Business School Essays: Failure

Published: Mar 31, 2009

 Education       Grad School       
To recognize that effective managers are able to learn from failure, describe a failure that you have experienced. What did you learn from the experience? (Harvard)

Any applicant who tries to claim or assert perfection on the application would, at best, be treated as a joke. No one is perfect, and no admissions committee expects perfection. Yet, more than any other question, this one strikes fear into the hearts of applicants. However, answering this question does not need to be difficult. You must get past the biggest hurdle-your own reticence.Failure often results from good intentions and admirable qualities such as initiative, leadership, and risk taking. Take advantage of the fact that failure will sometimes result from our best qualities. Any leader who has tried to forge a new path has made a mistake somewhere along the way. If you are honest and forthright about the mistake you made, people will remember the intention over the result. Besides, the committee is not interested in judging you on your mistake, they simply want to know how you dealt with it. The only real way to flunk this question is to dodge it. If you choose a trite or irrelevant topic, the committee will either question your honesty and your maturity or doubt your ability to lead, take risks, and think outside the box.If you are having trouble choosing a situation, consider the following guidelines:

  1. Choose something that has happened recently. Delving too far into your past is an obvious cop-out.
  2. Do not limit yourself to professional failures, but do not shy away from them either. Admissions committees are aware of the risk inherent in choosing job failures and will give you points for being forthright.
  3. Do not choose anything overly dramatic or that would call your morals into question. The reader should be able to relate to your failure, not be shocked by it.

If you cannot clearly state what you learned from the incident or the actions that you took to amend it, then pick something else. When you are writing, take a simple, straightforward, objective tone. Do not try to excuse your actions. Let your story speak for itself. Keep your essay as concise as possible.


Note: This essay appears unedited for instructional purposes. Essays edited by EssayEdge are substantially improved. Read samples of EssayEdge editing.

At The Boston Consulting Group (BCG), Mark, the partner in charge of associate recruiting, asked me to organize a minority recruiting presentation at Harvard and Yale. He was concerned about our lack of African-American associates and wanted to increase awareness of BCG among the minority community. Both Harvard and Yale have Afro-American organizations, and I enlisted their help in organizing the event.

I made several key mistakes with the Yale presentation. I was busy with my casework and was not as diligent in getting started as I should have been. It took me several weeks to get in touch with the person, Marisa, who was in charge of business outreach at the Afro-Am center. When I finally did get in touch with her, we did not have many choices for a date on which to hold the event, because of finals, Thanksgiving vacation and Mark's and my schedules. I was forced to settle for 4:00 on a weekday, not a particularly auspicious time for an event like this. I knew that many people would be working in the dining halls, at practice, or just plain tired after a day of classes.

I made my second mistake when publicizing the event. Instead of preparing a blitz of publicity, with flyers in people's mailboxes and posters all over campus, I settled for what Marisa had time to organize. She put up some posters and information on campus, but didn't have the time to do any more.

When Mark, another associate and I drove down to New Haven for our presentation, we found an embarrassingly small turnout. There were only four people and one of them was a junior who wanted to know if we had any summer jobs. We all felt discouraged with the results of our efforts. I realized that I should have called up friends of mine still at Yale and paid them to publicize the event. I also could have taken out an advertisement in the Yale Daily News.

After the disastrous turnout at Yale, I did the only thing I could do: make certain that the same thing didn't happen at Harvard. First of all, Harvard's schedule gave me a few extra weeks with which to work, and I was able to arrange the presentation for 7:30 on a weekday, which was the perfect time. More importantly, I made a concerted effort to publicize the event, even sending out direct mailings to minority students.

This time, things went as I had hoped. Sixteen or seventeen people showed up, all of whom were extremely interested in consulting, and many of whom ended up applying to BCG.

This was my first rude awakening to the experience of organizing something that involved relying on other people. It taught me that the Boy Scouts have the right idea: "Always be prepared!" Over and over, at work and at YAAMNY, I see the importance of planning ahead and taking every measure possible to ensure something's success.


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