The MBA Failure Essay


No one is perfect, and even the most successful professionals have failed or experienced setbacks. These experiences represent learning opportunities that disciplined professionals will use to grow. This type of question requires you to recognize your role in a failure or setback. More importantly, it requires you show how you recovered and learned from your failure to become a more complete professional.

Sample 2007 Failure Essay Questions

Describe a failure or setback that you have experienced. How did you respond, and what did you learn about yourself? (Wharton)

Discuss the most difficult constructive criticism or feedback you have received. How did you address it? What have you learned from it? (Tuck)

Describe a failure or setback in your professional or academic life. How did you overcome this setback? What, if anything, would you do differently if confronted with this situation again? (Carnegie Mellon University)

The most difficult part of this essay is choosing a “good” failure. A “good” failure is something not too recent, perhaps from early in your career, so you can show how you recovered and made the right choices the next time. If the school requires a leadership essay as well, consider choosing a failure that  occurred before your leadership success, since your success can often prove that you overcame your failure.

The best failures are events you have some measure of control over and are also the direct result of your actions or decisions (or inactions or indecision), since the incentive for self-reflection and learning potential are higher. Lastly, you should pick a failure that is substantial but also “understandable” or “forgivable." Overloading your first subordinate because you misjudged his/her capabilities is substantial because the lessons learned are widely applicable. Since many people make the same mistake, it is also understandable. However, sexually harassing that same subordinate is not, so use good judgment.

Once you have chosen your topic, consider the following structure:


1. Background – a brief but focused explanation of the situation, built around the details that illustrate the difficulty and importance of what you were trying to accomplish 2. Process – a description of your actions and decisions leading up to the failure 3. Failure/Result – a description of the moment you realized you made a mistake and the impact on your teammates and project, the reaction of your superiors, and your reaction as well 4. Analysis – the core of this essay. Show your analysis of your failure and explain how and why your actions and decisions led to the failure, while also recognizing your responsibility for it. You can also include a “What I should have done” section. Please note that most failures involve some form of communication or interpersonal issue. 5. Recovery – if possible, you can show briefly how the next time you were faced with a similar situation you made the right decisions and took the right actions based on your previous experience of failure.