The Power of Humility in MBA Applications: Why Your Strengths Alone Are Not Enough

MBA application coach Thomas Guy Scott on the power of humility in your MBA essays.  

If it is too good to be true, it probably is. This cliché is ancient but pertinent. When you write MBA essays you want them to make you shine. But, if you present a flawless image with not even a little bit of weakness, admissions advisors will see right through you.

It is vital to sell your strengths and achievements in your MBA essays. Universities want successful candidates with a track record of success. They want to hear about job promotions, flagship projects, career milestones, academic achievements, and competition wins. They also want to know you as a person. 

This is why it is important to show humility. We all fail sometimes, whether we admit it or not. Is it a good idea to show these weaknesses in your MBA essays? Is it possible people will judge us for these? The answer to both questions is yes!

Exposing our weaknesses is, importantly, likely to endear us to others. It becomes much easier to connect with someone who is open to exploring the elements of their life that they need to improve up. If you are not convinced, here is a powerful anecdote from Harvard.

A Story

Francesca Gino is a Harvard Professor and author of Rebel Talent: Why it Pays to Break the Rules at Work and in Life. Francesca shows that being too perfect can alienate us from others. People find it hard to connect and be authentic with flawless professionals. Opening up about our weaknesses can help others find a connection with us.

In Rebel Talent, Francesca tells to story of an Ivy League Professor who was tired of being seen as perfect. His students would always elevate him to god-like status. This meant they would not question him much and a distance between them appeared. 

To counter this, the professor decided to produce a CV of his failures. His students were amazed. They now saw him as more human. The result was he formed a much stronger relationship with them. They shared more ideas and connected on a higher level.

Your MBA essays

Before writing your MBA essays, write a list. On one side, note down your successes. Awards, projects, promotions and scholarships are all good examples. On the other side, write down some weaknesses or failures. Think of the jobs you did get and remember those you didn’t. Maybe you got rejected for a scholarship or an award. Perhaps you launched and business and it fell flat? All of these can make for great and insightful areas to explore in your MBA essays. 

When drafting your essays, remember to find a balance. You should include more successes than failures for sure, but don’t fall into a trap of perfection. You should not be afraid to show where you want to improve in life and your career. We learn a lot from failures and we can connect to them on an emotional level. One of the most powerful MBA essays I ever saw, which landed the candidate a place at HBS, MIT Sloan, and Chicago Booth, opened with an anecdote of the entrepreneurial venture that crumbled beneath him. 

Great MBA essays will connect with the reader emotionally. Competing against thousands of applicants, you must try and hook the reader early. You want them to keep reading to the end of your essays. If all admissions teams see is old clichés and hyperbole about how insanely good you are, they will probably get bored.

Take the Next Step

Over the years I have coached hundreds of MBA application candidates to top tier MBA programs, including getting multiple candidates into Harvard, MIT Sloan, UPenn Wharton, Berkely Haas, LBS and more. When I reflect upon what made them successful, one central ingredient is MBA essays that show their ability to create impact while being vulnerable to explore the areas they felt weak in. It’s all about achieving a balance.

So, when you’re sat writing your MBA essays, don’t be afraid to look into the ‘dark side’ and consider the elements of your story, career, and life, that will make for interesting ways to connect with others. And if you’re looking for some inspiration, check out the legendary Fuckup Nights for tales of highly successful businesspeople who at one point got it all wrong. 

Author: Thomas Guy Scott

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