“These were the worst of times, these were the best of me”

Over my years as an MBA admissions advisor I’ve seen a lot of setback stories. Sometimes these are asked for, as in the old HBS classic “Tell us three setbacks you have faced,” but sometimes it is raised by the applicant, for example in the optional essay to explain a gap or something unusual.

Often people have to talk about unemployment. It happens, particularly in uncertain times. MBA adcoms know that sometimes applicants are laid off for business reasons rather than the candidate’s own fault.

There is a better and worse way to talk about unemployment, or any setback. 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.”

At a surface level there is nothing wrong with it. No red flags. But there’s also perfectly nothing there that will get the MBA admissions reader to notice you. It’s generic.

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 your experience is similar to that of many other applicants) is to demonstrate individuality not in the story, which is by definition common, but in your response which is unique.

So don’t just show resilience and resourcefulness. Everyone will do this. So show your personality too. Even in hard times, there are events that are funny or cute or somehow emblematic of the situation, or of you. What were they?

Going beneath generically “keeping on keeping on,” what did you actually do, really learn, or specifically do to navigate the choppy waters of life? You can also make points that have to do with creativity – how you didn’t just tried hard, but tried 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, most applicants will say this kind of stuff, so don’t forget to highlight your individual story. If you fell in love with two puppies and had time to take them for slippery winter walks in the hills around Vancouver, that’s worth saying too.

At every point in your career there will continue to be uncertainty and setbacks. Managing this with positivity and passion is a life skill, and a career skill. Therefore showing you can do this is an MBA admissions skill.