Columbia has an essay this year that asks you to discuss a team failure, and then says: “If given a second chance, what would you do differently?” That’s basically a different form of a “lessons learned” kind of question — and as we’ve written before, “lessons learned” are difficult to handle in an MBA essay.
Why are they so difficult?
Well, not only do you have to offer something insightful, that allows you to show growth (which Kellogg explicitly wants to hear about in their essay 2), but it also has to fit the question.
This is where pondering your experiences and reflecting on Life comes into the process.
You can have the best story in the world about failing with a team, or about how you had this intense life experience that forced you to grow or change into a better person, but if you can’t figure out something more to say beyond “I learned not to do it that way again” then you don’t have a very strong ending.
The thing is, when you’re presenting the mistake that you made or the omissions that led to the failure (if we’re still talking about Columbia Essay 3) — and you’re doing a good job of it — then that alone will be self-evident. You don’t need to say anything more about the mistake. You’ve already said it, in capturing the story for the reader.
Instead, you need to take your analysis and assessment of the problem deeper.
So there was a mistake made and the paperwork wasn’t submitted on time. So you missed the deadline, and then there were XYZ consequences with the client, or somebody had to pay a fine, or whatever.
Your “lessons learned” or the “second chance” answer obviously isn’t going to be as basic as, “I learned that I need to track deadlines better, so now I enter them into my calendar when the project is first assigned.” Sure, you can say that if you want, but that’s really rudimentary. That doesn’t capture learning. That captures proficiency in managing a task on a job. But what ELSE can you say?
We already offered a treasure trove of ideas on Columbia Essay 3 in particular just a few weeks ago, so starting with that post would be wise. However for any essay that wants a “lessons learned” angle — and also for the stories you are thinking through as possible interview topics as well — you want to go beyond the basics, and investigate YOURSELF.
The best way to demonstrate growth is to, well, demonstrate growth.
If your essay is about missing an important deadline, then think more macro about that.
If someone misses a deadline, then that means…. what?
They’re careless? Inattentive? Sloppy?
Maybe. If that’s a part of your personality make-up, then obviosly you don’t want to totally admit it to the adcom (at least, not in those terms) but there might be something you could say about how this experience really hit home for you, and it made you realize this deficiency you have, and recognize that you need to take steps to prevent it from happening again. And then you can talk about the process you put in place in your life or some new change you’ve made to help you counter this weakness.
Or what else could you infer about someone who misses a deadline?
That they’re overbooked? Too busy? Overwhelmed?
At least those are semi-positive traits, in this cult of productivity culture we live in. Better to be so busy that you miss things, than being a slouch who can’t manage to get out of bed!
So if you’re too busy, and that’s why a deadline was dropped, then what else can you uncover about that?
Because being too busy, or being sloppy or inattentive, these things are not the root cause. They are more symptoms; they’re still at least one layer of veneer on top of the real issue.
If you want to do an incredible job of answering a “lessons learned” part of a question, you’ll dig deeper.
“I’m so busy that I let this important deadline slip. Okay, so then WHY am I so busy?”
The answers are not likely to come easily. You may have to really force yourself to THINK. Like, not allow yourself to be slippery and dodge it.
Because this type of inquiry is personal!
You’re investigating yourSELF and trying to figure out why you’re wired a certain way.
Other people in your shoes wouldn’t have let the deadline get missed.
But YOU did. Based on something about YOU.
Whatever the something is that lets you get too overbooked or too busy.
Maybe it’s….. something about how you take on too much? That you never say ‘no’ even though you know that you should?
OK, so why is it that you do THAT?
Maybe it’s….. because you’re always wanting to earn a gold star, and impress everyone with your competence?
Now we’re getting closer to the truth.
Or maybe it’s that you’ve got imposter syndrome (which pretty much everyone who’s ever accomplished anything has) and you don’t want to let on that you’re in over your head?
Maybe it’s because you didn’t want to ask for help because you didn’t want to appear weak, or you’re worried that your boss will see you as incapable?
What you can do is, start with the bare-bones fact of what happened. This mistake was X.
Then figure out WHY X happened.
And then figure out why it happened TO YOU.
Because you’re the one who messed this thing up or who had the issue in this situation.
So take the facts of that situation, and move backwards.
Find the root cause.
Sometimes, sh!t happens, and it’s nobody’s fault.
But any mistake or failure story that will be truly meaningful for an adcom to hear about in your MBA essay will be one where there was actually a cause for the mistake, and where that cause was YOU.
This is not the only way to handle a “lessons learned” part of an essay prompt. But going as far into the investigation as you can as to why YOU are the one who caused it is where pure essay gold will be found.
More on the Columbia essays can be found here!