Personal Setback Essay Examples

A common question in MBA essay prompts concerns a failure or setback in your career. Each school may ask the question in a slightly different way; here are some examples from the 2011-2012 admissions season:

  1. Harvard Business School: Tell us three setbacks you have faced.
  2. INSEAD: Describe a situation taken from your personal or professional life where you failed. Discuss what you learned.
  3. Wharton: Discuss a time when you faced a challenging interpersonal experience. How did you navigate the situation and what did you learn from it?

These can be unpleasant topics to write about. How should an applicant respond to questions like these?

First, you should make sure to write about a genuine challenge, failure or setback. Although it may seem tempting to tell a story in which your own failures are minimized, this type of response is unlikely to be effective, because it does not give you the chance to show self-reflection and personal growth. Moreover, an example where you give a ‘faux failure’ is much less likely to engage the reader than one where you describe a genuine failure of setback.

For example, imagine that you decided to write about an important project that failed due to an error by someone in the team you supervised. You may be tempted to write that “the team member was unable to take the responsibility and should have been monitored more closely.” Although this may be part of the story, a better response would include some reflection on your personal contribution to the problem. Instead of giving the trite insight that you should have monitored the team more carefully, you could write about the shortcomings in your management style and ability to motivate the team. By doing this, you show that you are honest and able to to reflect on failures, and you give yourself the chance to go on to describe what you have learned.

Secondly, do not tweak the story so as to make it about something you did well. For instance, in the above example, do not draw the attention away from your failure in managing the team by pointing out how hard you worked on the project yourself. You do not want to give the application committee the impression that you only want to talk about your successes, but are reluctant to reflect on your weaknesses.

Thirdly, end by describing what you have learned from your failure or setback and give an example of how you used your new insight. Insead and Wharton ask this explicitly, and Harvard surely expects you to discuss this, even though it is not mentioned in the text of the prompt.

An average response draws trite lessons. Sticking again with the example above, you might write that “each team member has a unique style and should be motivated accordingly.” A better response includes more details: Why did you fail to connect with the problem team member? Were there warning signs that you could have seen? A great response includes an example where you put your fix into action: you can mention, for instance, how you worked successfully with the same team member on a later project or were able to spot a potential problem early on in another team you managed afterwards.

By taking the courage to write honestly and directly about your failures, and then showing how you have put your learnings into action after the failure, you will have tackled this difficult essay topic successfully.

Sample College Application Essay - Before

Describe a setback that you have faced. How did you resolve it? How did the outcome affect you? If something similar happened in the future, how would you react?

Like other boys, I enjoy water. Ever since I was five years old, I spent many summer days in YMCA swimming pool. When I was 13 years old, I felt that I need something more challenging than just enjoying the water so I joined high school development team of Badger Swim Club. On the first day, as soon as the coach gave order, all the team members quickly dived into the water except me jump into the water. After a few laps, I was way behind all the others. While I was trying to catch up; I was already out of breath. To make things worse, the coach was constantly correcting my techniques. My stroke, my somersault, my diving, nothing I did seemed right to him.

The whole first week, I was stuck with him to improve my diving. He pointed out that "I should dive with my head instead of my whole body." While my body and my mind gave me the message "Quit! Quit!" In my heart, I felt that quitting wasn't right thing to do. I craved to become as good a swimmer as the other team members. So I kept practicing. Quite a few times, I felt as though I had pushed myself to limits and I couldn't do it anymore. My goal want to be a good swimmer have me keep Practice! Practice! Practice! Finally, I conquered physical and mental challenge. After a couple of months, I swam as well as the other team members.

When facing challenge, it is easy to quit. But if you want to achieve something, stick to it. Make a commitment. Being consistent in effects, you will succeed.

This is my senior year so I have a heavy load with classes, leading clubs, my job, and volunteering so sometimes I feel overwhelmed. That brought my memory of struggling in swimming pool. Last week I had AP chemistry and humanities AC test on the same day while I was thinking which one I should approach, my phone rang. My boss asked me to update some information right away because there is some conference the week after. I wanted to say "No, I have too many things to do!" Then I thought: why did I take the job in the first place? I felt it is very important to be responsible as an employee so I decided to postpone my homework for a bit and finishing updating the site. One hour later after I reviewed all chapters of chemistry, I did some practice quiz. I was way too sleepy to study so I went to bed. Can I stand that I will have a bad grade? No, so I set up my alarm clock to 5 and wake up early in the morning to finish my reviewing of humanities.

Weaknesses, setbacks and failures are part of life. In future, through my experience swimming, I believe that I now know how to manage these imperfections so that they do not dictate me but instead, I can look past them.

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