“Weakness? Failure? Disappointment?”

4 keys to answering questions about the “dark side” of your MBA candidacy

MBA admissions committees typically elbow their way past all of the accomplishments, achievements and accolades commonly showcased in an application so they can see the “dark side” of a candidacy. Whether in essays, recommendations or interviews, business schools ask tough questions intended to test the self-awareness, confidence, values and resilience of future MBAs. The specific wording varies, but the thought is essentially the same: “What’s gone wrong, how did you work through it, and how have you grown from it?”

This line of questioning can cause high anxiety for eager applicants who, understandably, prefer to position themselves in only a positive light. During the analysis and planning component of our comprehensive consultations for clients at The MBA Exchange, we guide them in identifying examples of gaps and mistakes that can be featured, as well as explanations and actions that can mitigate those flaws.

By following 4 guidelines, savvy candidates can navigate their way past the pitfalls in a way that could actually improve their chances for admission:

1. Be succinct. Adcoms don’t want fluffy answers like “I strive for perfection” or “I care too much” or “I trust others too readily.” Such trite replies instantly ruin the chances for admission as they insult the intelligence of the admissions committee.

2. Be candid and, yes, even vulnerable to convince the adcom you’re authentic. But avoid content that could immediately damage your core candidacy. Choose an attribute and a related experience that do not raise doubts about your integrity or character. Focus on tactical topics (e.g., financial modeling) rather than conceptual ones (e.g., teamwork).

3. Feature content that reflects a missing or relatively soft aspect of your knowledge or skillset that – if added, developed or expanded – would make you an even stronger performer or more valuable contributor in the future (e.g., leveraging your domestic perspective to think globally).

4. Convey that you’re already aware of this issue and consider a priority going forward. Encourage recommenders to reinforce this in their comments about your candidacy since describing a vulnerability and best efforts to mitigate it can be even more credible when coming from a third-party.

Taking a thoughtful, balanced and strategic approach when answering “negative” questions will help position you as an applicant who’s genuine, rather than one trying too hard to appear as “perfect.”