Smartly Handling HBS’ Setbacks Essay

What are the most challenging essay questions business schools ask applicants? That’s a question we hope to answer in this new six-part series. Stacy Blackman, founder of the MBA admissions consulting firm that bears her name, is picking out what she considers to be the most challenging and then providing advice for how to approach each essay.

What constitutes a highly challenging essay? They may force you to be incredibly introspective, surprisingly creative or perhaps highly succinct. Some of the essays are not as straightforward as they seem, others are very straightforward, but it is tempting to stray off topic. Whatever the reason, we are here to help, with some tips taken straight from the Stacy Blackman Consulting series of school specific essay guides.

Most Challenging MBA Essay Question #1:
Harvard Business School:

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

This question is new for the 2011/2012 application year, and transforms the classic HBS mistake essay into a broader topic. When you think about three setbacks in your life thus far consider that a setback is anything that hinders or impedes your progress. Additionally, the choice of setback can be personal, professional, or extracurricular.

Some applicants face writer’s block when thinking about discussing imperfections in their overall story. The truth is that your challenges and setbacks have made you a more resilient person, and the admissions committee will learn the most about you and your personal qualities from these stories. Many talented, high-achieving individuals who show early promise in their academic and professional careers plateau after a few years in the workforce. There can be many possible explanations as to why, but quite often the failure to realize early potential is based on an inability to recognize, take accountability for, and learn from mistakes and difficulties.

Making mistakes and facing setbacks is an inevitable consequence of leading. By definition, the leader is blazing a new trail where guidebooks and guidelines simply don’t exist; so missteps are sure to occur. The admissions committee will be very leery of a candidate who claims a flawless string of successes and no blunders. All of the possibilities are red flags: the candidate is being dishonest; the candidate is incapable of recognizing a mistake and lacks self-awareness; the candidate is so cautious that he or she never makes a move unless success is assured. The opportunities for growth for this person are slim; the chances of admission to HBS are even slimmer.

Mistakes or disappointment occur when one’s assumptions about how the world works are off base or unrealistic. The mistake is a reality check. Some people cling to faulty assumptions and continue to hit brick walls, while others learn something new, course-correct, and move forward. Moreover, a leader who is capable of admitting when he is wrong is showing his followers that making and admitting mistakes is okay. Facing disappointment and solving the problem that led to your feelings shows introspection and maturity. It’s easy to see why these leadership characteristics are paramount. Major corporations have been brought down by leaders who neglected their gut feelings or felt their missteps were best brushed under the carpet or fed through the paper shredder.

Essay Tips

Tip #1: Mistakes and setbacks are related but different.

Tip #2: Demonstrate self-awareness.

Tip #3: Lessons learned and evidence of growth are paramount.

Tip #4: Show initiative and resilience