When prompted to discuss their weaknesses, many MBA applicants will ask themselves two questions before starting the essay:
- What should I avoid mentioning?
- What are they (the admissions committee) looking for?
If you can answer these clearly and honestly, you will be able to craft a thoughtful and compelling response that will enhance your application. Let’s dig into each question:
What should I avoid mentioning?
It’s easy to fret about revealing a fatal flaw that dooms your application, but avoid the temptation to respond with an obviously false weakness. Fans of the TV show The Office should know: Michael Scott’s “I work too hard, I care too much, and sometimes I can be too invested in my job” is not going to win you any points. By making you appear unrealistically perfect, it doesn’t actually answer the question, and it diminishes the strengths and accomplishments you’ve discussed elsewhere in your MBA application. Additionally, it portrays you as incapable of honest self-evaluation, something you should strive to avoid.
Another mistake is to attempt to externalize the weaknesses you choose to discuss. Attributing flaws to your work environment, personal circumstances, or other factors comes across to the reader as reckless rationalization, and it will not add value to the narrative you’re trying to create. It also shifts the conversation into a negative tone, which runs counter to the strong, optimistic vibe you want to be associated with.
Finally, avoid mentioning weaknesses outside of your academic or professional life. Don’t discuss your Netflix binges or your ice cream addiction. They aren’t relevant to your future career, and it’s hard to spin them into influences on the MBA applicant you are today. You need to be personal, but not that personal.
What are they looking for?
Admissions committees are seeking applicants who will greatly benefit from attending their school’s MBA program while also contributing positively to the experience of fellow MBA students. With that in mind, questions about weaknesses should be used to demonstrate positive character traits such as self-awareness, ability to learn from failures, and honest acceptance of feedback and criticism.
To successfully answer this question, identify specific skills and gaps in knowledge that you will need to address to achieve your post-MBA goals. Ideally, you will target them to the MBA program for which you’re writing this response. Think in terms of the school’s courses, culture, and academic community, and reflect on how they fit your potential areas for growth.
An effective answer will put forth honest self-reflection that shows genuine interest in a school’s MBA program and convinces the admissions committee that you have thoroughly researched what the school has to offer. By demonstrating your ability to benefit from, and contribute to, an MBA program through your personal narrative, you will help convince the reader of your fit with your target school. Providing details about steps you have taken to address your identified weaknesses (or how you are in the process of doing so) will help demonstrate how proactive you are and how greatly you will benefit from this MBA program in particular.
What do I do?
With everything discussed so far in mind, here are some tips for effectively addressing your weaknesses:
Falling back on cliches (like Michael Scott’s) will only detract from your application. Providing specific flaws and addressing them earnestly will give you the chance to discuss the influence they’ve had on who you are today. Every applicant has flaws, but not every applicant will use them as a chance to display who they truly are.
Choose and discuss weaknesses that are yours. Avoid deflecting blame onto coworkers, bosses, or others. The question is about you, and trying to rationalize them as the fault of others takes away from your ability to provide honest self-assessment. By addressing personal flaws, you have the chance to portray your self-awareness.
You’re discussing your background in your application to a professionally-focused business school, so make sure to keep the weaknesses you choose to discuss work-related. You can discuss flaws that manifest in areas outside of your career (for example, a struggle with organizational skills), but be sure to tie them into your professional life and future ambitions.
Any weakness you choose to discuss gives you the opportunity to show the steps you’ve taken to address the issue. Struggled with quantitative work in undergrad? Discuss how your current job has given you the opportunity to improve those skills. Have a hard time being assertive or taking responsibility? Find examples of situations where you’ve done so, and how you learned from those experiences. By treating your weaknesses as opportunities for growth, you have the chance to portray yourself as an applicant who recognizes their areas for improvement.
Be even-handed when discussing strengths AND weaknesses
You may encounter a question that prompts you to discuss strengths and weaknesses in a single response. Many applicants will spend a majority of the essay discussing their strengths with only a cursory mention of their weaknesses. This leads to a couple of problems: it appears that they’re trying to gloss over their flaws, and it doesn’t allow them to make a proper case as to why they will benefit from their target MBA program.
Look at your weaknesses as a chance to enhance your application by presenting compelling reasons for both your interest in the program and the value you can provide to your fellow MBA students. Discussing your strengths and weaknesses in equal measure gives you the best opportunity to make your case persuasively.
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Written by Edison Cu, a Veritas Prep Head Consultant for INSEAD.