TopMBA.com looks at the "criticism-weakness-failure" questions often asked during MBA applications, and offers tips on how to answer them.
The ‘criticism-weakness-failure’ essay is common in MBA admissions essays because it is a test of an applicant’s maturity, self-knowledge, honesty, and ability to learn from mistakes. It is, in other words, the biggest indicator of real leadership ability and potential.
Sample questions are:
Tuck 3. Discuss the most difficult constructive criticism or feedback you have received. How did you address it? What have you learned from it?
Wharton 3. Describe a failure that you have experienced. What role did you play, and what did you learn about yourself?
HBS 2. What have you learned from a mistake?
Columbia 3. Please provide an example of a team failure of which you’ve been a part. If given a second chance, what would you do differently?
Applicants to business school often struggle with these essays because they feel that admitting a weakness erodes their candidacy.
In fact, it does just the opposite. Successful leaders are able to admit their weaknesses to themselves and others, so they can work on them, or work around them.
MBA admissions: Being able to identify your weaknesses
No one is comfortable talking about their weak spots and failure. But nobody is perfect or has not failed, being able to admit your weaknesses, shows self-insight and points to seniority.
Stating that you have no weaknesses, just tells the admissions committee that you don’t know what they are yet or that you’re too immature to face up to them.
It says you don’t know yourself, therefore you don’t yet know where you will make mistakes and nor do you know how you can improve.
Take a tip from George Soros, self-made billionaire, philosopher, philanthropist, social reformer, and fund manager extraordinaire – famous for ‘breaking the Bank (of England)’ by shorting the pound sterling in 1992 – who shares this candid account of his weaknesses:
“I’m a very bad judge of character. I’m a good judge of stocks, and I have a reasonably good perspective on history. But I am, really, quite awful in judging character, and so I’ve made many mistakes.
"It took me five years and a lot of painful experiences to find the right management team. I am pleased that I finally found it, but I cannot claim to be as successful in picking a team as I have been in actually managing money.
"I think that I’m very good as a senior partner, or boss, because I have a lot of sympathy for the difficulties that fund managers face.
"When they are in trouble I can give them a lot of support, and that, I think, has contributed toward creating a good atmosphere in the firm. But I’m not so good at choosing them.” (Soros on Soros: Staying Ahead of the Curve, 1995).
Even the greatest business leaders have weaknesses and they have also made significant mistakes in their careers and their lives.
And note his tone - Soros is candid, straightforward, and objective in his self-analysis. He shares measured self-insight with the reader.
He doesn’t try to slip in softening or deflecting phrases, or hide behind humour; nor is he self-excusing or whining and looking to blame others, the mark of a too-junior applicant.
The point is not to prove that you don’t fail, or won’t fail. It is to prove that you have the insight into yourself to be able to recognize and compensate for your weaknesses.
The admissions officers do not want to know how you avoided failure, but how you managed it, what you learned, what insights into yourself you gained, and how you grew from there.
They want to see that you have the will and the insight to locate and understand the source of your mess-up – the underlying weaknesses that caused it – and that you have the maturity to face and work on the issue. This is a significant test of your readiness for senior leadership.