Tag Archives: Columbia

How to ‘Fail Smart’ in MBA Admissions

MBA applicants are routinely asked the “failure question” either in MBA essays or interviews. It always takes more-or-less the same form: “Tell us about a time you failed and what you learned.”

As I’ve written before here, and in my book, the test is not to see if you have any weaknesses or failures. Everyone does. The test is whether you are mature enough to recognize your failures and so address the implied weaknesses.

Also, failures are more likely to occur in new, challenging tasks, so if you present “no failures” you are inadvertently telling Adcom that you haven’t been adequately challenged!

There’s a classic article on “intelligent failure”: Are You Squandering Your Intelligent Failures? by Columbia Business School professor Rita McGrath, on the HBR Blog.

Says McGrath: “Despite widespread recognition that challenging times place unpredictable demands on people and businesses, I still run across many managers who would prefer to avoid the logical conclusion that stems from this: failure is a lot more common in highly uncertain environments than it is in better-understood situations.

“Instead of learning from failures, many executives seek to keep them hidden or to pretend that they were all part of a master plan and no big deal.

“To those executives, let me argue that an extraordinarily valuable corporate resource is being wasted if learning from failures is inhibited.

“Naturally, to an executive raised on the concept of ‘management by exception,’ any failure at all seems intolerable. This world view is reinforced by the widespread adoption of various quality techniques, for instance, six sigma, in which the goal is to stamp out variations (by definition, failures) in the pursuit of quality…

“[but] Failures are crucial to the process of organizational learning and sense-making. Failures show you where your assumptions are wrong. Failures demonstrate where future investment would be wasted. And failures can help you identify those among your team with the mettle to persevere and creatively change direction as opposed to pig-headedly charging blindly ahead. Further, failures are about the only way in which an organization can reset its expectations for the future in any meaningful way.”

McGrath’s point is failure is a route (perhaps, the route) to learning and future improvement. That’s the point you score with Adcom: “I failed to do, but I didn’t fail to learn.”

But not all failures have learning attached. One needs to set prior fail-safe mechanisms, and then interrogate a failure afterwards, to make a failure useful as learning. This turns it into an intelligent failure.

If you can show the MBA Adcom that you did this, that you didn’t just fail dumbly, or that you have turned a dumb failure into an intelligent failure, your MBA admissions essay will shine in all the right ways.

Top-3? Top-6? Among elite MBAs does it really matter where you go?

I found myself following a discussion on the Businessweek “Getting into B-School” forum. The thread is headed: “Does rank really matter among top 6?”

I select extracts to present here because the comments — before they descend into the flaming and slanging that bedevils these forums — deal with important (and corrective) thinking about what matters with rankings, and to whom, and helps understand how US program rankings are perceived internationally too. It finishes with common sense that I endorse.

Original question: “Does rank really matter among Top Business schools? With my European point of view, I consider that there are only 6 Top Schools (in descending order): HBS, Stanford, Wharton, Columbia, Booth and Kellogg. Actually, I don’t really care about rankings here: my only criteria is prestige (which in my view is the only thing you can’t ignore when applying to business schools). In Europe, these schools are famous: if you say Stanford or Columbia, everybody knows what you’re talking about. [But]If you say Tuck business school (at random), very few people will have heard of it regardless of the quality of the school.

“So my question is: among this prestigious top, does is REALLY matter if you go to one or another? On this forum we can often read that if you go to HBS it is infinitely better that if you go to Wharton but Wharton will change your life so much more than Kellogg, and so on and so forth.”

Response: “In France [among] 100 person taken randomly in the street and educated in France, 100 will know about HEC, 90 about Harvard, 3 to 5 about Stanford, Wharton, Kellogg, Columbia and 10 maybe will know about INSEAD. But I would say that 90 will know about Yale, Princeton, 100 about Oxford, Cambridge.”

Response: “As a Frenchman I feel the need to throw in my 2 cents on this one. INSEAD is hands down the strongest MBA brand in France. Does every random person on the street necessarily know the name? No, but who cares? The employers do.”

Response: “I would like also to add that the education at the top business institutions is quite the same. I highly doubt that you will learn better investment management in Chicago or Wharton than in Yale, Haas or Fuqua. If you visit those schools, you might get surprised by the background of the faculty. You might take a class at Berkeley taught by a Yale alumni or even receive Michael Porter at Tuck.”

Response: “Although I agree with the notion that the value of an MBA drops as the ranking drops, I do not agree that there is a substantial difference between similarly ranked programs. Every objective metric I can think of (starting salary, quality of recruiting companies, average salary of graduates after 20 years etc.) clusters most top 15 programs closely together. The main exception seem to be HBS and Stanford. Another objective metric are the GMAT and the GPA. Those two metrics are hardly distinguishable in the top 15 programs, including HBS and Stanford.”

Original: “I’ve reached my conclusion I believe: go where you think you belong regardless of what people say/think. I chose to apply to Wharton and CBS finally even if i totally agree HBS/GSB are more famous and Booth/Kellogg are great schools simply because i think it will teach me what i want to learn in my specific field…And education among them is NOT that different, apart from some specialties that should ultimately lead your choice.”