Posted on June 21, 2012

Failure/ Setback/ Mistake Essay

Until last year, among other schools, Tuck, Ross, Haas, Wharton, Harvard, and INSEAD had required their applicants to share their failure/ setback stories. INSEAD and Harvard have made it mandatory this year as well; Wharton has skipped failure questions this year, while Tuck, Ross, and Haas are still waiting to release their application questions.

So what is the purpose behind Failure/ Adversity/ Mistake question?

The Purpose of Failure/ Mistake Question: Through adversity/ setback/ failure question Business Schools want to know how their prospective candidates would deal with the challenges of life and grow from them. The setback question may turn out to be a greater challenge for applicants who have a bunch of accomplishments to boast of but can’t think of failures. So what you need to do is – a lot of introspection and look for experiences when you could not achieve what you had deserved or expected. Then reflect on how that experience helped you grow as a human being and as a professional.

Choosing your failure story: While choosing your setbacks/ failure story, keep in mind that you may also discuss challenges that were not necessarily of your doing. For example, getting laid off from your company because of the crumbling economy is your setback, not your fault. You may also choose an experience when the success seemed to be guaranteed, but things didn’t work, and you had to face failure despite sincere efforts. Still, you grew from the experience and it taught you important lessons which you later used to deal with similar situations in your professional/ personal life. However, if the essay prompt is specific about your mistake, then obviously the ownership is completely yours. In either case, the most important part of your story should be to explain how the experience impacted you, what you learned from it, and how you applied that lesson later for self-improvement.  Describe a situation taken from school, business, civil or military life, where you did not meet your personal objectives, and discuss briefly the effect.

Failure/ mistake questions by different schools: Since different schools ask failure/ mistake questions in different ways, you will need to compose your responses accordingly. For example, last year Harvard wanted you to share three setback stories, but this year, they want you to tell them ‘something you wish you had done better.’ It is still a setback story, but with an obvious difference. The setbacks you faced may not have been necessarily your faults. But now the essay prompt is clearly asking about your failure/ mistake which you could have handled in a more mature manner. In either case, you need to look inward for an experience when you could not achieve what you had expected of yourself. Similarly, INSEAD requires you to “describe a situation taken from school, business, civil or military life, where you did not meet your personal objectives”, which is also about not being able to meet your own personal standards.

Therefore, when choosing your setback/ failure story, you should make sure to discuss an experience when you later felt that things could have been better if you had dealt with the situation differently. Do not hesitate in sharing your weakness (but do not be over critical) Remember, Business Schools do not expect you to be a mistake-free individual, but they do expect you to grow from your experience, learn valuable lessons, and apply them for self-improvement.

What to Avoid?  Never start your essay with “I wish I had done X better,” because you do not want to reveal the suspense in the first sentence itself. Hook the reader by an engaging opening sentence in the form of a dialogue or a description or a quote and gradually unfold your story holding the Ad Com’s interest until the end.

The Structure of Failure/ Mistake essay: Your setback/ failure essay should have the following four components:

1. The challenge: (explain the challenge/ the situation)

Within two weeks of volunteering for the responsibility, I realized the challenges ahead of me. Most of the teams were reluctant to work separately on productivity improvement, in addition to their regular client-deliverables. My predecessor warned me of this and advised me to report to management beforehand in such cases.

2. The action: (explain how you handled it?)

I ignored my predecessor’s advice because I did not want to antagonize the team. I was receiving multiple follow-up e-mails demanding an explanation for marginal productivity improvement. But instead of sharing the defaulting teams’ name, I took ownership of the failure on myself and kept on promising the management that I would work hard with the teams to improve the situation.

3. The outcome/ result: (explain what happened in the end and how it affected you?)

Contrary to my expectations, things almost got out of control, and then I decided to escalate against these teams. But it was too late. By that time, the Management had already lost faith in me. In a meeting, the Senior Vice President of my company not only detailed my failures and its impacts on client engagements but also asked me whether I wished to continue in PIC role. Humiliated, I offered to resign from the role I had voluntarily undertaken five months back.

 4. The significance/ effect: (explain how that failure taught you important lessons that you later used for self-improvement).

"This experience was a huge blow to my self-confidence but it taught me two great lessons: being assertive when required and allocating responsibilities to all. Last year, a similar situation occurred, and despite a clear briefing of motives, many teams again showed reluctance to follow the required measures.  But this time, I did not hesitate to warn the management who took proactive steps to steer the errant teams into place. Thus, the single setback/ failure that I faced in my professional life taught me valuable team- working skills which I am now practicing successfully."

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