This article is an excerpt from Stacy Blackman Consulting's Application Essay Guides. Each of the top schools has specific requirements and specific questions. Stacy Blackman Consulting now offers application essay guides that share essay writing secrets that will help applicants gain admission to top schools.
Recently, Dee Leopold, the Managing Director of Admissions at Harvard Business School, listed self-awareness as one of the key attributes her committee is looking for in candidates. Harvard is not alone here - other top business schools agree. She went on to say that the admissions committee expects candidates to share how their life experiences have shaped their outlook and perspective about the world.
Self-awareness isn't a quality that you demonstrate by telling a story, rather it has to do with how you tell the story and your ability to communicate what you learned. Being able to explain to the admissions committee why you value one accomplishment above others, what you learned from a setback, or the deeper meaning of your career goals is evidence of self-awareness. Furthermore, the self-aware individual has knowledge of both your strengths AND weaknesses.
When writing your essays go beyond just rattling off the plot, I did A, then I did B, and we accomplished C. The admissions committee also wants some insight into what you were thinking and feeling, why you made a particular choice given the alternatives, what you value, and what is meaningful to you. There are many opportunities, throughout your application, to demonstrate self-awareness.
Harvard's mistake question: What have you learned from a mistake? is a great opportunity to reveal your self-awareness. HBS asks this question because leaders who rapidly identify errors, immediately admit them, and quickly address them will be more successful in the long run. Mistakes occur when one's assumptions about how the world works are off base or unrealistic.
The mistake is a reality check. Some people cling to faulty assumptions and continue to hit brick walls while others learn something new, course-correct, and move forward. Moreover, a leader who is capable of admitting when he or she is wrong (this is something that requires self awareness!) is showing followers that making and admitting mistakes is okay. It's easy to see why this leadership characteristic is paramount. Major corporations have been brought down by leaders who felt their missteps were best brushed under the carpet or fed through the paper shredder.
By its very nature the mistake essay is a test of your maturity and self-awareness. In a situation where you are marketing yourself, it may feel awkward to highlight the instances where you have made an error. It's much more fun to share your accomplishments, and it's natural to want to highlight strengths. What many applicants don't understand is that the ability to recognize, accept responsibility for, react to, and learn from a mistake is a tremendous strength-one that not all early-career, high-achievers possess.
In some ways, the Mistake Essay exists to weed out that subset of future leaders who will rise to the top based on tremendous willpower and self-confidence but will ultimately be brought down because they don't have the ability to recover when things don't go according to plan. The mistake essay then is the yang to the accomplishment essay ying. The admissions committee has offered you an opportunity to share your strengths and tout your achievements; now it is time to demonstrate a different kind of confidence: the confidence to admit that you are fallible and that you take advantage of the instruction provided by the inevitable missteps that will test even high-achievers. Don't defend your mistake or deflect the blame.
The following example highlights what NOT to do in a mistake essay.
I began my involvement with Stepping Stone as a student in a quarter-long peer-counseling class, a requirement for all peer-counselors. My desire to be a peer-counselor was a natural extension of my other community activities such as tutoring, mentoring, and hospital volunteering. However, in many ways, becoming a peer-counselor required much more preparation and dedication than my other activities, since it required a training course, thorough evaluations by Stepping Stone staff, and several interviews. It was all of this training and commitment that led to such great disappointment when the program dissolved due to poor results and lack of internal and external support.
As a peer-counselor, I noticed that some of us were taking on multiple shifts in order to keep the office staffed at all times. Others were slipping under the radar and not working at all. I noticed that those putting in the extra time were burning out and attributed the decreased results for our visitors directly to the burn out. As internal morale faltered and external financial support dwindled, many of us grew angry and indignant at those not carrying their loads.
As a board member, I view not managing the work schedules and building in expectations as an enormous mistake. However, I maintain that mistake was shared by those who signed up for a meaningful task and did not take it seriously.
While it may be true that the mistake in the example above was shared by others, it is not necessary to highlight that in the essay. The application is about you, and the focus here should be on you. Consider that in an accomplishment essay, it would be unusual to find a conclusion like the one above. Take responsibility for mistakes as well as accomplishments - this will reflect the self-awareness and maturity that admissions committees value.