“Describe a Setback or Failure…” and Don’t Humble Brag

MBA Failure Essay

Just like the dreaded “What are your weaknesses?” question in job interviews, you might come across the “failure essay” during your MBA applications. An essay that asks you to reveal negative information about yourself…on a high stakes application?! That’s the worst kind, right? Wrong. This is actually a fantastic opportunity to STRENGTHEN your app. You know, as long as you totally crush the essay.

For starters, what the heck is the deal with this essay? What’s the POINT? Is this some kind of weird Mr. Miyagi test? Well, kind of, yeah. The truth is, the admissions committee (or adcom, as it’s known in the biz), isn’t all that interested in the failure itself. Really, they are interested in your ability to assess yourself, to be honest, humble, and, most importantly, to LEARN from your mistakes. Your ability to be vulnerable and the self-awareness you demonstrate by admitting to a failure show maturity, and the lesson you learned after the failure shows the adcom that you are a better applicant BECAUSE you failed.

So what are the basic elements of this essay that will take it from just admitting weakness to proving you are a badass? The most obvious, and most IMPORTANT, aspect is the failure itself. This is where most applicants go wrong—they choose a failure that is, well, not a failure, usually because they are afraid to admit something that really was a failure. Worse than simply not wanting to own up to a mistake, some applicants they think they can get away with the “humble brag” version of this essay—you know, where they present something as a failure while really showing off something they see as a strength. Like when your friend “complains” that his new car is so fast he keeps getting speeding tickets. Don’t be that guy, nobody likes that guy.

Back to the essay. For this to work, you can’t hedge and you can’t sneak in a win. There is simply no way around it, you have to own up to your screw-up, and it should be a doozy—a real flop. A case when you just totally missed the mark, screwed the pooch, dropped the ball…we could go on, but you get it. Let’s see some examples. Take a look at the “failures” below, and see if you can figure out which is the RIGHT kind of failure, and which is just … a fail.

Candidate A: It was 2 am and the whole team was in the office, a sense of panic filling the air as we scrambled to pull together weeks of research and data. Even worse, this was the fourth time this month we had been forced to stay late to finish a client presentation, and it was my fault. I had brought in 10 new clients for pitches in the last 8 weeks, and it was simply more than my team and I could handle. As we finally wrapped things up an hour later, I resolved not to push the team, and myself, so hard in the future—it was important to find a balance. I learned my lesson about taking on too much…

Candidate B: An hour before my presentation, I suddenly became overwhelmingly anxious. This was the first time I would be leading the pitch, and among the clients were c-suite execs from one of the country’s biggest pet food manufacturers—we stood to lose millions in business if they didn’t like my marketing strategy, or if they didn’t like me! In the days leading up to the meeting I had been cool, confident, and sure of my skills; after all, I was the best member of my college debate team, and had been part of hundreds of presentations before this one. I had done the legwork and knew the material was good. But still, my hands were sweating, and my voice began to shake as I started the pitch. It went terribly. The client was unhappy, and requested we re-do much of the work. My boss later told me they came close to putting us on notice.

Well? Which candidate would YOU prefer? Yep, we like the second guy better too, and so will the adcom. The failure he describes is hard-hitting, even a little embarrassing, and we know he probably learned A LOT from that experience (which he’ll tell us about in the rest of the essay). The first guy, on the other hand, while pretending to give us a failure, is really trying to tell us what a hero he is for winning SO much business the team couldn’t handle it. Just like that friend with the new car, nobody likes this guy. More importantly, he’s not demonstrating ANY of the qualities the adcom wants to see in this essay—he’s not self-aware, mature, willing to learn from his mistakes (or to even admit them), and he’s definitely going to get docked points for this.

Like the second guy, you want to admit a REAL failure—one that hit you hard and made you reassess. These are the moments where you learn the most, and therefore they make a much richer story for your application. Equally important here is that you OWN UP to the failure straight up—no hedging, no making excuses. This is not the time for “the dog ate my homework.” Adding explanations for WHY you failed, unless they are directly related to what you LEARNED from the failure, won’t help you. These are usually things like, “I was under a lot of personal stress” or “my boss probably shouldn’t have trusted me with that responsibility.” These come off as whiny more than anything else. Rather than explain your failure away, OWN it. Tell us straight up what you did wrong: “I should have prepared more, or prepared better,” or “I needed to learn to balance my responsibilities and manage my time more effectively.”

The final step in this failure essay, and equally critical, is showing us that you learned your lesson. The best way to do this is to provide a second, brief example that illustrates how you put that hard-learned lesson to good use. “For the next presentation, I prepared until I could say it backwards, used breathing exercises to calm my nerves, and crushed it, winning even more business for my firm.”

Alright, we know you’re convinced now, but we’ll say it one more time. The failure essay is an opportunity, and the best way to win it is by owning up to a straight up flop. So go forth, and write those failures up, my friends – the more humiliating the better.

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