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 max.)
Although INSEAD’s request for “main factors which have influenced your development” comes near the end of the essay prompt, we believe you would be best served providing this context for your experiences before discussing the strengths and weaknesses you derived from them, because showing a clear cause-and-effect relationship between your formative experiences and your resulting personal characteristics is important. The prompt advises you to offer examples “when necessary,” but your essay will be strongest if you consistently present anecdotes that support your statements; the details of your story will reveal your attributes. Still, your essay should not end up being just a hodgepodge of strengths/anecdotes. Ideally, you could focus on two or three strengths and one or two weaknesses in the mere 600 words allotted.
An important note: you must be honest about your strengths (do not try to tell the committee what you think it wants to hear; truthfully describe who you legitimately are) and especially about your weaknesses—this is vital. Transparent or disingenuous statements about your weaknesses will not fool anyone and will only reveal you to be a person who cannot critically evaluate him-/herself.
2. Describe what you believe to be your two most substantial accomplishments to date (if possible, specify one personal and one professional), explaining why you view them as such. (400 words maximum)
You may think that writing a complete story on such a topic in 400 words is not possible—in fact, it is definitely possible. First, choose two anecdotes that reveal different talents and develop a narrative that leads the reader to an interesting conclusion. Second, do not simply declare that you have achieved something special without explaining—via an anecdote—how you did so. If you do this, your essay will be ineffective. Third, avoid leading with your accomplishment. By simply stating, “My greatest accomplishment was when I did X” and presenting your conclusion in the very first sentence(s), you will kill your reader’s curiosity and remove any incentive he/she might have to read on. Finally, do not neglect to reflect on your accomplishments and explain why you “view them as such [your most substantial].” Remember to always respond to the whole question/prompt.
3. Describe a situation taken from your personal or professional life where you failed. Discuss what you learned. (400 words maximum)
The best failure essays are often those that show reasoned optimism and tremendous momentum toward a goal—a goal that is ultimately derailed. In most cases, you will need to show that you were emotionally invested in your project/experience, which will help the reader better connect with your story and vicariously experience your disappointment. If you were not invested at all, discussing the experience as a failure or learning experience is hardly credible.
As INSEAD requests, be sure to reflect on the situation and explain what you learned. Offering trite and clichéd statements about your takeaways from the experience is easy and not recommended. For example, everyone gains some level of resiliency from a failure—you will need to offer something less common and more compelling. Take the time necessary to create a truly unique statement about your road forward and lessons learned, and your payoff will be an essay that is much more personal and self-aware than thousands of others the admissions committee will see.
As we noted earlier, avoid disingenuous statements about your failures—be sure to take responsibility, rather than shift the blame!
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)
This two-part prompt essentially amounts to a request for a personal statement essay, and because personal statements are similar from one application to the next, we have produced the mbaMission Personal Statement Guide, which helps applicants write this style of essay for any school. We offer this guide to candidates free of charge. Please feel free to download your copy today.
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)
Considering that INSEAD prides itself on its international focus, the admissions committee is clearly trying to get a sense of your cultural sensitivity and international awareness. If you have traveled at all—for business or pleasure—we recommend answering Essay Prompt A, because it presents you within the international sphere. In contrast, Essay Prompt B allows you to demonstrate your domestic knowledge, which is generally less desirable in the classroom, though highlighting aspects of your home country’s culture within the context of how a foreign visitor might perceive them could help demonstrate the diversity you would bring to the school and your ability to relate to others with different backgrounds. For either essay, you must offer anecdotes and try to capture the spirit of human interaction; simple country facts will bore, whereas placing the reader in the middle of your experience would be quite compelling.
6. Is there anything that you have not mentioned in the above essays that you would like the admissions committee to know? (300 words maximum) This section is optional.
However tempted you might be, this is not the place to paste in a strong essay from another school or to offer a few anecdotes that you were unable to use in any of your other essays. Instead, this is your opportunity, if needed, to address any lingering questions that an admissions officer may have about your candidacy, such as a poor grade or overall GPA, a low GMAT score, a gap in your work experience, etc. In our mbaMission Optional Statement Guide (available through our online store), we offer detailed advice on when and how to take advantage of the optional essay to help mitigate any problem areas in your profile, and include multiple examples of effective optional essays.