Category Archives: MBA Adcom

Take a tip from George Soros in Managing the B-School Failure Essay

The setback-failure-weakness essay is commonly asked for in MBA Admissions because it is a test of an applicant’s maturity, self-knowledge, honesty, and ability to learn from mistakes. It is, in other words, the biggest indicator of real leadership ability and potential.

Sample questions that approach this topic are:

Tuck-Dartmouth (Essay 3): Describe a circumstance in your life in which you faced adversity, failure, or setback. What actions did you take as a result and what did you learn from this experience?
Harvard Business School (Essay 2) Tell us three setbacks you have faced?
INSEAD (Essay 3) Describe a situation taken from your personal or professional life where you failed. Discuss what you learned.
Judge-Cambridge (essay 2) What did you learn from your most spectacular failure?

MBA applicants often struggle with these essays because they feel that admitting a weaknesses or sharing a time when they failed erodes their candidacy. In fact, it does just the opposite. Leaders know their weaknesses, and can admit them to themselves and others — in order to work on them, or work around them. It shows self-insight and points to seniority. No one is comfortable talking about their weak spots and failure. But nobody is perfect or has not failed. Not Bill Gates, not Richard Branson, not me, nor you, nor the admissions officer.

So it is not admitting a weakness is what will get you dinged, because it’s like waving red beacon that betrays inexperience and a junior mindset. If you “have no weaknesses” that just tells Adcom that you don’t know what they are yet or that you’re too immature to face them. It says you don’t know yourself, therefore you don’t yet know where you will mess up. You are a liability to yourself and your company.

Take a tip from George Soros, self-made billionaire, philosopher, philanthropist, social reformer, and fund manager extraordinaire – famous for “breaking the Bank (of England)” by shorting the pound sterling in 1992 – who shares this candid account of his weaknesses:

“I’m a very bad judge of character. I’m a good judge of stocks, and I have a reasonably good perspective on history. But I am, really, quite awful in judging character, and so I’ve made many mistakes. It took me five years and a lot of painful experiences to find the right management team. I am please that finally I found it, but I cannot claim to be as successful in picking a team as I have been in actually managing money. I think that I’m very good as a senior partner, or boss, because I have a lot of sympathy for the difficulties that fund managers face. When they are in trouble I can give them a lot of support, and that, I think, has contributed toward creating a good atmosphere in the firm. But I’m not so good at choosing them.” – ‘Soros on Soros: Staying Ahead of the Curve,’ Wiley & Sons, NY, 1995, p.18

See, the greatest business leaders all have weaknesses and all have made significant mistakes in their careers and their lives. The point is not to prove that you don’t fail, or won’t fail. It is to prove that you have the insight into yourself to be able to recognize and compensate for your weaknesses.

What Adcom wants to know is not how you avoided failure, but how you managed it, what you learned, what insights into yourself you gained, and how you grew from there. They want to see that you have the will and the insight to locate and understand the source of your mess up – the underlying weaknesses that caused it – and that you have the maturity to face and work on the issue.

To summarize: the setback essay is not testing to see if you have weaknesses. We all do. It is a test of your self-knowledge and maturity. The committee wants to see if you can candidly face, discuss, and work on your flaws, or if you will you try to hide them or blame circumstances or other people. This is a significant test of your readiness for senior leadership.

A note on tone
Soros is candid, straightforward, and objective in his self-analysis. He shares measured self-insight with the reader. He doesn’t try to slip in softening or deflecting phrases, or hide behind humor; nor is he self-excusing or whining and looking to blame others – the hallmarks of a too-junior applicant.

[Updated 9/2011]

Listening to HBS Adcom, and other MBA Admissions Committees too

It’s important to listen, to really, really pay attention when Adcom talks, because they do tell applicants everything they need to know.

Below are extracts from an interview with Deirdre Leopold (57) executive director of MBA admissions and financial aid at Harvard Business School, recently published in the Boston Globe. It’s low on the usual general exhortations, and high on real guideposts for meeting their expectations and beating out other applicants.

Note the key points (broadly true of the other top programs too):

1. Guiding selection principle is ‘leaders who will make a difference in the world.’ Now this could be a platitude, but it’s not. They really mean it. It can be any difference, but it must be some difference. If you’re just going to be another banker or another consultant or another PE portfolio manager, or even just another venture capitalist or entrepreneur, that’s not making a difference in the world. You can be any of these things, or something else, but how will you leave a different world behind you?

2. Qualities – Curiosity, initiative, sense of purpose, energy, self-awareness, a real sense of others, an ability to engage in a community, a moral compass, ‘givers’ rather than ‘takers,’ not bystanders but active participants. This is not a full list, but it’s a great starting point for an application platform.

3. Transformational experience of the (HBS) MBA, and who appears receptive to it. As Leopold says: ‘Do you want to possibly have your plan completely turned around, find out things that you didn’t even know were possibilities for you?’ (This is why the HBS goals essay is optional, because they want to significantly expand your horizons!) If you are not ready for transformation they don’t want you.

4. The case method, and knowing what it actually, specifically offers. As Leopold explains: ‘Leaders operate in gray areas… (the case method is) developing the judgment to know which tool to use when, to be comfortable in uncertainty, to be able to make decisions day in and day out with imperfect information, not enough information, never enough time.’

5. Endorsement for MBA admissions consulting, recognizing that (a) executives and all of us use consultants widely in and throughout our lives and careers — it’s part of being fully actualized and competitive in our society; and (b) many candidates are unfamiliar with b-school culture, therefore disadvantaged when applying, and they can legitimately overcome this. (And she says: ‘there is no such thing as a reputable consultant who will write business school applications,’ which of course MBA Studio and other reputable advisors do not do.)

Here is the extracted interview text:

What does HBS look for in its candidates?

Our mission is to educate leaders who will make a difference in the world. So we’re driving back to that guiding principle. We’re looking to compose a class of talented leaders who come from many different backgrounds but share some common qualities. And those qualities might include curiosity, initiative, sense of purpose, energy, self-awareness, a real sense of others, and an ability to engage in a community, and a moral compass that points true north.

What kind of candidates do you actively avoid?

Think of the qualities I described, and think of their opposite. We want people who can come here and believe that they are as invested in their classmates’ learning as they are in their own. We’re looking for people who, over the whole course of their lives, have been givers versus takers, who are not bystanders but active participants.

Some applicants hire admissions consultants to try to game the system. Can you detect an application that’s written by an admissions consultant?

The written application is only one part of our process. We start with a written application, but we interview every applicant who is ultimately admitted. So we are not reliant only on a written application. I think we’re in a culture now where consultants are hired to do a lot of different things. We understand that some people – particularly those who do not work with people who have gone to business school, who do not have expertise in this admission process – we understand that seeking out advice is natural. But there is no such thing as a reputable consultant who will write business school applications.

If a young executive is already on the corporate fast track, do you recommend that he or she come to Harvard Business School?

If they’re thinking about Harvard Business School, which is truly a transformational experience, I’d ask that person: Do you want to be open to that change? Do you want to find out different ways of doing things? Do you want to possibly have your plan completely turned around, find out things that you didn’t even know were possibilities for you?

What do students learn at Harvard Business School that they can’t learn at a Wharton or a Stanford?

I’m only speaking from a point of expertise about Harvard. It’s where I went to school, so I’m speaking as an alum and also as an admissions director. The case method, which is our pedagogy, is truly distinctive. We’re educating leaders to be effective. Leaders operate in gray areas. It’s not about the specific analytical tools you have in some imaginary toolbox. It’s developing the judgment to know which tool to use when, to be comfortable in uncertainty, to be able to make decisions day in and day out with imperfect information, not enough information, never enough time, and to be able to take a stand and to be able to communicate it to others and to bring people along with you.


HBS Adcom is answering applicants’ questions every day until the R1 deadline. Answers so far…

Deidre Leopold, Harvard Business School’s Managing Director of Admissions and Financial Aid is answering applicant questions at the rate of two a day on the HBS ‘From The Director‘ blog, until Harvard’s Round 1 deadline on October 1.

The following are the questions that have been selected so far, and HBS Adcom’s answers:

September 25, 2009

1. Are you reading applications now?
No. We don’t begin until the night of October 1. That’s when we print all applications and begin review. So our process is not “rolling” in a classic sense. That said, I would advise NOT waiting until the final moments before the deadline to submit because the server will probably be backed up and you will be very anxious.

2. When can I visit a class?
The online scheduler for class visits is available now. Class visits begin on Monday, October 19. Whether you have visited a class or not has no bearing on our consideration of your candidacy. However, here’s (yet another) plug for our video filmed in the first year classroom.

September 24, 2009

1. Must applications for the MPP/MBA Program, or other joint degree programs, be submitted separately?
Yes. In order to participate in a Harvard joint program, you must be admitted to each school independently. HBS offers five joint degrees with four Harvard schools.

2. May I scan an unofficial transcript into the application?
Yes. After admission, we require the official transcript to be sent to us.

September 23, 2009

1. Do you expect applicants who are working in consulting to include actual client names in their resumes and essays?
No – even though applications are confidential and not reviewed outside the Admissions Board, please don’t do anything that violates confidentiality policies of your organization. Use general language such as: “For a client in the energy industry, etc. etc. etc.”

2. I know that you need GMAT/GRE results in order to submit an application and that AWA/Analytical Writing scores can be added later…but what about the TOEFL or IELTS?
If you are required to take the IBT TOEFL or IELTS, you must have results to report or else we will consider your application incomplete until scores are reported. If you do not submit an IBT TOEFL or IELTS score by the Round One deadline of October 1, your application will not be considered until the next round.

September 22, 2009

1. Do you accept the GMAT or GRE total score in the application without the AWA or Analytical Writing score?
You must have a GMAT or GRE score in order to submit an application. If you haven’t yet received your AWA or Analytical Writing score, that’s fine. We will add it to your file when it arrives.

2. Is it OK to write about accomplishments that are not recent?
Every year, many successful candidates write about things that happened quite a while ago. It’s probably not a good idea to have everything you write about be from your childhood – we would wonder if you were moving forward or fixed in the past. As always, we encourage you to use your best judgment and remember that this is an application to business school.

September 21, 2009

1. What should I enter on the application for GPA if my university doesn’t use a 4.0 grading system?
Don’t enter anything. Don’t convert your grades to a 4.0 system. We review all transcripts and are familiar with a wide variety of grading systems.

2. Are essays read in consecutive order?
Not always. Each Board member may have his/her own way of approaching the written application. Speaking for myself, I often skip around with no particular pattern. If I start with an essay that seems to be building on a theme in another essay, I just go back and catch up. Not a problem. I can reassure you that all essays are reviewed!

Do You Have Any Questions? Submit your questions via email to admissions@hbs.edu and put “Questions for the director” in the subject line.