Wondering if you have what it takes to get accepted to INSEAD?
This blog post examines INSEAD MBA’s 4 admission criteria and how you can demonstrate them in your application.
What is INSEAD looking for?
INSEAD MBA criterion #1: Ability to contribute
The adcom gives, as its first admission criterion, “ability to contribute.” I take the liberty to add: ability to contribute as a person of quality and substance. All the criteria involve factors such as insight, growth, connection with people and cross-cultural facility, motivation.
This criterion is based on INSEAD’s culture of interaction: among students (from around the world), between students and alumni, and between students and professors. Therefore, INSEAD seeks students who bring something distinctive and meaningful to the program – it’s not just what you’ve done and plan to do – but what you have to say about it, what you’ve learned from it, how it informs your perspective, and how you may grow in the future – and your willingness to put that learning and growth at the service of your classmates and others.
This criterion also therefore mentions participation – show how you have been an active member of your various communities: school, work, neighborhood, family, social group, etc., formally and/or informally. INSEAD is interested in long-term contribution, so, if you have already been an active alum for your undergrad (or grad) program, spotlight that participation in the application. Nothing will be more credible than an actual track record of contribution!
Let’s finally examine the list of desired qualities this criterion cites at the end (on the school’s website); try to reflect these qualities in your essays and other application elements (some may naturally be more prominent than others):
- Mature: You can show maturity in numerous ways: frank self-evaluation, willingness to listen to and acknowledge the validity of opinions you may not agree with, willingness to ask for help, ability to see multiple sides of an issue, acceptance of and ability to handle ambiguity, willingness to resist short-term gratification for longer-term goals, etc.
- Energetic: It’s not a matter of running marathons. It’s a matter of being engaged. (A curious person is inherently energetic, mentally and intellectually.) You can exemplify this quality in many ways, e.g. pursuing new learning opportunities (whether or not related to your goals and career), initiating relationships and interactions, asking questions, exploring new ideas, geographic areas, languages, sports, recipes…
- Highly motivated: A close cousin of energetic. For those things of interest and/or passion and/or concern and/or curiosity to you, you feel an inherent drive to address, explore, achieve.
- Well-rounded: You have a range of interests, skills, acquaintances. You lead a balanced life: aside from your busy job, you socialize, and you engage in activities of interest. You also balance reflection and action. Each well-rounded person reflects this quality in his unique way; there is no one formula for it.
- Possess strong communication and interpersonal skills: Without these skills, how can you contribute? These skills are the vehicle for your contribution, nothing less. It is imperative to illustrate your communication and interpersonal skills in your INSEAD application.
INSEAD MBA criterion #2: International motivation
Sure, international experience is a big plus for an INSEAD applicant. But the website says that they seek candidates with international motivation which, in their eyes, means having “perceptive insights into the complexities of business in an international setting.” It also involves “adaptability and flexibility in multicultural environments” – which you can hardly achieve without some insight, so these elements naturally interconnect. The final component of international motivation is goals that have a global dimension.
So, meeting this criterion involves more than working in multiple countries, continents, or galaxies. “International” should be an element of focus, reflection, and growth.
What if you don’t have international experience? You can still possess international motivation if you’ve had global exposure (an example might be leading or serving on a virtual global team). It can even be in non-work form. (If you’ve had neither global experience nor global exposure, INSEAD might not be the school for you…)
To summarize, the three key elements sought by the adcom – whether you have global experience, global exposure, or both – under this criterion are:
- “Perceptive insights” about international business
- Adaptability across cultures
- Global goals
What does that mean for you?
Global experience and/or global exposure is simply a qualifying point. To make yourself shine among INSEAD applicants, go further. Offer vivid, thoughtful, sharp insights from your experiences. Those insights don’t have to be cosmic in scale. They do have to address “complexities of business in an international setting” in some way, shape, or form. Your insights should show that you are thoughtful, synthesize your experience and distill meaning from it, and are open to learning as you grow professionally.
Also, through example and anecdote, demonstrate your ability to adapt across cultures – and beware the pitfall of using stereotypes when doing so (the Japanese are indirect, the Israelis are blunt, the Indians are culturally conservative) – hint: stop when you find yourself saying “the French,” “the Chinese,” “the Saudis.” Very likely a simplistic stereotype is about to burst forth.
Here are some specific ways to incorporate this criterion into your application:
- If you DO have international work experience, present anecdotes and examples from it in your essays, make sure to portray your cultural adaptability and flexibility, and include insight you gained from this experience.
- If you DO NOT have international work experience, make certain to detail your international exposure, include insights gained, and show how this exposure involved your cultural flexibility.
- In the goals discussion, of course mention the global aspect, but go one step further, e.g., not just “become CIO of global pharma company” but add details about what that global aspect really entails for pharma, what are the specific global-related challenges and/or opportunities in the future, etc. Show awareness of global trends for your target industry, function, etc.
- Make sure your resume maximizes global-related experience.
- Go into the interview with (a) a good grasp of current economic and geopolitical realities to add context for anecdotes and discussion points when possible, (b) a fresh recollection of your global experiences (professional and personal), and (c) thorough understanding of INSEAD’s global culture and how you fit into it.
- INSEAD includes its language requirements within its discussion of international motivation, so when you describe actual cross-cultural interactions (in essays and/or interview), if relevant include language component.
INSEAD MBA criterion #3: Academic capacity
The operative word in this criterion is capacity. This word conveys the adcom’s perspective on the academic component of the application: it’s dynamic, focusing on how you can grow and perform and achieve academically going forward. The only way for the adcom to determine this is to draw conclusions based on your existing academic record. (Professional accomplishment does not indicate academic capacity, sorry to say.)
There are two core components of that academic record:
- Undergraduate record
- Standardized test
INSEAD now accepts both the GMAT and the GRE. Unlike many programs, INSEAD recommends score levels: for the GMAT, at least 70-75% for both quant and verbal sections and 6 for the IR; for the GRE, at least 80% for both verbal and quant.
Evaluating your undergraduate record
The case of the undergraduate record is a bit more nuanced. The adcom looks at both the performance (grades, GPA) and competitiveness of the school. So, a 3.5 isn’t just a 3.5; it’s 3.5 relative to the rigor of the undergrad school and program. There are additional considerations in evaluating your undergrad record that are relevant for academic capacity, including:
- How did your GPA trend? Even if it’s great, if it drops a lot in the last year or semester, it’s not a great signal for academic capacity – and vice versa, a rising trend over 4 years even if the overall GPA is so-so, is helpful.
- How did you do in your quant courses? Those grades should be solid at least. There should be no doubt about academic capacity in quant.
- Did you work during school? (If so, make sure the adcom knows it.) The ability to perform well (or even pretty well) while working indicates academic capacity.
- Did you earn a graduate degree? The rigors of graduate work plus the tenacity graduate level study requires show academic capacity, even though a grad degree is not required.
- How competitive and challenging was your undergrad program and school? And how does your GPA relate to that?
Evaluating your academic capacity
With these factors in mind, evaluate your own academic capacity, trying to see it from the adcom’s view:
- First, evaluate the GMAT score and how it breaks down. What story or impression will the adcom see behind the numbers and percentiles?
- Second, evaluate your undergrad record thoroughly. Again, what will the adcom see behind the grades and the course names? Does it see broad or narrow interests? A global perspective? Growth? Curiosity? What’s the story and the academic personality that emerge?
- Third, combine the insights from these two evaluations. What’s the holistic academic picture that develops and what does it tell the adcom about your academic capacity?This evaluation process may simply clarify that everything is fine on the academic front and you can focus your application efforts into other topics and considerations. Or, it may reveal that, while you are qualified for INSEAD academically, there is room to strengthen the impression of academic capacity. In that case, look for opportunities in the essays, resume, and (fingers-crossed) interview to fill in that gap through the examples, anecdotes, and details you include.
INSEAD MBA criterion #4: Leadership potential
INSEAD is not unique among MBA programs in desiring leadership potential in applicants. All do. It is unique in how it characterizes leadership and leadership potential.
The adcom has a two-pronged view of leadership:
- factual (what you did, your experience that reflects leadership) and
- qualitative (the values, character, and vision that inform your leadership, and its nature, impact and significance).
So, in this framework it’s not enough just to have impact or to drive change – it’s what kind of impact and why you pursue it; what specific change – from what to what and why.
Let’s focus for a moment on the word “potential.” The adcom doesn’t just say “leadership” for the criterion. Potential is forward focused. You may have led a big project to success, but if your application indicates that you aren’t reflective, engaged, and interested in growth, your potential – future – leadership may be limited. So, this criterion must resonate with the other elements of your application to show (ideally) a mature, open, curious, intellectually agile, personally reflective nature. Such a nature will, when leading, provide quality leadership.
Demonstrating leadership potential
How do you show that you meet this criterion?
- First, obviously, present experiences (through example, anecdote, and resume points) that clearly portray your leadership roles to date. These may be formal (where you were a designated leader AND met the responsibilities of the role) or informal (where you identified the need for and stepped in to tactfully provide leadership in a given situation, e.g. resolving a conflict among teammates). In presenting these experiences, keep “quality” on the radar screen and strive to weave in aspects of the experience that include this dimension.
- Second, through essays, resume, interview, etc., discuss experiences that convey elements of leadership. For example, you might have maturely handled an ethical challenge that didn’t necessarily involve leadership, but still showed qualities, such as courage, moral compass, willingness to prioritize values, etc., that one wants in a leader. There are an infinite variety of such elements – they include things like ability to motivate and/or inspire people, ability to persuade, willingness to take a stand for a value or an idea, ability and/or willingness to make tough decisions and forthrightly address the consequences, openness to appropriate risk-taking, etc. Bring them to the foreground when you describe an experience in an essay. In the resume, sometimes you can work it in contextually.
- Third, I’ll mention a factor too little used by applicants IMHO. When a good opportunity presents itself, mention (in essays and/or interview), a leader you admire and from whose example of leadership you are learning and growing. It may be someone you know at work, or a figure out in “the world.” No need to go on at length about such exemplars – but devoting a couple of lines in an essay or a sentence or two in an interview to such a mention is a great way to show leadership potential: you are thinking about leadership, you resourcefully gain insight from prevailing circumstances and apply it to your own situation, and you have the grace to elevate another.
Follow these steps and you are on your way to showing the INSEAD adcom that you are a great fit for the program.
For personalized assistance that will help you get accepted to INSEAD, check out our MBA Application Packages. I am always thrilled when I get an “I’m in at INSEAD!” email. I welcome the chance to help you show you belong at INSEAD and receive such an email from you in the future.Cindy Tokumitsu has advised hundreds of successful applicants, helping them gain acceptance to top MBA and EMBA programs in her 20 years with Accepted. She would love to help you too. Want Cindy to help you get Accepted? Click here to get in touch!