Failure + Redemption = Success?
February 2, 2011 7:08 PM   Subscribe

Does my (big, big, big) failure from 4+ years ago preclude my getting into a good business school?

Four years ago, this was me. Since then, good news! I've discovered that at I was NOT doomed to be professionally ineffective for the remainder of my life. Therapy was had. Ambition returned, but with a healthy dose of realism.

I have a (non-computer science) technical background, so when I came to and returned to work full-time a few months after that post [I was careful to quickly pick up some part-time work so I could eat], it was as an engineer in a F500 manufacturing company. I'm happy to say I've done pretty well: after a few years of work and stellar performance reviews, I've gotten nice raises and moved into one of the corporate leadership rotational programs. Weirdly enough, failing in a big way at 23 meant that I could take little failures at work in stride, identify early on when my morale or that of my peers was dropping (and act accordingly), grow comfortable with risk, and keep perspective and a level head. Acting with memory of that failure also pushes me twice as hard, and in hindsight, it generally made me a better performer than I'd have been otherwise. Or so I like to think.

Anyhow, at this point, I'm generally happy and healthy, and have a genuine interest in returning to school for an MBA. I'd like to specialize in operations, be exposed to a new set of peers, and learn more about corporate finance and general management. I'll likely apply to a mix of part-time programs (in which case, I'd receive full tuition from my company), and full-time programs (where I wouldn't).

So here's the actual question: How screwed am I for business school applications? I'm pretty sure that my quitting Teach for America four years ago puts me out of consideration at top-tier schools (although I intend to apply to a couple programs of interest, anyway), but how bad is it? I have difficulty assessing the hit to my admissions chances.
posted by anonymous to Education (14 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I think you're really over-estimating the "failure" of quitting TFA early. It's a lot more common than they would like to admit.

If you're really concerned, could you just not mention TFA on the applications? You could still mention any grad school experience without explicitly stating that you were part of TFA, right?
posted by pourtant at 7:17 PM on February 2, 2011

I don't think you're screwed at all, especially for a part-time EMBA program. If you have a track record of current success, good prospects for future success, good test scores and recommendations, and can pay your tuition, most good schools would be glad to have you. (the ivies are sort of a world unto themselves. but hey, nothing ventured, nothing gained.) Good luck!
posted by thinkingwoman at 7:23 PM on February 2, 2011

Haha wow I know sooo many people who have dropped out of TFA. I really don't think this is the black mark you think it is. Heck, I know people who have dropped out of TFA and are proud of it because they were offended by some political aspect of the program once they were in. Seriously, I wouldn't be that worried. I'd say either don't mention it on your apps, or maybe even write your essay with what you learned from your failure to thrive in TFA in mind. I think it'll make you seem like someone who's older and wiser from the experience, not like a quitter at all.
posted by little light-giver at 7:29 PM on February 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

I think you still need to realize that quitting TFA isn't a "big, big, big failure." Tons of people quit TFA and go on to grad and professional school. Just because TFA is a giant program and makes you sign your life away and stuff doesn't mean at the end of the day it's not just a job that you either fit or don't fit into and want to quit.
The suggestion that you write about it in your essay may be a good one, but you might also want to talk to an actual counselor who helps people with admissions.
I think for business school the fact that you're doing well in your current job and are being selected for things like leadership training would greatly outweigh your leaving TFA. Not to mention that not everyone loves TFA and many people are aware of the flaws in the program. Hell, I saw a PBS special about TFA's pros and cons and how people can often be driven to quitting.
posted by elpea at 8:28 PM on February 2, 2011

I think you still need to realize that quitting TFA isn't a "big, big, big failure." Tons of people quit TFA and go on to grad and professional school.

Agreed. No way at all will quitting TFA preclude you from admission to even a top tier school.

The main thing is what you wrote right here - you learned a lot from the experience. You should definitely write about the experience in your essays, no question. And make it positive as you have in this question, do not focus on the huge failure you think it is. (HBS has a failure question - as do many schools, this would be perfect)

Do you have a strong undergrad GPA? If so, get a good GMAT score and write self-aware essays, and you have a good shot. It is actually fairly rare for MBA applicants to have "perfect" backgrounds, and leadership and other strong, confident, personal qualities are very important.
posted by rainydayfilms at 8:38 PM on February 2, 2011

Two years ago, I got to the final interview round of the TFA application and didn't get in. I think I dodged a bullet.

You know how they ask you in the TFA application process if you've ever had to deal with adversity? If you've ever had major obstacles to success in your path? Now you really have -- and you know exactly what your limits are, you know exactly how much you can do. And honey, it's pretty impressive how much you can do. Now you've spent the last four years really growing into a mature adult who knows how to deal with major problems *before* they are overwhelming.

You can explain in an essay that the TFA experience was a major turning point in your life that gave you the opportunity to shape yourself into the excellent MBA candidate you are today -- or you can just not mention it. The thing you need to *not* do is apologize for this very normal thing that happened. Stop cringing over it. It still hurts and you feel terrible about it, but that's a private, personal feeling that you have -- other people will see the strong person that you are now, and assume that you had very good reasons for leaving. (Which it sounds like you did!) So don't apologize!

TFA inculcates a kind of groupthink that tells you that doing TFA is one of the most prestigious things you can ever do, and that quitting is a black mark on your reputation forever. Neither are true.
posted by Made of Star Stuff at 9:17 PM on February 2, 2011

Completely agree with rainydayfilms. In your question, you come across as someone who's matured tremendously from your experience, and a lot of the top-tier business schools are looking for that. I don't see why you wouldn't have a shot if the rest of the qualifications are there. If you want to chat further, feel free to MeMail me; I go to the top-tier school that's in Philly.
posted by thumpasor at 9:53 PM on February 2, 2011

You're gonna be fine. So many people drop out of TFA that they'll hardly bat an eye if you put a positive spin on it. And if you don't want to mention it, there's no reason you have to. It's not like you're applying for the foreign service and there's going to be an in depth background check.
posted by stoneweaver at 11:17 PM on February 2, 2011

Unaddressed threats of violence? You left, took stock of your skills, and quickly got a new professional-track job where you've done well? That's success in my book.
posted by salvia at 11:38 PM on February 2, 2011

Anyone who hasn't dropped out of TFA is a damn martyr.
posted by spitbull at 5:31 AM on February 3, 2011

If you have solid test scores, good recommendations and a respectable undergrad GPA, there is zero reason to think you can't get into a Top 10 MBA program. Apply where you'd like to go.

I read your linked question, and your TFA experience sounds painful and traumatic, and I'm sorry you seem to have received so little support from your program to help you deal with those issues. But, it is quite common for people in their mid-late twenties to have experienced some sort of significant professional or academic failure, and I promise, what you do well matter so much more than that one time you didn't live up to expectations.
posted by psycheslamp at 8:23 AM on February 3, 2011

For a while, I worked for TFA (in a non-teaching position), and the number of people who drop out of the program is huge. Huge! Huge. The number of people who drop out during institute, during their first year, during the summer...yeah. Teaching in such a situation is a lot to ask of new grads, or anyone, really.

This will not disqualify you from anything, nor does it put you in any worse company than those who finished TFA.

Also - it's not a failure. I know TFA is touted as this big Ivy-favorite, Teach For Awhile do-gooder-before-i-banking deal. Whatever. It's not great for everyone; it's horrible for some people. You're not a failure. You didn't fail. You made a healthy choice for yourself. I'm glad you're doing better now.
posted by quadrilaterals at 10:40 AM on February 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

It's not like you're applying for the foreign service and there's going to be an in depth background check.

Unfortunately, you will go through a background check almost as in depth. Do not under any circumstances lie on your application.

Luckily you don't need to, because you have a good story here.
posted by rainydayfilms at 9:55 PM on February 3, 2011

Just to clarify: I didn't mean that you should lie! Don't lie. But you don't have to make it the focus of your application if you don't want to. Also, it definitely won't be anything like the background check for the foreign service, in that they will not be having interviews with everyone you've ever lived with or dated. The foreign service is much much more thorough.
posted by stoneweaver at 9:50 AM on February 4, 2011

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