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recognize that effective managers are able to learn from
failure, describe a failure that you have experienced. What
did you learn from the experience? (Harvard)
applicant who tries to claim or assert perfection on the
application would, at best, be treated as a joke. No one is
perfect, and no admissions committee expects perfection. Yet,
more than any other question, this one strikes fear into the
hearts of applicants. However, answering this question does not
need to be difficult. You must get past the biggest hurdle-your
often results from good intentions and admirable qualities such
as initiative, leadership, and risk taking. Take advantage of
the fact that failure will sometimes result from our best
qualities. Any leader who has tried to forge a new path has made
a mistake somewhere along the way. If you are honest and
forthright about the mistake you made, people will remember the
intention over the result. Besides, the committee is not
interested in judging you on your mistake, they simply want to
know how you dealt with it. The only real way to flunk this
question is to dodge it. If you choose a trite or irrelevant
topic, the committee will either question your honesty and your
maturity or doubt your ability to lead, take risks, and think
outside the box.
If you are
having trouble choosing a situation, consider the following
Choose something that has happened recently. Delving too far
into your past is an obvious cop-out.
not limit yourself to professional failures, but do not shy
away from them either. Admissions committees are aware of
the risk inherent in choosing job failures and will give you
points for being forthright.
not choose anything overly dramatic or that would call your
morals into question. The reader should be able to relate to
your failure, not be shocked by it.
cannot clearly state what you learned from the incident or the
actions that you took to amend it, then pick something else.
When you are writing, take a simple, straightforward, objective
tone. Do not try to excuse your actions. Let your story speak
for itself. Keep your essay as concise as possible.
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Boston Consulting Group (BCG), Mark, the partner in charge of
associate recruiting, asked me to organize a minority
recruiting presentation at Harvard and Yale. He was concerned
about our lack of African-American associates and wanted to
increase awareness of BCG among the minority community. Both
Harvard and Yale have Afro-American organizations, and I
enlisted their help in organizing the event.
I made several key mistakes with the Yale presentation. I was
busy with my casework and was not as diligent in getting
started as I should have been. It took me several weeks to get
in touch with the person, Marisa, who was in charge of
business outreach at the Afro-Am center. When I finally did
get in touch with her, we did not have many choices for a date
on which to hold the event, because of finals, Thanksgiving
vacation and Mark's and my schedules. I was forced to settle
for 4:00 on a weekday, not a particularly auspicious time for
an event like this. I knew that many people would be working
in the dining halls, at practice, or just plain tired after a
day of classes.
I made my second mistake when publicizing the event. Instead
of preparing a blitz of publicity, with flyers in people's
mailboxes and posters all over campus, I settled for what
Marisa had time to organize. She put up some posters and
information on campus, but didn't have the time to do any more
When Mark, another associate and I drove down to New Haven for
our presentation, we found an embarrassingly small turnout.
There were only four people and one of them was a junior who
wanted to know if we had any summer jobs. We all felt
discouraged with the results of our efforts. I realized that I
should have called up friends of mine still at Yale and paid
them to publicize the event. I also could have taken out an
advertisement in the Yale Daily News.
After the disastrous turnout at Yale, I did the only thing I
could do: make certain that the same thing didn't happen at
Harvard. First of all, Harvard's schedule gave me a few extra
weeks with which to work, and I was able to arrange the
presentation for 7:30 on a weekday, which was the perfect
time. More importantly, I made a concerted effort to publicize
the event, even sending out direct mailings to minority
This time, things went as I had hoped. Sixteen or seventeen
people showed up, all of whom were extremely interested in
consulting, and many of whom ended up applying to BCG.
This was my first rude awakening to the experience of
organizing something that involved relying on other people. It
taught me that the Boy Scouts have the right idea:
"Always be prepared!" Over and over, at work and at
YAAMNY, I see the importance of planning ahead and taking
every measure possible to ensure something's success.
ESSAYS THAT WILL GET YOU INTO BUSINESS SCHOOL, by Amy Burnham,
Daniel Kaufman, and Chris Dowhan. Copyright 1998 by Dan
Kaufman. Reprinted by arrangement with Barron's
Educational Series, Inc.