Monday, December 01, 2014 at 1pm

Humility, Failure, and the MBA Application

MBA admissions essays

Professor Leonard Lodish knows MBAs. In fact, he’s been teaching Wharton EMBAs since the very first Wharton executive MBA class in 1975. In a brief interview on Wharton’s MBA for Executives site, he recently implied that one of the biggest differences between full-time and executive MBA students – aside from age, obviously – may be, of all things, intellectual humility, with a dash of learning from failure: “I’ve taught in both the full-time MBA and EMBA programs and a big difference is that the EMBAs tend to be older and have worked long enough to have made mistakes in their careers. This makes a difference in perspective and enriches our class discussions.”

Mistakes, that is, not only provide valuable lessons for students to learn from but, by implication, instill an awareness of fallibility. “The EMBA students,” Lodish continues, “use what they learn during the weekend at their job on Monday. Then, they’ll come back to class and tell you whether or not it worked.” In other words, without jobs to test their learnings in, full-time MBA students miss the feedback loop that is baked into the EMBA experience. That correcting feedback loop provides the external data that breeds humility.

Humility and failure are good for MBAs

Why should MBA programs value the cultivation of humility? Google, whose People Analytics unit is reinventing HR through new data-driven approaches to talent development, has one answer. In an interview with columnist Tom Friedman in The New York Times, Laslo Bock, Google’s head of people operations, correlates credentials (degrees, GPAs, etc.) with an inability to fail gracefully. “Successful bright people rarely experience failure,” Bock told Friedman, “and so they don’t learn how to learn from that failure.”

So, in addition to evidence of success and smarts, Google searches for ‘intellectual humility’. Because, “Without humility, you are unable to learn,” and ability to learn, not credentials, is the quality that Google truly selects for: “What we’ve seen is that the people who are the most successful here, who we want to hire, will have a fierce position. They’ll argue like hell. They’ll be zealots about their point of view. But then you say, ‘here’s a new fact,’ and they’ll go, ‘Oh, well, that changes things; you’re right.’” Humility indicates a willingness to learn.

Using your failure for a successful MBA application

So as you approach your MBA applications keep in mind that your ability to gracefully and constructively admit that you have failed may make you more, not less, attractive to elite institutions, like Wharton. In soul-bearing essays in MBA applications such as Stanford's What Matters Most or Harvard's ‘optional’ essay – and even in grab-bag essays like Duke's ‘25 Random Things’ – consider disclosing failures or setbacks that made you question your assumptions, take a new direction in life, learn something valuable, or just grow up. An ‘ideal’ failure will tend to have the following qualities: it was clearly your fault, it shows the school something about you it can't learn elsewhere in your MBA application, it reflects some positive or at least redeemable aspect about you, such as risk-taking, idealism, or ambition and it taught you lessons that you've since applied with success.

Failures are almost by definition 'obstacles' or challenges, and how you cope with and move past challenges can speak volumes about you. Remember that people are hardwired to respond empathetically to redemption stories in which setbacks bring humility and understanding, especially when the setback arose from your striving after some significant goal. And on a purely tactical level, showing business schools that you can come clean about a failure will earn your MBA application credibility and signal that you can learn, exactly what you will be doing a lot of in business school.

About Paul Bodine

Paul Bodine is the founder and president of Paul Bodine Admissions Consulting and the author ofGreat Applications for Business School. A graduate of University of Chicago and Johns Hopkins, he has been helping applicants gain admission to elite business, medical and graduate schools since 1997.

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