MBA applicants understand that they need to highlight their strengths in their essays. It can be harder to know how to handle essay questions about failure. Below, I offer 5 tips to help you respond to MBA essays about failure, challenge, adversity and setbacks.

Here are two current failure prompts:

Describe a circumstance in your life in which you faced adversity, failure, or setback. What actions did you take as a result and what did you learn from this experience? (Tuck)

Describe a time in the last three years when you overcame a failure. What specific insight from this experience has shaped your development? (Haas)

  1. Be honest with yourself. High achieving MBA candidates have a tremendously hard time with this essay.  Some people just do not feel like they have made any mistakes, and some have been so incredibly successful that they have not experienced any real challenges, failures or setbacks. If this sounds like you, please try to think about the prompt in a variety of ways.  What is the harshest feedback that you have ever received?  If you could go back in time and change a decision that you regret, what would it be and why?
  2. Be genuine. Pick something that really matters to you.  This is good advice for all of your MBA essays, and it is especially important to be authentic in response to this question. This is not the place to come up with a fake challenge, or a success disguised as a failure.  Essays about getting an A- are not compelling.
  3. Take responsibility. Along the same lines, it is necessary to truly own your role in the situation you are describing, and not to be defensive.  Some of the most disappointing essays describe a team failure, or a situation where you really had no control so it wasn’t your mistake, or place all the blame on a bad boss or an underperforming colleague.  These essays reflect badly on the narrator, and will raise alarms for the committee.  They want people who can own their mistakes and learn from them. As with the leadership prompt, it never hurts to bring the story full circle and explain why an MBA will help you avoid these mistakes in the future.
  4. Invest time choosing the right topic. Perhaps the biggest challenge is choosing what to write about.  Part of what schools are testing is your judgment and your ability to pick strong material that will reveal vulnerability and depth but not reflect so horribly on you that the committee recoils.  As with your entire application, it is crucial to sell yourself in the right way, so that they see you as a positive fit with the community. In order to identify the right topic, try to think about your candidacy from a holistic standpoint.  Are there compelling and relevant parts of your personal history or your values that you have not yet had the chance to share?  Do you come across on paper the way you want to, or might the committee need to hear more about certain aspects of your personality?
  5. Embrace the opportunity to stand out. Although this essay can seem daunting, it is often your best opportunity to portray yourself as a memorable individual.  By choosing a story that describes a pivotal moment in your life and is truly demonstrative of your character and resilience you can leverage this prompt to shine within the pool.