Today, we are going to be breaking down the failure essay and the biggest reasons why everyone blows it.
This is particularly relevant to the season, as we begin to take on our usual batch of 2+2 candidates, which means we are about to do the HBS accomplishment-failure two-step that is a tradition as old as time (or maybe it just feels that way). We have a very specific approach to the accomplishment essay that transforms run-of-the-mill answers into HBS-worthy submissions, but we're going to keep that locked in the vault. The failure essay though ... we owe some thoughts to the masses, just as a public service.
We have a phrase for what we see over and over and over again on failure essays ... it's called "failure." Yes, people are "failing the failure essay," and they are doing it across the board, regardless of how awesome they otherwise are as candidates. In fact, anecdotal evidence would suggest that the top of the heap - the "elite" applicants - are blowing this worst of all.
We are going to walk through the five biggest reasons why people fail on this essay.
1. Lack of a Thesis Statement.
To be fair, this is item #1 for every essay. It's mind-blowing how many essays are written, composed, edited (I'm looking at you, fellow consultants), and then submitted without ever once having a thesis. Please, everyone, go back to third grade for a minute and re-learn how to write a five-paragraph essay. It always, always, always starts with a thesis statement. If the question is: "What is something you did not do well?," then the answer should be: "Something I did not do well was X." Overly simplistic? Sure. Unoriginal? Of course. EASY TO READ AND UNDERSTAND? YES!!!!
Admissions officers have to read hundreds - even thousands - of files. Make their lives easier, not harder. If they ask you a question, answer it. Even better, show them that you are answering it by composing a thesis statement that puts them at ease, right from the start. Further, having a thesis will ensure that your essay is focused on telling one singular story or constructing one idea - preventing you from straying all over the place. You will have plenty of time to be original and interesting in every sentence that follows; just keep things simple to get it started.
2. Lack of a True Failure.
This is probably the biggest issue, to be honest, especially when a school is trying to measure maturity and self-possession. Do you have the confidence and the guts to "be real" with what you write about? That's half the test here. I honestly don't believe people understand this basic idea. If you aren't able to stand up and say, "yeah, I screwed up in this case," you aren't really going to be of interest to a reader. 95% of the failure essays we see are soft-shoeing it; leaning on tiny errors or totally forgivable sins. The goal of this essay is not for your to prove how close to perfect you are by summoning up the lamest possible mistake ever. It's not even *really* about your ability to learn lessons and make changes in your own life. That's part of it, sure, but the real core thing being measured here is how mature you are and how willing you are to account for everything; success and failure alike. What's something that makes your stomach turn, even now? What name or place evokes feelings of shame for you? I'm not asking you to admit crimes here, but it should be something you wouldn't talk about at a cocktail party. If you wimp out on choice of content, you've already punted the question and wasted precious real estate on your application.
Note: there is no person on this earth who has never made a mistake, in some aspect of his or her life.
It's taken me some digging and some prodding at times, but every client I've ever worked with has "gotten there" eventually. If you are reading this thinking "but I really don't have anything bad to write about!" you are not being honest with yourself, or you are falling victim to the next item on this list...
3. Fixation on External Measures for Failure.
This ties in with Item #2, but is a more understandable mistake that people make. It's hard to have sympathy for someone who gets denied to an elite MBA program because they write, "My biggest failure was sitting in my boss' chair in a meeting" or "my biggest failure was not understanding that this guy from this other country was going to be unethical and rip me off." Come on. However, we can sympathize with people who drop the ball simply because they confuse an external measure for being an appropriate gauge for failure. Here's the rule of thumb: a failure should be measured by the weight of your guilt and shame, not by the ramifications felt by others. Here are two examples to illustrate this:
Example 1 - "My greatest failure was the time I worked 72 straight hours and, in a state of total exhaustion, put the decimal in the wrong place on page 120 of the report, costing the company $100 million."
Example 2 - "My greatest failure was the time I ruined a relationship with my best friend because I valued short-term thinking and convenience, rather than doing the right thing."
In the first example, a company lost $100 million. In the second example, a friendship was broken up. Obviously, if we are going by external stakes, the first one sounds like a much bigger deal. However, external stakes don't dictate the magnitude of the failure. Being a selfish friend because you are too absorbed in your own life is a much bigger personal mistake than putting the decimal point in the wrong place simply because no human being can work for 72 hours straight.
4. Improper Focus on Lessons Learned.
This error goes both ways: some essays transition way too fast to lessons learned (basically skirting right past the mistake) and others never make the transition. You must have proper tone and balance in this essay. Stand on your own two feet rand be honest about making a mistake, but don't forget to explain how you learned from it. From the "best friend" example above, that essay has to transition to "I learned to prioritize people over my schedule and to make decisions with a long-term view." If you don't eventually say what the crushing failure taught you, why are you writing about it? If the growth isn't on display, we can (must?) assume that it either didn't make an impact (meaning the internal stakes weren't high enough) or you are still doing the same things (obviously disastrous).
Bonus: Lessons Learned is also a great test on whether you are picking a true failure.
Take our decimal point example: what lesson could you even learn? "I learned not to let my boss make me work 72 straight hours anymore"? "I learned that when I am so tired that I can't keep my eyes open I need to have someone else do my work for me?" I have no idea how someone would even "learn" from a story like that. Which means that while it sucks your company lost $100 million, it's a bad story for an essay.
5. Poor Structure.
As with Item #1, this could really be a flaw with any bad essay. Structure is so incredibly important in essay writing and yet from what I see (largely judging from the ding analysis type work I do), structure is just horrid, across the board. Having good structure makes it easy for the reader to follow along, it ensures proper balance in what you write about, and it just generally is the only way to write a good essay. Put it this way: I've never seen a quality failure essay written as a haiku, starting with a quote, or consisting of either one or nine paragraphs. A good failure essay is going to feature four parts, almost every time, and be either two, three, or four paragraphs - depending on word count. You must have a thesis and then a statement of what the mistake was (Part 1), typically followed by an explanation of why you made that mistake (Part II), then how and what you learned from the experience (Part III), then, finally, how you adopted those lessons (Part IV). There are different wrinkles to this - some ask you hypotheticals or for evidence of adopting those lessons or even how you will continue to grow at School X - but thats the basic flow. It requires having a plan and sticking to it. Obviously, this is a self-serving observation (a whole bunch of people reading this will turn to use for help with doing just this), but it's not somehow less true just because it helps our business.
Overall, our challenge to the applicant pool is to treat the failure essay with respect.
Respect the question, respect the reader, and respect yourself. If you are hedging or trying to use external consequences to prop up something weak, take the essay and crush it into a ball and throw it away. Go deeper and be a real person who has had real failings and isn't afraid to talk about them.
If you are in need of help - and willing to "go there" - we can definitely assist you in crafting a failure essay that vaults past the submission of your peers. The one good news is everyone is botching this is that you can shine by comparison. Obviously, that is where we come in, so email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.