How To Write A Great Failure Essay For Business School

MBA applicants understand that they need to highlight their strengths in their essays. It can be harder to know how to handle questions about failure – and there are lots of them out there this year.

Below, I offer 5 tips to help you respond to questions about failure, challenge, adversity and setbacks.

1. Be honest with yourself.

High achieving MBA candidates often have a tremendously hard time with this essay.  Some people just do not feel like they have made any mistakes, and some have been so incredibly successful that they have not experienced any real adversity. If this sounds like you, please try to think about the prompt in a variety of ways.  What is the harshest feedback that you have ever received?  If you could go back in time and change a decision that you regret, what would it be and why?

2. Be genuine.

Pick something that really matters to you.  This is good advice for all of your MBA essays, and it is especially important to be authentic in response to this question. This is not the place to come up with a fake challenge, or a success disguised as a failure.  Essays about getting an A- are not compelling.

3. Take responsibility.

Along the same lines, it is necessary to truly own your role in the situation you are describing, and not to be defensive.  Some of the most disappointing essays describe a team failure, or a situation where you really had no control so it wasn’t your mistake, or place all the blame on a bad boss or an underperforming colleague.  These essays reflect badly on the narrator, and will raise alarms for the committee.  They want people who can own their mistakes and learn from them. And it’s always a good idea to bring the story full circle and explain why an MBA will help you avoid these mistakes in the future

4. Invest time choosing the right topic.

Perhaps the biggest challenge is choosing what to write about.  Part of what schools are testing is your judgment and your ability to pick strong material that will reveal vulnerability and depth but not reflect so horribly on you that the committee recoils.  As with your entire application, it is crucial to sell yourself in the right way, so that they see you as a positive fit with the community. In order to identify the right topic, try to think about your candidacy from a holistic standpoint.  Are there compelling and relevant parts of your personal history or your values that you have not yet had the chance to share?  Do you come across on paper the way you want to, or might the committee need to hear more about certain aspects of your personality?

5. Embrace the opportunity to stand out.

Although this essay can seem daunting, it is often your best opportunity to portray yourself as a memorable individual.  By choosing a story that describes a pivotal moment in your life and is truly demonstrative of your character, honesty and resilience you can leverage this prompt to shine within the pool.


 Karen has more than 12 years of experience evaluating candidates for admission to Dartmouth College and to the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth. Since founding North Star Admissions Consulting in 2012, she has helped applicants gain admission to the nation’s top schools, including Stanford, Harvard, Yale, Wharton, MIT, Tuck, Columbia, Kellogg, Booth, Haas, Duke, Johnson, Ross, NYU, UNC, UCLA, Georgetown and more. Over the last three years, clients have been awarded more than 10.3 million dollars in scholarships, and more than 95% have gotten into one of their top choice schools.