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August 10, 2014

INSEAD MBA Essay Questions for September 2015

Here I discuss INSEAD’s essays for September 2015 (Class of July 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 33 clients admitted to INSEAD. Annual breakdowns and testimonials from clients admitted to INSEAD can be found here. My report on my 2011 visit to the Singapore campus is here. INSEAD’s essays changed for January 2015 entry, but those essays are the same as the ones for September 2015 entry. I  have had four clients admitted for January 2015 entry who wrote on the essay topics discussed below. 

As a matter of disclosure, I will be attending INSEAD’s Executive Masters in Consulting for Change, commencing this September at the Singapore campus, which I have previously discussed on this blog.

The INSEAD application requires no resume, so providing as complete an answer to all application form questions is especially important.

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.

Now to the essays, which I obtained from the online application on August 10, 2014 to reconfirm that they had not changed.

Job Description Essays  (AND SO MUCH MORE!)
A core substitute for the resume are the job related essays, which give applicants an opportunity to explain and analyze their professional experience. 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.
As I already mentioned, keep in mind that INSEAD does not require a CV or resume. Therefore these job 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 essays will really provide INSEAD with their primary interpretation of your career.

Job Description 1. 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. What would be your next step in terms of position if you were to remain in the same company? (350 words max.) 

The first part of this question is a very straightforward for most applicants. For those who are unemployed, you should 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 responsibility that lead to a result. 50-100 words.
3-5. Subsequent responsibilities-results. 25-100 words.
Keep in mind that in this essay 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.
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?
2. Language learning
3. Internships
4. Volunteer activities
5. Travel
Given the subject of Job Essay 2, I find this categorization odd.  Anyway, these are the other essays and they relate to more than just motivation!
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.

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.

The second 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. 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. Try to answer this question 50-100 words.  Given that INSEAD has no why MBA question, this is a good place, as well as the next essay, to mention, albeit very briefly, your rationale for pursuing an MBA .

Job Description 2. Please give a full description of your career since graduating from university. It should be written as if you were talking to someone at a social gathering detailing your career path with the rationale behind your choices. Discuss your short and long term career aspirations. (350 words max.) 

(AKA “The Discuss Your Past Career and Future Aspirations at a Cocktail Party Question.”)
To call this a job description is just totally confusing. Since this essay is supposed to explain your overall career and your future goals (one assumes post-INSEAD short and long term career aspirations, it can hardly be called a job description, more accurately, it is CAREER MOTIVATION.

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 the trajectory been 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.

Calling this a description is particularly unhelpful because what they are looking for is an analysis of your career. And more specifically…

Anyone who knows about INSEAD knows it is a party school.  Well, I guess they really decided to flaunt that with this question, in particular: “It should be written as if you were talking to someone at a social gathering detailing your career path with the rationale behind your choices.”  That’s right, you are at a social gathering, perhaps drinking a martini or a glass of wine or Singapore Sling while explaining to someone at said gathering about your career. Now, unless you are bore, you will not go into details but be painting a pretty broad brush.  But who are you talking to? Maybe you are single and the person you are talking with is someone you want to impress because you really like them. At the same time, you know they are smart so you want to be relatively honest.  Yes, you stare into his or her’s eyes, smiling, and attempting to be as charming as possible. Alternatively, maybe you are talking to potential employer or someone who can help get you future employment or capital for your start-up or be your business partner. In any case, you want to be charming.  Your job is give them the big picture of where you have been and where you are going.  You must come across as engaging.  After all, if you can’t make an effective pitch here for yourself, what will happen when you have to do recruiting interviews or make a pitch to get investors for your start-up?  Or just effectively network?  Networking is  often more than just writing emails, but actually involves socializing. The question thus is measuring your capability to demonstrate how you discuss your career when communicating with others.

“Discuss your short and long term career aspirations.”
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. 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.
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?

3. 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. (350 words max.) 

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)
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 is really plausible.

The Motivation Essays

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. (600 words max.) 
This question has not changed substantially from previous years. Though they did slightly change the wording last time the questions were revised. 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.




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. (400 words max.) 
This is quite a bit to do in 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.
For an analysis of achievement and failure questions, see my post on IMD.  If you are also applying to IMD, you will probably find it easier to write their questions first before doing INSEAD’s.  IMD will give you more word count to answer very similar questions.  While the IMD question is on the most important achievement and the IMD failure question is on leadership, my guidance in that post should be sufficient for writing INSEAD’s essay. As INSEAD is now asking you to discuss  ”extra-professional activities” in Essay 4, I think there is very high likelihood that you will want to write about a professional achievement here. And why wouldn’t you want it to be your most important?

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:

1. Discuss 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.

3. Tell us about an experience where you were significantly impacted by cultural diversity, in a positive or negative way. (300 words max.) 
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.  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.”

The nice thing about this question is that it does not require an applicant to have substantial international experience because diversity takes many forms.

Writing about a positive experience is likely to be what most applicants do because it is rather easy to focus on a positive accomplishment and less likely to involve some of the pitfalls associated with negative cultural diversity situations (See below).

Writing about something negative can work well, but likes culture shock questions, 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: All 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.

There is a wide variety of possible topics, which makes this a great question  for really emphasizing something not covered well in other essays.  A key consideration is that whatever the topic, diversity impacted you significantly.  In other words, write about something important and not trivial. Write about something that will really help INSEAD understand why you belong in their diverse community because of your attitude and insight into diversity.

4. 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? (300 words max.) 
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.

5. (optional)  Is there anything else that was not covered in your application that you would like to share with the Admissions Committee? (300 words max.) 
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.

Especially given that INSEAD does not take a resume and that the application form does not provide such a huge amount of space to discuss your background, 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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