The Resilience Factor: How Flaws and Failures Can Strengthen Your Application
A speaker recently told a story about traveling in Asia, where he saw a stunning emerald. Enchanted by the stone’s beauty, he decided to buy it on the spot.
He returned home and took the emerald to a jeweler for appraisal. The jeweler began examining the stone through his magnifier, and as he did so, his face went pale.
“What’s the matter?” asked the proud owner of the emerald.
“I can’t find a flaw,” said the jeweler.
“Wonderful!” said the stone’s owner.
“No, it’s not. If it’s flawless, it’s a fake. A phony. Nothing in the natural world is flawless,” replied the jeweler.
“Then find a flaw!”
After a few more tense moments, the jeweler discovered a small flaw, and the owner of the stone stopped worrying that he had been taken in by a piece of plastic masquerading as a gem.
What does this have to do with admissions? Just this: When the adcoms ask you to write about a flaw or weakness in your essays, and you either fail to offer any or the ones you come up with sound like you are just checking a box – mentioning something vague and generic and not of much significance – you will seem like a fake in their eyes.
Everything in nature has an imperfection or two (or three), including human beings. Don’t misunderstand: we’re not suggesting that you cop to every weakness you know that you have and say, “This is me. Take it or leave it.”
But if you have learned and grown from your weaknesses or succeeded in overcoming obstacles, you are well positioned to flip those shortcomings into strengths in your essays. It takes honest self-reflection, a desire to improve, and hard work to break an unhealthy habit, pattern, or way of thinking. The ability to demonstrate self-awareness by working to minimize your flaws and develop new skills or talents to compensate for weaknesses will prove your maturity while also building your resilience. These are qualities that adcoms especially want to see these days.
How can failures and flaws really build resilience?
Recently, we worked with a client who was applying to MBA programs and had once made the type of mistake that could have not only gotten him fired but also destroyed a lucrative business relationship between his employer and a major customer.
Here’s the story: “Sami” was working in an analytics department and played a role in the incorrect interpretation of some key data. This incorrect reading led his employer to recommend a business strategy to the firm’s customer that was the exact opposite of what it should have been. What a disaster! Sami didn’t discover this catastrophic error until after the new strategy had been implemented.
He could have watched from afar as the strategy failed and things fell apart. Instead, he came clean and waited for the blowback. Sami expected the worst and nearly began clearing out his desk.
Instead, he was rewarded for his integrity, despite the risk to his reputation. Not only did he keep his job, but the relationship between his employer and the firm’s customer actually flourished. This experience clearly positioned Sami to write about a “failure” and the lessons he learned about owning up to one’s mistakes and accepting responsibility. He didn’t look smaller because of his mistake – his stature grew because of his honesty.
“Failure is not fatal, but failure to change might be.”
Essay questions that ask you to discuss failure, risk, mistakes, conflict, difficult interactions, or overcoming obstacles often make applicants cringe. After all, you’re on a mission to show the admissions committee that you are on top of your game and ready to conquer the world. The last thing you want to do is wave a flag that calls attention to the gory details of when and where you’ve fallen short.
As Sami’s experience proves, however, questions about failure provide a window into your character. How resilient are you in the face of a setback? How did you respond to the situation? Did you shrink from the impact of your actions, or did you muster the courage to try to set things right, as best as you could, under the circumstances? What did you learn about yourself, about the world of business, about relationships, and/or about communication? What wisdom did you gain that you have applied in your life since then? Can you show convincingly that you view your stumble as an inevitable, vital, even transformative step on the road to achievement?
Legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden once said, “Failure is not fatal, but failure to change might be.” So take heart: writing about your flaws and setbacks is an opportunity for you to shine by showing your humility, commitment to growth, and determination to apply lessons learned. Reading about your setbacks allows the admissions committee to understand what you’re really made of.
Follow these four steps to transform your setbacks into achievements.
1. Demonstrate how your failure led to success.
The mistake you made might have led you to discover a new idea, strategy, or invention that you otherwise would not have discovered. Or, it might have given you the determination to strengthen your skills or knowledge base.
Be specific when you present your examples. A mistake you made in the lab might have cost you weeks of work. However, as a result, you learned something important about lab techniques, and now you’ve adopted more fastidious research practices. (Note: this needs to go way beyond the normal trial-and-error nature of research.)
If you are discussing a personal failure, maybe you neglected an important relationship to the point where the relationship died. Feeling this loss keenly, you now make a point of treating people with greater respect. When writing about professional or personal failures and lessons learned, you cannot simply claim that you’ve changed without citing evidence. Clearly spell out what you learned and how you have changed. Offer true, believable examples of times when you behaved differently, more purposefully and sensitively, as a way of investing more deeply and wisely in your relationships.
2. Show that you truly understand why something went wrong.
Explaining what went wrong is only half the game in these essays. You must also explain why it went wrong.
Doing so will show the adcom that you have taken time to really think about and reflect on your role in the situation and your understanding of the dynamics that led to the problem. Don’t play the blame game. Explain the process you went through to get real answers and solutions. Relate some of the steps you have taken to avoid making similar mistakes since. Perhaps you caught yourself about to repeat the mistake, but realized that impulse was not the “new you” and saved yourself from making the error again.
Let’s look at an example. You pushed your colleagues hard to complete a work project, but your hard-driving nature made them resent you, and with no benefit to the project. Having realized your mistake – even though your sole intention was to get the job done on time – perhaps you could write about the focused attention you now pay to your colleagues’ suggestions, efforts, and capabilities. In other words, from that error you have learned to turn lemons into lemonade. Offer at least one specific example of how your efforts have paid off.
3. Focus on what you’ve learned on a personal level.
Mature applicants view and consider situations and people differently – and make decisions more deliberately – after making mistakes. Prove that you are this kind of applicant. Show how you grew by, for example, taking a course in time management to help better juggle all your responsibilities without dropping the ball, starting therapy to help with your anxiety when work pressure feels overwhelming, or another tangible step forward.
Add power to your explanations by describing “before and after” situations: the “before” stressed-out, not-well-organized person staying up till 3 a.m. to get everything done and delivering haphazard work, and the “after” person practicing time-management and mindfulness skills, and coping with responsibilities more calmly, deliberately, and competently. Demonstrating these changes through real-life examples presents you as more grown-up and emotionally intelligent. And you can bet the admissions committee wants to see these valuable traits.
4. Show the adcom how you’ve become more resilient.
“Resilience” has become a cliche, but it’s critical to appreciate the concept: it is the building of inner strength and fortitude in the face of conflict, pain, or disappointment. Successful adults must be resilient to cope with life’s rocky patches. Naturally, colleges and universities want to see evidence that you have this important quality.
Earlier in this article, we said that a weakness or failure could be flipped into a strength, given the right attitude and effort. Similarly, a weakness can also be the flip side of a strength. For example, perhaps your tendency to be “too detail oriented” resulted in your discovering a critical error before it triggered a larger problem. Identifying your weakness and giving it careful thought might have prompted you to take steps to correct or minimize it.
Be thoughtful in your responses to questions about weakness or failure, and don’t shy away from them. Successful leaders must have honesty and integrity as part of their DNA and be able to identify and admit to failures and weaknesses. As motivational speaker Zig Ziglar pointed out, “It’s not how far you fall, but how high you bounce that counts.”
Nobody’s perfect, but a “perfect” answer to questions about flaws and failures just might get you admitted! To make sure your essays reflect you at your best, work with us. Every consultant at Accepted has years of experience in admissions and guiding applicants to gain coveted acceptances at top schools worldwide. Let them do the same for you!
By Judy Gruen, a former Accepted admissions consultant. Judy holds a master’s in journalism from Northwestern University and is the co-author of Accepted’s first full-length book, MBA Admission for Smarties: The No-Nonsense Guide to Acceptance at Top Business Schools. Want an admissions expert to help you get accepted? Click here to get in touch!