How to Discuss Negative Experiences in MBA Applications July 24, 2017
Penned by Karen Gonsalves - Dongrila Inc. Editorial Board
During the MBA essay-writing process, prospective business school applicants get to praise themselves, brag, point out their understanding of complex issues and generally portray themselves as the ideal human. But to balance out the admissions karma, they also need to critique their own skills, motivations or shortcomings. The key is knowing how to address your weaknesses in a way that shows self-reflection and a dedication to improvement.
Everyone goes through difficult periods in life and makes mistakes, and often those experiences make strong fodder for MBA essays. A buzzword you hear a lot these days is "grit" – a highly desirable quality that describes individuals who persist in a long-term goal despite hardship. This quality can often predict success and is an essential quality in a highly successful entrepreneur or senior-level executive.
But what if your mistake is still on your permanent record? How do you handle it in your MBA application?
While in college, our associate Steven made the mistake of driving home drunk from a party one night. A highway patrol officer stopped him, and he received a DUI citation and had his license suspended for several months. Understandably, Steven felt anxious about how to explain the arrest in his applications and worried the polarizing issue would cause the admissions committee to immediately reject him.
Steven’s experience happened more than four years before he applied for an MBA, and it became clear in our conversations that the experience served as a wake-up call for him. Since the arrest, Steven had never operated a motor vehicle after drinking. He also influenced his friends and fraternity brothers by encouraging them to always designate a sober driver.
I believed Steven could actually make his gross error in judgment an asset to his application. Many MBA programs ask you to explain a mistake you have made or discuss a challenge you overcame. The most interesting candidates have faced difficulty and learned from it, often changing their behavior for the better. Steven’s story was a solid example of this.
On a practical level, we advised Steven to be completely honest about his DUI and use his optional essays for all schools to explain what he learned. The admissions committees seemed to agree that the learning experience was a valuable one, and Steven gained admission to the University of Southern California's Marshall School of Business and Duke University's Fuqua School of Business.
When applicants write in their essays about a negative experience, they commonly face the problem of finding the right tone. Most b-school hopefuls understand that positive framing is important, but sometimes it’s not easy to write those initial drafts without letting negativity creep in.
When we started working with Seema, her first essay drafts focused on an unpleasant situation at work where she encountered significant resistance when implementing a new process within her employer's marketing department. She worked diligently through the major issues and ultimately garnered the support of key people to accomplish her goal.
While the incident was a great subject for an MBA essay, Seema’s tone throughout came across as disgruntled and negative. In the essay, she repeatedly disparaged her coworkers and the project, which communicated to the reader that she was easily frustrated and discouraged.
When I brought the tone issues to Seema’s attention, she recognized the problem immediately and adjusted her writing to be more positive and empathetic to the people around her, focusing on the successes she had found in the project rather than the roadblocks. In the end, we not only created a more powerful essay for her admission process but she also felt better about her work and the impact she was making. Seema’s attitude shifted so much that she ended up enrolling in an exeucive MBA program so that she could continue working for her employer.
As you can see, negative personal stories can be good in your MBA application, if you handle them well. The trick is showing that you learned from the experience, have taken steps to change and implemented new learning going forward.
Also, if you failed, take responsibility and don’t blame another person or outside force. Never bash others or your work environment – avoid negativity of any kind.
MBA programs seek students who can see themselves clearly and improve and adapt when necessary. Overall, admissions committees will take note and appreciate honesty and self-awareness in the admissions process, whatever your strengths or weaknesses may be.