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Wharton Essay Option 3 of 4 – 2010-2011

September 28, 2010 :: Admissionado Team

Describe a failure that you have experienced. What role did you play, and what did you learn about yourself? How did this experience help to create your definition of failure? (600 words)

We’ve seen something similar in the HBS Mistake essay. And many others will ask this classic “failure” question. But before you get too comfortable, let’s roll up our sleeves and put this sucker under the ol’ Admissionado microscope shall we? Hell if we can’t find some tasty little gems deep inside this badboy.

First part, straightforward. Describe a failure that you have experienced. Clear, simple. But let’s not muck around. They’ve used the word failure for a reason. Notice how they haven’t opened it up simply to “valuable learning experiences.” Nope. They picked the word FAILURE. And it’s worth a moment of your time to digest that. What does it mean to FAIL at something? Well, it means quite simply to have NOT met an objective. You were expected to accomplish X and you didn’t accomplish X. It’s not… you came close and got an A- and not an A+. It’s not, check out this “failure” which is really a success story that just started out rockily. You shanked it. Plain and simple. Trust us, the lesson won’t be relevant unless you flat out FAILED. Don’t be afraid of it. The deeper you’re able to penetrate the causes and mechanics of a failure, the STRONGER you will emerge as someone less likely to make that mistake twice. And/or, the richer you are for the experience, and therefore… a wiser, more mature, more considered THINKER. So, we’re clear? Failure means failure. Let’s move on.

What role did YOU play and what did you learn about YOURSELF. Yep. You. Not… your team. Don’t be cute here. You can’t have been the guy who watched a ship sink… safely from shore. And then SPIN it to suggest that you could have done X and Y to save it but didn’t. No sir. You were in it. You had a hand. We need to know that you made a bad call, you neglected something huge, you misread something, you held back a key opinion, you acted impulsively, you did… something… to cause an effort to FAIL to reach an objective. We’ve seen dozens of essays of folks trying to pawn of team failures as personal ones. There are instances where team failures are appropriate, but your role has to be clear in it. Otherwise, you’re doing yourself a disservice here. There’s nothing more honorable than someone owning up to a mistake. That act ALONE suggests awareness, humility, and an ability to assess objectively. These are all good things. Failure means failure. Have we mentioned this yet?

The second piece there is all about what you learned about yourself. And friends, THIS is the heart and soul of this response. This is your moment to uncover a moment in time when something clicked, and you… got BETTER. And it all starts with revealing something you THOUGHT was correct (at the time) but later learned to be incorrect. So, let’s say you KNEW you should have fired some dead weight member of your team (a correct move, theoretically). But let’s say that for whatever reason you elected NOT to fire the guy. Well, pulling back for a second, you made a choice that NOT firing the guy made more sense that firing him ultimately. And THAT was the error in judgment. There will always be a traceable error. Find it. And lead us through the thought process where it made sense. Bring us into your thinking THEN. Then, walk us through the realization that it was the wrong move, and walk us through the reflection period. This is what we want to see. To see this capacity clearly is to see into the mind of someone who possesses incredible reasoning capabilities.

Finally, you’re asked to talk about how this moment helped CREATE your definition for failure. Very interestingly worded. CREATE. On the face of it, it almost seems to imply that you lacked a definition prior to the experience. Can that possibly be true? Hardly. You’re all educated folks who had a sense for what failure meant.

Sort of.

The thing is… this experience—whatever it is—RE-defined it. There was an AHA moment when you junked that old definition and replaced it with a NEW one. It was a moment you said “Holy crap. Failure isn’t just X or Y… but really it’s Z.” It’s that Z we’re dying to know about. It’s a corrected assumption. We need to see a SHIFT in your thinking. An evolution of understanding. If you’re just LEARNING the definition of failure, that’s a bit… well… sad! It’s more than that. It’s that your definition for FAILURE just changed. Show us how.