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Why is Vulnerability Important for MBA Applications?

Updated: Feb 1



As an MBA applicant researching online, you’ve probably heard you should be “vulnerable” and to “show more of your true self” in your applications. First, what does this really mean? And also this type of thinking might seem rather counterintuitive to the “resilient” mindset that got you this far up the working ladder.


Vulnerability is often conflated with “weakness”. Looking at the dictionary definition, it’s easy to see why: “susceptibility to attack,” “able to be easily influenced,” and other less-than-complimentary terms come up first.


Nevertheless, vulnerability is a crucial component of an MBA application. It demonstrates your ability to examine challenges and setbacks and learn from them. It shows maturity and self-awareness, two key components of excellent leadership, and we know for sure that business schools are looking for leadership skills.


Bearing this in mind, vulnerability in a personal essay can often mean the difference between an essay standing out to the MBA admissions committee or it ending up in the dreaded “general” pile. It is a crucial component of a high-quality personal essay.


Everyone has challenges in their lives. How capable you are of assessing these challenges and learning from them is a key indicator of your suitability as a business school candidate.


Be earnest and forthright in your answers. If it’s a little bit uncomfortable, you’re doing it right. This might hurt a bit, but it moves the conversation forward, which is crucial.


Why is Vulnerability Important?


The key is the emotional openness involved. This relates back to “susceptibility to attack”: in being emotionally open, a person must let his or her guard down. While this certainly leaves a person open to criticism, it also shows that the person is reflective, emotionally aware, and capable of fundamental self-analysis, all of which are key features that the admissions committee will be looking for in prospective b-school candidates.


Shedding Armor


According to researcher Brené Brown, there exists an unspoken rule in many jobs that at work you need to keep proving yourself over and over. As this logic goes, any sign of weakness could be interpreted as a sign of someone underperforming. Therefore, professionals often learn to protect themselves by developing armor: “others must not see or perceive weakness, or my position in the hierarchy will be compromised.”


This approach remains pervasive, if fundamentally lacking in emotional intelligence. Still, work culture often moves at a slower pace than research. Many of us have been expected to armor up in our working lives, so it’s worth examining the sorts of armor that we have put on.


Admissions committees, of course, know that future business leaders need to grow. As Brown suggests, people may grow but armor doesn’t. In other words, there is no way to grow as a person without removing the armor.


For this reason above any other, it is vital that you can demonstrate your ability to remove your armor – a sure sign of your capability to grow–to the admissions committee.





What Vulnerability Is and Isn’t: Find the Middle Ground


There is of course no objective gauge for how vulnerable or non-vulnerable something is. It’s the type of calculation you need to feel–not make–for yourself. A lot of professional writers say that if it doesn’t feel like you’ve bled on to the page, it won’t be real–read: vulnerable–enough to stick in the reader’s mind.


A good rule of thumb is this: would you leave your essay out on the kitchen table where someone else might end up reading it? If yes, then you probably are not being vulnerable enough.


There are three major categories that your personal essay can fit into.


1. FAKE


We want to avoid like the plague.


Most of us tend to err on the side of being too closed off or sounding fake. This is why the admissions committee will roll its eyes at the claim that your “greatest fault is perfectionism.”


Not everything is great all the time, and not everything you’ve ever done has been loved by everyone you’ve worked with. There is no point in pretending like it is, because no one–even you–believes that for a second.


Everyone has failures, setbacks, or even personality issues to deal with. It is part of being human, and the admissions committee wants a human being in their cohort, not the T-1000.


Stop trying to look perfect; you’re not fooling anyone. Face it: if you are perfect, you don’t need an MBA.


2. OVERSHARING


Of course it’s possible to swing to the other side, overstepping the boundaries and sharing inappropriate or unnecessarily disturbing information. If you have experienced serious trauma, this might not be the place to share it. There are certain things that would be better revealed to a close friend, a partner, or a licensed professional.


As Brown suggests, vulnerability does not suggest a lack of boundaries. In other words, there is a difference between saying something that is difficult and personal and moves the conversation forward (that is, to the Interview) and dumping your emotional baggage on the table and expecting someone else to congratulate you for it.


Although it is undeniably sad, the admissions committee does not need to know about the tragic death of your childhood hamster unless this somehow shows that you would be a quality candidate for their school. Remember, if it doesn’t move the conversation forward, it isn’t helpful.


A good rule of thumb: describe your own feelings in reaction to a situation and minimize visceral description. Some imagery or sounds might be acceptable, but consider the impact on the reader: if describing an image might make someone turn away, describing a sound might make someone queasy, or describing a smell might make someone nauseous, it’s better left out.


Additionally, keep emotional statements squarely from your own perspective. You do not know what’s going through other people’s heads, no matter what they say or how they act. State facts, and never throw anyone under the bus.


Even the truest villains of this world are easily judged by their actions; your uninvited assessment of those actions will only inspire others–the admissions committee, that is–to judge you unfavorably.


3. THE MIDDLE GROUND: VULNERABILITY


You should be able to discuss something that is difficult and express the situation in clear, factual terms, how you felt about it, how you dealt with it–favorably or not–and what you were able to take away as a lesson.


Of course there are people who would attempt to shame you, make you look unstable, angry, weak, or worse based on a truly vulnerable essay. It is always important to be careful about whom you choose to be vulnerable to. Remember, don’t leave your essay on the kitchen table.


Luckily, the people who would shame you are not the people who will be reading the essay. The admissions committee has probably seen much worse, including far too much oversharing. You’ll seem downright normal to them, but in the best possible way: the kind of person who learns and develops from mistakes and setbacks.


Vulnerability takes practice, and it’s always good to have someone you trust read your work to make sure that you aren’t being fake and keeping things all on the surface or, being the person no one wants at the party: the oversharer. After a few drafts, you’ll understand what it feels like to be “just uncomfortable enough” about sharing your experience, but know that it will move your story forward and crucially, be memorable to the admissions committee.




Vulnerability in Life and B-School


Everyone has challenges in their lives. How capable you are of assessing these challenges and learning from them is a key indicator of your suitability as a business school candidate.


Remember, you aren’t posting this essay on LinkedIn (hopefully). Answer the question earnestly and bleed a bit on to the page.



Want to learn more about how to use vulnerability to your advantage? Book a free chat now.


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Hi, I'm Sam.  I'm the founder of Sam Weeks Consulting. Our clients get admitted to top MBA and EMBA programs.

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