Team Failure Essay

MBA applicants understand that they need to highlight their strengths in their essays. It can be harder to know how to handle questions about failure – and there are lots of them out there this year.

Below, I offer 5 tips to help you respond to questions about failure, challenge, adversity and setbacks.

1. Be honest with yourself.

High achieving MBA candidates often 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 adversity. 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. And it’s always a good idea 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, honesty and resilience you can leverage this prompt to shine within the pool.


Karen has more than 12 years of experience evaluating candidates for admission to Dartmouth College and to the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth. Since founding North Star Admissions Consulting in 2012, she has helped applicants gain admission to the nation’s top schools, including Stanford, Harvard, Yale, Wharton, MIT, Tuck, Columbia, Kellogg, Booth, Haas, Duke, Johnson, Ross, NYU, UNC, UCLA, Georgetown and more. Over the last three years, clients have been awarded more than 10.3 million dollars in scholarships, and more than 95% have gotten into one of their top choice schools.

3. Fixation on External Measures for Failure.  

This ties in with Item #2, but is a more understandable mistake that people make.  It's hard to have sympathy for someone who gets denied to an elite MBA program because they write, "My biggest failure was sitting in my boss' chair in a meeting" or "my biggest failure was not understanding that this guy from this other country was going to be unethical and rip me off."  Come on.  However, we can sympathize with people who drop the ball simply because they confuse an external measure for being an appropriate gauge for failure.  Here's the rule of thumb: a failure should be measured by the weight of your guilt and shame, not by the ramifications felt by others.  Here are two examples to illustrate this: 

Example 1- "My greatest failure was the time I worked 72 straight hours and, in a state of total exhaustion, put the decimal in the wrong place on page 120 of the report, costing the company $100 million." 

Example 2- "My greatest failure was the time I ruined a relationship with my best friend because I valued short-term thinking and convenience, rather than doing the right thing." 

In the first example, a company lost $100 million.  In the second example, a friendship was broken up.  Obviously, if we are going by external stakes, the first one sounds like a much bigger deal. However, external stakes don't dictate the magnitude of the failure.  Being a selfish friend because you are too absorbed in your own life is a much bigger personal mistake than putting the decimal point in the wrong place simply because no human being can work for 72 hours straight.  

4. Improper Focus on Lessons Learned.

This error goes both ways: some essays transition way too fast to lessons learned (basically skirting right past the mistake) and others never make the transition.  You must have proper tone and balance in this essay.  Stand on your own two feet rand be honest about making a mistake, but don't forget to explain how you learned from it.  From the "best friend" example above, that essay has to transition to "I learned to prioritize people over my schedule and to make decisions with a long-term view."  If you don't eventually say what the crushing failure taught you, why are you writing about it?  If the growth isn't on display, we can (must?) assume that it either didn't make an impact (meaning the internal stakes weren't high enough) or you are still doing the same things (obviously disastrous).  

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