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Be sure to read my Key Posts on the admissions process. Topics include essay analysis, resumes, recommendations, rankings, and more.

September 27, 2007

Fall 2008 MBA "Failure Essay Quesions"

This post has been updated for 2009. Click for my analysis for Fall 2009 Admission Analysis for HBS and Wharton.

In this post, I will look at the "failure essay questions" asked by Wharton and Harvard Business School (click here for my initial analysis of the entire essay set). I think the reason both HBS and Wharton as well as many other schools ask about mistakes, failures, and setbacks is because they want to see that you have the ability to learn from errors and/or problems. Case study analysis, is often the analysis of mistakes, failures, and setbacks.

For a number of years, the University of Pennsylvania Wharton School of Business has asked MBA applicants to analyze a failure or setback that they learned from. While the wording has changed over the years, the Fall 2008 application is no exception:
Essay 2 (Required)
Describe a failure or setback that you have experienced. What role did you play and what did you learn about yourself? (500 words)

I think it is important that we read what is written here very closely as it will help you see that there are multiple correct ways to answer this question.

First, keep in mind that you may not necessarily have been the cause of the failure or setback because it states very clearly that it is just one that you have experienced. Also given that you are asked what your role is, there is no assumption being made that you are the cause. Therefore the failure or setback might very well be one where you are an observer, a victim, and/or the source of a solution.

Second, keep in mind that whatever failure or setback you experienced, it is critical that you learned something meaningful about yourself. And your learning about yourself had been be important, otherwise why tell admissions about it? Therefore the key constraint of this question is that whatever the failure or setback is, you have learned something important from it. While not stated, you may very well find that one way of showing what you learned is to discuss how you applied your lesson to a new situation.

Third, what is the difference between between a failure and a setback? I think the easiest thing to do is look at standard definitions of both words:

FAILURE: 1. The condition or fact of not achieving the desired end or ends: the failure of an experiment. 2. One that fails: a failure at one's career. 3. The condition or fact of being insufficient or falling short: a crop failure. 4. A cessation of proper functioning or performance: a power failure. 5. Nonperformance of what is requested or expected; omission: .failure to report a change of address. 6. The act or fact of failing to pass a course, test, or assignment. 7. A decline in strength or effectiveness.

SETBACK: An unanticipated or sudden check in progress; a change from better to worse.

All setbacks can in some sense be understood as failures in sense of the seventh definition of failure cited above, but actually the difference is one of nuance: a setback does not carry with it any sense of finality. A failure conveys that sense of finality.

To use the experiment example above, "a setback in an experiment means the experiment could still succeed, but if the experiment is a failure, there is no chance for success. The only option is a new experiment.

I think it is useful to compare the Wharton question with Harvard's Essay 2:
What have you learned from a mistake? (400-word limit)

First, I let's look at the definition:
MISTAKE: 1. An error or fault resulting from defective judgment, deficient knowledge, or carelessness. 2. A misconception or misunderstanding.

A mistake is wider in scope than a failure because not all mistakes necessarily lead to failure though human failures are certainly the result of mistakes. A mistake may lead to either a failure or a setback. A mistake may actually lead to a positive unintended outcome.

Notice that HBS does not say "your mistake." It is possible that the mistake you learned from may like in the Wharton question be one where you were an observer, a victim, and/or the source of the solution.

Like with the Wharton question, HBS emphasizes learning.
I would, in fact, argue that the heart of any sort of "failure question," whether it is an essay question or an interview is what you learned. Also depending on what your role was, how you reacted to the failure, setback, or mistake is also very important.

The basic components of an answer:
1. Clearly state what the failure, setback, or mistake was.
2. Clearly state your role.
3. Explain how you reacted to the situation.
4. Explain what you learned.

Depending on how you write this essay, you may find that if you are applying to both HBS and Wharton, it is possible to use the same topic. Given that you have 500 words (or more) for Wharton, if you are applying to both schools, I would start with Wharton first and than cut it down for HBS. I wish you every success in your failure story.

Questions? Write comments or contact me directly at adammarkus@gmail.com.

-Adam Markus
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