INSEAD MBA Essay Questions for January 2014 and September 2014


May, 26, 2013


Categories: Admissions Consulting | Essay Analysis | INSEAD | MBA | MBA留学

Here I discuss INSEAD’s essays for  January 2014 (Class of December 2014) and September 2014 (Class of July 2015). In 2011, INSEAD changed the essays for the first time in many years. The deadlines for September 2014 and January 2014, can be found here. For information about INSEAD interviews, please see here.

 

By the way, for those who have already written essays for 2014 admission, but are now applying for January 2015 admission, please see Converting INSEAD’s 2014 MBA Admissions Essays into January 2015 Essays. My post, INSEAD: Applying for September 2014 versus January 2015 Intakes  may also be relevant to you

 

PLEASE NOTE: According to INSEAD’s website, there will be new essay questions for Class of 2015 admissions. As of January 11, 2014, those questions were not yet up on their website. 

 

Since 2001, when I began doing MBA admissions counselling, 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 22 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. The INSEAD application requires no resume, so providing as complete an answer to all application form questions is especially important.

 

Job Related Essays

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.

 

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.

 

 

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. (250 words maximum)

This is a very straightforward question 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. 25-75 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 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.

 

 

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.

 

 

3. If you are currently not working, what are you doing and what do you plan to do until you start the MBA programme? (250 words maximum)

This is the only completely new question on the INSEAD application. It is a good addition as there was no place other than optional essay for applicants who are not working to discuss their situation. 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

 

 

The Essays
The word counts are now listed with maximums. This a change from prior years were approximate counts were given.

 

 

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. (600 words maximum)

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.
EMBRACE WEAKNESS!
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.
STRENGTHS
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.

 

IS IT A GOOD STRENGTH OR WEAKNESS?
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 what you believe to be your two most substantial accomplishments (if possible specify one personal and one professional, to date, explaining why you view them as such. (400 words maximum)

Since INSEAD is now asking that, if possible, you make one of your accomplishments one personal and one professional, I strongly advise that you do that.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:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

(CLICK TO ENLARGE. )

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 Admisisons 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 your personal or professional life where you failed. Discuss what you learned (400 words maximum)
This is a fairly standard failure question. It is important to remember that 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. The basic components of an answer:
1. Clearly state what the failure was.
2. Clearly state your role.
3. Clearly state the result.
4. Explain the effect in terms of what you learned and perhaps also how you applied what you learned.If possible, 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. a) Discuss your short and long term career goals. (300 words maximum) and b) How will studying at INSEAD help you achieve your vision? (250 words maximum)

THESE ARE FUTURE DIRECTED QUESTIONS 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. You must offer both a short term-plan and long-term vision for your intended future. Given the short length of the INSEAD program, it really is quite important that you give them a clear future post-MBA plan.

 

 

a) Discuss your short and long term career goals. (300 words maximum)
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, this 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.
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?

 

b) How will studying at INSEAD help you achieve your vision? (250 words maximum)
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. 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.

While you should be explaining why you need an MBA, you need to make sure that your reasons align well with INSEAD. You need not mention the names of particular courses as long as it would be clear to your reader that your learning needs align well with INSEAD’s offerings. For example, it is really a waste of word count to mention the names of particular finance courses if the main point you are simply trying to make is that you want to enhance your finance skills. Every admissions members at INSEAD is well aware of the programs major offerings.  If you have a particular interest in a more specialized course or studying with a particular professor, it might be worth mentioning it as long as it is an explanation of why you want to study the subject and not based on circular reasoning.

 

An example of circular (tautological) reasoning:  ”I want to take Capital Markets & Investments because I am interested in learning about capital market investing.”

This kind of circular reasoning is so common. Usually it takes place within a paragraph consisting of many such sentences. They actually convey nothing about the applicant.  They are just abstract needs and will have limited impact on your reader.  The admissions reader wants to learn about you, not about their own program.

 

An example of an explanation for why:  ”While I have been exposed to finance through my work at MegaBank of Joy, I presently lack the kind of comprehensive understanding of capital market investing that I will need to succeed as an investment analyst and I know I can gain at INSEAD.”  A more complete explanation would include additional details about the kind of issues that the applicant is interested in learning about and/or specific ways the applicant intended to apply what he or she would learn at INSEAD.  By focusing on very specific learning needs and explaining those needs in relationship to one’s goals and/or past experience, the admissions reader will be learning about you.
5. Please choose one of the following two essay topics: a) Have you ever experienced culture shock? What insights did you gain? (250 words maximum), or b) Describe the ways in which a foreigner in your country might experience culture shock (250 words maximum)

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

 

a) Have you ever experienced culture shock? What insights did you gain?
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) Describe the ways in which a foreigner in your country might experience culture shock
American Adam’s bad answer: “Those traveling to America might be shocked by the need 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 and how it would be a bit of a culture shock to someone not used to doing it. 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 MY 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 probably would not be shocked by.

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 own self-consciousness about what is different about your country. 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 who visits your country. You don’t have to write on a business related topic, but if you have a good one, do so. The following questions should help you:
1. What kind of problems have you seen foreigners have when communicating with people in your country?
2. What do people say in your country about foreigners? Do they have a bias against them or even a bias for them?
3. What most annoys you about your own country that would be something that someone coming from outside of it is likely to experience?
4. What aspects of your country’s culture seem hard for foreigners to handle (Not just the language as that is too obvious)?

 

6. Is there anything that you have not mentioned in the above essays that you would like the Admissions Committee to know? (350 words maximum) This essay is optional.

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. 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.
7. In case of reapplication, please provide an update on any new aspects of your professional, international, academic or personal profile that would not have been included in your previous application. Please also explain your motivation for re-applying to INSEAD. (400 words maximum)

For reapplicants, it is critical that you provide 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, beyond what you write about INSEAD in Essay 4b, please provide a clear explanation of why INSEAD is your first choice. I think it is especially useful to show what steps you have taken to learn more about the program.

For more about reapplication, please see A guide to my resources for reapplicants.

 

 



-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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