How To Nail The "Setback" Essay On Your MBA Application

Writing

Photo: Vancouver Film School via Flickr

As things roll towards R1 deadlines I’ve been seeing quite a few unemployment stories used in the setback/failure essay slot, for example in the HBS “Tell us three setbacks you have faced” essay.This makes sense. Unemployment is a real setback. And it’s understood by Adcoms that many applicants have been laid off for no fault of their own through the Credit Crunch and global recession.

But there is a better and worse way to talk about unemployment. I see a lot of copy that goes something like this: “I was going along great in my career – then suddenly my whole department was laid off – I was totally in shock and despair – but I didn’t get downhearted – I sent out thousands of resumes – eventually I landed a good position – I learned to persevere and how important it is to have a network to rely on.”

I’m simplifying of course. But this is a reasonably accurate schematic of what I see, and at a surface level there is nothing wrong with it. No red flags. But there’s nothing there that will get the Adcom reader to notice the applicant either.

So, do you say: “I was laid off – I thought the world had ended – I moved back in with my parents and sat in a darkened room for a month”? Of course not. Telling the truth is recommended, but “too much information” also hurts you.

The path through this (and through any situation where you are likely to share the same base story with many applicants) is to demonstrate individuality not in the story, which is by definition common, but in your response and depth of reflection.

The best unemployment essays will use the experience to shine light on personality. Going beneath generically “keeping on keeping on,” what did you specifically do to motivate yourself? Even in hard times, there are events that are funny or cute or somehow emblematic of the situation or of you. What were they?

The positives to exploit are not just connected to perseverance. You can make points that have to do with creativity – how you didn’t just work hard, but worked differently.

Unemployment also forces unstructured free time. How did you fill it? Talk about volunteering, talk about courses you took sharpen your skills and keep yourself in circulation. But again, everyone will talk about that. So don’t forget the whimsical. If you fell in love with two puppies and took them for slippery winter walks in the hills around Vancouver, that’s worth saying too.

* See also ‘I’m unemployed, does this mean my MBA application will be dinged?’ http://t.co/BMpftjT

This post originally appeared at MBA Admissions Studio.

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