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July 21, 2016

INSEAD MBA Essay Questions for September 2017 Admission

Here I discuss INSEAD’s essays for September 2017 Entry (Class of July 2018).  The application has been updated and now there is a video component.  As the details of what the video component is are not fully available at this time, I will update this post soon (July 21, 2016). 
Since 2001, when I began doing MBA admissions counseling, I have had an opportunity to work with a large number of clients admitted to INSEAD. Since establishing my own consulting practice in 2007, I’ve worked with 40 clients admitted to INSEAD. Annual breakdowns and testimonials from clients admitted to INSEAD can be found here.

As a matter of disclosure, I attended INSEAD’s Executive Masters in Consulting for Change (EMCCC 16J Wave 18), at the Singapore campus, which I have previously discussed on this blog. I will be graduating in October 2016. Therefore, unlike other Business Schools that I write about, I am part of the INSEAD community. I attend alumni events, have taken modules with some of the same faculty who teach in the MBA program, and have spent a significant amount of time on-campus. My program was held on the Singapore campus, but I have also been on the Fontainebleau campus as well in April of this year, when some of my classmates and I travelled went there to meet with our thesis advisor.

While INSEAD does not ask a “Why INSEAD?” question, as with other schools, I strongly recommend becoming informed about INSEAD. Attending admission events, meeting alumni,and making full use of INSEAD’s online resources are 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. Finally, keep in mind that INSEAD is a fun school, so express your personality in terms of why you want to attend it. I would also suggest joining  https://www.facebook.com/insead  and
https://www.facebook.com/INSEAD.Degree.Programmes for the latest INSEAD news.  Additionally, some Alumni chapters have events where prospective applicants can attend. For example, here in Japan (See https://www.facebook.com/groups/inseadjapan/), the bimonthly drinks event held in Tokyo is open to prospective students.  Reaching out to alumni and current students is always one of the best ways to learn about a school.  Of course, if you can visit INSEAD, I recommend doing so.

While somewhat hidden in comparison to the way other schools mention in the application and instructions, INSEAD requires the upload of a Curriculum Vitae (resume) for the MBA program. This practice only started a year ago, so there is still a bit of confusion about it, especially because of the Job Description content (see below).  The supporting documents page includes a place for uploading a Curriculum Vitae, which is a required document.  The instructions for the CV are here and state: “Your curriculum vitae can either be on a free format or follow the format of the INSEAD official CV e-book - click here to view the template.” If you are applying to INSEAD and it is your top choice I recommend usin g their CV. It is not my favorite format but it is the one they suggest using. It does include some content that would not be part of a US MBA application program resume, in particular, the photo. So if you apply to other schools, do use a format more appropriate to that school. You can find my suggested general resume template here.

Now to the essays.

The application requires four short answers (and one optional) of unspecified length to some very important questions. I have asked before about the length and for whatever reason they don’t provide instructions or a guideline. Since the previous length was 300 words or less, that is what I have told my clients so far. Since they have been admitted writing answers of that length, that is what I will continue to tell clients until INSEAD states otherwise.

One of these questions is about your post-MBA goals, so this goes beyond job description and is the only goals essay in the application.

 As the questions are concerned with the applicant’s professional experience, I think the following from my interview with Deborah Riger, who was the INSEAD MBA Programme’s Assistant Director of Marketing at the time of the interview 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 is 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. Deborah’s 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 for being a distinct applicant.
In addition to the now mandatory CV,  you should consider that these essays will really provide INSEAD with their primary interpretation of your career.

Briefly summarise your current (or most recent) job, including the nature of work, major responsibilities, and where relevant, employees under your supervision, size of budget, clients/products and results achieved. (short answer) *

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.  For those who are unemployed, you should write about your last position held. Here is one possible organizational scheme.
1. Brief introduction indicating the nature of the position and employer.
2. Most important responsibility that led to a result.
3-5. Subsequent responsibilities-results.

Since they will also have your CV, interpret your job, don’t just summarize it. Explain why the work you do is significant.

 What would be your next step in terms of position if you were to remain in the same company? (short answer) *

I would call this the “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. 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.

Please give a full description of your career since graduating from university. Describe your career path with the rationale behind your choices. (short answer)

This  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 the job description above.
In terms of organizing this answer, 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.

Discuss your short and long term career aspirations with or without an MBA from INSEAD.
Given the intensive nature of the INSEAD experience, you need to go into the program with a clear idea of what you want to do after your MBA. Of course, these aspirations might change, but given the program length and the reality that you will need to begin recruiting/internship hunting soon after entry, you will need a clear plan for your future. The complication with this little question is that it asks for your goals with or without an MBA from INSEAD.  Whether your goals are achievable or would become very difficulty to achieve without an MBA from INSEAD is certainly something you can discuss.  The core content here, however, should focus on your career aspirations and not why you want an MBA.  If they wanted to know why you wanted an MBA or wanted to go to INSEAD, they would ask that.  They used to do so and are not anymore.

If you are having difficulty articulating such a plan, you can use my GAP, SWOT, AND ROI TABLE FOR FORMULATING GRADUATE DEGREE GOALS for this purpose (see below). I think GapSWOT, and ROI analysis are great ways for understanding what your goals are, why you want a degree, and how you will use it.
(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?
Next, 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 graduate degree. 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 now 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, then 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. If you know about INSEAD, you are ready to write about your goals, whether in Question 3-4 or elsewhere in the essay set.
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?

If you are currently not working or if you plan to leave your current employer more than 2 months before the programme starts, please explain your activities and occupations between leaving your job and the start of the programme. (optional)

I think it is critical to provide a honest answer to the question and one that hopefully shows that you are using your time well. Possible topics to discuss:
1. Learning activities (NOT APPLICATION PREP PLEASE! That would be really weak)
2. Language learning
3. Internships
4. Volunteer activities
5. Travel
6. Entrepreneurial activities

You need not be clever here, just clear and to the point. If your answer sounds like total bullshit, you risk trashing your application, so make sure what you have here is really plausible.

If you are unsure whether you will be leaving your employer two months before the program starts or don’t want to actually discuss any plans, don’t answer this question unless you think you will be unemployed by the time you would be interviewed for the school.

The Motivation Essays

The three required and one optional essays that are asked for have not changed. However, a question related to cross-cultural experiences was removed. As internationality is an important factor in INSEAD’s admissions criteria, that will need to come out elsewhere in the application. Your job descriptions, CV, recommendations, or the four essays below are all good places to showcase why you fit at “The Business School for the World. ”

Note regarding length: What approximate usually means is 10-15% over the word count.

1. Give a candid description of yourself (who are you as a person), 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. (approximately 500 words) 
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 to help admissions understand who you are. YOU NEED TO TELL A COMPELLING STORY ABOUT WHO YOU ARE AS A PERSON!  I put this in uppercase because I get far too many essays from my clients that end up focusing on professional content, that don’t focus on personality and personal background, or are otherwise not really effective portraits. Think of this essay as a highly focused portrait of yourself that will give admissions great insight into your life story and your characteristics (strengths and weaknesses). The most effective answers here consistently combine revealing parts of the applicant’s personality and background while discussing strengths and weaknesses. 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 strength here that is discussed in greater detail in another essay. In other words, you might discuss the origins of one your key strengths and trace its connection to your personal or professional accomplishments.

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. Is your strength or weakness being stated without any context or very context and not supported by other essays in your application? If so, you really need to provide enough support for the strength or weakness to make it meaningful.
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 4 because in it I discuss how to think about strengths and weaknesses in relation to goals.

2. Describe the achievement of which you are most proud and explain why. In addition, describe a situation where you failed. How did these experiences impact your relationships with others? Comment on what you learned. (approximately 400 words) 
Expect to spend quite a bit of time editing this one down.  Get the right stories first before worrying too much about the tight word count. Even submitting something that is say 440-460 words can be challenging because you are being asked to cover two different stories.

Given that INSEAD is specifically asking you to discuss how a failure impacted your relationship with other people (Teams for example), writing about a leadership failure would surely be a good way to answer INSEAD”s question. That said, INSEAD”s question can apply to any type of failure.

To answer this question correctly, you need to do the following:

1Discuss an achievement. Explain how the achievement impacted your relationship with others. Explain what you learned from the achievement and/or the impact on the relations with others (Not really very clear which, so I will assume both.

2. Do the same thing for your failure.

Now, of course, you can try to combine your achievement and failure together so that they somehow have a common impact on others and/or learning obtained.  Some people will have such situations, but others will probably find it useful to treat each story separately.

An important part of this question is about your relationship to other people. This is a new aspect to the questions previously asked at INSEAD and clearly indicates their desire to gauge your understanding of the impact you have on others.  They are trying to measure your emotional intelligence, though not in in very much detail.  Make sure you address this part of the question.

Now lets look at achievements and failures in some more depth.

Some key things to keep in mind when answering this question:
-Achievements reveal your potential to succeed at  INSEAD and afterwords.
-Achievements reveal your potential for contributing to your classmates.
-Everyone has had achievements, so make your single most important achievement really stand out.
-What you consider to be an achievement is a real test of your self-awareness and judgment.
Think about which achievement to use
The first thing you need to do is brainstorm possible achievements to use here. Your achievement may relate to your professional experience, academics, volunteer activities, hobbies, community engagement, personal matters.  The possibilities are quite endless. Whatever it is, you should explain why it is so important.
Think about what skill(s), value(s), or unique experience is/are being showcased
Your achievement needs to reveal valuable thing(s) about you. Some will call these selling points, but more specifically they consist of skills, values, or unique experiences. One might use a specific achievement to emphasize one’s leadership skills,  one’s ethical values, and to explain a significant barrier that was overcome. If you breakdown the meaning of an achievement it might easily reveal multiple important things about you.
Think about what potential for success in the MBA program or afterwords is being demonstrated by your achievement
You may or may not be directly stating this in the essay, but you should think about what how your achievement  reveals in terms of your potential. INSEAD  will most certainly be considering how your achievement demonstrates your potential to succeed in their program and afterwords, so you should as well.
Think about how your achievement could become a contribution to others in the MBA program
Just as with potential, think about whether your achievement demonstrates your ability to add value to other students at INSEAD.
Think about why  INSEAD needs to know about this achievement
If your achievement has made it this far, chances are it is substantial. That said, I have three simple tests for determining whether achievement really belongs in this essay.
1. Does INSEAD really need to know about this achievement? After all, you might consider getting the love of your life to marry you to be one of your greatest achievement, but admissions care? If an achievement does not reveal (whether stated or implied) potential and/or contribution, chances are likely that it is not significant enough.
2. Is the story totally obvious from reviewing other parts of your application?
If the story is simply a very cause-effect based one such as “I studied hard to get a 4.0 in university ” that could ber very dull and rather obvious.  On the other hand if you overcome great challenges to get such an academic result, you could have a great story.  Obvious stories are dull.  Reveal something important about yourself that goes beyond the surface level and could not be easily assumed from reviewing other aspects of your application.
3. Is the achievement really your most important one?
It is critical that you explain clearly why it is important. Is the importance because of its significance to you or to an impact you had or to both?   Really make sure the importance is stated clearly.

Failure essays require that you learned something meaningful. And your learning 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.
Since the failure here has to have an impact on others, it is important that you failed in some way that effected other people.
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.
3. Describe all types of extra-professional activities in which you have been or are still involved for a significant amount of time (clubs, sports, music, arts, politics, etc). How are you enriched by these activities? ( approximately 300 words) 
While you should feel free to include ALL TYPES OF ACTIVITIES, you should not try to write about ALL ACTIVITIES that you have been or are currently engaged in.  My suggestion is to focus on 2-4 topics because if you do much more than that, you will say very little.

The key to effectively answering this question is to make sure you are addressing the second part of the question: “How are you enriched by these activities?”  In other words, focus on those activities which have really impacted you.  You may want to mention specific accomplishments related to one or more activities, but whatever you do, make sure the activities are actually significant and communicate something important about you.
Also, make sure that  what you are mentioning here is giving INSEAD further reasons to invite you for an interview and admit you! Not all activities are of the same relevance. How do these activities fit into the rest of what you say about yourself? How do they showcase your intellectual abilities, leadership potential, internationality, and/or ability to contribute to the program?

4. (optional)  Is there anything else that was not covered in your application that you would like to share with the Admissions Committee? (approximately 300 words) 
While this question is optional, I have every client write about something here. Beyond any explanation for any negative issues, feel free to write about any extracurricular activities, professional experiences, personal experiences, and/or other matters that you can add here to provide another positive perspective about you. Most applicants will find at least a few key issues that they wish to elaborate on.

Don’t necessarily conceive of this as an essay that must focus on a unitary topic, but rather as place to discuss anything not effectively communicated about elsewhere in the application.  It is fine to just have distinct paragraphs on completely unrelated topics.

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.

I know some applicants will want to write about “Why INSEAD?” here, but they cut that question, for this application,  so be careful with that.  I will be advising my own clients to only discuss INSEAD here if they have something really interesting to write or if they are reapplicants (see next paragraph).

Since there is no  reapplication question, I would recommend that reapplicants use the optional essay for the purpose of providing clearly stated updates that show growth since the last application. Whatever form(s) this growth takes, please provide a summary of it here, even if you have addressed the topic elsewhere in the application. In addition, I think it is especially useful to show what steps you have taken to learn more about INSEAD. For more about reapplication, please see A guide to my resources for reapplicants.

For my post on INSEAD interviews, please see here.

-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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