Many MBA essays ask you to write about a time you were given criticism and how you dealt with it. This may not be the kind of question you wished they had asked, but it is one that provides an excellent opportunity to show the highly prized quality of emotional intelligence (or EQ). Additionally, the people writing your letters of recommendation are almost sure to be asked to assess you in this same sensitive area: Did you respond with maturity and self-reflection, or did you struggle to suppress your anger at the perceived insult?
How Criticism is Viewed by Millennials
Adcom members remain acutely interested in candidates’ EQ. This may be due, in part, to the fact that today’s millennial applicants (especially Americans) have been raised without much constructive criticism, and in fact, have been taught to expect lavish praise for things previous generations did with no expectation of rewards or perks. Adcoms need reassurance that millennial applicants can accept criticism with grace, self-reflection, and maturity. This ability to turn a negative experience into an opportunity for growth is key to demonstrating your EQ – and your management potential.
7 Ways to Prep for the Question on Criticism:
1. Stay current.
Choose an experience that took place within the last two years. It will be a more accurate gauge of your current maturity.
2. State the circumstances leading up to the criticism briefly and forthrightly.
Did you discover the new software product still had bugs during the testing just three weeks before launch, but were afraid to report the bad news to your supervisor? Had you become angry with a colleague who was difficult to work with? Were you asked to mentor a new-hire, but found the job thankless and managed to evade some of those mentoring responsibilities? Whatever the situation, just tell it like it was.
3. Show your response honestly.
Did you expect what was coming, or were you blindsided?
4. Most important, show how you responded to the criticism.
The adcoms will be alert to answers that seem shallow or lacking in sufficient detail. Did you respond instantly to the critic, or let him know you thank him for the feedback and would like a day to get back to him? Show a bit of the conversation you had with your critic and what you learned from that conversation.
5. Reveal what you did to improve or mitigate the situation that led to the feedback.
What actions have you taken to address your weaknesses? How did you improve after receiving this particular piece of feedback? And if the feedback was recent and you haven’t yet addressed it, what do you plan on doing?
6. Show growth.
What have you done to avoid future episodes like this? Don’t gloss over this with a one sentence answer, such as “From this situation I learned to be more sensitive to how my colleagues were feeling.” Go deeper. For example, did you begin to spend more time talking to those colleagues on a regular basis, evaluating their view of events? Did you read any books on successful communication skills, or workplace dynamics? Did you set up regular times to meet with your supervisor to make sure you were on the same page with projects? Your changes have to be believable as a result of honest self-reflection and action.
7. Put yourself in the critic’s shoes.
What if you felt the criticism was unfair or unwarranted? If this is the case, it will still be important to show that you dealt with it in a mature way. Show how you tried to put yourself in your critic’s shoes: How was it possible he or she viewed the situation that way? The ability to consider another person’s point of view, even if it is erroneous, and then respond with tact, is an important element of EQ.
Everyone makes mistakes in life, and everyone is on the receiving end of criticism from time to time. One thing that can distinguish you from other applicants is your ability to embrace such uncomfortable situations, and to turn them to your advantage through greater self-awareness and commitment to personal and professional growth.
By Judy Gruen, 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.