In which I reflect on being told my writing doesn’t pass muster

I love to write and I love many things that go with writing, like fountain pens. It shook me to flunk my business school writing test -- not once, but twice.

When I began my MBA at University of Michigan, I was intimidated by classes in topics brand new to me – finance, statistics, operations management – and nervous about a forced-curve grading system that would evaluate me against  numerous classmates who worked in quantitative fields like engineering.

What I was not worried about was the writing proficiency requirement.

Ross Business School gave us the option to either take a communications class or pass a writing test. With a journalism degree under my belt, I figured I’d rather focus my 60 credits on building new skills than go for easy credits in a writing class.

About halfway through my five years in the evening MBA program, I took the writing test. I received a few pages of background information and was instructed to write a memo.

When results came back, I was surprised to find I’d flunked. I knew Indian engineers who passed, and the business school seemed to be telling me these guys who do math for a living and who learned English as a second language were better writers than me. That bruised my pride, but laughed it off a little.

I swallowed my pride and went to talk to someone in the writing office about what they were looking for in successful tests.

Armed with that information, I took the test again. And I failed again.

While I was going to school at night, I was a writer at University of Michigan News Service during the day. So the same university that paid me a full-time salary and gave me a break on tuition because of my work as a writer didn’t feel I had strong enough writing skills to earn my MBA.

I went back to the writing office and asked if there was anything I could do to sway them. I had been earning a paycheck for writing since I was 17 so I had plenty of writing samples, including a few years’ worth from the Ann Arbor News, the daily newspaper in town. I suggested maybe I could get a letter from one of my university bosses saying they felt I was a competent writer.

No, they said, they don’t consider anything but the test itself in determining writing competency.

That is when I began to panic.

The test was only offered a few times a year, and I was already close enough to my scheduled graduation date that I risked not making it. The test wouldn’t be offered again before I was supposed to finish my degree and I couldn’t take a writing class before then.

What would I tell my family or friends if I had to take an extra semester to graduate because I’d been judged bad at the one thing I most identified myself with?

When I took the Dale Carnegie course, my teacher talked about being self referent – that is, to care less about what the external world says than about your own assessment of how you’re doing.

I had been editor of my high school newspaper, a reporter and editor on my college newspaper, a reporter and editor at daily, weekly and monthly publications – I had been a writer my entire adult life. To have someone evaluate my writing as inadequate tested my ability to be self referent. What if I wasn’t good at writing? What would that mean for my career path, my hobbies, my identity?

I talked to some writer friends. They conceded that maybe I’m wordier than I need to be – and I totally accept I’m not perfect as a writer.

But I am a writer, no matter what a test grader at my business school said.

I suppose the experience was like being an author or actor or musician who reads a harsh review and has to decide whether to care. Do you quit because someone doesn’t like your work? Or do you take a deep breath, remind yourself that taste is subjective, look to see if there’s anything in the criticism that you think is valid, then get back to work?

I went for the latter.

And the story has a happy ending.

As my final project for a negotiation class I was taking, I convinced the writing office to give me another shot at the test. I explained that I hadn’t waited until the last minute to take the test and I had figured surely I would pass it on my second try. I wasn’t asking for them to weigh my experience as proof of writing competency, only as a reason to let me take the test again before making me miss my graduation date.

They very generously gave me a break, and let me take a third writing test. I found out mere hours before commencement that I’d passed. I was scheduled to help read the names of graduating MBAs and thankfully, I was one of them.

Have you faced criticism at something you consider a central part of your identity or something you love doing? How did you handle it?



Categories: career, creativity

Tags: , , , , , , ,

6 replies

  1. That is an excellent story. And especially timely for me this week, as I’ve been editing the Full-time MBA admitted students’ binder — including information about the MBA communication requirement. 🙂

  2. As a fellow flunkee of the MBA Writing test who thought that my writing skills had to be better than many I knew who had passed with flying colors, I too learned a lesson! Not being a writer by trade, I don’t think I experienced the same level of panic and frustration as you did, but it was one of those situations where I had to put aside my own communication styles and approaches and fit into a mold or approach that wasn’t comfortable for me. I remember writing that test that I finally passed and feeling like it wasn’t me writing but a b-school drone. I’m so glad that you didn’t let it shake you and I feel honored to be in such good company!

    • Thanks for joining me in a public declaration of our failure, Becky.
      You raise a good point — when I finally passed, it was because I stopped writing like me and followed the structure they wanted.
      First, a big introduction paragraph that introduces all the ideas, then paragraphs with subject lines identifying which point they would make, then a summary paragraph that summed up the ideas again. I would rarely write that way in real life, but that’s what they wanted, so I gave it to them.
      “Good” writing is so subjective. Clearly we were capable of doing it their way. But writing is as much about how you choose to structure your thoughts as about which nouns and verbs you string together, and the evaluators felt at least in my case, my structure wasn’t as good as theirs.

  3. Ditto Margaret – that is so bizarre! Did you ever figure out what they were looking for that you weren’t doing?? I want to hear more!!

    I really loved this blog – very helpful to me right now while doing NanoWrimo. Ever time I write my inner critic screams at me!! Maybe she’s just full of it. 🙂

    PS I failed the Up-Down-Left-Right three times in kindergarten and they’ve been wondering if I’m retarded ever since.

  4. I tell myself not to care, but bad book reviews always sting. Can I do better? For sure. Are my books perfect? No way. Do I want to punch the wall and say, “Who are you to judge ME?” Yep. But that’s all part of it I guess. It stings, but I’m glad I’m not letting bad reviews keep me out of the game.

  5. I would love to get a look at that test. Actually, I would love to get a look at the rubric they used to grade it.

    Because, really, WTF?

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