’t come close to matching.  But just because you have not penned Harry Potter, does not mean that you cannot learn something from the way she tells her story and the associated lessons.  As an MBA admissions coach, one of the points that I consistently try to drive home is that telling the “what” is not enough – you need to discuss the “why”.

A typical failure essay might read something like this:
1)  I had a dream
2)  I messed up
3)  I failed
4)  I learned from my mistake
5)  Take 2 was much better

But most of these stories lack the introspection, honesty, humility and self awareness that J.K. Rowling displayed in her speech.  This is what made it real, made it interesting and what helped us get to know her.  For an admissions committee with stacks and stacks of similar formulaic essays, reading one essay that is honest and human is a joy! 

J.K. Rowling talks about the benefits of failure and through her personal story she tells us not just “what happened”, but also how she learned from it and how it made her feel.  She describes her fear of failure and how she let outsiders (society, parents) define what failure and success meant to her.  In this paragraph, Rowling expresses what failure ultimately did for and how she grew through it.  Everyone will have their own story, but I thought hers was quite striking:

So why do I talk about the benefits of failure? Simply because failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me. Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena I believed I truly belonged. I was set free, because my greatest fear had already been realized, and I was still alive, and I still had a daughter whom I adored, and I had an old typewriter and a big idea. And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.

So how do you, as a business school applicant, do what Rowling has done and tell how failure truly impacted you as a human being, rather than just tell the “failure story”?  You need to start with some real introspection.  Think very honestly about how you felt, all of the emotions that ran through you.  As ugly as they may have been, be honest with your self at least and put those thoughts on paper.  From there, you can try to be more eloquent as you describe all of this in your application.   The key here is real introspection – not just action, but feelings!

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