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

January 30, 2012

IMD Essays for January 2013 Admission

PLEASE NOTE THAT THE QUESTIONS FOR IMD CHANGED FOR JANUARY 2014 ADMISSION.  I have posted analysis for January 2014 admission questions here.

IMD (The Institute for Management Development), consistently ranked among the best MBA programs in the world, is a small intensive one-year program that starts in January.  IMD, along with Columbia January Term and INSEAD (INSEAD has both September and January start dates) are three of the best options for those who want to start in January 2013 at a top MBA program.

To learn about IMD, visit the website. You should download three PDFs from the website: "MBA Program Brochure," "MBA Class Profiles," and "Class and Placement Overview." I will refer to these below. In addition, if possible, I suggest either attending an information session or visiting. Getting an alumni perspective would also be particularly helpful. Review the website completely and by all means read the MBA Diary to get IMD students' perspectives. Japanese applicants should also look at IMD Japan Club 2012.  
To learn about IMD faculty perspectives, please visit Tomorrrow's Challenges.

I also suggest reading my interview with Lisa Piguet and also my Q&A with a former client who is a member of the Class of 2009. I think this interview will provide you with some key insights into IMD. My own report on my visit to IMD can be found here.

IMD's small size sets it apart from other top programs, as its brochure states: "90 Exceptional People Who Will Shape The Future of Business." While it is not easy to get into IMD, it has an acceptance rate of 27%, it has an 76% yield, one of the highest yields worldwide. If you get into IMD, chances are quite high that you will go there.

When you think about IMD, two keywords to focus on are "international" and "leadership." Based on my experience working with clients admitted there for the Class of 2011 (See here for a testimonial), Class of 2010 (See here for my client's testimonial),  and Class of 2009 (See here for my client's testimonial), I can say that IMD is looking for those individuals who both already have and aspire to increased capacity in both being international and being leaders. 

In any given year, I work with only a few people applying to IMD because this is most certainly a very unique program.  For the Class of 2012, I had two clients who were offered interview, but one was admitted to his first choice school and did not interview and the other, was unfortunately dinged after interview.  Getting dinged after an IMD interview, especially for candidates without solid English ability, effective presentation skills, and the perceived potential to work well in a small group is common enough.

There is no MBA interview that compares to the day of trial that IMD puts potential applicants through.  Reading a report of an IMD interview makes me feel exhausted.  The particular style of group and individual interviewing and observation admissions does, is truly impressive and totally necessary given their class size and reputation.   The IMD interview eliminates those who will not be able to survive in a very intense program. IMD interviews 46% of those that apply, which is a rather high percentage on the face of it, but again, the program is rather self-selecting so this percentage makes sense. Consider that IMD is trying to fill a class of 90 and received 441 applications.  They are working with limited numbers and based on my 2010 conversation with the admissions director, I know that they are being highly selective when it comes to making final decisions. 

Like its bigger rival INSEAD, IMD is truly an international program with a very diverse student body and faculty. You can actually view all of the Class of 2009 as well as read a statistical summary of their backgrounds on PDFs found on the IMD site. Doing so will certainly help you understand that IMD students are incredibly diverse and multilingual.


The IMD program is focused on making leaders, not managers. It also is not designed for those who want to develop expertise in a business subfield. IMD makes the program's focus very clear on page 2 of the PDF version of their brochure:
Top executives of leading multinational companies tell us clearly: they need leaders, not managers. Leaders with the insight and ability to address issues and problems that are more complex and changing more quickly than ever before. Leaders who are confident, creating their own solutions to these emerging issues with integrity and high ethics. Leaders who understand themselves and how they interact with others. Leaders who understand the needs of their organizations and their business environments. Leaders who can drive change through innovation. Leaders who can move their businesses forward. The single aim of the IMD MBA program is to develop these leaders.

If you are not looking for an education focused on leadership, do not apply to IMD, but if you are, IMD offers a very intensive one-year leadership education:
The program starts with a foundation in the core business courses, e.g. accounting, finance, marketing and operations. This helps you to understand all of the functional areas of the organization and how they work together. It continues with real-world projects and additional courses that allow you to apply what you have learned in the classroom to real leadership situations

A review of the program structure makes it perfectly clear that it is not a degree for those wanting expertise in a particular business subfield (e.g. finance or marketing) because there is actually only one three-week period of study available for electives.

Considering the above, I will analyze IMD's 12  "essay questions." I have taken the questions from the online application.  While there are 10 questions that are called "Essays" in the application, there are actually 12 such questions. I think IMD's "essay" designation  is incredibly confusing for no particular reason.  As you will see the first two questions below are clearly essays, whereas some of IMD's "essays" are more administrative questions.

Position sought after graduation
Please give us your short term career goal post MBA (up to 5 years). Describe how the IMD MBA will help you achieve this goal and how you will approach your job search. 2000 Characters Maximum.

Curiously, the standard why MBA /Short term goal only is not called an essay, yet clearly it is. It is also the single longest essay in the entire set of IMD questions. THIS QUESTION DOES NOT FOCUS ON YOUR LONG TERM GOALS.  It is about a post-MBA plan and how IMD will help you carry out that plan. The focus should be on your plans and not your motivation for those plans.  Certainly mention the motivation, but conceptualize  this as a very practical question regarding your 5-year plan post-IMD and how IMD figures into that plan. Don't forget to answer "how you will approach your job search?" because this is an important part of your plan. IMD is looking for applicants who can take charge of their own careers and drive them, not people who expect a career services office to simply take care of them. Explain what resources you can leverage to launch your post-IMD career.
If you are having trouble formulating your plan, you might want to go through a formal analysis of why you need an MBA.

You can use my GAP, SWOT, AND ROI TABLE FOR FORMULATING GRADUATE DEGREE GOALS for this purpose (see below). I think Gap, SWOT, and ROI analysis are great ways for understanding what your goals are, why you want a degree, and how you will use it. (Click here for the Businessweek MBA ROI calculator. Click here for a GMAC report on MBA ROI. )

(To best view the following table, click on it.)

How to use this table:

Step 1.
Begin by analyzing your "Present Situation." What job(s) have you held? What was/is your functional role(s)? What was/are your responsibilities?

Next, analyze your present strengths and weaknesses for succeeding in your present career. REMEMBER:WHEN YOU ARE THINKING ABOUT YOUR STRENGTHS AND WEAKNESS DON'T ONLY THINK ABOUT WORK, THINK ABOUT OTHER ASPECTS OF YOUR LIFE. In particular, some of your greatest strengths may have been demonstrated outside of work, so make sure you are accounting for them.
Strengths: What are you good at? Where do you add value? What are you praised for? What are you proud of?
Weakness: What are you bad at? What are you criticized for? What do you try to avoid due to your own limitations? What do you fear?

, analyze the environment you work in right now. What opportunities exist for your growth and success? What threats could limit your career growth?

Step 2.
Now, do the same thing in Step 1 for your "Post-Degree" future after you have earned your MBA. IF YOU CANNOT COMPLETE STEP 2, YOU HAVE NOT SUFFICIENTLY PLANNED FOR YOUR FUTURE and therefore you need to do more research and need to think more about it.

Step 3.
If you could complete step 2, than you should see the "Gap" between your present and your future. What skills, knowledge, and other resources do you need to close the gap between your present and future responsibilities, strengths, and opportunities?

Step 4. After completing Step 3, you need to determine how an MBA will add value to you. It is possible that an increased salary as a result of job change will be sufficient "ROI" for the degree to justify itself, but you should show how a degree will allow you to reach your career goals. How will the degree enhance your skills and opportunities and help you overcome your weaknesses and external threats? If you can complete Step 4 than you should be ready to explain what your goals are, why you want a degree, and the relationship between your past and future career, as well as your strengths and weaknesses.

The above table will also help you answer such common interview questions as: Where do you want to work after you finish your degree? Why do you want an MBA (or other degree)? What are you strengths? What are your weaknesses? What are your goals? Thinking about these issues now will help you to develop a fully worked-out strategy for how you will best present yourself both in the application and in an interview.

After going through this formal process, review what you know about IMD again. In your answer to the question, please focus on showing how IMD will help make your post-MBA future objectives a reality.  BOTTOM LINE: Conceptualize this as a business plan with IMD as a partner who will help enable that plan.

Most important achievement

What do you consider to be your single most important achievement and why? 1230 Characters Maximum

This question is not called an essay either, but it is.  Clearly you need to write on something different from the two topics you cover in Essay 1.  See my analysis of HBS Essay 1 as it applies to this question and also to Essay 1.  My analysis of HBS will also help you choose and differentiate between the topics in the this essay and in Essay 1.

The 10 Essays

Each essay answer is quite short, just a maximum of 1230 characters with spaces for each required answer. Essay 1 requires two separate answers. Each answer would be a maximum of about 200-300 words each.

Essay 1: Two situations of importance to you
Situation 1
Situation 2
You have 1230 characters for each situation. On the online application they are treated as separate answers, so I suggest you treat them as separate essays.

I don't necessarily suggest answering this question first due to its open-ended nature. Instead, first determine what topics you will write about for Essays 2 through 5. Essay 1 is what I call a "balance question" because you can use it to make sure that you are emphasizing all of your most compelling personality characteristics, background, and strengths in your application. Given the limited space in Essay 4 to write about strengths, I think it is fine if you briefly mention a strength in Essay 4 that is substantially proven by one of the situations you write about in Essay 1.

While situations of importance to you may not be accomplishments, many applicants will use this essay for that purpose. If you write about accomplishments, please see my analysis of HBS Essay 1 as it would apply here. I think most applicants will consider it to their advantage to have at least one of these situations be an accomplishment. Of course, you will have already written about your "single most important achievement."

Essay 2: Failure to reach objective
Please comment on a situation where you failed to reach an objective and what you learned from it.
INSEAD asks almost the same question, so if you are applying to both, excepting for possible differences in word count, you could use the same topic.

This is a fairly standard failure question. That said, I think 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.

Essay 3: Leadership
Describe a situation where you had to demonstrate strong leadership skills. Explain how effective you were and what you learned.
Obviously, given the centrality of leadership to IMD, use your best (or one of your best) leadership story here. This should be a story where you demonstrate your strengths as leader, have a concrete result, and are able to provide IMD with an interpretation of your actions.

I have developed the following grid to help you outline leadership stories. The categories this grid employs may go beyond any particular school's essay requirements. Filling it out completely will help you write about your leadership in a way that will convince admissions of your leadership potential.
CLICK TO ENLARGE. EMAIL me at adammarkus@gmail.com if you want the original excel version.

How to use the grid:
1. Decide on a specific story.
2. Identify the most significant things you did in the situation, these are you action steps.
3. For each action step identify:

  • What skills or qualities you demonstrated to complete this step.
  • The strengths you demonstrated to complete this step.
  • The kind of leadership you demonstrated.
  • What you still need to learn about leadership.
4. Think about the results and identify how they relate to your action steps. So, at minimum, you should be able to state the impact on others and/or yourself.

5. After completing the chart you will see that some aspects of your action steps may be repeated. If there is a total duplication and nothing new is shown, either you need to redefine the action step or you may decide not to focus on it very much.

6. Once you think you have two to four fully worked-out action steps, start writing your essay.

7. Next, start re-writing. Eliminate duplicate points made between action steps. Make choices about what parts of each action to step to highlight. Given that there are usually word limits, you will have to make some decisions about what to include.

Simply providing a description of your actions, is not enough. Think about what it signifies about you. Think about what your actions reveals about your leadership potential. State what you learned.

Finally, thinking and writing about leadership is an important part of preparing for interviews because you can be certain that you will have to talk about leadership. So you might find that the parts of the outline you jettison now will become valuable when you will want to have alternative stories for your IMD interview.

Essay 4: Describe yourself
How do you imagine your superior would describe your strengths and weaknesses to someone who does not know you?
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 more objectively than you might otherwise. In particular, you need to judge yourself from the viewpoint of a hypothetical supervisor who is describing you to someone who does not know you.

My suggestion is to think about what your supervisors in the past have mentioned to you as both your strengths and weaknesses. Of course, this should reflect the perspective of your current (or most current supervisor). Don't feel obligated to focus on that exclusively, but just make sure that your strengths and weaknesses are ones that your superior could recognize.

Obviously the strengths and weaknesses under consideration are mostly, though not necessarily exclusively, of a professional nature. 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. While this can be OK in some cases, it tends to lack any real depth. One thing to avoid is to discuss a skill that you need for the future, but don't need now as a weakness. It is not a weakness because up till now you have not needed it.

Strengths are easier to write about, but do keep in mind that you want to be specific about them. 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 IMD 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 IMD, why do they need to know about it?
3. If your strength or weakness is not related to leadership, why does IMD need to know about it?

Essay 5: International Exposure
Describe a situation where you successfully worked across cultures and/or nations.

What this is not:  It is not a culture shock question.  While most everyone who applies to IMD has international experience, the topic of this essay ineed not be outside of your home country: It just needs to involve dealing with a different nation or culture.  The point is that it has to be an accomplishment story involving an international component.  For many applicants to IMD, this will be easy because a significant percentage of their work will be international. Working across cultures or nations, may mean something professional, but if you don't have such a story, think of a successful experience you had that involved more than one culture or nation. For some applicants this essay will be about a major accomplishment, but for others it will simply be about being effective in an international or multi-cultural setting.

Essay 6: Differentiators

IMD receives numerous applications per year. Give us four bullet points that clearly differentiate you from this applicant pool.
1230 Characters Maximum
In a Class of 90, there is no room for letting in someone who can't function well and does not have something distinct to contribute. I like this question because it forces applicants to really think about their core selling points.  Clearly, there will be significant overlap with other essays. Think of this as more than an executive summary because really it is a your "elevator pitch" to IMD.  What are the key statements that IMD really needs to know about you that will make them want to invite you for their interview?

Essay 7: Alternatives

If you are not admitted, what alternatives will you consider?
This question is designed to test both your real motivations and your ability to develop a plan for meeting your own professional objectives. Therefore I think it is important to consider it in relation to your answer to"Position sought after graduation" above.  How will you still work towards your five-year plan without an IMD MBA?

While a successful answer to this question can certainly include the fact that you have already been admitted elsewhere, that would not be a sufficient answer. You would also want to explain why IMD would be a better choice for you than that other school.

Some think about stating they would reapply. If you are not company-sponsored, that certainly is an option. If you are, it is probably not.That said, simply stating that you would reapply is not enough, instead you need to think about how you will move forward to accomplish what you would have tried to accomplish at IMD.

Essay 8: Finance
Please explain how you intend to finance your studies at IMD. What would be your budget?
This should be treated as more of an administrate rather than an evaluative topic. You just need to state your plan for financing your education. Stick to the facts and make sure what you write is easy to understand and will in no way be a source of concern to the admissions committee.

Essay 9: Disability / illness
Do you have a disability or illness that could affect your performance at IMD? If so, please explain.
If you have no disability or illness of significance, you need not answer this one. In that case, just write "Not Applicable" or words to that effect. If you do have a disability or illness, then I suggest taking the time to contact IMD first, so you can get a better idea about how to best answer this question. If some sort of special arrangement would be necessary for you, please contact IMD to make sure that they can provide it.

Essay 10: Additional Information Optional question: Is there any additional information that is critical for the Admissions Committee to know which has not been covered elsewhere in this application?
While I suppose it is possible to answer this question with "No," in most cases I would not recommend doing so.

For some applicants who have to discuss something negative such as a low GPA, the topic for this essay will be clear enough. Just make sure your answer is a clear and believable explanation and not an excuse.

For those who have nothing negative to write about, think about one or two topics that you believe would help admissions to understand you and support your admission. Be careful that you do not pick a trivial topic.

-Adam Markus

I am a graduate admissions consultant who works with clients worldwide. If you would like to arrange an initial consultation, please complete my intake form. Please don't email me any essays, other admissions consultant's intake forms, your life story, or any long email asking for a written profile assessment. The only profiles I assess are those with people who I offer initial consultations to. Please note that initial consultations are not offered when I have reached full capacity or when I determine that I am not a good fit with an applicant.
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