Recently we worked with a client applying to MBA programs who had experienced a failure that could have been the kiss of death for his job. Not only could it have gotten him fired, it also risked ending a lucrative business relationship between his employer and a major customer.
How one applicant transformed a failure into a professional leap forward
This is what happened: the applicant had worked in the analytics department of the company, and he had a role in interpreting some data incorrectly. This incorrect reading led them to recommend a strategy for their customer that was the exact opposite of what it should have been. What a disaster! Our client, the applicant, didn’t discover this huge mistake until after the new strategy had been implemented.
He could have watched from afar as the strategy failed. Instead, he came clean and told the truth. He waited for the blowback, expecting the worst.
Instead, he was rewarded for his integrity and telling the truth, despite the risk to his reputation. As a result, he not only kept his job, but the relationship between his employer and their customer even flourished. When this client was faced with the personal failure essay question and what he learned from the experience, he was ready.
“Failure isn’t fatal, but failure to change might be.”
Essay questions dealing with failure, risk, mistakes, and difficult interactions or conflict often make applicants cringe and bite their nails. After all, you are so eager to demonstrate how you have succeeded in your endeavors. You want to show the admissions committees through your essays and personal statements that you are on top of your game, ready to conquer the world. The last thing you want to do is to wave a flag announcing the particulars of when and where you have fallen short, or even failed.
However, questions about failure and resilience are frequently asked precisely because they 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 isn’t fatal, but failure to change might be.” So take heart: reading about setbacks is an opportunity for you to shine by showing your humility, commitment to growth, and determination to apply lessons learned. Reading about setbacks allows the admissions committee to learn about what you’re really made of.
4 ways 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 or invention that you otherwise would not have encountered. Your setback or failure could have spurred you on to strengthen your skills or knowledge base. Making lemonade out of lemons leads to forward momentum in your professional life.
You may have heard the famous story about when someone asked Thomas Edison, “How can you keep going when your scientific experiments (prior to developing the light bulb) have failed so many times?” He answered, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that my invention won’t work.” You don’t need the genius of Edison to adopt some of his tenacity and make it your own.
Be specific when you offer your examples in the essay. Perhaps you made a mistake in the lab that cost you weeks of work. However, in the process you learned something important about lab techniques, and now you’ve acquired more fastidious research practices. (Note: this needs to go way beyond the normal trial-and-error nature of research.)
In the realm of a personal failure, perhaps you neglected an important relationship to the point where you lost that relationship entirely. As a result, you’ve made a point of treating people with particular respect.You cannot just state this as a general, unproven fact. Prove it by sharing real-life anecdotes where you behaved differently, more purposefully and sensitively, as an investment in your relationships.
- Show that you truly understand why something went wrong.
In an effective failure or resilience essay, explaining “what went wrong” is only half the game. You must also explain to the best of your ability “why it went wrong.”
This will show the adcom that you have invested the effort to think and reflect about the role you might have played in the situation. Don’t simply place blame on circumstances. Explain the process by which you sought real answers and real solutions. Make sure to relate some of the steps you have taken to avoid making similar mistakes in the future.
As an example, if you had pushed colleagues hard to complete a work project that resulted in their resentment toward you (and no benefit to the project), you could write about the focused attention you now pay to their colleagues’ suggestions and efforts. Offer at least one specific example of how those efforts have paid off.
- Focus on what you’ve learned on a personal level.
Learning from mistakes helps you change and grow as a person. You may view and analyze situations or people differently now; make decisions more deliberately; taken a course in time management to help better juggle all your responsibilities without dropping the ball; began therapy to help with the anxiety you feel when work pressure feels overwhelming.
Your explanations will have more power if you can also show a “before and after” situation. The “before” stressed-out, perhaps not well organized person staying up till 3 a.m. to get it all done and still delivering haphazard work, versus the “after” person practicing time management and mindfulness skills, coping with responsibilities more calmly, deliberately, and competently. Demonstrating these changes will present you as more mature and emotionally intelligent–traits valued by the admissions committee.
4. Show them how you’ve become more resilient.
“Resilience” has become an overused word, nearly a cliche, so let’s remind ourselves of what 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’ve got game in this department.
Our advice on writing a resilience college essay echoes the advice we’ve given on writing personal failure essays. State the initial situation where you needed resilience, and then show–specifically and through 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. In choosing an example to write about, consider which experiences helped you grow the most. Which ones have made you a better person, a stronger person, more prepared to face adversity in the future? How are you different now as a result of confronting the negative situation? Do you have concrete examples to show how the changes you made as a result of the failure or weakness have led to success? Oftentimes a weakness is a flip side of a strength, so perhaps a weakness served you well at some point? For example, perhaps the fact that you are “too detail-oriented” resulted in discovering a critical error? Identifying your weakness – from a perspective of maturity and introspection – may have prompted you to take steps to ameliorate it.
Be thoughtful in your responses to questions on weakness or failure. Successful leaders must have honesty and integrity as part of their DNA, and be able to see 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!For 25 years, Accepted has helped applicants gain acceptance to top undergraduate and graduate programs. Our expert team of admissions consultants features former admissions directors, PhDs, and professional writers who have advised clients to acceptance at top programs worldwide including Harvard, Stanford, Yale, Princeton, Penn, Columbia, Oxford, Cambridge, INSEAD, MIT, Caltech, UC Berkeley, and Northwestern. Want an admissions expert to help you get Accepted? Click here to get in touch!