What are the most challenging essay questions business schools ask applicants? That’s a question we hope to answer in this new six-part series. Stacy Blackman, founder of the MBA admissions consulting firm that bears her name, is picking out what she considers to be the most challenging and then providing advice for how to approach each essay.
What constitutes a highly challenging essay? They may force you to be incredibly introspective, surprisingly creative or perhaps highly succinct. Some of the essays are not as straightforward as they seem, others are very straightforward, but it is tempting to stray off topic. Whatever the reason, we are here to help, with some tips taken straight from the Stacy Blackman Consulting series of school specific essay guides.
Most Challenging MBA Essay Question #1:
Harvard Business School:
Tell us three setbacks you have faced. (600 words)
This question is new for the 2011/2012 application year, and transforms the classic HBS mistake essay into a broader topic. When you think about three setbacks in your life thus far consider that a setback is anything that hinders or impedes your progress. Additionally, the choice of setback can be personal, professional, or extracurricular.
Some applicants face writer’s block when thinking about discussing imperfections in their overall story. The truth is that your challenges and setbacks have made you a more resilient person, and the admissions committee will learn the most about you and your personal qualities from these stories. Many talented, high-achieving individuals who show early promise in their academic and professional careers plateau after a few years in the workforce. There can be many possible explanations as to why, but quite often the failure to realize early potential is based on an inability to recognize, take accountability for, and learn from mistakes and difficulties.
Making mistakes and facing setbacks is an inevitable consequence of leading. By definition, the leader is blazing a new trail where guidebooks and guidelines simply don’t exist; so missteps are sure to occur. The admissions committee will be very leery of a candidate who claims a flawless string of successes and no blunders. All of the possibilities are red flags: the candidate is being dishonest; the candidate is incapable of recognizing a mistake and lacks self-awareness; the candidate is so cautious that he or she never makes a move unless success is assured. The opportunities for growth for this person are slim; the chances of admission to HBS are even slimmer.
Mistakes or disappointment occur when one’s assumptions about how the world works are off base or unrealistic. The mistake is a reality check. Some people cling to faulty assumptions and continue to hit brick walls, while others learn something new, course-correct, and move forward. Moreover, a leader who is capable of admitting when he is wrong is showing his followers that making and admitting mistakes is okay. Facing disappointment and solving the problem that led to your feelings shows introspection and maturity. It’s easy to see why these leadership characteristics are paramount. Major corporations have been brought down by leaders who neglected their gut feelings or felt their missteps were best brushed under the carpet or fed through the paper shredder.
Tip #1: Mistakes and setbacks are related but different.
Tip #2: Demonstrate self-awareness.
Tip #3: Lessons learned and evidence of growth are paramount.
Tip #4: Show initiative and resilience
Our MBA Application Essay Review Service requires the client to write about their failure even if the essay does not ask them to do so. You know why we torture our energetic applicants to relive the dark phases of “FAILURE”? We noticed that a greater measure of the emotional maturity or EQ of a person is the manner in which she explains her failure. If “We”, a word used sparsely during questions about success is frequently used when the topic is about Failures, the blame game has already started.
Failures – Cultural Implications
For the Japanese, failure carries a much deeper psychological wound than what Americans lightly term as “setbacks.” For Indians, a Govt. Job or the predestined Engineering or Medicine degree hold a higher prestige than the failure-filled Entrepreneurial route while for the Chinese, a Business failure is tolerable with a recent Chinese OECD survey showing that 90% of the participants would give a second chance to the failed Entrepreneur.
For MBA applications, failure is not limited to the narrow scope of Entrepreneurship but includes Life Experiences. Failures from your personal experience might be setbacks for an American reviewer, a catastrophe for an Indian reviewer, and a tolerable blip in your otherwise glowing career for a Chinese reviewer. Understanding a universally acceptable life experience independent of the reviewer’s cultural and personal upbringing is crucial to connect with the admission team.
Search for Book titles with “How I survived a --------------“.
Now fill the blank with Divorce, Cancer, Failure, Financial Meltdown, Bankruptcy, you name it.
Have you ever seen a best-selling book – “How I lost it all” without any redeeming phrase in the end?
We all love the redemption story, not because we are the soapy sentimental type, but our hope machine depends on stories of survival. With an evolutionary bias towards stories about survival, failures never become part of the news.
Steven Levitt, the Freakonomics author, did tackle this question directly. While reviewing Good to Great by Jim Collins – the early start-up bible for many, Steve noticed that Jim had shortlisted 11 companies from 1435 listed companies. The companies were those that picked momentum when Jim was writing the book (2001). He found a common trait that bound them all together – “a sense of discipline”. Unfortunately, for Jim, one of the 11 outperforming companies was Fannie Mae, which went bankrupt in 2008 and delisted in 2010 after several attempts by the Govt. to resurrect it. Moreover, the other 10 companies underperformed heavily compared to the S&P 500 index. When a company is delisted, it is never part of the analysis, and Financial Analyst do historical analysis of companies that have succeeded over a small period of time, and then try to find attributes that seem like a common trait. This is what Books about Entrepreneurship does.
For every Steve Job or Zuckerberg working out of their parent’s Garage, there are thousands of other Entrepreneurs who didn’t even cross the first stage of funding. To attribute success to “Persistence” and “Ramen Noodles” based on who became successful is a flawed approach.
MBA Failure Essay: Over citation of Persistence
Essays have turned into those Entrepreneurship Books. Applicants are trying to credit the usual suspect – “persistence” for their comeback. You can do better than that. Specificity wins over general attribute matching. The Admission team is reading the 100th essay about Persistence. For once, highlight your problem-solving capability. You didn’t persist perhaps. You changed direction by analyzing the reasons for your failure. Very few applicants have that perspective and very few actually get into Harvard.
Don’t Dwell on Failures: Curse of Self-Help Books
If you go to any self-help books from the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People to How to Win Friends and Influence People, to the bulk of the Tony Robbins and Zig Ziglar titles, a unifying theme emerges. Don’t dwell on Failures - a common advice MBA Admission Consultants give partly to meet the 500-word limit where you have to include the ‘corrective action’ but mostly because it is not cool to keep sulking on your failures. The moment have passed. Look forward. Learn from your mistakes. Even superstar Entrepreneurs keep giving the same advice – “If you are afraid to fail, you will never succeed, and then swiftly change subjects to the next big venture they took off the ground.”
For the thick-skinned Entrepreneurs and Global Business Leaders, who talk about Failures in such impersonal terms – why is it you might wonder, they never spend even 20% of their words on this crucial aspect of their life journey. Failure is seen as an Idea Virus, and the more you discuss or analyze failures, more the chance that you will approach your next venture with ‘negativity’. The reality is further from this myth.
Worst Possible Results: Was it really ‘The Worst’?
Our minds are naturally working on paths of least resistance, and daydreaming about the best-case results. If you look back at your failures, they were some of the worst results but were they the worst possible results. Perhaps not. It would be a rarity if your failure contributed towards a company going bust or your company losing a major client. Sure there was a loss of revenue. Most contracts have penalties for delays and underperformance. Otherwise, how is it a failure? But the relationship was amended by a colleague or the supervisor with the Gift of Gab.
Even if you took a company down – don’t defend yourselves with all those silly MBA jargons about “Synergy and Team Spirit”. Those applicants never make it to the interview stage. For those, who came out from the worst to a better position, panicked, and desperately tried solutions to get out of the slump. Even a solution that allowed you to survive is a comeback. The redemption story need not be that dramatic. Most dramatic comeback stories are not believable, and the AdCom will file your essay with the list of fictional books for their private reading.
Analyzing Failures: The Growth Mindset
An applicant with Growth mindset looks at challenges as opportunities for mastery. What most applicants confuse is the difference between mastery and persistence. To persist means to continue in a path despite failures. Mastery is more of a mindset than action, and how do the Admission team know? The tone with which you write about Failure will expose your mindset.
The Fallacy of Talent: Those who think that talent is fixed will make an observation about their God- given talents, and reveal weaknesses as talent deficiency. That is a red flag. No one is an in-born Financial Analyst or a Software Programmer. You acquire the skills by working on your Math and Logical skills. You don’t become a great writer by reading thousands of essays and visualizing sentences. You write – some great, some unpublishable but some worth keeping in your MBA Essays. Talent once developed need effort to sustain. When your failure essay is not about Talent but effort, you have taken the first step in differentiating yourselves.
Criticism: Applicants who are defensive about Criticism will either not mention it in the essay or put a positive spin on their experience. If you have failed, you will attract criticism from your supervisors, your colleagues, and your clients. It is a natural reaction. How did you take the criticism should be the thread that you use to write about the corrective action, not the self-realization or calm reflection about events that led to the failure. Let us be real. When we fail, we are least likely to act like a monk. The common thread in the criticism from different stakeholders will reveal the real reasons for your failure (lack of focus, effort, or faulty decisions).
Support: When we fail, someone else will do the rescue act. Most applicants fail to mention the role of the colleague or the supervisor, who was decisive in taking over the project or helping you during the crisis. Use them as inspirations. What did you learn from them? Did you consider the failure as an opportunity to persist or as a lesson to master your skills? How did you approach the next project after the failure?
Don’t worry if writing about Failure with a growth mindset doesn’t come naturally to you. We will guide you through the writing process. Subscribe to our Essay Review Service.