It’s the dreaded failure topic: “Describe a situation taken from your personal or professional life where you failed.” MBA applicants often freak out when faced with this common admissions essay question because they fear that showing any weakness will torpedo their admissions chances. However, at one point or another, everyone faces adversity, failure or setbacks, whether at work or in life.
Your response to these situations demonstrates your character, and business schools understand that failure represents a learning opportunity.
This essay is your chance to demonstrate your maturity, flexibility and leadership qualities. Leaders aren’t always successful; rather, they are willing to admit to failure and find motivation in their misfortune.
So how do you tell the business school admissions committee how failure has truly affected you?
First, start with some real introspection. It’s important to use a failure that is emotionally important to you.
Your failure should also be real and something that led you to gain some insight about yourself. The negative situation could have led to a transformative experience for your team, a positive opportunity for someone else or a chance for you to better understand another person through a team challenge.
The admissions committee will easily see through an accomplishment that you frame as a failure; furthermore, that will not demonstrate your maturity or ability to grow. Think creatively about this aspect – do your best to describe how you have changed your approach as a result of the failure.
When brainstorming for this essay, think first about what you learned from the situation you plan to detail; then work backward to describe the circumstances and the initial challenge or hurdle. That will help you more optimistically view the whole situation. What did you learn from the experience and how did it impact your life or demonstrate a specific aspect of your character, goals or accomplishments?
Think honestly about all the emotions you felt. As ugly as they may have been, be honest and write them down.
From there, try to more eloquently describe your feelings in your essay. Remember, even the most difficult situations often lead to personal growth and likely have contributed to the individual you are today.
For example, one of my clients was caught plagiarizing a term paper during college. He was very lucky the school did not expel him, but he did fail and have to repeat that course.
This startling wakeup call became a valuable life lesson. It spurred him to join student government, help develop for the school policy guidelines on cheating and speak publicly about his plagiarism experience and the importance of respecting intellectual property. When he applied for business school, his transformative experience resonated with the admissions committee and he ultimately attended one of the top-three MBA programs in the country.
The key here is detailing not only your actions but also your feelings. Another client I worked with chose to write about her layoffs at three different companies over a five-year period. Although the layoffs had nothing to do with her job performance, each experience devastated her, and she struggled both financially and emotionally until she finally landed a position that allowed her to flourish.
She turned those low moments into a powerful admissions essay of resilience and problem-solving. She showed how the experience ultimately taught her waysto better evaluate career opportunities. Demonstrating this type of humility and self-awareness made a positive impact on the admissions committee, and she ultimately attended the Wharton School at University of Pennsylvania – with a scholarship to boot.
As you finalize this essay, focus on embracing the positive aspects of your past mistake and demonstrating the ways you have used the incident as an opportunity to learn and grow. This may just be the factor that makes your candidacy stand out amid a sea of so-called “perfect” applicants.