INSIDER TIPS ON INSEAD Essays: From ex INSEAD interviewer

The INSEAD application is the longest among top-tier B-schools, with 7 mandatory and 1 optional question. Knowing your story is important to INSEAD. In fact, the art of storytelling is interwoven into the INSEAD curriculum so well that some of the most popular courses at INSEAD are storytelling courses (its true!). The INSEAD application allows you to tell your story and make a compelling case for your candidacy better than any other business school application.

Unlike other B School applications where you may have to sacrifice details, the INSEAD essays provide enough space to cover all aspects and more. The application is divided into two parts, career essays and motivation essays, allowing you to showcase your career choices, post-MBA career vision, personal qualities, and experiences. Here are some insider tips on how to answer the INSEAD prompts, based on my experience working with INSEAD applicants and reading applications of INSEAD applicants as an alumni interviewer for 3 years.

The INSEAD essays are divided into 2 sections. I will start with the Motivational section first since they require more introspection

MOTIVATION ESSAY 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. (500 words max)

As an INSEAD interviewer, whenever I received an invitation to interview, my first focus was to find the first motivational essay. This essay is a critical in determining your fit for the program. The questionnaire that INSEAD asks interviewers to complete after an interview is also a comprehensive document that is primarily used to assess suitability or “the fit”.

This initial motivation essay, provides important insight into the applicant’s personality, values and character traits.

The key theme of this essay is “self-awareness.” People who lack self-awareness have a hard time developing and improving, which makes them stagnant or resistant to change. In contrast, people who are self-aware are often seen as more authentic, empathetic, and open to learning and growth, which makes them more likable and respected.

With this question, the committee is trying to understand who you are as a person. Your response to the essay prompt should focus on your values and how you acquired unique personality traits. Events in childhood, moments of triumph or experiences that reinforced a particular value, or the passing on of values by a mentor or role model are good sources for embedding values in your personality. A common mistake I have observed is that applicants make their role model the focus in their essay. Instead, move quickly to yourself.

The second part of the question, asking about weaknesses, should be carefully considered, and it should be something you are aware of. Avoid highlighting weaknesses in communication or understanding of international cultures (these are important to INSEAD), and instead focus on weaknesses in specific skills that may have resulted from your access to opportunities, socio-economic background, etc. But ideally nothing that you cannot improve overtime. When answering the question, stress the personal characteristics you feel are your strengths and weaknesses, and the main factors that have influenced your personal development. It should not be an isolated trait, and you should demonstrate how you are currently working to improve or have already overcome it. Remember to carefully read and understand this question.

MOTIVATION ESSAY 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)

The theme of this essay also centres around “self-awareness”. Some individuals gauge their success through their professional accomplishments, while others place more significance on overcoming personal challenges. Which of these two types are you ?

There is no right or wrong answer to this question. The adcom expects you to elucidate why you hold a value or “proud achievement” label for this example. Additionally, it is important to provide context on the obstacles and struggles, whether personal or professional, that led to the eventual victory. This will undoubtedly capture the adcom’s attention.

In the case of a failure, contemplate instances when you confronted your weaknesses head-on. The failure could have also been a moment of introspection in which the result could have arisen from external circumstances or issues with group dynamics or decision-making processes that you had not fully comprehended.

Remember to reflect on the latter part of the question as well. It may seem like a tall order to do so within 400 words, but INSEAD also wants to see how you perceive your interpersonal relationships with others who were involved in these isolated incidents. Demonstrate what you gained from each experience and how you intend to apply these insights retrospectively as you embark on the INSEAD journey.

MOTIVATION ESSAY 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? (300 words max)

The purpose of this essay is twofold: to assess whether you possess a well-rounded personality and to determine whether you can handle the demanding INSEAD program, which combines a rigorous academic curriculum with extensive networking obligations. INSEAD is seeking individuals who can multitask and juggle a hectic schedule with ease.

Note that extra professional activities and volunteering experiences are not the same. While highlighting your volunteer work is admirable, you should also include experiences from clubs, sports, music, arts, and languages, ideally showcasing a time in your life when you invested in developing a skill. This activity does not necessarily have to be a current one or something you recently participated in; it could be an engagement from several years ago that you spent a considerable amount of time on.

Pro-tip: This is an excellent opportunity to discuss if you’ve dedicated deliberate time and effort to learning a second or third language.

If given a choice, it would be best to choose a recent engagement, as it would demonstrate your ability to manage work with extracurricular activities, and the experience’s intensity would be similar to what you’ll encounter at INSEAD.

CAREER ESSAY 1. Briefly summarize 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. (200 words, max)

This question is intended to give the reader a snapshot of where you are right now in your career. In this 200-word question, it is crucial to connect the dots and showcase only the responsibilities or skill sets that set you apart. It is important to highlight team management skills, especially if you have supervised employees. If you work for a startup, adding a brief phrase that highlights the company hierarchy could make you stand out. However, it is best to limit storytelling elements for the job description essay. Focus on demonstrating how you achieved the project’s goals and the impact you had on different aspects of the project. Remember to be concise and avoid overdoing your response. This will ensure that your unique edge shines through and helps you stand out as a candidate.

Try not to get too technical; do not use industry jargon and keep your language simple as your readers may not be familiar with your industry or function.

CAREER ESSAY 2. What would be your next step in terms of position if you were to remain in the same company? (200 words max)

This is a tricky one!

Remember that the adcom uses this question for two objectives-

  1. To see how your company perceives you (are you someone who is set up for bigger better opportunities if you stay with your employer? Or are you someone who is struggling with stagnation and merely looking for an exist path through MBA)
  2. To see how an INSEAD MBA would add value to your career

While this may seem like a straightforward question, the admissions team wants to gauge how valuable the MBA program would be for you if your post-MBA role is similar your current one. If the program does not significantly enhance your career prospects, it may impact alumni satisfaction and post-MBA salary increase, both important factors in Business School rankings. This does not mean that you should downplay YOUR POTENTIAL! However, if your current and post-MBA roles appear similar in a large organization, your essay should clearly highlight other motivations for pursuing an MBA. The admissions team will use this essay to assess your goals, strengths, and weaknesses.

CAREER ESSAY 3. Please give a full description of your career since graduating from university. Describe your career path with the rationale behind your choices. (300 words max)

This is the classic “Career Progression” Essay.

For this essay prompt, you are asked to describe your career path since graduating from university and explain the reasoning behind the choices you made. Typically, successful candidates for the INSEAD MBA program have already gone through two or three career transitions. These transitions can include moving from a core engineering or technology role to consulting, or from one specialization within a function to another (e.g., corporate finance to investment banking, technology consulting to management consulting). This is just the space where you could talk about your career progressions in the same industry or career transitions across industries. It is important to note that having exposure to international cultures and work environments is highly valued by the program, and applicants with no such experience may not be as competitive at INSEAD.

Although travel has been restricted for many people in the past two years, the admissions team will still assess the international composition of your team to gauge your experience in working with people from diverse backgrounds. If you have worked remotely and collaborated with an international team spread across multiple geographies, this can be an advantage when applying to INSEAD. Overall, this essay is an opportunity for you to showcase the decisions you have made in your career and how they have prepared you for the next step.

CAREER ESSAY 4. Discuss your short- and long-term career aspirations with an MBA from INSEAD. (100 words max)

It’s important to focus on your desired post-MBA industry, function, and location due to the limited space. Unless you have a job offer from your current employer, you may or may not specifically name companies. Instead, indicate the preferred size of the company, such as Fortune 500, midsize, or boutique. Be specific about your goal and avoid generic statements. This will demonstrate that you have conducted thorough research and are committed to your career aspirations.

INSEAD does not have a lengthy goals essay. But be prepared for a thorough discussion during the alumni interviews.

CAREER ESSAY 5. (Optional) 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. (No word limit but we suggest 300 max)

This question is particularly relevant for applicants who transition from a job to a startup. Many incoming INSEAD students opt for short internships before they join INSEAD, especially if they are transitioning into a new industry. Speaking about this experience helps the school understand their motivation and employability in the short term. If you have faced a layoff or other circumstances that led you to apply for an MBA program, be sure to provide a clear and honest explanation. One useful skillset to develop during the transition period is language proficiency. INSEAD requires fluency in English, practical knowledge in a second language, and basic knowledge in a third language. Therefore, if you have been working on developing your language skills, it is worth highlighting those efforts in your response.

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