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Managing the failure essay in college applications: Tips & Examples

The failure essay commonly comes up in college applicants. Sudershan ‘Suds’ Tirumala provides perspectives on how to deal with the failure essay (with an example) in MBA essays.

How to deal with career failure in MBA Essays

Top 10 MBA Admissions Officer - SudsOne of the readers of this blog, Akash, had posed a question regarding some of the failures he has seen in his life and whether that might be a turn-off when he’s positioning himself as a viable candidate in front of an Admissions Committee.

Through this post, I’d like to take the opportunity to speak to the applicant community out there, using Akash as a proxy representative. And I’d like to start off with this request: If there’s anyone among you that has never faced failure in life, I’d really like to meet you in person.

It’s my belief that each of us has had to face failure at some point in life, and that the cathartic experience has contributed to our maturing into the individuals we are today. So if you’re that unique individual who has never faced failure until now, you’re a new species whose existence needs to be celebrated!

Akash is one among many people I’ve interacted with – either online or offline – who have voiced their discomfort regarding their past failures and wondering whether they stand any chance when applying to business school. Most of these questions take the following form:

“I tried something different since I didn’t want to take the same approach as everyone else.”

“Due to lack of either experience or mentorship or both, what I took up didn’t produce intended results.”

“I’m downbeat now since I’m not sure how this failure is perceived by business school admissions committee – do I automatically become persona non grata?”

“Do I even stand a chance any more to crack the elusive admission?”

“What do I do now?”

The specifics obviously differ from the person to person, but the overall gist remains the same. I’ll spend the rest of this blog post sharing my perspective on this ultimately, irrelevant concern.

One problem I have with the set of sentences above is that they pre-suppose failure in one’s endeavors – that whatever s/he has done is actually a failure, as a result of which, s/he learned nothing and only expended precious time.

The other problem I have with the question is the stigma it attaches to failure. That failure is something horrible that only happens to an infinitesimally small fraction of the human population, and hence, it’s not something that’s taken too kindly by all the rest of us who have only tasted success in life.

The third problem – and probably, the biggest gripe I have with the question is the defeatism that’s echoing in it – that sense of resignation – that sense of inevitability that rejection is the only outcome that’s possible when an Admissions Committee reviews this application.

Let’s shred each of these myths into pieces right here, right now and relegate the bunkum to where it really belongs.

Not for one moment am I willing to believe that an individual (and by extension, the broader applicant community) who has experienced failure hasn’t learnt from it. I challenge each of you to think of your failures not as failures but as learning experiences – lessons that life has taught you that have had this indelible impact on you.

What about the belief that this terrible thing called failure happens to only some unfortunate people? Not at all.

Take any person you’ve ever admired and they’ve all experienced failures at some point in their life. Steve Jobs? Check. Albert Einstein? Check. Mahatma Gandhi? Check. Sachin Tendulkar? Check.

The list will continue until another 7 billion names are added to it. I’ll stop with these four names for the sake of brevity!

And then applicants become petrified because they heavily discount their own candidacy on account of this perceived failure on their part. They start doubting themselves before they even begin. And at that point, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

When an applicant starts off on the wrong foot of self-doubt, that thought lingers at the back of her/his mind and the essays come across as defensive at best.

If you yourself believe you’ve suffered a failure, how will you ever convince others about the fact that a tremendous amount of learning resulted from the failed endeavor?

Examples of how failure essays can be written

Consider the following – obviously exaggerated – sample sentence by one candidate:

“A major failure I have faced in life was when I left my very successful career to get into a startup because I found entrepreneurship very interesting. However the venture failed to take off and I am now at a crossroads which is why an MBA makes a lot of sense so I can take up my career plans anew.”

Versus the one below by another candidate:

“One of the most impactful experiences I had in my career was when I chose to work for a startup after working for X number of years in a corporate setting. The amount of learning I had in this comparatively short stint at the startup is something I’m really proud of….”

Just see the difference. If you were reviewing these essays, which candidate would you be more excited about? If your experience is something similar to the second statement above, then why are you still getting bogged down by the so-called weight of your failure?

So what do you do in your application? Turn the tables around. Showcase the positive you. Absolutely describe your failures, but while thinking of them as practical teachers in a school called life. What did you learn from the experience? How did you do things differently going forward? What has that experience meant to you?

In closing, keep your chin up, discuss your experiences – successes and failures – with a positive frame of mind, and let your natural ebullient self come through in your essays. That’s it!

In the words of the legendary Vince Lombardi:

“Success is never final. Failure is never fatal. It’s courage that counts.”

Also read,
How to explain frequent job switching in MBA admissions
Long and Short Term Career goals in MBA Essays
Common mistakes to avoid in MBA application essays

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Sudershan Tirumala
About Sudershan Tirumala
Suds' association with the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth (an Ivy League university) as Regional Director has given him rich & unique insights about international & Indian applicants that very few admissions officers have. In an exclusive series for MBA Crystal Ball, he writes on a wide range of topics from MBA admissions to careers.

5 thoughts on “Managing the failure essay in college applications: Tips & Examples”

  1. hello sir,
    I am himanshu,
    having a bad academic record all along, due to the ill health, do I now stand a chance to do a good mba and make a difference.
    my profile
    10th – 57%
    12th – 49 % – 60 %(computer science)

  2. Himanshu,

    Thanks for your query. If you believe your academic record bad, it is. If you think you’ll overcome it through your GMAT/work experience, you will. How you move forward is up to you. What is done is done and it’s set in stone. You can’t change it. I’d rather you focus on what’s in front of you and do your best. The answer to your question is within you!


  3. A very insightful and helpful post for all MBA prospective candidates. Thank you for sharing those thoughts, Mr. Sudershan.

    • Appreciate your comment, Nishank – glad to hear it’s helpful. Good luck for the upcoming application season!



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