INSEAD Essay Analysis, 2013–2014

INSEAD apparently has not felt the pressure to alter its essay questions or requirements this season, as many U.S. business schools have done. Except for reversing the order of some questions, no changes have really been made to the school’s queries or allotted word counts. The program’s six “motivational essay” prompts are the primary ones, and we will examine those in depth in this analysis, but applicants must also provide two to three shorter “job description essays” that generally require (or allow, depending on your perspective) candidates to provide a fuller picture of their current positions and career progression to date than a resume or CV might provide. We will briefly address these essays first.

Job Description Essays

Essay 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)

Essay 2: Please give 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 maximum)

Essay 3 (If applicable): 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) 

For these essays, we would encourage you to very carefully parse what data the school is requesting in each and then provide all of the relevant facts. For example, the first job essay prompt requires that you outline as many as seven different aspects of your current/most recent position. Make sure not to leave any out just because you would rather write more about others. In addition, take care for all the job description essays to avoid using acronyms or abbreviations that would not be easily recognizable to most, and consider providing some description of your company or industry, if the nature of either might not be readily clear. Using shortcuts (in the form of abbreviations) and skipping this kind of information could make your descriptions less understandable and therefore less compelling and useful to an admissions reader, so you are in fact doing yourself a favor by more completely depicting your situation—while adhering to the maximum word counts, of course. To make your responses to these rather straightforward queries more interesting to the admissions reader, consider framing them in a narrative format rather than simply outlining the basic information. Strive to incorporate a sense of your personality and individuality into your submissions.

Motivation Essays

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. (600 words maximum)

Although INSEAD’s request for “main factors … which have influenced your development” comes near the end of this essay prompt, we feel you should actually provide this context for your formative experiences before discussing the strengths and weaknesses you derived from them, because showing a clear cause-and-effect relationship between the two is important. The school asks that you offer examples “when necessary,” but your essay will be strongest if you present anecdotes to illustrate and support all your statements. Still, your essay should not end up being a hodgepodge of unconnected anecdotes that reveal strengths. Instead, focus on two or three strengths and one or two weaknesses in the mere 600 words allotted.

An important note: 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 will not fool or convince anyone and will only reveal you to be someone incapable of critical self-evaluation.

Essay 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)

Do not be intimidated by the minimal word count allotted here for what many would consider a rather significant topic. Writing a complete story on two important accomplishments in just 400 words is definitely possible. First, choose two examples—ideally, as INSEAD notes, one from your career and one from your personal life—that reveal different talents, and develop a succinct narrative that explains how you achieved what you did. Avoid leading with your accomplishment with a statement such as “My greatest accomplishment was when I did X” and simply declaring your conclusion with no anecdotal context. Doing so will kill your reader’s curiosity and remove any incentive he or she might have to read on. Most importantly, do not neglect to explain why you view your two chosen accomplishments as “your most substantial.” This element of the essay can reveal an important angle on your character and personality that will complement the evidence of your skills and motivations provided by your examples. Always respond to the school’s entire question/prompt.

Essay 3: Describe a situation taken from your personal or professional life where you failed. Discuss what you learned. (400 words maximum)

To craft a truly effective and compelling “failure” essay, you must first show reasoned optimism and tremendous momentum toward a goal—a goal that is ultimately derailed. In most cases, you will need to convey that you were emotionally invested in the project/experience, which will help your reader better connect with your story and vicariously experience your disappointment. If you fail to demonstrate that you were emotionally tied to the experience in some way—perhaps because of pride, a possible resulting promotion or bonus, etc.—your reader will have a hard time viewing the incident you describe as a true failure or learning experience.

As INSEAD requests, be sure to reflect on the situation and explain what you learned. Trite and clichéd statements about your takeaways are not recommended. For example, everyone gains some level of resiliency from a failure, so you will need to offer something less common and more compelling and personal. 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 self-aware and individualized 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 shifting the blame!

Essay 4: Please choose one of the following two essay topics:

a. Have you ever experienced culture shock? What insights did you gain? (250 words maximum)

b. Describe the ways in which a foreigner in your country might experience culture shock. (250 words maximum)

INSEAD prides itself on its international focus, and with this essay, the admissions committee clearly wants 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 will present 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.

Essay 5

a. Discuss your short and long term career goals… (300 words maximum)

b. …and 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.

Essay 6 (Optional): Is there anything that you have not mentioned in your application that you would like the Admissions Committee to know? (350 words maximum)

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 notable lack of international experience, a gap in your work progression, 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.

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