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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

A Reminder: Answer the Question

People always ask: How do I make myself stand out in an MBA application?  I have three words of advice: Answer the questions.  Advice so simple it barely seems worth mentioning.

At a recent school panel, a Yale School of Management admissions officer underscored just how much she and her colleagues pay attention to those answers. That’s because business schools craft their essay questions deliberately. They really do care. To put it in modern business jargon, a rep from UVA’s Darden School of Business encouraged audience members to “take ownership” of each school’s questions.  She’s right. Let them be a chance for earnest self-reflection; let them guide you through a process that not only gets you into business school, and leaves you with a deeper self-understanding regardless of the end result.

A lofty goal, and it’s a little too easy to get cynical, so try not to.  It never gets old.  That’s because the questions are deceptively simple and designed to get you to answer the question behind the question.  You are given a prompt, for example, “Why do you want an MBA”? That’s pretty straightforward, so answer it.  You want to be as unambiguous as you can. I want to be an entrepreneur, or I want to change the way health care is delivered around the world, or I want to use private equity to support clean tech investments. There are as many answers are there are people applying, because your answer will be unique to you. But you have to do one thing: answer clearly, and preferably, answer up front. And don’t forget to answer the questions behind the question: why you?  Or, more precisely, what is it about you that puts the very special you at your computer writing an application to business school right here, right now.

No matter how you answer whatever they ask, you can still be humble and compelling in your answer. Say, for example, you want to offer as one of your reasons that you will add to the classroom debate. Support the statement, just as you would in a business problem or a pitch for angel investor money. You might add to the debate because you were raised speaking three languages, or because you were one of 12 children, or because you are passionate about number theory. Whatever you decide to write about is up to you. But you have to frame your response so it answers the question, and support that response.

Finally, just a little admonishment from another one of the panelists at the outreach program last week. Resist the urge to force answers to one school’s essay questions into answers to another school’s questions.  The message to your evaluators is that you don’t care enough about the school or are too lazy to take the time to write a genuine, unique response.  I absolutely positively know for sure that you are not lazy, so be forewarned.

That’s all. Just remember that the writers of those questions write them that way because they wanted them answered. And remember, it’s no different from a business assignment. You’d answer your boss’ question, wouldn’t you?

Storytelling to Demonstrate the Real You in B-school Essays

As you sit down to draft your first essay, you might want to think about telling the story of you.  That’s the most effective way to stand out from the rest of the pack and show just how interesting you are.


Tell Stories

Whether you are writing essays, crafting presentations, or getting ready for an interview. Why do stories work? Because they demonstrate behaviors, and show in a few words a whole lot about a person’s character. Michael Lewis, author of Liar’s Poker and Moneyball, and possibly the best business writer on the planet, has been called “a genius at showing how small anecdotes revealed larger truths.”
In business school applications and interviews, telling stories brings those bullet points on your resume to life. But as an applicant, you not only have word limits, but you don’t have a lot of time to get and keep a reader’s attention.

A Story Without a Challenge is Not a Story
I have some good news! All you have to do is follow a few storytelling rules. The most important is that you’ve got to include some kind of challenge.

Most stories in the world are based on myths, and the hero who goes out to slay the monster is one of the oldest. Screenwriters love this tale; many of your favorite TV shows, movies, and video games are based on this theme, which was articulated by Joseph Campbell, a comparative mythologist. In his many writings, he talked about the archetypical hero, an everyman who is challenged and changed by his adventure. Just look at Luke Skywalker, or Katniss Everdeen. But if you look deeper at the model, you can notice the way challenges force heroes to grow and change; you can even find it in characters ranging from Piper Chapman in Orange is the New Black to Tyrion Lannister in Game of Thrones.

Set It Up and Explain the HOW
Even the littlest success (or failure) in your career history can turn into a story.  Here’s how it works:

Step 1: Take a bullet point from your resume, for example
Revamped a sales memorandum within three days for major client on sale of its stake in a European software firm; attracted 28 bidders.”
A. Identify challenge: Overhaul an important document for a very important client in a short period of time.
B. Demonstrate tangible results : Made company attractive to bidders, client happy, your boss happy.

Step 2: Explore HOW you arrived at results. This is where it gets interesting:
A. Took the time to figure out a plan (skills: ability to strategize, think through a problem)
B. Pulled in a SWAT team to help – for example, other analysts to run numbers or set up charts and visuals. You may have cajoled, offered pizza, or traded tasks. (skills: teamwork, influence, follow-through)
C. Was able to understand what senior partners needed in the sales memo (skills: managing up, anticipating requirements)

The Twist
In line with most challenges, you probably had a twist which made the story even more interesting. For example, in the middle of the process the stock market crashed/a tsunami hit/a subcontractor blew up. You and your team stayed focused and arrived at the result needed.

Meanwhile, as you go through the exercise, remember to keep yourself likeable – keep in mind that your reader is looking for self-awareness, where you acknowledge your own doubts and foibles. Keep it real, keep it humble, and you will absolutely win the hearts and minds of your readers.

Columbia Business School Application

I cannot help myself: I just discovered that one of my mentees via 85 Broads is now starring in an admissions video columbia-logofor Columbia Business School.

This is such delightful news! Here’s the link to the page that asks prospective applicants to watch a video and write up their impressions.

The application just went live today, so have at it!

 

Finding the Right Fit in a Business School

Lots of angles (and curves) to measure

There’s a lot of talk about finding the “right fit” when it comes to selecting a business school.  But as is the case with many words du jour, “fit” is often thrown around without much explanation of what it means.  What exactly is a “right fit,” and how is this relevant to applying to b-school?

Self-knowledge is the secret

Fit is so popular that I’ve written about it myself , but more importantly so have some of the top business schools. Some schools are more specific than others, but the general message is more or less the same: Know yourself.  Understand the cultures of the schools to which you are applying.  Be able to explain exactly how you would strengthen these cultures.

Before you can even think about what schools fit you best, you have to really look at yourself.  You need to know yourself very, very well.  Your level of self-reflection will absolutely show through in your application, and helps admissions officers understand you and how you could fit into the life of their school.  Soojin Kwon Koh, Director of Admissions at Michigan’s Ross School of Business, writes in her blog, “Our ability to evaluate your fit with Ross depends on how well you know and tell us about yourself.”  So know thyself!

Common culture with the school

Rose Martinelli, then Associate Dean of Admissions at Chicago Booth, stressed the importance of fit in an admissions chat, “… it all boils down to fit. The ability of the applicant to communicate path and plan, and why Chicago is a good match for them professionally and personally.”  It’s not just about who you are at work.  It’s also about who you are as a son or daughter, friend, and community member.

Berkeley-Haas, in the “Essays” section of its admissions page, goes so far as to say that it seeks applicants “who demonstrate a strong cultural fit with our program and defining principles.”  This does not mean that everyone at Berkeley shares the same opinions and experiences—quite the opposite.  It does mean, however, that students at Haas share a common culture, as outlined in the school’s Defining Principles; students question the status quo, have confidence without attitude, are lifelong learners, and think beyond themselves.

While Stanford’s Graduate School of Business doesn’t explicitly mention “fit” or “match” on its website, it does outline its “Core Values”: intellectual engagement, respect, integrity, striving for “something great,” and owning your actions.  To be a good fit for Stanford, you need to be able to demonstrate your alignment with these values.

Cornell’s Johnson Graduate School of Management touches on fit in its third essay question, “What legacy would you hope to leave as a Johnson graduate?”  The question explains that “the adcom wants you to really evaluate what ‘fit’ means to you for Johnson.  ‘Fit’ is different for everyone, so we want to see how authentic and purposeful you are about applying.”

— Researched and written with help from the great Alice Woodman-Russell