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The Personal Failure Essay for MBA and Grad School Apps

(This is part of a larger series on winning admission to a top MBA program.)

The personal failure essay: A common question in MBA essay prompts concerns a failure or setback in your career. Each school may ask the question in a slightly different way; here are some examples from the 2011-2012 admissions season:

  1. Harvard Business School: Tell us three setbacks you have faced.
  2. INSEAD: Describe a situation taken from your personal or professional life where you failed. Discuss what you learned.
  3. Wharton: Discuss a time when you faced a challenging interpersonal experience. How did you navigate the situation and what did you learn from it?

These can be unpleasant topics to write about. How should an applicant respond to questions like these?

First, you should make sure to write about a genuine challenge, failure or setback. Although it may seem tempting to tell a story in which your own failures are minimized, this type of response is unlikely to be effective, because it does not give you the chance to show self-reflection and personal growth. Moreover, an example where you give a ‘faux failure’ is much less likely to engage the reader than one where you describe a genuine failure of setback.

For example, imagine that you decided to write about an important project that failed due to an error by someone in the team you supervised. You may be tempted to write that “the team member was unable to take the responsibility and should have been monitored more closely.” Although this may be part of the story, a better response would include some reflection on your personal contribution to the problem. Instead of giving the trite insight that you should have monitored the team more carefully, you could write about the shortcomings in your management style and ability to motivate the team. By doing this, you show that you are honest and able to to reflect on failures, and you give yourself the chance to go on to describe what you have learned.

Secondly, do not tweak the story so as to make it about something you did well. For instance, in the above example, do not draw the attention away from your failure in managing the team by pointing out how hard you worked on the project yourself. You do not want to give the application committee the impression that you only want to talk about your successes, but are reluctant to reflect on your weaknesses.

Thirdly, end by describing what you have learned from your failure or setback and give an example of how you used your new insight. INSEAD and Wharton ask this explicitly, and Harvard surely expects you to discuss this, even though it is not mentioned in the text of the prompt.

An average response draws trite lessons. Sticking again with the example above, you might write that “each team member has a unique style and should be motivated accordingly.” A better response includes more details: Why did you fail to connect with the problem team member? Were there warning signs that you could have seen? A great response includes an example where you put your fix into action: you can mention, for instance, how you worked successfully with the same team member on a later project or were able to spot a potential problem early on in another team you managed afterwards.

By taking the courage to write honestly and directly about your failures, and then showing how you have put your learnings into action after the failure, you will have tackled this difficult essay topic successfully.