Smartly Handling HBS’ Setbacks Essay

Mistakes and setbacks are related but different.

The HBS question requires you to think of three setbacks in your life and explore them in this essay. In the past, other schools such as Wharton have asked applicants to write about a failure or setback. The admissions committee’s motivation for asking about mistakes, setbacks and failures is similar. They are attempting to gauge your self-awareness, resiliency, and ability to respond positively to adverse circumstances.

While a mistake is an incident that required you to act, a setback can be something that happened to you. For example, failing to consider all aspects of your business strategy before starting a business is a mistake, and being laid off when your business fails to gain VC funding is a setback. Often your own mistake can lead to a setback, so you are able to use much broader topics in this new version of the HBS essay than you could in past years.

Demonstrate self-awareness.

By its very nature the setback essay is a test of your maturity and self-awareness. In a situation where you are marketing yourself, it may feel awkward to highlight your challenges. It’s much more fun to share your accomplishments, and it’s natural to want to highlight strengths. What many applicants don’t understand is that the ability to recognize, accept responsibility for, react to, and learn from difficulty is a tremendous strength – one that not all early-career, high achievers possess.

In some ways, the setback essay exists to weed out that subset of future leaders who will rise to the top based on tremendous willpower and self-confidence but will ultimately be brought down because they don’t have the ability to recover when things don’t go according to plan. The setback essay then is the “yang” to the accomplishments essay’s “yin.” The admissions committee has offered you an opportunity to share your strengths and tout your achievements; now it is time to demonstrate a different kind of confidence: the confidence to admit that you are fallible and that you can learn from the inevitable missteps that will test even high achievers.

Lessons learned and evidence of growth are paramount.

Especially in the early drafts, you may struggle to simply properly describe your setbacks and how you responded in less than 600 words. Often times, applicants spend the majority of the essay explaining, or worse – defending – their challenges and only a sentence or two sharing what they learned. Try to reserve enough space to share what you learned and how you grew both personally and professionally as a result of your setbacks. Try to extract the universal lessons from the experience, and when possible tell the reader how what you learned has changed the way you approach similar situations today.

Show initiative and resilience

Think about the times you have been faced setbacks at work or with an organization. Did your challenge lead to positive change? If so, you have found an excellent topic for the setback essay.

Problems with a team or a process can lead to positive change in many situations. If you have an example that fits into this construct, make sure you are never blaming others for the setback. Rather, you will acknowledge how you felt and then spend most of the essay talking about how your feelings led you to create positive change in your organization.

Facing difficulties like professional setbacks can often lead to growth and development, and demonstrate maturity to the admissions committee. The ability to recognize that something is not working for you, and taking the steps to create a better situation shows initiative and proactive leadership.

If you have faced a challenge in your career – whether a job you disliked or something more serious like a layoff – it was likely a period of soul searching and realizations. You can use this material to write an excellent introspective essay to demonstrate how you handle adversity. Resilience is a core personality trait of successful people, and demonstrating your own ability to rise above a challenge will serve you well in this set of essays.

An MBA from Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, Stacy Blackman founded Stacy Blackman Consulting in 2001 and has helped thousands of MBA applicants gain admission to the most selective business schools in the world. The Stacy Blackman team, comprised of MBA graduates, former admissions officers and expert writers, editors and marketers, helps clients develop and implement a winning marketing strategy. For more in-depth analysis and tips, check out Stacy Blackman Consulting’s Harvard Business School Essay Guide.

Our Series On Business Schools’ Most Challenging Essay Questions

Part I: Smartly Handling Harvard’s Setbacks Essay

Part II: Smartly Handling Wharton’s Most Challenging Essays

Part III: Stanford’s Mind-Boggling Essay

Part IV: Kellogg’s Most Challenging MBA Essay Question



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