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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

Wrestling with MBA Application Essays

You are thinner, of course

Writing MBA essays can be hard work. If you know anyone who is applying to business school you may have heard them muttering to themselves, “What does matter most to me and why?” (Stanford GSB) or  “What do you hope to gain professionally from the Wharton MBA?”  (or any other school).  They may be victims of an energy-draining syndrome that shows itself every year about this time called MBA essay nightmare.  It’s a regular sinkhole of drafting, pondering, redrafting, questioning, redrafting, wondering if it is getting better or worse, redrafting, and whining.

The essays matter.  Of course the GMAT does too, and, but the real differentiator is the answer to the question behind all those questions, “Why should we admit you to our business school?”

Your answer is going to be as unique as your own DNA. But getting there is quite the chore. You could watch this MBA Podcaster video on YouTube regarding essays (in which I feature with admissions reps from Wharton and Columbia Business School), or you could read on.

Writing is HARD. You aren’t the only sufferer.

I’m going to tell you a secret.  Writing isn’t easy for anyone.  Oh, every so often, someone will tell you that they whipped up their essays the night before the deadline and were accepted everywhere they applied.   Fine.  That person is in the minority.

If you are finding that you are writing and rewriting, and rewriting again, and then stumbling, and rewriting, you are not alone.  Ernest Hemingway was said to have rewritten the ending of “For Whom the Bell Tolls” 39 times. That’s just the ending.  That means he already struggled with getting words down on paper for the first time.  Remember the movie “Adaptation,” where the main character  nearly drives himself crazy from writers block?   That should remind you that lots of people have faced down a blank page.

To write those essays, you have to start somewhere, and believe me, your first try doesn’t have to be perfect.  In fact, it can be terrible. Annie Lamott, author of Bird by Bird, a wonderful book on the writing process, life, and everything else, says it is ok to write whatever comes into your mind. “For me and most of the other writers I know, writing is not rapturous,” she says. “In fact, the only way I can get anything written at all is to write really, really shitty first drafts.”

Death by Rewriting

Or what if you are looking at an essay that you’ve rewritten two or three times, and it still isn’t going anywhere?  It feels like it is getting worse word by word. Don’t be afraid to stop writing.  Read it first thing in the morning if you are an early person, or right before you go to bed if you are a late person. Or both. Keep your computer or a pen and a printout of the draft by your bed.  Print it out, walk around with it.

If you hate it, talk the essay over with a friend, confidant, or advisor.  Tell them the story without worrying about the words on the paper.  Does it makes sense? Are you excited by it? If not, go back and forth with this other person: have them tell you when they feel your energy.  If they don’t feel your energy at all when you tell them your story, believe me, the admissions officer won’t feel it either.  You may have to start all over.

These are just some quick ideas to remind you that it is perfectly OK for you to feel stuck. This is really, really normal.  Just don’t be afraid to rewrite, revise, and reconsider your own assumptions.  You probably don’t have to go around 39 times, but give yourself permission to work it until it’s right.

Moneyball, Liar’s Poker and Everything Else Michael Lewis Writes…

Moneyball…is brilliant.  Lewis might be most adept person on the planet in putting the human face on business concepts.

When we think about presenting ourselves in writing, for example through admissions essays, or in person, through interviews, or even in mixed media, we can all learn from Michael Lewis.   The inspiration for this hands-down (or thumbs up?) vote of support comes from a comment I read today in a New York Times Dealbook column, “Essential Wall Street Summer Book List.”  The author of the column, Andrew Ross Sorkin, and the many commenters lauded Michael Lewis’s prose and storytelling ability.  I actually decided to write this blog post simply because of the following comment:

“As is typical of Lewis and what he would write later, he was a genius at seeing how small anecdotes revealed larger truths.”

Wow. I’ve tried to write say the same in my blogging about essays. and storytelling, but the above statement hits the nail on the head.  So read Michael Lewis, and see if you too can learn to tell the truth about yourself through small anecdotes.

That’s all I am going to say.



Benefits of Starting Your Business School Campaign Now

As I write this, it’s less than six months to the first round deadlines for business school application.  And there’s plenty you can do to get organized now. This means mapping out a strategy, juggling all the moving parts, executing, following up, and all while performing your day job.

Start Early

rooster square

Start Early!

Those who start early will be able to take the time to do the self-reflection for a successful application to business school. You’ll be able to clarify your purpose and challenge yourself to see if getting an MBA is right for you. You will need to use your powers of persuasion to secure help from friends, family, and potential recommenders.

You will also need to do a bunch of things at the same time, like study for your GMAT or GRE, meet current students and alumni, explore career paths, take extra courses, ask for transcripts, reflect on your own future, oh, and figure out how to pay for the privilege of attending an MBA program.

Visit Schools in the Spring
I’m also a huge fan of visiting schools during the spring term rather than waiting until the autumn.  You’ll be more relaxed – and so will the students whom you meet. First years will have already settled in or landed summer jobs. Second years will be all smiles.  You’ll be able to let the school and students sell themselves to you so you can differentiate between programs, and figure out the right fit for you.  Every school has a different personality, which becomes clear when you set foot in a classroom or participate in a social gathering.   Almost every student I’ve talked to wishes they could have researched more programs – a hard task when you are also working, trying to write essays and manage your recommendation process.

What to Do When the Application isn’t Ready
Most schools don’t issue their applications until mid-late summer, and it may feel a bit early to start writing essays. But you can do some introspection that will help you gain clarity for the MBA application process. I suggest students do some writing. You will have to answer a version of this question later, so why not start formulating it now?  Here’s the assignment:

Reflect on what earning an MBA would bring to your professional life and do for you personally. Jot down your thoughts envisioning the future.  

A little scary? Not as scary as the real essay questions, which range from “What is most important to you and why?” (Stanford GSB) to a cover letter to the director of admissions of MIT Sloan, to Harvard’s now classically simple, “Tell us about something you did well.”

Finally, make sure your GMAT is in order. If you are not happy with your score, (in particular, your quant sub-score, which is the only one that matters), take a course and try again. There is no harm in taking more than once, or even twice. You’ve got enough time to reasonably master the material at this stage, and you’ll be glad to get a solid result out of the way.

Use Your Summer Wisely
If you are in the northern hemisphere, you have all summer to get yourself ready. So use your summer wisely; go to MBA events, meet and great, ask questions, and get yourself ready. It’s a lot easier now than when deadlines loom.

Consider Your Audience in Your B-School Application

I recently attended a workshop at the Stanford Graduate School of Business on pitching business plans to entrepreneurs. The experts there kept hammering it home: consider your audience.

An MBA application is like any sales pitch.  Your audience will not only determine what you have to say, but how you are going to say it.

Your audience is your target market.  The audience can be one person, it could be hundreds, or it could be a small committee of just a few people who will be deciding on whether you get into their business school.

Let’s think about them, and what might appeal to them.   Who are they? What do they care about?

I don’t know about you, but I’ve met quite a few admissions officers at presentations and MBA fairs. They are marketers too, and they want to connect with you as much as you want to connect with them.  In doing so, admissions committee members will tell you a lot about their programs, and will also tell you a lot about themselves as an audience.

So here are a few ways you want to consider your audience in the MBA application process:

1. Listen

Figure out what the school is looking for. This can sometimes be called “application criteria” in the case of Harvard Business School, or in Wharton’s case, the page is called, “Preparing a Successful Application.”  Then, read through the website and see what the school is saying about its brand, its goals for itself.  Read chats, go to events.  Listen to what admissions representatives care about.  Look for what they say are the requirements for an MBA program at their school.

2. Pay attention to fit
As an audience, the admissions committee is also looking for “fit with their program.”  They don’t want you to simply apply because of the rankings, but, like any audience, they want to know that you have done solid research on MBA programs.  You want to connect with your audience not by showing off that you have all sorts of facts about the school, but make a genuine link, by incorporating your experiences that school’s community and purpose.

3. Remember it’s a business school

Let’s break this down. First, you are trying to learn about business. It’s a Master of Business Administration.  You will be studying and talking about private enterprises, so you have to have some sense of what business, commerce, industry, profits and loss, markets, are all about. You don’t need to know everything, but you want to be able to learn about companies.  Don’t get me wrong, you’ll learn a lot about government and NGOs.  And you can come from government or non-profit. I did!

That also means that you want to present your application as if it is a business project.  That means use your project management skills to lay out your recommendation strategy. That means using appropriate language in your application. That means paying attention to details, from the short answers in the data sheets to the topic sentences of your essays.

4.  Your audience is employed by a school
The readers of your application care about your academics. This is something that you cannot talk away in the optional essay.  Business school is hard, and they want people who will make it. You need to meet the school’s standards, which are, admittedly high.  But broad.  Schools do look holistically. But they also do require some metrics. Like the quant portion of your GMAT or GRE.  Like your writing skills.  And like your ability to sit in a classroom, participate and get a good grade.

5. Your audience wants you to succeed

When Dee Leopold, head of Harvard Business School admissions, gave her webinar on the changes in the HBS application, she said it outright: “We are really nice people here. We are human, we want to understand; we are not ogres, with hatchets. We will go way down the road to understand the choices you’ve made.”   Other admissions committee people tell me that first and foremost, they want the applicant to succeed. Their reaction when they decide not to admit is more “I wish it weren’t so,” rather than “another one bites the dust.”

The punchline
Make it easy for your audience. They are on your side. They don’t want to bite your head off. They have given you instructions and plenty of room to tell your story. They want it to be interesting, professional, and well-executed. And if you go that far for your audience, I guarantee they will meet you more than halfway.