Go to a better blog!

You can find a better version of my blog at http://www.adammarkus.com/blog/.

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

June 17, 2008

HBS: What have you learned from a mistake?

This post is on the second of two required questions for the Harvard Business School MBA Application for Fall 2009 Admission. My posts in this series are: Overall Strategy 1 2 3-1 3-2 3-3 3-4.

2. What have you learned from a mistake? (400-word limit)

I think the reason HBS, as well as many other schools, ask about mistakes and failures is because they want to see that you have the ability to learn from errors and/or problems. Clearly this is an important skill required for analyzing case studies.

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. It is particularly important to differentiate between a failure and a mistake:

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.

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 a failure. 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 might be one where you were an observer, a victim, and/or the source of the solution. That said, I can't recommend writing about a mistake where you blame someone else. After all, leaders take responsibility and if you are using one of your four essays to show why you are not responsible, I don't think you will be optimizing your chances for an interview invitation from HBS.

It is critical that you learned something meaningful about yourself. And your learning about yourself should be important, otherwise why tell admissions about it? Therefore the key constraint of this question is that whatever the mistake 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.
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 is also very important.

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

Finally, the nice thing about mistakes is that everyone makes them. That said, if your mistake is terribly minor, it is unlikely to really to reveal anything significant. So focus on a big mistake where you really learned something. The word count is limited, but, if you can, show how you applied what you learned to a new situation because the application of abstract learning to a new situation is a key indicator of real learning.

Questions? Write comments or contact me directly at adammarkus@gmail.com. Please see my FAQ regarding the types of questions I will respond to.
-Adam Markus
アダム マーカス

MBA留学 ビジネススクール カウンセリング コンサルティング エッセイ
Real Time Web Analytics