Dartmouth Tuck used to ask applicants to “tell us about a time you: received tough feedback, experienced failure, or disappointed yourself or others. How did you respond, and what did you learn about yourself as a result?”
The multi-part question is a lot to bite off, but the idea behind each of these sub-topics is the same: how do you handle failure? Do you give up, do you blame others, or do you take responsibility and improve? This topic is absolutely worth taking the time to think through, because it contains basically every version of the “failure story” question all in one prompt. If this type of question doesn’t come up on any of your application essays, it almost certainly WILL come up in the interview, and folks, this one is a biggie.
Think of this as a drill you run in football practice. The exercise may seem like it has nothing to do with the game, but when you’re at the season playoffs and you complete the game-winning pass you’ll realize all that prep you did WAS relevant: you were building muscle memory. In this series, we’ll break down this question and address each piece, building that muscle memory so that when you come across a “failure” question either in an essay or in an interview, you can make like Tom Brady and bring home the ring. Here, we dig into Part I.
PART I: Tell us about a time you…received tough feedback
Let’s dive in with that first question. Hopefully, when you read those words, “tough feedback,” something horrible JUMPED into your mind. After all, you’re a high-achieving straight shooter, so the times you’ve received some hard-hitting constructive criticism are probably relatively few, and likely to stick out in your memory. Here’s the key: don’t shrink from it.
There are two types of responses to this question. The first is the applicant who cringes at this memory, and immediately begins to think about how to JUSTIFY and EXPLAIN the circumstances. This guy is afraid to reveal the weaknesses that led to the feedback, and wants to downplay those weaknesses so the adcom doesn’t think less of him. The idea of actually, willingly ADMITTING to anything that isn’t a strength on their application terrifies him.
The second applicant, and the one who will come out on top in this case, can’t WAIT to tell this story. This is an opportunity delivered on a silver platter to show GROWTH, and that’s applicant gold. An upward trajectory is wayyy more impressive than a flat one, and the gal who shows that she SEEKS self-improvement and embraces opportunities to grow (whether they come in the success or failure package) will be far more appealing than the applicant who believes she’s already the whole package. If you can use this essay to demonstrate that you are able to own up to a shortcoming, address it, and improve, you are already leagues ahead, my friend.
Once you’ve wrapped your head around being totally vulnerable in this essay by ‘fessing up a weakness, there are some tricks to the approach. Before you even begin writing, you need to get out your time machine (or hop into the DeLorean) and send yourself back to that episode. Think about what you DIDN’T know before you received the feedback, and exactly how you IMPROVED as a result. What did you do differently after, and how did that result in a better outcome? How would today’s version of you be less effective, LESS GOOD, if you hadn’t gotten that feedback? Let that stew for a bit; close your eyes and meditate on it, if you’re in to that sort of thing.
Once you’ve got a clear picture in your head of what difference that tough criticism made, and mentally (or literally) thanked the person who gave you that feedback, only NOW are you ready to start writing.
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This kind of essay absolutely demands a strong contrast between the BEFORE and the AFTER, so take the time to explain what your mindset, process, or knowledge was BEFORE you received feedback. Sell us on it, putting us in your shoes during that time when you had NO doubt that the way you were operating was optimal, irreproachable. Explain why you felt that way. Then, let the hammer drop with that feedback. Just as it hit you hard, it should hit the reader with equal force. If you’ve chosen a good story, that feedback should be disorienting and a little painful—it should have shocked you to realize your assumptions or process were wrong. If you’ve done a good job selling the reader on your process BEFOREHAND, then the feedback will shock them, too.
This is the moment to be vulnerable. That first type of applicant we talked about wants to hedge or justify their thinking, and explain why they were only kinda, sorta in the wrong before getting feedback, or how they couldn’t possibly have known there was a problem. But the second type of applicant, the one we like, the one who gets in, is EXCITED to tell us about just how wrong they were. They reveal their weakness with sincerity, enthusiasm, and confidence, knowing the more disorienting and hard-hitting this moment is, the more growth and improvement we’ll see when they turn it all around.
If you’re having a tough time identifying exactly what the IMPACT of that feedback was, play out the hypothetical scenario where you DON’T receive it. If you had kept operating as you were, how would things have ended up? Maybe it would have been okay, but we’re striving for GREAT, not “okay.” That delta, between how things would have turned out without the feedback, and how they DID turn out since you had that rough, hard-to-swallow criticism, is key.
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Without getting into specifics, this should read roughly as: “well, without that feedback I would have continued on THIS path with THIS mindset and done ABC, but because that feedback forced me to reconsider my mindset/process/skillset, I changed to THAT alternative path that led to amazing outcomes XYZ and I learned to be/do something better. Thanks, tough feedback!”
So get out your vulnerable side and your time machine and with that set of tools, get writing!
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