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On Failure and the MBA Essays

Α while ago, I entered a competition for the best MBA blog. In my day job, I am a graduate admissions consultant, so I thought I would try to get some attention to my blog through this contest. I didn’t win. I didn’t place. I didn’t even show.

It wasn’t for lack of effort. I tapped all my social media friends and contacts as I looked for votes. But I didn’t get enough. It’s not the end of the world, but it never feels good not to win. This lack of success reminded me of my own rejections from college and graduate school. I was mirroring my students when they put their heart and soul into an application and are then turned down. This contest was small potatoes compared to a college or graduate school application.

Beautiful losers

But being a loser isn’t all that bad. I mean, it’s not the first time it happened, nor is it the last. We say to ourselves, “It’s not whether you win or lose, but how you play the game.” Well, sort of.  I’m in good company with losers. The Atlanta Falcons, Hillary Clinton, and famously Michael Jordan on his beautifully watchable Nike ad.

Losing is part of learning about leadership. It builds resilience, propels you forward, and teaches humility. Here are a few ways how that works: Losing helps build resilience. It means being able to build muscle around not always getting your own way. One of the things that Harvard Business School looks for in prospective MBA students is the ability to handle things when they don’t work out. A few years ago, alongside the required accomplishment essays, the admissions committee asked applicants to describe three setbacks. Nowadays the HBS essay is more open ended, but if you don’t include some setback, they may think you are just trying to impress, and not tell the real story.

The F Word: Failure

That’s why admissions officers often say they are looking for both awareness and maturity. A key factor in high achievement is bouncing back from low points,” writes management guru Rosabeth Moss Kanter in Harvard Business Review’s “Failure Issue.” Losing means you’ve taken risks. You really cannot live without taking risks. As

Staff photo Jon Chase/Harvard News Office

J.K. Rowling told the Harvard graduating class of 2008, “It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default.“

Talk to most entrepreneurs, and you’ll hear the same theme: you cannot innovate without taking risks. And taking risks often means falling on your face. “Failure is not a badge of shame, it’s a rite of passage,” says Tony Hsieh, Zappo.com CEO and author of the inspirational book, Delivering Happiness.

Learning Humility

Humility is one of the not­ so­ obvious components of great leadership. The real leaders aren’t arrogant bombasts, but people who are gracious and, humble. Just ask Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr. Mike Krzyzewski, the winningest coach in NCAA men’s basketball, and the force behind Duke University’s Fuqua/Coach K Center on Leadership and Ethics, shows and teaches humility, in the face of great wins and embarrassing losses. Many leaders already have ego, and that’s ok, but, as Coach K writes in The Gold Standard, “Ego and humility are not mutually exclusive. You can have both. You should have both.”

When you think about it, losing does not always have to have a bad ending. Sometimes losing is simply a matter of the way you look at things. Sure, I didn’t win the best blog award, but when I went back and looked at the numbers, I came in fifth. That meant that I was in the “Top 5.” In my business, that is, the business of MBA admissions, the top five includes Harvard, Stanford, Wharton, Chicago, and Columbia. Not bad company, I think.

 

More on leadership and the MBA:

The Growth Mindset and the MBA Leadership Essays 

How to Convey Authentic Leadership in MBA Essays and Interviews

The Classic: Leadership and the MBA Application

Resilience as a leadership trait in MBA Admissions

The essays and recommendations play a big role in MBA admissions, mostly because admissions committees are trying to gauge the candidate’s leadership potential.  When preparing your essays or your briefing sheet for your recommenders, you want to address very specific leadership traits.

Many prospective students ask me what leadership means in MBA admissions.  I completely understand the confusion! The reality is that there is no real textbook definition of leadership, and if there is, but it’s very mushy.  But one element most people agree on as a measurement of a good leader is RESILIENCE.

Executive leadership expert Rebecca Zucker, founder of Next Step Partners, wrote an excellent article on ways to identify and improve your resilience, strategies which “help you prepare yourself so that you will be ready to take on tough challenges, setbacks, difficult experiences or failures when they inevitably happen.”   Here they are in brief; check to see if these are your normal behaviors, or you need a little practice:

  1. Cultivate a growth mindset: A growth mindset looks at setbacks as an opportunity to learn.
  2. Don’t over-ruminate: Reflecting and acting is positive. But morosely wondering “what if”?  leads to unproductive wallowing. Especially stuff that is outside of your control.
  3. Take care of yourself: Be healthy in mind and spirit. Don’t be your own worst enemy.
  4. Seek inspiration: seek out stories of people who have overcome failure. They are everywhere, not just on TED. Or Michael Jordan Nike commercials.

The Resilience Checklist

Rebecca Zucker’s article also includes a resilience checklist – which comes close to helping us define leadership in specific terms that prospective and current MBA students can think about and model. Many of these attributes are similar to those that you will find as part of the MBA recommendations forms.

The full worksheet has 18 behaviors, most of which would work quite well in an essay describing personal leadership in the MBA application.  The first, “I have good knowledge of myself” is probably one of the most important – self-awareness is a particularly useful trait for leaders of all levels, particularly young professionals on a rapid trajectory.

“I am flexible and can adapt to changing situations” might be easier to write about. Businesses are unpredictable. For internal or exogenous reasons, stuff always happens at work, and it’s an asset if you can deal with uncertainty.  If you can incorporate a story of your own personal flexibility in the face of a changing work environment, you’ll be demonstrating resilience and maturity.

“I am able to see multiple perspectives on a situation” is useful for your personal growth; for example, it keeps you from ruminating or getting stuck in a doom loop. But it is also useful for working in teams; small or large there are bound to be as many perspectives on a problem as there are members of the group.

“I am able to ask for help” is a definite statement of strength rather than what looks like a sign of weakness. Digging your way out alone is never pretty (or efficient). You might think that puzzling over a knotty problem and finding the aha moment shows your brilliance, but often the opposite is true.  If you are really in trouble, not asking for help just makes things worse.  At work, if you see that your project is falling apart, get resourceful and find someone who can help you solve your problem.  You might break down a few silos in the process.

It’s Not About You

But sometimes things are just awful, and that’s when personal resilience is about not taking it personally. Lost your job? Had a project taken away? Get a rejection letter from the business school of your dreams?  In all these cases, it’s not necessary that you just put on a happy face. That’s not realistic. But look at contingency plans, your support picture and the longer-term perspective.  The universe hasn’t singled you out of bad news, even though it might feel that way at the moment.

Setbacks, failures, defeats—they are all part of life.  But resilience with grace, humor and grit, that’s what makes a leader.

Read more on leadership and MBA learning:

Some Introspection in Advance of Your MBA Essays

How to Convey Leadership in MBA Essays and Interviews

Leadership and the MBA Application

The Growth Mindset and the MBA Leadership Essays

MBA leadershipI am not a very good athlete, so you can imagine everyone’s surprise when I decided to pick up a new sport. I decided to learn to row – not in a traditional rowboat, but in a long skinny shell with two 10-foot oars. It isn’t that hard, except you’ve got to do a few things right or you end up in the water.

But to really enjoy it, at least for me, I had to accept the fact that I was a novice.  And that meant not expecting myself to get it perfect from the very beginning.  As I found myself cursing my inability to square my blades, I realized that my mind was not allowing me to enjoy what should be a serene, zen-like experience.

Mindset
I was guilty of what Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck calls the “fixed” mindset instead of the more constructive “growth” mindset.  Dweck is an authority on things like brain science and learning. In her book “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success,” she describes the growth mindset as a far superior method for transforming effort into success.  The growth mindset allows you to focus on self-development, self-motivation, and responsibility for results.  A growth mindset keeps you from saying, “I’m a natural-born loser,” and instead saying, “I need to work harder at this.”  In a growth mindset, people are not afraid to make an error, look silly, or show a deficiency.

The growth mindset represents a key leadership characteristic.  It’s no surprise that since 2015, Kellogg’s MBA program has this preface to one of the application questions: Pursuing an MBA is a catalyst for personal and professional growth. How have you grown in the past? How do you intend to grow at Kellogg? 

Dweck’s decades of research are particularly relevant for people aiming for business school.  The growth mindset resonates on a strategic level, considering the personal leadership attributes sought by admissions officers of most business schools. It also resonates on a tactical level, in studying for the GMAT or GRE.

 

The Strategic: Leading
Business schools seek out people with attributes that will make them leaders who will change the world for the better. They are looking for people who don’t give up and see hurdles as a challenge. They want people who can learn from others to improve themselves and their environment.  I worked with one student, now on his way to Wharton, who appeared on the surface to be an all-or-nothing high achiever. At first, he looked like the “typical MBA,” never a good sign. But later, in his application and interview, he mentioned something both disarming and revealing: he never learned to swim. So as an adult, he decided to jump in.  When discussing his recent lessons in swimming, he said “It is never too late for a fervent beginner.” That’s the growth mindset.

The Tactical: Testing
Standardized tests demand a growth mindset. The computer-adapted tests, which give you harder questions if you answer right and easier questions if you score wrong, can send the fixed-mindset student into a failure spiral that will ruin any chances of a decent score.  The growth mindset, however, allows the student to work toward mastery. To put the time and the effort into learning the material and the process.   The growth mindset allows the student to embrace the possibility that skills can be learned (they can), and that sustained effort (and a good coach) leads to accomplishment.  The person with a growth mindset loves to conquer a challenge, while the person with the fixed mindset demands perfection right away.

There may have been a time when business schools were looking only for people with natural-born talent.  But as the world has changed and management science has evolved, MBA  programs want growth-mindset types in their classes. They want people who are willing to try new things, and are prepared to not be perfect the first time out.  They want people who think of themselves as works in progress.

And that’s why learning a new sport (or skill, or technique, or trick) isn’t so bad. I know I was clumsy and got it all wrong with my first attempt at rowing. But no harm done.  I’ll just keep trying until I get it right.

Whenever that may be.

Best of the Web: MBA Waitlist Strategies

japanese_girl waitingQuite a few of you are trying now to figure out what to do while hanging out on the waitlist for your top-choice MBA program. It’s a tough position, you just want to get out of purgatory.  First, the good news: people are admitted off the waitlist, even from schools few want to turn down, like Stanford or Harvard.  But then there’s the bad news: it is very difficult to predict.  Admissions officers do their best to figure out how many will turn them down, but the numbers vary from year to year.  Some schools, like it seems Yale in 2017, seem to have a pretty big waitlist. [Anecdote: one student told me that he and five others kept in touch after their Yale SOM interviews. Of the six, two were admitted in Round 1 and four were waitlisted.  My guess is that Yale SOM has enjoyed a spike in applications, but doesn’t really know whether a big percentage of those they admit will say yes. So they are hedging with a robust wait list.]

MBA admissions officers themselves try to demystify the waitlist process.  For example, Kristen Roth, of the Tuck admissions committee offers waitlist advice which is straightforward and to the point. I love her  recommendation – FOLLOW INSTRUCTIONS.  If the school doesn’t want to hear from you, don’t violate it, and if they do, be judicious.  Stay focused – and don’t overwhelm them with lots of data points. Keep it crisp.

MBA admissions committees do want to hear about any material changes since you submitted. Promotion or new job, even a coveted assignment might be called material. If you have been elected to a leadership position in an activity outside of work, that probably holds less weight, but it could be useful.  If you have relocated offices to another country, that’s quite significant. Especially if your international exposure is limited.

Students have written “How I did it” articles for Poets and Quants and their own blogs –for example here’s a guy who was waitlisted at four schools. Another link that I like very much is a podcast from a student who lobbied his way off the waiting list into MIT Sloan. It’s a fun story, and you get really excited for the student, Galen Li, and his enthusiasm.

You can also get some ideas from schools who have been willing to do online chats about waitlist strategies, including  the aforementioned MIT, UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business or Michigan’s Ross School of Business, and Cornell’s Johnson School.

Also, you might want to look at this post on “Admissions in the Age of Video” something Chicago Booth seems to favor.

My favorite piece of advice comes from Jeremy Wilson, who was a student member of the Northwestern Kellogg JD/MBA admissions committee. His article, “Playing the Waiting List Game,” is both thoughtful and action-oriented. Please do remember, however, that his experience is from Kellogg only. And it’s a few years old. But it’s really very cool.

Generally, the waitlisted applicants are considered solid candidates, even star candidates. Now is the time to showcase more subtle aspects of your profile. Be ready to articulate your story again, but this time better. Give them a few golden nuggets you may have forgotten to dig out from your past and put in your essays. Also, distinguish how you stand out from the other number-crunching bankers, consultants, or whatever professional you are and how you can add perspective to the classroom.

And be more introspective the next few weeks, so that you’re better prepared to talk about your leadership or entrepreneurial goals. Instead of using industry buzz words, overused resume verbs, and clichéd MBA language, think more deeply about your leadership style and talk more about stuff that motivates you, what you did, how you felt, and what you learned. And if you’re really up to it, try really spilling your guts a bit more and really putting the details out there—always remembering to stay professional of course—because this might just be your last chance.

What Not to Do

I say this with true compassion for those who are waiting. And do not just have an alumni send a letter because he or she graduated from the school. Or did well there. Or is successful now. UNLESS that letter adds value. Sure, OK, if you are waitlisted at the University of Chicago, and the letter comes from David Booth, I take it back. But otherwise, please heed the advice offered by Matthew Moll, Associate Director for Admissions at Columbia Business School: He’s quoted in a ClearAdmit blog as saying, “Be certain that additional recommendations add quality insight to your application.” That is, if the additional information in the letter says something about you that they don’t already know from you LinkedIn profile, consider it material. Otherwise, be careful about just bombarding them with fluff.

Apply Now or Later? Business School Age Range

“When should I apply?”  “Am I too old to apply to business school?” Those are often the first things students ask when planning their MBA application process.  The highly personal answer depends on both strategic and tactical considerations.

The Decision is Part of Your Career Strategy

 

The “when” question is strategic because an MBA application requires asking yourself big questions about your career and where you want to go next. Often these decisions depend on the experience you already have. If you are looking at full-time programs, that means you have to figure out whether you have enough experience to convince an admissions committee that this is the right time to leave your current job and take on the hard-core leadership and managerial training to set you up for the next phase.  Remember, the admissions committee is trying to determine your value added to your future stakeholders: classmates, faculty, and alumni.

But I Hate My Job!

That’s among the worst reasons to apply to business school. It’s really better to apply from a position of strength. Sometimes you just need one more year to gain more work autonomy, or you might want to switch functions to round out your experience, or even push yourself in a completely different direction. If you are not sure now is the time , then you are probably not ready.

Is there a target number of years? Not exactly. Most schools publish their average age and years of experience on the class profile page.

HBS histogram

HBS range of years of experience

You’ll see that over the past 10 years, Harvard Business School’s students matriculated with a range of 41-54 months of full time experience.  And there’s a standard deviation of a about year  around that, giving you a plenty to work with.

If you are on the young side, think hard about the quality of the challenges and emotional intelligence you’ve demonstrated to influence outcomes. Remember, your teammate may be an astronaut, a West Point-educated Tesla employee,  a prize-winning athlete,   or just a high-performing consultant. Do you bring enough maturity, self-awareness, and resilience   to add to your teammate’s experience? It’s quite a tall order, and that’s why admission to the top schools is so competitive.

You’ll note that I’m not writing too much about someone with many years of experience. In that case, your question is not “when?” but “if?” If you think you are on the “more experienced” side, then don’t wait.  For a good, balanced perspective on the “too old” question, take a look at  Wharton’s (now defunct) Student2Student forum (answers saved at the link).

Round 1, 2, or 3?

The decision about Round 1, 2, or 3, is more of a tactical one. I’m writing this article in the first week of January, so chances are, if you are reading it in early 2017, you probably have already missed Round 2. However, if you are thinking of next year, all things being equal (and they never are) I recommend Round 1. You’d rather have an admissions reader who is fresh and not looking to fill a gap in a class that’s already half-full. Furthermore, as a practical matter, Round 1 lets you enjoy the holiday season more, and your family with thank you for that.

This does not mean that Round 2 is an overly-tough round. Thousands of students apply and are admitted in the second round. Many have skipped on the first round because they haven’t done enough personal reflection to make sure their story and purpose are clear. Others wanted to take the GMAT score again, and for others, life got in the way. All of these are great reasons to postpone to Round 2.

Wrangling Recommenders

Recommendations are often overlooked when considering your tactical timing. I call this wrangling recommenders. You’ll need to brief and rally your recommenders to make sure they do the very best job for you. It is your job as project manager of your application to take this part of the application seriously. You will want them fully on your side, and the whole process WILL cost you some political capital. And no, you cannot write your own recommendations and just have them tweak and sign. That’s wrong.

Am I Crazy to Apply Round 3?

Finally, it’s come to this: the Round 3 question.  I personally know or have worked with students who have gotten into every top school in the country that has a third round. (MIT does not). The odds are against you, but if your tactical timing is right, then it may just work. As Dee Leopold, head of Harvard Business School admissions says,

“We like Round 3 enough to keep it as an option. Although we have admitted about 90% of the class by this time, we always – ALWAYS – see enough interesting Round 3 applicants to want to do it again.”

Yes, it is a little on the late side, and if you are just starting to think about taking your GMAT, you probably should delay until next year. But! If you are already in the process, and ready to go, you may not be as crazy as you think.

The choice is always yours. Whenever you decide to apply, make sure you execute well. That probably means you shouldn’t rush. Business school is a big decision and a bigger commitment, so you should apply when you feel you are presenting your best, true self.

This prompt is partly about your ability to plan logically and partly about your ability to envision a wild future.