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March 24, 2010

INSEAD MBA Essay Questions for January & September 2011

This post is a greatly revised version of my previous INSEAD essay analysis. Most notably, it covers the two job related essays. that I have previously not written about. 

I am posting my analysis of INSEAD's essays for the January and September 2011 Intake. The questions are taken from the PDF. INSEAD has continued to not change their application.  Given their multi-year approach to applications and deadline listings, I guess it is hard for them to change. Actually, I think they ask the right questions, so maybe there really is nothing to change.

Over the years, I have had an opportunity to work with a number of clients admitted to INSEAD. I have had four clients admitted for January 2011.  I had four clients admitted for 2010 (Two for September and two for January) and you can find a testimonials from three of them here. Additional testimonials from clients admitted to INSEAD can also be found here.

Two Job Related Essays

As both questions are concerned with the applicant's professional experience, I think the following from my interview with Deborah Riger, the INSEAD MBA Programme's Assistant Director of Marketing should be kept in mind:

"ADAM: Regarding professional experience, what to do you look for in younger (very early twenties) and older (late twenties or thirties) applicants?

DEBORAH: For all applicants we want to see a track record of professional accomplishments that sets them apart from their peers. For those with only 1-2 years of professional experience, they must demonstrate something distinctive in their profile, perhaps they have started their own company. I would suggest, it is in the benefit of all younger applicants to work for a minimum of two years before applying to business school as they will get more out of the programme if they have experiences to reflect back on. For older applicants, we are looking for a strong professional track record and clear goals toward career change or advancement. If an older applicant has been in the same role for five years that might not demonstrate potential for growth, overall ambition or success relative to his/her peers."

Based on my experience with INSEAD applicants, the above statement from Deborah seems completely accurate.  INSEAD is relatively forgiving of those with limited (1-2 years) of professional experience as long as there is something distinctive about their background, but for most applicants, INSEAD is expecting to see a clear pattern of career growth.  While INSEAD can actually be quite flexible about the level of international experience that an applicant has, when it comes to those with 3-10+ years of experience, career growth really matters.  The comment about applicants in the same position for five years is also really telling as it points to the fact that INSEAD is looking for applicants who are not complacent.  Keep in mind that an INSEAD admission committee consists of faculty and alumni and the later, in particular, are likely to have clear expectations of what good career growth looks like. 

I think it is also important to keep in mind that a business background is not a necessity for admission to INSEAD, but that good professional experience is.  See here.  Based on my experience working with clients coming from a variety of professions, I can say that having a non-business, but solid professional career, can be a real advantage.

Keep in mind that INSEAD does not require a CV or resume.  Therefore the two essays below are critical pieces of the application. As you will see, the INSEAD application has relatively limited space to discuss your past experience in typical resume style.  You should consider that these two essays will really provide INSEAD with their primary interpretation of your career.

Also note that is that unlike the other essays (see below), the word count for these two questions is not approximate.  I have taken this to mean that as far as these two questions go, it is actually best to write no more than 250 words.

1. Please give a detailed description of your job, including nature of work, major responsibilities; and, where relevant, employees under your supervision, size of budget, number of clients/products and results achieved. (250 words) 

This is a very straightforward question for most applicants. For those who are unemployed, I suggest you write about your last position held. 

You want to focus on both major responsibilities and major results.  Since results (accomplishments) are likely to be specifically connected to responsibilities, I would prioritize them in your description. I think for many applicants, the easiest way to organize this essay will be in terms of discussing their 2-4 most important results and/or responsibilities.  Here is one possible organizational scheme.

1. Brief introduction indicating the nature of the position and employer. 50 words.

2. Most important responsbility that lead to a result.  50-100 words. 

3-5. Subsequent responsibilities-results. 25-100 words.

The Details:  If you don't have employees working during under your supervision, you should still indicate any project-based and/or team-based leadership. As with a resume or CV include any numbers that will help INSEAD understand the extent of your results or responsibilities.   Even approximate quantification is better than no quantification if it helps to positively showcase your career.

Keep in mind that you should be focused on your job, not on your personality.  Interpret your job, don't just summarize it. Explain why the work you do is significant.

2. Please give us a full description of your career since graduating from university. If you were to remain with your present employer, what would be your next step in terms of position? (250 words)

This essay should be a growth story.  If it is not a story that shows how your career has positively evolved, it is unlikely to be very effective.  You might be unemployed at the moment, but what has been the trajectory so far?  Did you take a big risk along the way?  Point that out.  We each have our career ups and downs, especially anyone who has taken risks.  Don't shy away from discussing the risks, but the overall focus of this essay should be positive.  In my experience, INSEAD rewards those who take risks and does not look kindly on those that stay in the same position for five years or more. Change or become boring!  If you have been working in the same position for five years or more, you will need to really show how you have demonstrated growth in terms of results or responsibilities, which would have been primarily discussed in Job Essay 1.

In terms of organizing this essay, think about the key turning points in your career.  Help INSEAD understand how you have evolved professionally.  Assume that you are being judged critically and consider how to both effectively and honestly present your career.  

The final part of this question is what I would call an "opportunity cost" question, in other words, by going to INSEAD, you will be sacrificing the opportunity to take the next step at your current employer.  If you are unemployed, the way to handle this question is to discuss the kind of position you would obtain if you were not seeking an MBA. For everyone else, I think you should be realistic, but also present the best possible version of your next position, which will show that you are seeking an MBA to move beyond what would follow without it.  A bad answer to this question would involve identifying a next step that is the same as the short term goal you discuss later in Essay 4 because this would undermine much of the value of obtaining an MBA.  I think INSEAD asks this question not only to determine whether you have a clear sense of your career trajectory, but also to confirm that you have thought deeply about what you are sacrificing by pursuing an MBA.  Given the need to analyze your entire career development, for most applicants, I would suggest providing a brief (50 words or less) answer to this part of the question. 

The Essays
For  the main essays, word count is always listed as "approx."  I have taken this to mean that about 10% over is no problem and will not be noticed.  I always think of this "approx" issue as a personal judgment.  If you need 450 words for a 400 words approx essay, I know it is not a problem. 

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 or skill areas where they are weak, but this is not suitable for INSEAD's question because they want you to stress personal characteristics.

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.)
Some key things to keep in mind when answering this question:
-Accomplishments reveal your potential to succeed at INSEAD and afterwords.
-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:

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 afterwords 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 afterwords, 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.)

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

In terms of discussing the effect, I suggest you focus on what you learned.  It is critical that you learned something meaningful about yourself.  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 as this could be "the effect."

The basic components of an answer:
1. Clearly state what the objective was.
2. Clearly state your role.
3. Clearly state your failure to reach your personal objectives.
4. Explain the effect in terms of what you learned and perhaps also how you applied 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 2 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 length 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:

I have found that it is usually those with extensive international experience that have the greatest likelihood for admission.  That said, in my interview with Deborah Riger, I asked her about this issue:

"ADAM: Is it possible to be accepted to INSEAD without having international experience?

DEBORAH: Yes, it is possible to be admitted without significant experience outside of your home country. While it is important for all applicants to show their international motivations in their essays, it is especially critical for those who lack international exposure to do so. Applicants need to share how they are comfortable and confident in their own culture, why they are seeking out the international exposure in the MBA and sharing perhaps how the world has come to them at home."

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 as 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 to the US, 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 only that!

If you write on option b),  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 to 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 this foreigner 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. 

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 or two additional key points 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. If you are looking for a highly experienced admissions consultant who is passionate about helping his clients succeed, please feel free to contact me at adammarkus@gmail.com to arrange an initial consultation. To learn more about my services, see here.
-Adam Markus
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