Tag Archives: Failure essay

Unemployment Setback Can Set You Apart for MBA Admissions

As things roll towards R1 deadlines I’ve been seeing quite a few unemployment stories used in the setback/failure essay slot, for example in the HBS “Tell us three setbacks you have faced” essay.

This makes sense. Unemployment is a real setback. And it’s understood by Adcoms that many applicants have been laid off for no fault of their own through the Credit Crunch and global recession.

But there is a better and worse way to talk about unemployment. I see a lot of copy that goes something like this: “I was going along great in my career – then suddenly my whole department was laid off – I was totally in shock and despair – but I didn’t get downhearted – I sent out thousands of resumes – eventually I landed a good position – I learned to persevere and how important it is to have a network to rely on.”

I’m simplifying of course. But this is a reasonably accurate schematic of what I see, and at a surface level there is nothing wrong with it. No red flags. But there’s nothing there that will get the Adcom reader to notice the applicant either.

So, do you say: “I was laid off – I thought the world had ended – I moved back in with my parents and sat in a darkened room for a month”? Of course not. Telling the truth is recommended, but “too much information” also hurts you.

The path through this (and through any situation where you are likely to share the same base story with many applicants) is to demonstrate individuality not in the story, which is by definition common, but in your response and depth of reflection.

The best unemployment essays will use the experience to shine light on personality. Going beneath generically “keeping on keeping on,” what did you specifically do to motivate yourself? Even in hard times, there are events that are funny or cute or somehow emblematic of the situation or of you. What were they?

The positives to exploit are not just connected to perseverance. You can make points that have to do with creativity – how you didn’t just work hard, but worked differently.

Unemployment also forces unstructured free time. How did you fill it? Talk about volunteering, talk about courses you took sharpen your skills and keep yourself in circulation. But again, everyone will talk about that. So don’t forget the whimsical. If you fell in love with two puppies and took them for slippery winter walks in the hills around Vancouver, that’s worth saying too.

* See also ‘I’m unemployed, does this mean my MBA application will be dinged?’ http://t.co/BMpftjT

Wharton’s MBA admissions essays for 2010-2011: a challenging set of questions

Wharton’s MBA essays for 2010-11 are great; and very significantly reformulated from previous years, demanding new comment and analysis here.

The required question:

What are your professional objectives? (300 words)

This is in some senses the classic Why-an-MBA? question. What’s new is that it is really short, particularly when compared with the longer questions that follow. The implication is that Wharton, following HBS and others, are putting less and less emphasis on what applicants claim they will do on graduation. They expect to heavily influence that. It is important that you have direction and motivation, but they reckon, and they’re right, that 300 words is more than enough to get that across. Notice that there’s very little space for Why (an MBA) Now? or Why Wharton? If there’s something important to say to that, you’ll have to be really succinct, or work it into one of the other essays.

The optional questions — respond to three of the following four:

  1. Student and alumni engagement has at times led to the creation of innovative classes. For example, through extraordinary efforts, a small group of current students partnered with faculty to create a timely course entitled, “Disaster Response: Haiti and Beyond,” empowering students to leverage the talented Wharton community to improve the lives of the Haiti earthquake victims. Similarly, Wharton students and alumni helped to create the “Innovation and the Indian Healthcare Industry” which took students to India where they studied the full range of healthcare issues in India. If you were able to create a Wharton course on any topic, what would it be? (700 words)
  2. Reflect on a time when you turned down an opportunity. What was the thought process behind your decision? Would you make the same decision today? (600 words)
  3. Describe a failure that you have experienced. What role did you play, and what did you learn about yourself? How did this experience help to create your definition of failure? (600 words)
  4. Discuss a time when you navigated a challenging experience in either a personal or professional relationship. (600 words)

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Question 1 does a number of things worth noting. First it’s mining for what you, specifically and uniquely, bring to the program. It does not automatically follow that you would create a class around your speciality, but this will be the case for many applicants, and so is a place to show your special attributes, connections, or interests. The question also therefore allows you to show your “fit with Wharton,” not only what you will contribute but what you would like to learn or experience. Further, as the language of the question suggests, it looks toward your innovativeness, which is a core value in MBA admissions. Your choice of class must show innovation with reference to the curriculum as it stands. This of course demands that you demonstrate knowledge of what is already on offer and where the gaps might be. Finally the question tests your realism and knowledge of how b-school electives and/or off-site experiential programs work. You might say “I’ll create a class that goes to visit Nelson Mandela to learn to balance business and policy objectives” but that would show total naivete as to how things really work and what’s really possible, and your application would be in the bin.

Question 2 is a deep, almost wickedly deep, dive into your personal stuff. They are probing the tissue of your motivation, your self-awareness, and self-understanding. The actual opportunity turned down is far less important than why you choose one thing over another, which should takes Adcom right to who you are as a person and what your core values are. Don’t disappoint them in this. Obviously when you turned down an opportunity, it was for a good reason, either a better opportunity or a family obligation or something like that. So what is at stake here too is your judgment and maturity. The question specifically looks to that in asking if you would make the same choice again, in other words, “how have you grown?”

Question 3 is the similar to last year, but the sub-question is new. It is a classic failure question. I’ve written a lot on how to manage failure questions (click on ‘failure essay’ tag,) and in my book. The sub-question that asks about your definition of failure, deepens the motivational, maturity, introspection angles to the standard MBA admissions failure essay. Everyone fails. Not everyone knows why, or demonstrates the self-knowledge or emotional resilience that is core to “bouncing back.”

Question 4 is a fairly typical “challenging situation” question. Of the set it is the one that most clearly asks about your relationship with others — and therefore your role in groups, teams, and so on, although it does focus you on a particular event and a specific 1-to-1 relationship. The ability to manage relationships is key to leadership, and therefore key to business success, and thus key to Wharton Adcom.

All in all, Wharton 2010-11 has put out a really state-of-the-art set of questions. Varied. Behavioral. Hard. But don’t be scared of hard questions. If they were easy you wouldn’t be able to separate yourself adequately from the crowd of pleasantry-and-platitude writers.

Turning a failure into an intelligent failure. Insight on how messups can play positively 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. It is to see 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 simply telling Adcom that you haven’t been adequately challenged.

The other day I picked up an interesting take on failure — creating “intelligent failure” — in the article Are You Squandering Your Intelligent Failures? by Columbia Business School professor Rita McGrath, on the HBR Blog.

McGrath says: “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…

“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 re-set its expectations for the future in any meaningful way.”

The point McGrath is making is failure is a route (perhaps, the route) to learning and future improvement. But not all failures have learning attached. One needs to set reasonable prior fail-safe mechanisms in place, 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 have turned a dumb failure into an intelligent failure, your essay will shine in all the right ways.