“Business schools only want to accept candidates who are perfect, so I am going to make sure I show myself in the best possible light. Crickey. One of the essay questions is to tell them about a failure. What do I do now?”
While this is a conversation you might conceivably have with yourself, fear not. An honest and introspective essay discussing a failure or weakness can actually be one of the strongest advocates for your admission, but note the key word: honest. Admitting to a failure or weakness is difficult, to be sure, but also one of the ways to show you have integrity, are self-aware, and are able to change.
To get started on your essay:
1. Recognize that nobody is perfect. As a former admissions committee member, I know that members of the adcom are human, too. You can guarantee they’ve all had to acknowledge a failure or weakness at some point in their lives. The reason this question is being asked by a particular school is because the admissions committee is looking for applicants who have the self-awareness to acknowledge shortcomings and adapt.
2. Start jotting down the examples you can think of, since the likelihood is that you have faced more than one failure in your life. Same goes for weaknesses, if that is the question.
3. Take each of the examples and think about which experiences helped you grow the most. Which ones have made you a better person, a stronger person, one who is more prepared to face adversity in the future? How are you different now as a result of confronting the negative situation? Do you have concrete examples to show how the changes you made as a result of the failure or weakness have led to success? Oftentimes a weakness is a flip side of a strength, so perhaps a weakness served you well at some point? Perhaps the fact you are “too detail-oriented” resulted in discovering a critical error? Or perhaps identifying your weakness – from a perspective of maturity and introspection – has allowed you to take steps to ameliorate it.
Recently I worked with a client who suffered a failure that could have been catastrophic for the business relationship between his company and its client. The analytics department had interpreted data incorrectly, such that their strategy recommendation to the client was the exact opposite of what it should have been. The error wasn’t discovered until after the new strategy had been implemented. Rather than watch from afar as the strategy failed, my client told the truth, fully prepared for awful consequences. Instead, the relationship between the two companies flourished, due to a newfound appreciation for honesty and integrity in the relationship.
Be thoughtful in your response to a question on weakness or failure, and try to create the link with honesty and integrity as you lay out the answer. Successful leaders must have honesty and integrity as part of their DNA, and be able to see and admit to failures and weaknesses. As I said earlier, nobody’s perfect, but a “perfect” answer to this question just might get you admitted!
Jen Weld worked as an admissions consultant and Former Asst. Dir. of Admissions at Cornell’s EMBA program (4 years) prior to joining Accepted.com. She has an additional 10 years of experience in higher ed and corporate marketing.