How to Write about Overcoming Challenges without Sounding like a Whiner

Overcoming Challenges

Write about a time when you overcame a challenge.

It’s a classic MBA essay question: Write about a time when you overcame a challenge. How did you handle it? What did you learn from the experience?

Let’s start by easing one worry you may have. Not everyone has faced a significant challenge at work by the time they apply for an MBA. If that is your situation, think of another significant challenge you have faced in another realm: a community or volunteer organization, the military, or perhaps even a difficult personal situation. It’s important that the challenge be something in the recent past – preferably within the last two or three years. If the challenge you write about is farther back than that, it will need to have that much greater impact or significance.

What makes a good “challenge” for the purpose of this essay? The possibilities are almost limitless, but here are a few strong examples:

•  “Joe’s” boss informed him he was going to fire “Freddy,” a new-hire Joe had been mentoring, for poor performance. Joe believed in Freddy’s technical skills, and felt Freddy’s shyness and lack of English fluency had hurt him. Joe took it upon himself to try to help save Freddy’s job. He convinced his boss to give Freddy another chance, and coached him after-hours, directed him to a language fluency program, and engaged in role playing to help Freddy gain confidence. Freddy began to thrive, kept his job, and became the go-to guy in his department for certain technical knowledge.

At no time did Joe complain about his boss or call him unreasonable or insensitive. At no time did Joe play the martyr, patting himself on the back about the extra steps he was taking to work with Freddy. He just stated the facts about what he did, which spoke for themselves.

•  Here’s another example. “Lori” joined a community service organization whose membership was plummeting. Lori believed in the organization’s goals, volunteered to spearhead a membership drive, which was successful, and then ran for president of the organization and won. Then, she worked to create more dynamic programming, a social media presence, and added appealing incentives for people joining or renewing membership.

Joe made a huge impact on one man, and by extension, an impact on his organization. Lori also was able to show direct and tangible impact on her group.Neither Joe nor Lori made themselves out to be heroes by describing their exhaustion because of long hours spent on their respective “projects.” They didn’t pat themselves on the back for the contributions they made. They simply stated the circumstances, why they believed in their mission, and related what they did to fix what was wrong around them. Presenting their stories in a “just the facts, Ma’m” manner make Lori and Joe sound like exciting management material: filled with vision, creativity, incentive, and energy. And it is succinct.

•  Let’s look at one final example. “Gary” had written a marketing plan to boost awareness and fundraising at the non-profit where he worked. His CEO at first approved his plan, then suddenly nixed it, replacing it with his own plan. Gary was sure the CEO’s plan was not viable. It lacked a marketing budget yet had lofty target goals for fundraising. The CEO gave Gary six months to achieve these goals.

Now that’s a challenge.

When Gary couldn’t get the CEO to reconsider, he appealed to others in the organization who had the CEO’s ear. Fortunately, they were willing to speak to the CEO, who then agreed to Gary’s original plan. Now, based on the first few examples we’ve seen, you will already have guessed that in this case, Gary did not complain about the CEO, call him short-sighted or stingy. He did offer some explanations for why the CEO might have seen the situation as he did, but nothing pejorative was written.

Gary’s workaround to his challenging situation showed boldness, initiative, and perseverance. At no time did he complain about the added workload of having to unravel this situation, or make himself sound like he had saved the day.

Let’s recap: A strong “challenge” example will allow you to show direct impact on either your organization or another individual. Ideally, it will be something that happened in the last two or three years, unless it was a monumental achievement. Finally, do not cast blame on others who may have helped create the problem/challenge in the first place, and do not sound like a martyr in describing the efforts (no matter how great) you made to get the job done. Simple, direct writing about the challenge will make it abundantly clear that you have the initiative, problem solving, communications, and organizational skills a good MBA program looks for.








Judy Gruen By , MBA admissions consultant since 1996 and author (with Linda Abraham) of MBA Admission for Smarties: The No-Nonsense Guide to Acceptance at Top Business Schools.