Tag Archives: profile development

How Not To Fall Down on the Harvard Business School Setback Essay

Over many years I’ve written extensively — both here and in my book — about the weakness-failure MBA admissions essay and how to approach it. In fact, it has to be about 8 years since I pioneered the notion of using the failure essay to position the applicant as a leader, because all successful leaders have failed or will fail at some time or another. Moreover, a real leader will acknowledge not deny a failure, and embrace its implied learning path — demonstrating capacity for personal growth which is the real test in answering this type of question.

Anyway, as you know, this year HBS grew the category from ‘failure’ to ‘setback’ and extended their request from one failure in 400 words to 3 setbacks in 600.

In a sense, not too much new here, but seeing as I’m experiencing a few clients struggling to hit the nail on the head, let me add a few thoughts and go over one or two principles.

First, a setback is broader than a failure. A failure comes from something you did or didn’t do. It implies personal causality and responsibility. A setback can be a failure in these terms, but it can equally be due to no fault of yours — just the big wide world doing what it sometimes does in a way that helped you not.

But, recognize too that the setback category does not cover all negative events. The outcome must be a setback. If you swam too far from the beach but were rescued, you might feel like an idiot and you might have had a wake-up call. But it’s not a setback because you were not held back or slowed down in any meaningful sense.

Choosing setbacks

Assuming you’ve identified various items that count as setbacks, which do you choose?

First the basics: as with the 3 x Accomplishments, you should create a spread from professional to personal to community topics. All work and no play makes Jack a dull admissions boy.

After that, you choose between setbacks the way you choose every topic: by asking yourself “which allows me to deliver the most admissions value?”

These are the kinds of admissions value a setback can communicate:

1. You show you are a leader. All leadership implies exploration of uncertainty and action without full knowledge of the consequences. Therefore all leaders mess up now and then. If you’ve had no setbacks, you have not led enough.

2. You show you are an innovator, and can balance risk and caution. Sometimes innovators go down blind alleys or take risks that don’t pan out. It comes with the territory. If you’ve got nothing here, you are either over-conventional or over-cautious, or both.

3. You show you are determined and can persevere. The “comeback from a setback” allows you to show tenacity and how you don’t give up.

4. You show you are resourceful. Likewise, overcoming a setback may allow you to demonstrate resourcefulness and creativity.

5. You show self-knowledge and self-insight. You are able to do honest introspection, which is the litmus test of maturity. You demonstrate humility.

6. You show growth. You are willing to learn, adapt yourself and your actions, and grow through experiences such as this.

Super Bowl advertisements and soul of the MBA admissions applicant

It’s Super Bowl time. For me this mostly means Augusta (and Spring!) is just around the corner. But the football is always watchable and, as everyone knows, it’s as much all about the half-time show and of course the ads – which I believe for Super Bowl XLIV cost more that $2.5m for a 30-second slot.

Anyway, all this reminds me to share one of the profiling tools that I use with MBA admissions clients when required. The issue is always the same: to get an applicant to identify their core message, focus it sharply, and tell it in a compelling way.

So I tell applicants: ‘craft your own Super Bowl ad.’ If you were given the opportunity to advertise yourself in a 30-second slot on TV, what would you do and say? Let’s say Adcom members from HBS or Wharton or whichever is your dream b-school are watching. How would your ad go? What would it say? Remember it is appearing in ultra-competitive company, with other ads that are funny and wicked and purposeful and memorable in various ways. So how would yours stand out?

The time limit forces a focus on what’s essential, and the advertisement format demands an ‘angle,’ a point of unique interest. You wouldn’t just go ‘my name is Sam and I was born in Reno, and blah, blah, blah.’

I ask MBA applicants to ‘storyboard’ it as if it were a real advertisement (it doesn’t take long, it’s only a 30-second slot after all.) Start with the first image, then the next. What is happening onscreen? What music is playing (why?), is there a voiceover and what is it saying, what text is on the screen? And so on, moving through the ad to its close.

You have seconds to pitch yourself. It’s costing you a fortune to be there so you can’t waste a word. You don’t need to (you could never) capture everything important about yourself. But you must capture and entice the viewers, and leave them with some unforgettable images and a message sandblasted on their brain.

Then if you can transfer the essence of your Super Bowl ad to your MBA essays and interviews (elaborating stories, and adding proof) your communication will pack the punch it needs.

Getting distinctiveness into your MBA application even if you think you have none

One of the biggest problems I have as an MBA admissions adviser – friend, coach, confidant, drill sergeant, etc., to applicants trying to crack top-tier schools – is explaining to clients that “good is nice, great is nicer,” but neither will get you into a top-tier MBA program. Only “good + special” will get you in.

Everyone knows that there are far fewer places than excellent candidates, but not everyone understands the implication of this, which is that the standard “good profile” application is more likely to fail than succeed. I do ding analyses: often there is something clear to point to, but often there is not. I’m left saying “there was no juice,” and I don’t mean this as a carry-all cop-out. What I mean is – putting it another way – the applicant has provided reasons for Adcom not to reject them, covering all bases, saying the right things, but has not given Adcom a compelling reason to say yes.

Easier said than done. What if there is no specialness (distinctiveness) there? “I haven’t done anything that special,” they will say. “I have not won Olympic medals; never hot-air ballooned over the Atlantic; not pulled anyone from a burning car …”

I won’t kid you – it’s great if you’ve done something memorable like this. But there are two types of specialness. Specialness of what you have achieved AND specialness of who you are. Not everyone has the first type in their bag, but everyone can have the second.

Here are examples of the second type:

1. Distinctiveness of insight, self-reflection, and self-understanding. Unfortunately (but fortunately for you, dear applicant) it appears these days that it takes a special person to be willing to reflect on their path, their roles, their identity, their motivations. But this is exactly what Adcom wants of you. That’s why they ask complex, motivational questions. The quality of genuine self-reflection is so unique among 20-something-year-olds (and so highly correlated with real leadership ability) that if you can do it right, you’ll be special just for this.

Note: doing it right means being open and honest, but also circumspect, professional, to-the-point, and focused on the essay question using practical examples and stories. It does not mean wallowing self-indulgently as if your essays were for the Agony Aunt magazine column or your personal diary.

2. Specialness of communication. Writing and (in the interview) speaking is the basis of your interaction with Adcom. Words are your tools. You do not need to be a fancy creative writing major to write a wonderful MBA admissions essay, but there are basic tools of storytelling and essay building that make a piece of text stand out. Be aware how much turgid, timid, repetitive prose your Adcom reader has to wade through. Getting your point across in a bright, clear, and organized way will make you stand out. (More about the how of this to come in future posts, and in my MBA Admissions Strategy book.)

3. Specialness of direction and goals. You can’t change your past. You should present it in the best light, but for better or worse, it’s set. Your future is ahead of you. It can be anything — you can make any claim, within reason. It is a “free hit ” in the sense that you are pretty much invited to distinguish yourself from the crowd through the extent of your ambition, and the relevance, interest, and worthiness of your career path.