Essay questions dealing with failure, risk, mistakes, and difficult interactions or conflict often cause applicants to cringe, squirm, and bite their nails. After all, you want to show yourself succeeding and conquering the world in your essays and personal statements, not falling down. But there’s a reason why these questions are common. Schools want to see how you get up and grow following a setback: Do you show resilience? Do you smile and try again, view the stumble as temporary, move on, applaud your effort, and accept a helping hand when offered? Thinking about setbacks is a way for them to learn about you.
Here are 3 tips to portray your setbacks as growth opportunities and occasions of achievement:
1. Focus on how failures lead to successes.
All humans make mistakes, and these often lead to great things. You may accidentally stumble on a new idea or invention that you otherwise wouldn’t have encountered, or you may grow and learn from the failure or disappointment how to become a greater person. Thomas Edison, the inventor and businessman who invented the light bulb and phonograph, 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: Choose an experience for your essay where you experienced feelings of failure, disappointment, frustration, or inadequacy. Define your “blew it” moment, but use your “failure” to demonstrate success, accomplishment, resilience and character.
EXAMPLE: Perhaps you made a mistake in the lab that cost you weeks of work – but you learned something important about lab techniques, and now you’ve become a more fastidious researcher as a result. (Note: this needs to go way beyond the normal trial-and-error nature of research.) Or perhaps your failure was personal: maybe you neglected an important relationship, and as a result of that loss, you’ve made a point of treating people with particular respect.
2. Focus on why something went wrong.
Another important theme to include in 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 circumstances, but that you look for real answers and real solutions.
TIP: In your essay, reflect on the reasons behind your failure and the steps you took to avoid similar mistakes.
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 what you’ve learned from the experience on a personal level.
Not only do your failures help you stay away from future failures, they also impact you as a person.
TIP: Write about the importance of owning up to your mistakes. The humility and maturity that accompany owning up to your error are excellent self-improvement qualities to highlight.
EXAMPLE: 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.
Of course, don’t just talk about “resilience.” Demonstrate it through anecdotes that show you picking yourself up, improving, acknowledging effort, persisting, and ultimately succeeding in one way or another. By portraying these qualities in your essay, you will convince the adcom that you can indeed conquer the world. Or at least pick yourself up after you stumble.