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 found 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 about a flaw or weakness in your essays, and you fail to offer any, you will also seem like a fake in their eyes.
Everything in nature has an imperfection or two (or three), including human beings. Now, we don’t suggest that you cop to every weakness you know that you have and say, “This is me. Take it or leave it.”
You can turn weaknesses into strengths in your essays, if you have worked to learn and grow from them. This growth in turn builds your resilience, which is a quality adcoms want to see. If you have overcome obstacles, developed other talents to compensate for weaknesses, or worked to minimize imperfections, you will demonstrate maturity, self-awareness, and growth.
Here’s how failures and flaws can build resilience.
Recently, we worked with a client applying to MBA programs who had 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” once worked 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 then watched from afar as the strategy failed. Instead, he came clean, told the truth, and waited for the blowback, expecting the worst.
Instead, he was rewarded for his integrity, despite the risk to his reputation. As a result, not only did he keep his job but also, the relationship between his employer and the firm’s customer flourished. This experience clearly positioned Sami to write about a “failure” example from his past and what he learned from it.
“Failure is not fatal, but failure to change might be.”
Essay questions that ask you to discuss failure, risk, mistakes, difficult interactions, or conflict often make applicants cringe. After all, you are eager to show the admissions committee through 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 attracts attention to the gory details of when and where you’ve fallen short.
However, as Sami’s experience proves, questions about failure provide a window into your character. How resilient are you in the face of a setback or failure? What did you learn from the experience, about yourself, about the world of business, about relationships, about communication? What wisdom have you gained? Are you able to convincingly show that you view your stumble as an inevitable, even essential 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 setbacks into achievements.
- 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 encountered. Or maybe it made you determined to strengthen your skills or knowledge base.
When you present your examples, be specific. Perhaps you made a mistake in the lab that 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 deteriorated entirely. You now therefore make a point of treating people with greater respect. When writing about professional or personal failures and lessons learned, you cannot just state them as unproven facts. Clearly spell out what you learned and how you have changed. Share true examples where you behaved differently, more purposefully and sensitively, as a way of investing better in your relationships.
- 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 – succinctly – 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. Don’t play the blame game. Explain the process through which you sought real answers and real solutions. Relate some of the steps you have taken to avoid making similar mistakes since and going forward.
Let’s say you pushed your colleagues hard to complete a work project, but your hard-driving nature made them resent you, with no benefit to the project. If you can write about the focused attention you now pay to your colleagues’ suggestions and efforts, you can turn lemons into lemonade. Offer at least one specific example of how your efforts have paid off.
- 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. To show that you are this kind of applicant, demonstrate for the adcom how you grew: perhaps you took a course in time management to help better juggle all your responsibilities without dropping the ball, or you entered therapy to help with the anxiety you feel when work pressure feels overwhelming.
Add power to your explanations by showing “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 versus the “after” person practicing time management and mindfulness skills, coping with responsibilities more calmly, deliberately, and competently. Demonstrating these changes presents you as more grown-up and emotionally intelligent – traits valued by the admissions committee.
4. Show the adcom how you’ve become more resilient.
“Resilience” has become nearly a cliche, but the concept is critical to appreciate: it is the building of inner strength and fortitude in the face of conflict, pain, or disappointment. Successful adults need resilience, so it’s understandable that colleges and universities want to know that you have it.
Our advice on writing a college essay that reveals resilience echoes the advice we’ve given on writing personal failure essays. State the initial situation in which you needed resilience, and then show – specifically and using personal anecdotes – how you flexed your resilience muscles, growing stronger as a result. What did you do to pick yourself up, improve, acknowledge effort, persist, and ultimately succeed? By portraying these qualities in your essay, you will convince the adcom that you have the self-awareness, maturity, and dedication to thrive, despite an occasional stumble or any obstacles you will inevitably face.
Consider experiences that helped you grow the most, made you a better or stronger person, or better prepared you to face adversity in the future. Again, show how you are different now as a result of confronting a negative situation. Make sure to offer specific examples that reveal how you have turned failure into success. Remember that a weakness can 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. 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 these questions 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 college admissions and helping applicants gain coveted acceptances at top schools worldwide. Let them do the same for you!
By Judy Gruen, 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 help you get accepted? Click here to get in touch!
• From Example to Exemplary, a free guide to writing winning application essays
• Writing About Overcoming Obstacles in Your Application Essays, a short video
• Showing Resilience in the Face of Failure