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Be sure to read my Key Posts on the admissions process. Topics include essay analysis, resumes, recommendations, rankings, and more.

September 04, 2008


I am posting my analysis of INSEAD's essays for the September 2009 Intake (Class of July 2010). The questions are taken from the PDF.

Over the years, I have had an opportunity to work with a number of clients admitted to INSEAD. For Fall 2008 admission, you can read testimonials by one of them who was accepted here and one was invited for an interview, but decided not take it here. Additionally, another one of my comprehensive package clients and an interview-only clients were admitted.

1. Give a candid description of yourself, stressing the personal characteristics you feel to be your strengths and weaknesses and the main factors, which have influenced your personal development, giving examples when necessary. (400 words approx.)
With a question like this I think it is important to understand that you are actually being asked to think about your strengths and weaknesses in terms of your overall personality and development. What is important here is provide both an analysis about specific characteristics of yourself and something memorable about your background.

Obviously the strengths and weaknesses should be ones that relate to your character, not to a skill set. Given the word count, I suggest focusing on no more than about two strengths and two weaknesses. I would try to give fairly equal consideration to both weaknesses and strengths.

I find that many applicants resist writing about their own weaknesses, yet to do so reveals self-awareness and maturity. While I think it is necessary to practice good judgment when writing about weakness, I think it is also important that you provide something beyond the routine.

One standard defensive strategy that many applicants seem drawn to is to write about knowledge areas where they are weak, but this is not suitable for INSEAD's question. Instead think about those characteristics that relate to your personality

Compared to weaknesses, strengths are easier for most people to write about. Given the limited space here, you might find it helpful to write about a topic here that is discussed in greater detail in another essay.

Some questions to ask yourself:
1. Does the strength demonstrate one's potential for future academic and/or professional success? If so it is a probably a good topic. If not, why does INSEAD need to know about it?
2. Is a weakness fixable? If you are writing about a weakness that cannot be improved upon through your program at INSEAD, why do they need to know about it?
3. If your strength or weakness is not related to leadership, why does INSEAD need to know about it?

Finally, if you are having difficulty thinking about your strengths and weaknesses in relation to your future academic and professional goals, please see my analysis of Essay 5 because in it I discuss how to think about strengths and weaknesses in relation to goals.

2. Describe what you believe to be your two most substantial accomplishments to date, explaining why you view them as such. (400 words approx.)

This is the same question that HBS asks and possibly similar to IMD Question One.
Some key things to keep in mind when answering this question:
-Accomplishments reveal your potential to succeed at INSEAD and afterwards.
-Accomplishments reveal your potential for contributing to your classmates.
-Everyone has had accomplishments, so it is easy to compare applicants.
-What you consider to be an accomplishment are real tests of your self-awareness and judgment.

The following grid is the kind I have used successfully with applicants preparing this question:

CLICK TO ENLARGE. Email me at adammarkus@gmail.com if you want the original excel version.

How to use this grid for outlining your answer to Question 1:

Row 1: "Stories."
The first thing you need to do is think of the accomplishments. These will eventually take the form of stories, so that is what I call them. A few things to keep in mind:
  • Your accomplishments maybe personal, professional, or academic.
  • While it is very important that your accomplishments be distinct so as to reveal different things about you, there is no single formula for what their content must be. It is quite possible that you might have three professional accomplishments or one personal/one professional/one academic or two academic/one personal. It will really depend on your background.
  • The key consideration is that each accomplishment must be substantial and that you can explain why that is the case.
Row 2: "What skill, value, or unique experience is being showcased?" Your accomplishments need to reveal valuable things about you. Some will call these selling points, but more specifically they consist of skills, values, or unique experiences. One might use a specific accomplishment to emphasize one's leadership skills, another to show one's ethical values, and another to explain a significant barrier that was overcome. The point is that each accomplishment must at its core reveal something key to understanding who you are.

Row 3: "What potential for success in the MBA program or afterwards is demonstrated?" You may or may not be directly stating this in the essay, but you should think about what each accomplishment reveals in terms of your potential. INSEAD Adcom will most certainly be considering how your accomplishments demonstrate your potential to succeed at INSEAD and afterwards, so you should as well. One key way of thinking about the MBA application process is to see it as a test of potential. Potential itself can mean different things at different schools and so you must keep in mind differences between schools and in particular must pay close attention to what schools say really matters when they assess applicants. Please click here to read about what INSEAD values in applicants. Please keep in mind that a core part of your own application strategy should be determining which parts of you to emphasize both overall and for a particular school.

Row 4: "Will this be a contribution to others in the MBA program? How?" Just as with potential, think about whether your accomplishments demonstrate your ability to add value to other students at INSEAD. Given space limitations, it is not likely that you will be explaining how one or more of your accomplishments will be contribution, but rather this is a strategic consideration. The dynamic nature of study groups at INSEAD is very much based on what each student contributes. Think about whether any of your accomplishments demonstrate how you will likely add value to other students INSEAD experience. Not all substantial accomplishments will have this quality, but many will.

Row 5: "Why does Adcom need to know about this?" If your accomplishment has made it this far, chances are it is substantial. That said, I have two simple tests for determining whether an accomplishment really belongs in this essay. The first is whether INSEAD really needs to know about this accomplishment. After all, you might consider getting the love of your life to marry you to be one of your most substantial accomplishments, but will Adcom care? If an accomplishment does not reveal (whether stated or implied) potential and/or contribution, chances are likely that it is not significant enough.

Row 6: "Is this something Adcom could learn about you elsewhere? (If "YES," find another accomplishment)" The second and final simple test I have for determining whether an accomplishment really belongs in this essay is based on the idea that something that is totally obvious about you to anyone looking at your resume and transcript is probably not worth mentioning. If you were a CPA, having an accomplishment that merely demonstrated you were good at accounting would not be worth writing about. Instead it would be important to show something more specific that reveals something that is not obvious by a mere examination of the basic facts of your application.

Finally, as I mentioned above what you include here is a real test of your judgment, so don't just write about your obvious accomplishments. Think deeply and come up with a set of unique accomplishments that reveal distinct, interesting, and the most important things about you that will compel admissions to want to interview you.

3. Describe a situation taken from school, business, civil or military life, where you did not meet your personal objectives, and discuss briefly the effect. (250 words approx.)
IMD asks almost the same question, so if you are applying to both, excepting for possible minor differences in word count, you could use the same topic.

This is a fairly standard failure question. That said, it is important to remember that the objective you fail to reach might very well be your own personal objective and not one imposed on you. You might very well succeed from the perspective of others, but fail from your own perspective.

It is critical that you learned something meaningful about yourself. And your learning about yourself should be important, otherwise why tell admissions about it? Therefore the key constraint of this question is that whatever the failure is, you have learned something important from it. While not stated, you may very well find that one way of showing what you learned is to discuss how you applied your lesson to a new situation.

I would, in fact, argue that the heart of any sort of "failure question," whether it is an essay question or an interview is what you learned. Also depending on what your role was, how you reacted is also very important.

The basic components of an answer:
1. Clearly state what the objective was.
2. Clearly state your role.
3. Clearly state your failure.
4. Explain what you learned.

The word count is limited, but, if you can, show how you applied what you learned to a new situation because the application of abstract learning to a new situation is a key indicator of real learning.

4. Discuss your career goals. What skills do you expect to gain from studying at INSEAD and how will they contribute to your professional career. (500 words approx.)
Unlike some other "Why MBA" questions, INSEAD is not asking about the past. You will write about that in the other essays. Instead focus on your goals and the skills that you will obtain at INSEAD that will help you accomplish those goals. Please see my analysis of Stanford Essay B as it mostly applies with the exception that Stanford asks about "aspirations" and INSEAD asks about "goals." This is not much of a difference, but it does mean that you should, at least in terms of your short-term goal, have some specific learning objectives that contribute directly to a future career plan. You should certain offer a vision for your intended future, but given the short lenghth of the INSEAD program, it really is quite important that you give them a clear future plan.

As with other schools, I strongly recommend becoming informed about INSEAD. Attending admission events, meeting alum, and making full use of INSEAD's online resources is critical for making the strongest possible case for why your goals require an INSEAD education. You should most certainly look at INSEAD KNOWLEDGE and listen to some INSEAD Knowledgecasts.

5. Please choose one of the following two essay topics: a) Have you ever experienced culture shock? What did it mean to you? (250 words approx.), or b) What would you say to a foreigner moving to your home country? (250 words approx.)

One core characteristic of those who are admitted to INSEAD is that they are international in their perspective and experience:
The INSEAD MBA equips our alumni to work anywhere in the world. Accordingly, we attract applicants with cross-cultural sensitivity and an international outlook.

I have found that it is usually those with extensive international experience that have the greatest likelihood for admission.

Both options for Question 5 are really great ways for INSEAD to gauge your global perspective.

a) Have you ever experienced culture shock? What did it mean to you?
This is a very standard question that frequently gets asked in interviews and has appeared on a number of MBA applications. It is also a question with significant room for saying something stupid and potentially fatal to your application. Some topics to avoid:

1. Topics where you negatively stereotype another nation: Martians are argumentative, so I was surprised to learn that some of them are not.

2. Topics where you are the victim: The Martians lied to me and a result I lost the contract to a local provider.

3. Topics where you don't actually learn anything: This situation taught me the importance of human communication.

Successful versions of this topic almost always involve real learning. I suppose it is possible for something to mean much to you without learning something important, but I can't recall a successful version of this essay that did that. After all to be shocked is to experience something outside of your previous understanding. Getting shocked teaches something important that changes your perspective. This may lead to a new career decision, a new way of looking at oneself, a new way of interacting with other people, or a myriad of other possibilities.

b) What would you say to a foreigner moving to your home country?
American Adam's bad answer: Learn how to tip.

Why is that answer bad? It certainly is useful to know how to tip. I can think of almost nothing more annoying in the US than our system of tipping. Every time I go back, I am at a loss. Doesn't this make for a good topic? NO, BECAUSE IT IS OBVIOUS, IS COVERED IN EVERY TRAVEL GUIDE, AND WOULD GIVE ADMISSIONS NO REAL INSIGHT INTO YOUR ABILITY TO HAVE INTERESTING AND USEFUL THINGS TO SAY ABOUT YOUR OWN COUNTRY. Uppercase is used here in the hope that I don't have to read another version of this essay where the writer says commonplace things about their own country that any tourist would know. And yes, we all know it is useful to learn the local language, so please don't suggest that!

If you write on option b), one that I think is actually much more fun and certainly more open than option a), think deeply about how your knowledge of your country will contribute to your fellow classmates at INSEAD. INSEAD is a place were students really have the option of getting know (and drink with) people from all over the world. It is truly international in a way that no American program could ever claim. This question directly relates to your ability to show how you will be an effective representative of your own country to your classmates. They will, to some extent, depend on you for their knowledge of your home country. Don't tell them the easy stuff they can get by flipping through the first few pages of a Lonely Planet travel guide to your country. Give them real insight. The kind of insight they could use if they were going to move there.

Now while the question is not in regards to your classmates, I think it is useful to think of it that way so that you focus on writing something that would actually be interesting and useful to someone moving to your country. Decide on one or two pieces of really great advice and provide examples to justify their importance. Since they will be living in your country, assume they will also be working there. You don't have to write on a business related topic, but if you have a good one, do so. Try to have fun with this one. My guess is you will spend much more time thinking about what to write than on actually writing it.

6. Is there anything that you have not mentioned in the above essays that you would like the Admissions Committee to know? (200 words approx.) This essay is optional.
This is a completely open question. While you might very well need to tell the Admissions Committee something negative, such as an explanation for a low GPA, I would suggest using at least part of it to tell them something positive about you. Feel free to write on any topic that will add another dimension to Admissions' perception of who you are. I would not treat it as optional unless you truly feel that the rest of your essays have fully expressed everything you want INSEAD to know about you. I don't suggest writing about something that would be obvious from reviewing your application, instead tell INSEAD that one story that will give them another reason to admit you.

Questions? Write comments or contact me directly at adammarkus@gmail.com.

Please see my FAQ regarding the types of questions I will respond to. Before emailing me questions about your chances for admission or personal profile, please see my recent post on "Why I don't analyze profiles without consulting with the applicant." If you are interested in my graduate admission consulting services, please click here.
-Adam Markus
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