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Discussing Startup Failures in MBA Essays

November 06, 2018 :: Jacob Allison

Startup Failures MBA | Admissionado

Starting a business is hard. According to Harvard Business School’s  Shikhar Ghosh, three-quarters of new startups with venture capital backing will eventually fail.

We regularly work with clients who have been brave enough to try and start a new business and failed, and who now want to get an MBA to strengthen their skills and experiences before taking the plunge again. We often find that these clients are hesitant to talk about their business failures in their application essays, worried that adcoms will not be interested in someone that isn’t a “natural.” Well… NOT using your startup failure experience is a missed opportunity to highlight important business leadership skills like bravery, risk-taking, creativity, and an ability to learn and grow from failure.

For example, take a look at Kellogg’s second MBA essay prompt:

Pursuing an MBA is a catalyst for personal and professional growth. How have you grown in the past? How do you intend to grow at Kellogg?

This “lesson-learned” prompt isn’t unique to Kellogg, several other top MBA programs’ apps ask a similar question of applicants. Let’s walk through how someone with a past startup failure experience might approach answering this prompt.

Starting with the first part of the question, an applicant that has a failed startup experience in their past might outline the excitement they felt as they were starting their new venture. Maybe hooking the reader in with an anecdote about the first day of their new company’s operations.

>>>>>>>Recommended Reading: “Describe a Setback or Failure…” and Don’t Humble Brag

The applicant could then move on to describe how things went awry, how their skills didn’t match up with the challenges they were facing. They could explore how they felt as things got out of control, and how hard it was to let their employees go. Then, we’d suggest that the applicant self-asses, telling the reader what specific business skills they discovered that they needed to strengthen, how much that first failure hurt, and how they learned that they were resilient and emotionally strong.

The second half of the prompt could also call back to the applicant’s startup failure, outlining their plans for filling in entrepreneurial skills gaps with Kellogg’s courses and other opportunities, their short-term goal of gaining funding experience at a startup incubator, and their long-term plans for starting an exciting new venture.

Not forgetting about the “personal growth at Kellogg” part of the prompt, the applicant could use their failure as a resource, writing about their plans for growing their mentorship skills by sharing the lessons learned from their failed venture through a mentorship program at the Entrepreneurship + Venture Capital Club and in classroom discussions.   

With this essay, the applicant has managed to turn a bad situation into a selling point for their candidacy. After all, MBA programs are looking for future business leaders that have already demonstrated bravery and a willingness to take risks. If you can manage to communicate to adcoms that you’ve learned from your failed startup experience, you’ll be telling them a lot about what kind of business leader you’ll be in the future.   


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