How to write MBA essays: The Failure Essay

Nupur Gupta (Wharton MBA and Founder of Crack The MBA) continues her guest series for MBA Crystal Ball. This time she explains how to write an MBA essay where you need to talk about a failure.


MBA Essay Topic: How to write the Failure Essay
by Nupur Gupta

Wharton MBA - Nupur GuptaHow different schools ask the same question?

Wharton: Discuss a time when you faced a challenging interpersonal experience. How did you navigate the situation and what did you learn from it? (600 words)

HBS: Tell us three setbacks you have faced. (600 words)

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

What is the AdCom trying to understand by asking this question?

Looking at the above three examples, we see that INSEAD is the only school to use the word ‘failure’ in the essay question. Wharton talks about a challenging interpersonal experience whereas HBS talks about 3 setbacks. One might argue that these are different questions. It’s true, they are.

However, they have a common-binding thread which makes them similar. All three questions demonstrate the intent of Admissions Committee members which is to understand how you react in the face of adversity. Most of us have gone through difficult situations – personal as well as professional.

AdCom members want to understand how you faced these challenging situations and whether you let yourself be disadvantaged by the challenge or you were able to turn the tide in your favor. Given that in life, one will most certainly face difficult situations, the AdCom wants to see the fighter in you fighting the odds and emerging a victor! :-)

CTM Special Tip: An extremely important and overlooked point here is that whether or not the question explicitly asks for what you learnt from such a situation, you absolutely MUST talk about your learnings from the experience. This is perhaps the single most important thing as part of answering such a question.

Some things that schools are trying to screen for:

  • Are you the sort of person that gets bogged down by problems?
  • Do you use difficult situations as a crutch to rationalize for a failure?
  • Are you able to look back on a difficult situation and objectively learn how you could have done things better?
  • How do you approach and resolve difficult situations?

A range of responses from the same candidate and our commentary and rating for each response

To understand how to answer the question better, we will look at an example of a 2nd generation owner/manager in a family business setup in the ophthalmic lens industry. Let us assume this person is in the process of setting up a new manufacturing unit and has pre-booked sales but the delivery of the machinery from USA is delayed by 2 weeks. Let us understand how this candidate could talk about the same problem with a totally different effect on the reader in each case.

1. Weak: I did everything flawlessly on my end to successfully launch the manufacturing unit but due to circumstances outside of my control, I was unable to launch on my targeted start date and lost 70% of the business from pre-booked orders.

2. Average: Despite my best efforts, I was unable to convince the supplier to deliver the machinery in time and was faced with customers who wanted to cancel their orders. Realizing the erosion in brand that could result from such a move, I offered to discount each pre-booked order by 50% in order to compensate my customers for the inconvenience.

3. Strong: Despite my best efforts, I was unable to convince the supplier to deliver the machinery in time and was faced with customers who wanted to cancel their orders. Realizing the erosion in brand that could result from such a move, I offered to discount each pre-booked order by 50% in order to compensate my customers for the inconvenience. As a result, I was able to salvage 80% of the orders and mitigate the loss of brand value. This incident taught me the importance of adhering to project schedules and having contingency plans in place to provide for extenuating circumstances outside of my control.

Response #1 is from someone who may need to return to the drawing board and introspect deeper and harder. This response makes the person appear as someone who is ready to blame circumstances at the onset of a single problem and is unwilling to seize a difficult situation and turn it around.

Response #2 is from a person who shows they tried hard to work with the supplier in order to get timely delivery of the machinery and also who addressed the other end of the problem – namely, the customer in order to prevent loss of sales and reputation. However, this person does not internalize the learnings from the experience which is an important component of what AdCom members want to see.

Response #3 is from a person who not only faces the situation head-on but also internalizes and learns from the situation. This is a person who cares about the actual impact from their actions and who will likely ensure such a situation never arises again because they will factor that into their contingency plan. This is the kind of person B-schools love to see, those go-getters who make things happen!

MBA Essay Writing Do’s for the Failure Essay

  • Read the question properly and ensure you answer each part of the question
  • Walk AdCom through the different steps you took in overcoming the difficult situation along with your reasoning for the same
  • Internalize your learnings from the failure or difficult situation
  • Ideally and if space constraints allow you to do so, talk about a similar situation you might have faced post this setback wherein you applied your learnings from your previous failure to avoid the same mistake (this will make your response golden!)
  • Remember that you do not have to talk about having lost a limb or a $1Bn contract. It’s not necessarily about the gravity of the failure itself but the learnings and the action plan that should form the focus of the essay

MBA Essay Writing Don’ts for the Failure Essay

  • Do not copy/paste essays from different schools as the question is modified enough for each school that schools will see right through such tactics
  • Do not blame the circumstances or other people for the situation (that’s rationalization and it will get you nowhere, shit happens, face it like a man)
  • Do not skirt around the issue if the challenging situation is a result of your mistake. Accept your mistake and focus on the steps you took to overcome the situation as well as your learnings as a result thereof
  • Do not use trivial personal stories such as overcoming a breakup, etc. as it may reflect lack of judgment on your part

Next post: Watch out for another important MBA essay question.


Nupur Gupta is an admissions consultant and the Founder of Crack The MBA. She graduated from the full-time MBA program at The Wharton School in 2010 with majors in Entrepreneurship and Finance. Nupur obtained her Bachelor of Science (B.S.) degree in Computer Science from Rochester Institute of Technology in Upstate New York. You can get in touch with Nupur through her website www.crackthemba.com.


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Sameer Kamat //
Sameer Kamat
Founder of MBA Crystal Ball. Author of Beyond The MBA Hype & Business Doctors. Here's more about me. Connect with me on Google+ | Twitter | Facebook | Linkedin

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