How Not to Fail the Failure Question

Failure Thomas Edison smallRoss asks you to write about a time when you were “frustrated or disappointed.” IMD asks you to “comment on a situation where your leadership skills proved to be inadequate and what you learned.” Haas asks, “Describe a time in the last three years when you overcame a failure. What specific insight from this experience has shaped your development?” And Tuck asks, “Describe a circumstance in your life in which you faced adversity, failure, or setback. What actions did you take as a result and what did you learn from this experience?”

The last thing you want to do is fail when writing the failure question, though it can be extremely challenging to write about setbacks and inadequacies without making yourself look bad. So how do you write successfully about your failures, and still win the hearts of the adcom?

Here’s how:

1. Focus on how failures lead to successes.

All human beings make mistakes, and from these mistakes great things may happen. You may accidentally stumble upon a new idea or invention that you otherwise wouldn’t have encountered, or you may grow and learn from the failure or disappointment and become a greater person. Thomas Edison, the inventor and businessman who invented the light bulb, phonograph, and telephone, once said about his scientific experiments, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”  Edison took his failures in stride and reframed them to pave his way to success. You should do the same!

TIP: When writing your essay, choose an experience in which you experienced feelings of failure, disappointment, frustration, or inadequacy and discuss the ways in which your uh-oh moment turned into an ah-ha moment.

2. Focus on why something went wrong.

Another important element to introduce to your essay is your deep understanding of your negative experience. By discussing what went wrong and why it went wrong, you’re showing the adcom that you don’t just place blame on the cosmic universe, but that you seek real answers and real solutions. An understanding of why you become frustrated or disappointment or why you felt inadequate will help you approach the situation from a more objective standpoint and put yourself in a better position to avoid those same feelings or events in the future.

TIP: In your essay, reflect on the reasons behind your failure and the steps you subsequently took to avoid similar mistakes. For example, if you pushed to complete a work project resulting in resentment among colleagues, then you should write about the extra attention you now pay to the suggestions and efforts of your colleagues.

3. Focus on how you’ve learned from the experience on a personal level.

Not only do your failures help steer you away from future failures, but they also impact you as a person. From the above example, you’re not just a better manager or team player, but you’re a more mature person with a more inclusive attitude.

TIP: Write about the importance of owning up to your mistakes. If you made a programming error and a client caught it and you accepted responsibility for your actions, you can write about how you’ve since implemented more stringent quality assurance protocols, and how you’ve accepted that you need better QA – that you aren’t infallible. The humility and maturity that accompany owning up to your error are excellent self-improvement qualities to highlight.

Who knew failure and disappointment could be so enlightening?!