INSEAD is bucking a trend – whereas many b-school applications have recently leaned toward “minimalist” essays, for INSEAD you still have to write several thought-provoking and challenging essays. In the program with perhaps the most intensive global focus, verbal acuity matters, because the ability to reflect on, synthesize, actualize, and communicate complex ideas across cultures is central to global leadership.
The INSEAD essays are divided into two categories: Job Description Essays and Motivation Essays. The use of the word “motivation” should be forefront in your mind as you draft those essays; the concept should appear directly or indirectly in each. It means that the adcom wants to know what drives you, what propels your choices, decisions, and actions.
Job Description Essays:
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. What would be your next step in terms of position if you were to remain in the same company? (350 words max)
The key to strong job descriptions is “results achieved.” Definitely provide the other requested elements, but the distinguishing factor will be those results. Quantifying outcomes usually shines a spotlight on your impact and contribution.
The second most important element is “major responsibilities.” Don’t list the mundane or the aspects of your job that everyone with your title will share. Where did you shoulder “major responsibility”? Focus on responsibility above and beyond what is typically expected of someone at your level. Be specific in these descriptions to differentiate yourself, especially if you come from a common professional group in the applicant pool. Address the hypothetical next step question succinctly; a sentence or two will usually suffice.
Essay 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)
Yup – this is a goals essay question, hidden within the “career summary” question hidden within the “job description” section! The implication is that INSEAD sees your career goals as part of a continuum, and so present them that way – even if changing careers. The emphasis on the decision points of your career trajectory underscores this implication. The adcom wants to see how you conceive and conceptualize a career path as much as what happened in it.
Also, don’t confuse “full description” with “complete history.” Choose the most important elements — those elements that show contribution, leadership, and, since this is INSEAD, a multi-cultural and global perspective.
Essay 3 (optional). If you are currently not working or if you plan to leave your current employer more than 2 months before the program starts, please explain your activities and occupations between leaving your job and the start of the program.
State the facts straightforwardly — not just what you’re doing but why you’re doing it. If you have room and if it’s relevant, consider addressing why you are unemployed at the moment.
Essay 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)
For a question like this I recommend two strengths and one weakness. If you can choose one anecdote that reveals both the strengths and the weakness, it’s efficient with space and can strengthen the essay. Don’t forget to discuss how these qualities influenced your personal development. For more on INSEAD 1 and writing about weaknesses, please see this video:
A word on weaknesses. Be honest without going overboard. Don’t make up a phony weakness. I attended an HBS info session a few years ago. One of the alumni said that he discussed a “phony weakness” in his essays (required for HBS that year), and his interviewer focused right on it, and basically said, “Come on. What’s a real weakness?” The applicant had to get real in a hurry. Take advantage of the essay: Give it some thought and respond with the benefit of that reflection. For more information, please see “Flaws Make Your Real.”
At a recent AIGAC conference one of the adcom members remembered that an applicant in response to a similar question had listed his weakness as “pitching new ideas in a meeting.” The adcom member felt that the applicant was specific, real, and showed self-awareness by revealing this flaw. In fact, by demonstrating these qualities in addition to the requested weakness that he was working on, the applicant actually enhanced his chances of acceptance with his response.
Don’t write about “weakness in pitching new ideas in meetings” as your flaw just because you saw it here. It will become the lame, stale example everyone uses. However, you all have weakness. Just be thoughtful enough and honest enough to reveal yours.
(NOTE: There is potential for some overlap in this essay with Essay 2, so look at both questions together and organize content before writing them.)
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)
With only 400 words to describe 2 significant experiences, and the specified discussion points, you need to use stories that can be told without a lot of background information. And keep in mind Essay 1 – don’t use stories that reflect exactly the same messages. “Achievement of which you are most proud” is a high bar, and it can be from either work or outside of work. It also should be something that reveals qualities or attributes about you that are positive and relevant. I suggest using something from the last two to three years. Luckily you don’t have to write about the failure about which you are most ashamed… 😉 Discuss a failure that is specific, fairly recent, and meaty enough to have rattled you a bit. Again, work or non-work topic is fine.
In discussing what you learned from the experiences and how they impacted your relationships, identify one specific thing for each point for each story – there isn’t room for more. And there isn’t need for more, because one can be very powerful if it’s insightful.
Essay 3. Tell us about an experience where you were significantly impacted by cultural diversity, in a positive or negative way. (300 words max)
In choosing your topic story, think about “impact” – often people describe being surprised or emotionally challenged by encountering new or different cultures, but that’s not enough to make this a good essay. Impact is what happens after the initial response: how did the experience change your behavior, or change your perception, or inspire you to learn something, or cause you to reconsider beliefs/ideas – these are impacts.
Narrate the story succinctly, vividly portraying the impact on you. The adcom wants to see that you are thoughtful, resourceful, and responsive in encountering cultural diversity, because it is a key attribute of their program.
Essay 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)
Simply discuss the range of activities you participate (or have participated) in – those that are major passions, and those that are “just fun” – clarifying their relative role and importance in your life. Be straightforward in how they enriched you – no need to strive for something “different” that no one has ever felt or experienced before…. Imagine you are meeting with clients or superiors – between the business dealings (and perhaps over a drink); you and they might chat about non-work interests – approach this essay like such a conversation. Not quite as casual as with a peer, but still conversational, straightforward, and intended to connect on a person-to-person level.
Optional Essay: Is there anything else that was not covered in your application that you would like to share with the admissions committee? (300 words max)
Use the optional essay to explain anything that needs explaining and/or to give them one more reason to accept you. DON’T use it for a superficial summary, a restatement of your other essays, or anything similarly boring and trite. If you choose to write it, produce a tight, focused essay revealing something you haven’t yet discussed.
INSEAD Application Deadlines:
Deadlines for September 2015 Intake (Class of July 2016)*
By Cindy Tokumitsu, author and co-author of numerous ebooks, articles, and special reports, including Why MBA and Best MBA Programs: A Guide to Selecting the Right One. Cindy has advised hundreds of successful applicants in her fifteen years with Accepted.com.