How can you admit a failure and still offer an answer that strengthens your application? Of course, showing what you learned and how you recovered is absolutely essential, but many people don’t realize the importance of discussing a real, substantive failure.
Applicants believe that the slightest hint of weakness will ruin their chances. In reality, admissions committees know that you have flaws, even if you don’t disclose them. You’re better off being candid for the following reasons:
- Your readers will appreciate your honesty, and this perception will affect the way they judge your other answers.
- You show a stronger self-awareness when you can identify real mistakes.
- Only by engaging with a substantive failure can you offer meaningful insights into the lessons you learned.
Instead of being forthright, most applicants will either choose a topic that hardly qualifies as a failure, or they will write something generic or irrelevant to avoid admitting any substantive flaws. As an example that suffers from both problems, an applicant might describe a situation in which extenuating circumstances caused the failed outcome. The problem with this approach is that it leaves no room for self-examination and offers no insight into the applicant’s character.
So how do you choose a topic that is substantive but won’t make you look too bad? First, avoid any failure that reveals irreversible faults. In other words, it should be a mistake that results from inexperience and therefore can be addressed for future scenarios. For example, you don’t want your conclusion to be that you are simply a poor leader or communicator. On the other hand, you could admit that as a leader you have pushed people too hard, because that’s a specific point upon which you can improve.
Second, aim to find a failure that results from a good quality. For example, perhaps you failed because you’re too independent and have difficulty delegating responsibilities to other people. Again, be careful that your topic leads to self-examination even if it’s based on a typically positive quality.
Once you have a topic, you still have to reflect insightfully on it. The best way to avoid generic, obvious lessons is to demonstrate what you learned through action. Show how you acted differently in a subsequent, similar scenario. If you can only derive abstract insights, aim as always for complexity rather than relying on prepackaged ideas. “The importance of hard work” is simply no longer interesting, whereas “the limits of hard work in a mutually dependent relationship” can be.
This applicant describes a failure that resulted from lack of foresight. It was a mistake that had to do with immaturity rather than a severe shortcoming in any professional area. Nevertheless, there is a clear mistake that was made and relevant lessons to be learned.
This applicant describes a failure that has several dimensions. Although the focus is on one result, he addresses the flawed expectations and ineffective leadership choices that led to that outcome. As in the previous case, the failure has to do with inexperience rather than any irreversible character flaws. He therefore can demonstrate how he has improved upon his inexperienced choices, which he does through concrete examples of changes he made.