4 Smart Tricks to Writing an MBA Application Essay About Failure

Oct 29, 2014 - Joe Matar
Do you believe everything in an MBA application should present you in a positive light? It makes sense if you're trying to get into highly selective business programs; you want admissions committees to know how smart, accomplished, hard-working, team-focused and passionate you are. But you may find yourself stumped when you come across an essay prompt that asks them to share and reflect on an obstacle, mistake or failure from your past. This type of question abounds on MBA applications and includes specific instances such as:
  • Describe a time in the last three years when you overcame a failure. What specific insight from this experience has shaped your development? (Haas 2014)
  • What's the greatest obstacle you've overcome (personally or professionally)? How has overcoming this obstacle prepared you to achieve success now and in the future? (Kellogg 2014)
  • Describe a time in your career when you were frustrated or disappointed. What advice would you give to a colleague who was dealing with a similar situation? (Ross 2014)
The often overwhelming urge to look good can make you answer with scenarios that weren't really negative. General examples include, "I work too hard" or "I am too detail-oriented." That isn't appropriate for essays of this type, nor is focusing on superficial troubles that serve only as an opportunity for you to sneakily share successes. (e.g. "I once had to pull two consecutive all-nighters to finish a project on time, but it earned me a huge promotion.") When you come across an essay prompt about failure, it's important to be honest and focus on something that was actually a hard time in your life. Sharing an experience that doesn't reflect well on you can strengthen your candidacy and give the reader valuable insights regarding your skills, personality and resilience. (Click here to tweet this quote.) Here are four suggestions to help you write a great MBA essay about something less-than-flattering from your past.

1. Allow yourself to fall short

Just as your parents told you countless times since you were old enough to understand, failure is part of life. Even the world's top business people, from Warren Buffett to Marissa Mayer, have experienced disappointing detours on their roads to wealth and power. If becoming a successful businessperson were easy, it wouldn't be so lucrative. And if that were the case, MBA programs wouldn't exist at all. The first thing you need to do when writing about roadblocks on your own path is simple: accept that you’ve messed up, probably too many times to count, and know that doesn’t make you less deserving of admission. If you can come to grips with that, you'll find this whole process much easier and more constructive.

2. Give an honest assessment

The best way to get off to a great start in an essay discussing a mistake or failure is to immediately strike the right tone: frank honesty. There's no need to try and make the situation seem better than it was or minimize your shortcomings. Doing so will make you seem defensive. Instead, be confident in explaining exactly what happened, where the situation went wrong, and how you were responsible.

3. Tell a story

Hindsight is 20/20. A great essay about a hard time will not only explain the event in honest terms, but also demonstrate that you learned from it. In fact, many MBA application essay prompts (including all three presented earlier) include two separate parts. The first asks you to describe the event, the second asks you to talk about what you took from it. Pay close attention to what your particular prompt wants you to focus on in that latter respect. Sometimes the question focuses on how the experience impacted your development. In others, you might be asked what you would do differently or how you would recommend someone else face a similar situation. Whatever’s asked, tailor your response to that particular query.

4. Share your personal growth

Why do MBA programs ask you to discuss unflattering experiences from your past at all? Simple. No matter how intelligent, experienced, hardworking and lucky (yes, lucky) you are, you're going to struggle and mess up -- probably a lot -- both in business school and your subsequent employment. If you can't roll with those punches, occasionally accept defeat and use those experiences to become a better student and professional, you're not going to get far. MBA applications are designed so admissions officers and committees can get to know you as a person, beyond what quantitative elements like grades and test scores tell them. Essays are especially helpful in that regard, and essays that force you to discuss something you may not naturally be eager to share can be particularly revealing. When you tackle an essay prompt asking about a misstep or crash-and-burn experience, tackle it head on. Provide an honest assessment of what went wrong and show how that event ultimately strengthened you in the long run. Ryan Hickey is the Managing Editor of Peterson's and EssayEdge, and is an expert in many aspects of college, graduate and professional admissions. A graduate of Yale University, Ryan has worked in various admissions capacities for nearly a decade, including writing test-prep material for the SAT, AP exams, and TOEFL, editing essays and personal statements, and consulting directly with applicants.