How to write the failure or setback essay

'You have learned something. That always feels at first as if you have lost something.' - George Bernard Shaw

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Did you lose a job, a business deal, an important competition, or a loved one? How did you regain your confidence?

Failure and setback stories are among the hardest admissions essays to write. My clients often struggle to find the right stories that showcase their ability to survive and thrive in the face of obstacles and frustration. They also wonder how much responsibility to take for what happened, and how to prove that they have learned their lessons.

Here are the tried and true tips I use to help them to tell successful stories. 

 


THE QUESTIONS

What do they ask?

 
  • INSEAD Essay 3: Describe a situation taken from your personal or professional life where you failed. Discuss what you learned (400 words maximum)

  • Berkeley Haas Essay 4: Describe a time when you were a student of your own failure. What specific insight from this experience has shaped your development? (250 word maximum) 
  • Dartmouth Tuck Essay 3: Describe a circumstance in your life in which you faced adversity, failure, or setback. What actions did you take as a result and what did you learn from this experience? (~500 words)

  • MIT Sloan MBA Essay 2: Please describe a time when you overcame a personal setback. (500 words or fewer, limited to one page)

  • HBS Essay 2: Tell us about something you wish you had done better. (400 words)

 

 

Why do AdComs ask these questions?

  • In general, AdComs ask about failures and setbacks in order to assess your maturity and teamwork skills.
    • How do you react when you do not get what you want?
    • Can you remain flexible and optimistic when you face unexpected obstacles?
    • Can you maintain a gracious attitude as you watch your best laid plans come to nothing?
       
  • They also want to see if you know how to take risks, and recover when situations do not turn out as planned. 
    • As the saying goes, If you have not failed, you have not tried hard enough.

 

 

“Our greatest glory is not in never failing, but in rising up every time we fail.” - Ralph Waldo Emerson
 
 
 
 
 

What is failure?

 

  • Quite simply, failure happens when you cannot meet your objectives. 
  • Sometimes, we fail because we do not try hard enough. 
  • Other times, we fail to reach our intended objective despite our best efforts. 
  • Either way, we did not get what we wanted. 
  • Hopefully, failing is not the end of the story. 
  • It is our reaction to failure that makes a failure story worth telling. 
  • In that way, failure can be seen as our greatest teacher. 
 
 

What is a setback?

 

  • Some dictionaries define a setback as an unanticipated or sudden reversal or check in progress. The word “setback” implies a change from better to worse. It usually involves an unfortunate happening that hinders or impedes. Setbacks often cause us to feel frustrated or defeated.
  • Is a setback your fault? Not always. We encounter setbacks at the hands forces beyond our control: disease, natural disasters, and acts of war. Other times, we are intentionally or unintentionally blocked by others. Worst of all, we sometimes get in our own way. Did you hinder your progress due to your own misjudgment, carelessness, or forgetfulness? Did you fail to consider some outcome that others could have seen? Were you overly optimistic about your ability, or the ability of others?
  • Whether the setback was due to your error, or whether it was no one’s fault, your outlook matters most. Can you view setbacks as opportunities for learning? If you view setbacks as insurmountable failures, you can become paralyzed. Can you change your mind set? Are you ready to move forward?
     
Business and self-help books are full of cliches, like “Winners never quit and quitters never win”, and “If at first you don't succeed, try, try again.” While they seem over-used, these aphorisms contain wisdom.

A popular motivational speaker named Willie Jolley recently wrote a best-selling book called “A setback is a setup for a comeback.” In his book, the author emphasizes “faith, focus, and follow-through." Here is an edited excerpt that might help you organize your ideas and write your 
 failure or setback essay.
 
 
How to Survive and Thrive Through any Business Setback: The four-step Process of Turning a Setback into a Comeback by Willie Jolley   
 
Has your business ever had a setback? Of course it has. Perhaps your right-hand person left to work for your biggest competitor. Maybe your top sales person quit without notice and took a few key accounts away. Even worse, perhaps you lost everything because of a bad business decision.
 
Whatever happened, whether it was a large or small setback, how you dealt with the issue most likely determined where you are today. Those who realize the setbacks are simply part of the business process usually thrive, while those who dwell on the problems of setbacks routinely falter.
 
A setback is a change that needs to occur in order to move forward. No matter what industry you're in, you're bound to have things change. The key is to remember that these temporary setbacks can empower you to reach greater levels of future business success. No matter what obstacle has plagued your business, following this four-step process can help you survive and thrive.
 
1. Focus Your Vision
 
Where you focus your energy determines where you will go. If you focus on the setbacks and challenges it brought you, your business can't move forward. However, when you focus on what you want your business to become, then you are using the setback as a transition.
 
 
2. Make a Decision
 
Both success and failure are decisions. Once your vision is in place, you have to decide you're going to win despite the setback. The truth is, successful business people choose to be successful. They understand that decision and choice are integral parts of the success formula.
 
 
3. Take Action
 
A decision without action is simply an illusion, and an action without a vision is mere confusion. Yet, a vision plus decisive action can change the world.
 
Unfortunately, many business people never act on their decisions. While they have the best of intentions, they lack the determination and persistence that comes with taking action.
 
By taking action on a decision, you're also taking responsibility for the setback. Once you take responsibility for your actions, you're ready to move forward and attain your next goal.
 
 
4. Keep the Desire
 
Desire is the degree of energy you're willing to exert in order to reach your goal. Many business people give up because their desire falters. Either a new idea strikes them and they lose focus, or they encounter another minor setback and become discouraged. In order to reach the new business goal you have set for yourself, you must have the desire to follow through with every action, even if it involves a degree of risk. While taking a risk might be intimidating, especially after a setback, it's a necessary ingredient to reaching your new business goal.
 
All successful business people have had setbacks. If you view a setback as a chance for future growth, you can bring every challenge to a positive outcome, and make a stunning comeback.
 
(found at http://www.allbusiness.com/management/786751-1.html; accessed 2011/07)
 

 


What constitutes a "good" failure or setback essay?

 

 

Too often, clients send me failure essays that I do not believe or care about. Do not play it safe!

When I read a failure or setback essay, I ask myself three questions:

 

1. Do I believe?

  • Did this example truly cause pain to the writer? Is she sharing a real setback story, or using an accomplishment story she wrote for some other school?

 

2. Do I care?

  • Were others affected?
  • Was something damaged? (loss of money, loss of time, loss of reputation, loss of business)

 

3. Do I want to work with this applicant in a project or study team?
 

  • Did she learn something real about herself because of this experience?
  • Did she deepen her understanding about herself, or others?
  • In the process of recovering from this setback, did she gain new hard or soft skills?
  • Is she resilient?
  • Can she prove her learning by sharing another example to show how she applied the lessons she learned from this setback?

 

 


Vince's Four Failure Essay Rules

If you follow the four rules explained below, you will increase the chance that I, and AdCom readers, will believe and care about your story. Finally, if we finish your essay with a feeling that we would want to work with you in a team, then you will have successfully answered the question, and therefore increased your chances of being interviewed, and admitted.   

 


RULE #1

Show me the damage

 

  • Why should anyone care?
  • What was lost?
    • Did you lose money?
    • Did you lose time?
    • Did you lose trust?
    • Did you lose future business?

 

 


RULE #2

Convince me it was your fault

 

  • Did the failure occur because of you?
  • Some setbacks are not your fault.
    • Something happened that was beyond your control, but still affected you deeply.
    • Think 2008 financial crisis, or a natural disaster like Japan's 2011 earthquake and tsunami.
  • But a true failure, as asked by INSEAD and Berkeley Haas, should be your fault.
    • You made a big mistake, and you learned from it.

 

Here are some questions to help you clarify how you caused or contributed to a setback or failure:

 

  • Did you encounter significant challenges when working cross-functionally with engineers, finance specialists, marketers, sales staff, consultants, accountants, or lawyers?
  • Did you fail to communicate across cultures? 
  • Did you struggle to manage your time, or the time of others?
  • Did details overwhelm you?
  • Did you fail to consider the larger context of your actions?
  • Did you fail because you were afraid to present bad news to others?
  • Did you fail because you were afraid to confront others about some important issue?
  • Did you fail because you avoided beginning new tasks?
  • Did you fail because you lost energy in the middle of an important project?
  • Did you fail because you were impatient?
  • Did you fail because you were unable to persuade your subordinates?
  • Did you lose valuable time or fail to achieve a desired result because you could not influence your seniors?
  • Did you fail to close an important project or deal because of your lack of technical, analytical or interpersonal skills?
 

 


RULE #3

Show me what you learned, which might include 

 

Lessons about yourself and your feelings

 

  • Did you develop maturity and self-awareness? 
  • Did you become more aware of your self-limiting tendencies or bad habits that hold you back from achieving your full potential?
  • Did you become more aware of the underlying reasons for your negative feelings?
  • Did you learn how to prevent negative feelings from affecting your actions?
  • Did you develop new skills for identifying, expressing, and coping with your emotions? 
  • Did you gain the ability to remain composed, even in trying moments?
  • Did you learn how to act appropriately even in emotionally charged situations?
  • Did you learn how to view events as a series of cause and effect relationships?
 

 

Lessons about time management and project management

 

  • Did you learn how to adjust your priorities to deal with rapid change?
  • Did you learn how to adapt your strategy, goals, or projects to cope with unexpected events?
  • Did you learn how to apply standard procedures flexibly?
  • Did you learn how to juggle multiple demands without letting things get out of hand?
  • Did you learn how to manage the expectations of your colleagues or customers by under-promising and over-delivering?
 

 

Lessons about persuasion and influence

 

  • Were you able to better understand the reasons for others' actions?
  • Did you learn how to anticipate how others would respond when trying to convince them?
  • Did you learn how to perceive disagreements as opportunities rather than threats?
  • Did you learn how to resolve conflicts by openly talking about disagreements with those involved?
  • Did you learn how to convince others by engaging them in discussion?
  • Did you learn how to convince others by appealing to their self-interest?
  • Did you learn how to understand others by putting yourself in their shoes?
  • Did you learn how to understand a team's or organization's unspoken rules?
  • Did you learn how the informal processes by which work gets done in a team or organization?
  • Did you learn how to convince others by getting support from key people?
  • Did you learn how to convince others by developing behind the scenes support?
  • Did you learn how to explain situations by using metaphors or analogies to describe themes or patterns?
  • Did you learn how to motivate others by articulating a compelling vision?
 

 

 


RULE #4

Prove that you have changed

 

  • Can you show a brief example of a time you applied the lessons you learned from this failure?
  • Failure and setback stories usually involve personal transformation.
  • To show personal transformation, try adding details that display a clear "before" and "after".
 
BEFORE - how you were
AFTER - how you changed
IMPACT - how does this accomplishment prepare you to contribute to MBA life and achieve your career goals?
 
  • NOTE: You might not have space in your final essay to mention a detailed example of a time when you applied the lessons from your failure.
  • Still, in your early drafts, I encourage you to share these extra details because they help me understand and evaluate your story.
  • Then, I can help you find ways to prove your learning in as few words as possible. 

 

 

 


 

Need a sample failure story? Please watch this

SAMPLE BEHAVIORAL INTERVIEW ANSWER

 

Q: Tell me about a time you managed a team that failed.

 

 

 


 

Need a break? If you get stuck while brainstorming, outlining, drafting, revising, or editing your setback essay, you might find it helpful to watch one of these famous “setback” movies. In each of these films, the characters encounter and overcome significant setbacks, and emerge stronger.

 
  • Rocky I (1976) and Rocky II (1979) (watch them together)
  • Chariots of Fire (1981)
  • Cars (2006)
 

 

Still stuck? Here are some good brainstorming sites  http://del.icio.us/admissions/brainstorming_failure
 

 


 

-Updated by Vince on 14 Feb 2014

 
 

 


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"You encouraged me to be genuine, and helped me find the right, true stories that captured who I am. In this way, you offer applicants not only an effective admissions advisory, but also a unique journey of self discovery and empowering dreams."

Havard Business School Class of 2015, with Fulbright Scholarship (also admitted Stanford GSB)

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"First, you limit the number of your clients so that you can maintain the high quality of your services while many other MBA consultants accept clients almost beyond their capacity. Second, you are really great 'catalyst.' Each question you asked me made me think and thus deepened my stories. Thanks to you, I was able to come up with excellent ideas that I could never come up with alone."

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