2012 MBA Applicant posted recently that thanks to an upcoming employment review he will have material for the question, “What is the toughest criticism you have ever received and what did you learn?” While we’re glad that 2012 MBA Applicant has material, I thought you (and maybe even 2012 MBA Applicant) may want tips on how to answer that and similar questions.
You spend innumerable hours preparing essays that highlight your strengths and achievements, why on earth would you want to then take up space in your application with examples of situations in which you didn’t measure up to your managers’ expectations and were the object of their criticism??
Unfortunately, this is exactly what many MBA programs ask applicants to do both in their essay questions and their letter of recommendation forms. In today’s post, I’ll explain why the schools ask this question, and I’ll detail methods for answering these types of questions to the benefit of your application.
In the past few years we have seen a significant increase in the number of programs that are asking for examples of situations in which the applicant doesn’t measure up to expectations. For example:
Tuck 3: Discuss the most difficult constructive criticism or feedback you have received. How did you address it? What have you learned from it?
Wharton 4b: Tell us about something significant that you have done to improve yourself, in either your professional and/or personal endeavors.
Chicago 2: Describe a time when you were surprised by feedback that you received. What was the feedback and why were you surprised?
Chicago LOR: Please provide a written letter of recommendation. Be sure to include…areas of development, including efforts the applicant has taken to show improvement.
Stanford LOR: Describe the most constructive feedback you have given the candidate. Please also detail the circumstances that caused you to give the feedback.
These questions are all seeking the same two attributes from the applicants: the ability to accept when their methodology or style just isn’t right, and to repair that shortfall. So why has this capability become such an important aspect in evaluating the applicant pool?
The people who will benefit most from an MBA program are those willing and able to change their approach when introduced to a better one. In other words, it does absolutely no good to show someone – at Tuck, Wharton, Chicago, or Stanford, for example – the best way to do business, manage people, and guide companies if he is unwilling and/or unable to integrate that method into his own working style.
So how do the admissions committees determine who has the potential to actually learn from their programs and become a better manager? They seek applicants who have proven in the past that they have the ability to learn about their shortcomings and then integrate new and better methods into their decision making. Prove to the top MBA programs that you possess the maturity to accept and grow from criticism, and you will be one step closer to the thick acceptance envelope.
The best way to demonstrate that an applicant possesses an attribute – in essays, interviews, and letters of recommendation – is to share specific examples of times in which you demonstrated those attributes in the past. First, the answer should explain what the circumstances were: what actions had you taken and what impact, or lack of impact, had they made? Second, what was the feedback you received? What had this person felt was missing from your approach or what did s/he say you did wrong? Third, discuss how you took this criticism. Frankly, if someone immediately accepts criticism without analyzing it, I suspect the person of being a doormat*; instead, I want to hear why the advice rang true for you. Finally, share what you changed about your own behavior or actions following that criticism and the impact that you had as a result.
Obviously, for the letters of recommendation you cannot write the answer to the “criticism” question for your recommender. However, your recommenders might find this post helpful in writing their responses. In addition, you may offer to discuss specific examples of advice that you benefited from to help them thresh out potential topics for their answers.
Using space in your application to show you possess the introspection and maturity to grow as a manager is essential to earning a place in a top MBA program, and my fellow editors and I are here to help you identify and write about the best examples of these attributes for your essays.
*doormat: (figurative) Someone who is overly submissive to others
Senior Editor Jennifer Bloom has been successfully helping applicants demonstrate their readiness for the top MBA programs for 10 years.