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How to Use a Huge Failure to Your Advantage in Your B-School Application

A couple weeks ago, NPR ran a segment called When a Resume of Failure Becomes a Recipe for Success. Listening to it got me thinking about the role of failures and embracing failures in the MBA application process.

When you apply to business school, it’s natural to want to put your best foot forward and only talk about your successes. But when everyone is doing this, one way to differentiate yourself is by making your failures part of your story too.

Here are some things to keep in mind for taking advantage of failures in your application.

1. Demonstrate awareness

Awareness is a trait with a high premium in the application process. Talking about a failure is an opportunity to show that you can read a situation, reflect on it, and draw conclusions from it.

Adcoms are always on the lookout for self-awareness, and discussing a time when things didn’t go your way is a great opening to show that you have this important skill.

Advantage in Your B-School Application

2. Take ownership

Whatever your failure, assuming responsibility for it rather than trying to pass on blame will make your application much more compelling. Own your role and never pass the buck to someone else.

3. Highlight lessons learned

What did you learn from the experience? More importantly, how did the failure change your thinking or your actions?

If you have a concrete event you can talk about that shows growth and demonstrates leadership, that can be an interesting and refreshing point of view.

4. Demonstrate maturity

As you’re recounting what happened, show that you’re able to deal with setbacks in a mature way. This ties into all the previous points – be self-aware, don’t try to exonerate yourself, and take something away from the experience.

5. Have a sense of humour

One of the concerns admissions people sometimes have, especially for candidates with exceptional accomplishments – what I call “walk-on-water” candidates – is that it’s not clear how these students will react to failure. Are they prepared to deal with failure, something they haven’t encountered before?

If you have a very strong profile, one way to preempt these questions is to use some self-deprecating humour. Laughing at yourself a little will show that you don’t take yourself too seriously.

6. Tell a turnaround story

Comeback stories are great B-school application material. Admissions people love a story with an unexpected ending, and they like to root for the underdog.

Highlighting a significant failure or mistake that you bounced back from and reflecting on how that experience shaped you can grab adcoms’ attention and demonstrate many of the qualities that make a B-school applicant stand out.

There are a lot of different kinds of failures you can talk about in MBA applications, but whatever failure you choose, make sure it’s not something trite or fluffy. Save the story about the time you snuck the car out of the garage and crashed it into your neighbour’s hedge!

Instead, go for something truly meaningful. This can be a high-reward approach, but it can also be a high-risk approach, so make sure you have your story vetted by a seasoned admissions professional to make sure it really works.

Overall, the natural impulse is to want to talk about all your successes in your B-school application, so exploring a time you failed at something can be a refreshing approach to take. Especially for people with strong profiles who have all the boxes checked, it can add another dimension.

Even if you don’t make your whole essay about failure, one of these comeback stories can still be a data point in your larger narrative. You can keep it as a brief moment in your essay that you use to highlight traits like self-awareness, taking ownership, maturity and humour.

Ultimately, telling a failure story can be a good way to make your B-school application a success story. Now, if that’s not enough, here’s one more thing you can do: sign up for our free assessment to get a better idea of where you stand!

Chioma Isiadinso

Chioma is a former Harvard Business School admissions officer and the CEO and Co-Founder of EXPARTUS, the first MBA admissions consulting company to use personal branding as a key part of the b-school application process. Chioma is the author of The Best Business Schools' Admissions Secrets, one of the leading books on how to successfully navigate the MBA admissions process.

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