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?