Several MBA programs ask you to discuss a time when you failed, and what you learned from that experience. Wharton‘s 2009 application, for example, asks, “Describe a setback or a failure that you have experienced. What role did you play, and what did you learn about yourself?” Harvard‘s 2009 application asks, “What have you learned from a mistake?” Clients often feel stymied by this question, since they are working hard to bring out their strengths and leadership qualities in their essays, and here they are, being asked point blank to describe a time when they frankly blew it.
But no one goes through life with only successes. In fact, some of the most successful people on record will rack up the most failures. For example, Thomas Edison, the prolific inventor and businessman whose experiments led to the development of the telephone, the phonograph, and the light bulb, famously said about his many scientific endeavors, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” Edison took an unbelievable number of failures and reframed them as the persistence that eventually leads to success.
Few people can claim an equal number of achievements as Thomas Edison, but this remarkable determination and can-do spirit are qualities you should try to emulate as you reflect on a time of failure in your essay. If you are writing about a failed project or initiative at work, state simply what went wrong, without blaming others. Just as importantly, devote the majority of your answer to your reflections about why it went wrong, and the steps you have taken to avoid similar mistakes in the future. For example, if you pushed too hard to get a project done at work but created resentment among colleagues as a result, talk about the extra care you now take to consider the suggestions and recruit the support of those colleagues. Then, show how this more inclusive and mature style has made you a better team player or manager. If a client caught a problem in a software solution your department created, or an accounting mistake on a real estate valuation you were responsible for, explain not just how the mistake occurred but what increased quality-assurance steps you have implemented to avoid a repeat of those mistakes. A forthright willingness to own your mistakes shows maturity in itself, which in turn gives you the opportunity to regain whatever trust or good feelings may have been temporarily lost.
Not all failures will happen in the workplace. If you decide to discuss a failure that happened as part of a non-work organization, follow the same steps as above. Remember, it also takes maturity and personal reflection to even realize what you did wrong in the first place, so show the adcom that you know how to learn from a mistake, and grow from it as a result.
That quality is something every MBA adcom will look for in successful applicants.
By Judy Gruen, award-winning author and MBA essay editor since 1996.