Category Archives: MBA Essays

“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.

Digging Deeper For MBA Admissions Value: An Example

I’m always pushing MBA applicants I work with to extract the full MBA admissions value from what they have participated in and achieved in life. Squeezing full value is the only way to present yourself as more valuable than the next applicant; that is, the only way to get admitted in a competitive system.

Easier said than done of course. So the question comes back: How do I do that?

There’s much more on this in my book, but in short the ‘how’ involves (a) understanding the full dimensions of MBA admissions value that can be credibly associated with what you have done or achieved; (b) understanding what is valuable to MBA adcoms, which is to say, what is valued in the b-school environment and in management careers; and (c) being able to connect “a” to “b” in a clear and compelling way.

That’s the theory. Here’s an example. (Note, like in MBA admissions essays, nothing works as well as a well-chosen example.)

Let’s say you have been involved in karate for much of your early life, achieved your “black belt” at the age of 18, were reasonably successful in competitions during high school and college, but now just keep your hand in at the dojo as a part-time instructor. Is it valuable or not?

Of course it is valuable. Karate is a recognized development activity. It takes youth through a structured and disciplined and group-oriented series of challenges. Also, having spent a significant part of your life on the activity, it should get some airtime in your application.

More pertinently, which parts are valuable? What do you say? Is it valuable to say you can fight people and easily knock them down? Of course not. That’s a red flag.

Is it valuable to say you can defend yourself in any situation? That’s not going to hurt your application, but it won’t help. Adcom doesn’t rate people on whether they can physically defend themselves — it’s not something that counts much at business school or with the Careers Office or recruiters or in the world MBA graduates.

The value is in elements such as: the discipline you learned; managing adversity and developing perseverance; in participating well with competitors and competition; in being part of a group framework; in learning to structure and manage your time (for example, going to the dojo 5x a week on top of everything else.)

There may also be value to be had in the psychic development martial arts offers: exposure to alternative (oriental) philosophy perhaps, or some development of mindfulness, self-reliance, and so on.

If you are now a coach or mentor of the next generation, there is obvious admissions value in that too.

There may be more. The point is, if you know what’s really valuable for MBA admissions in what you have done, you can use the fact that you have done it to advance your MBA admissions value in your application essays and interviews.