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Business School Application Failure Essays Series – Part IV: Organizing The Essay

May 13, 2019 :: Alex Collazo

[Don’t forget to dig into Part I, Part II and Part III of this series! Wahoo!]

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 IV.

PART IV: Organizing the Failure Story in Your Essays

Alright, so you’ve got the meat of these failure essays down: you know you need to get comfortable with being vulnerable, have your time machine at the ready to bring us back to your old, misguided ways of thinking, stand up and OWN your failure, and then show us how you grew. But…where do you start to organize that into a cogent, eloquent essay that will drop jaws?

Here’s the step by step to get you started penning your first draft of this kind of essay.

Section 1: Your original course of action, and why it was unimpeachable

Sell us on how you FIRST approached this situation or challenge, establishing at the same time what the “goal” was. This is where that time machine comes in handy—take us back to what your thinking was at the time, given what you knew (or what you didn’t know), and make sure that we’re JUST as convinced as YOU were that you were DEFINITELY on the right track.

Section 2: Where it all goes wrong

Womp womp. This is the actual FAILURE part, and while we want a clear picture of how it all turned upside down, you don’t need to go too crazy here. Give us a concise, transparent picture of the undesirable outcome, and THEN, more importantly, tell us about YOUR role in it. What did YOU do wrong? Take ownership, and don’t be afraid to be vulnerable. Just as you put us into your mindset and thought process leading up to the failure, we want to see how you FELT and what you THOUGHT through this part too. How did you deal with getting this feedback, seeing this failure, or failing to meet expectations?

Section 3: So?? What did you DO about it?

How did you RESPOND to that failure? What did you actually do? This is important because it reveals to the adcom how you handle failure, how open you are to criticism, and how willing you are to address your shortcomings and grow. Did you get defensive? Did you push through, and solve the problem by sheer force, or luck? Or did you reflect and improve? Obviously, the latter is the RIGHT answer, and your job is to show us what steps you took that demonstrate that kind of thinking.

Section 4: Growth, and proof of that growth.

Finally, before wrapping up you need to PROVE that you grew from this experience. If it was a one-off failure and you fixed it and moved on, never to encounter a similar set of choices, then it isn’t of much use to anyone. However, if you can show that the NEXT time you faced a situation similar to the one in which you first fell short, but THIS time you took X different approach or applied Y lesson learned, then you are PROVING to the adcom that you took that failure and made it into a positive outcome by becoming BETTER. Growth is applicant gold, and that’s what you’re cementing in this last section.

Even if your target b-schools don’t explicitly ask you this question in your essays, this is a drill worth doing. This WILL come up in your interviews, and answering this question is an art form that requires practice. Running through a draft of the failure essay will help you master this way of thinking so you can execute it flawlessly, either in an essay or in an interview.


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