mbaMission Exclusive Interview with Pejay Belland, Director of Marketing, Admissions, and Financial Aid at INSEAD

We recently had the opportunity to speak with Pejay Belland, the director of marketing, admissions, and financial aid at INSEAD, who provided some interesting insights into the school and certain elements of its special ten-month MBA program. During our discussion, Belland elaborated on the following:

  • INSEAD’s reputation and recognized offerings
  • The school’s less well-known strengths
  • Benefits and challenges of the program’s ten-month format
  • How INSEAD evaluates its applicants
  • Creating cohesiveness in the student body
  • The GMAT versus the GRE
  • Preparing for an INSEAD interview

Read on to learn more about INSEAD and what it offers aspiring MBAs.

mbaMission: Thank you for your time today. To start us off, what would you say are the three things INSEAD is best known for

Pejay Belland: Well, I would say the first thing is diversity. We say we’re the business school for the world, and we are indeed a very global school in many respects. First of all, we have a presence—a physical presence, not just a satellite presence—with three campuses in France, in Singapore, and in Abu Dhabi. When we launched the MBA program back in 1959, we attracted, at the time, a very European audience, so not just French, but nationalities from all over Europe. And since then, we’ve really gone from strength to strength to attract high-profile students from all over the world. Today we have a class of 1,000 students who come in two intakes, one in January, one in September, and in any class, we have well over 80 nationalities represented. And importantly, there is no dominant culture.

What that means is that it is a very international experience in the classroom. Our professors come from all over the world, and in class, you can be sure that you’ll have a whole number of different cultural perspectives on any situation or case the prof presents. Students learn as much from each other as they do from the professor and get some great insights into global business. I think that’s very important. So that’s the first point.

Secondly, we’ve been pretty well known in the past for the fact that we are a one-year program. We were actually the first to launch a one-year program, back in 1959. It’s a very intensive experience. We talk about one year, but in fact, it’s only ten months. So it’s very attractive to students who don’t want to be out of the workforce for too long. It also prepares them incredibly well for the fast-paced roles that they’re going to be going into after they graduate. They really have to juggle about 80% of the course content that they would cover on a two-year program, whilst at the same time going through the job search, going through the career development process. In addition to that, there are a lot of social activities going on all the time. There’s a lot of lifelong friendships and also partnerships for entrepreneurial ventures, for example, which are formed during the program. So I would say the intensity is also something for which we’re well known.

And then I would say thirdly, the quality of the program itself—our students, our faculty. As you know, we’re ranked pretty highly—we’re number four in the FT [Financial Times]. We’re number two in the Forbes ranking. We’re highly recognized for the quality of our faculty research—two of our professors were ranked respectively second and ninth in the Thinkers50 ranking of the world’s most influential management thinkers, with a number of others cited on the radar screen. The quality of our students is also recognized. Today, for example, we are placed at number two in the FT500 CEO list, just behind Harvard, and 58% of our alumni are in a board or C-level position globally. And our student talent is highly appreciated amongst our recruiters—we’re ranked number one in Asia for the QS ranking and second in Europe.

mbaMission: Good. What do you think INSEAD should be known for, then, that it is not? What would you consider a hidden gem of the program that you feel should get more attention?

PB: There are a lot of areas, actually. We are a general management school, so, you know, we excel in all disciplines, but I would say that there’s perhaps one area, which is entrepreneurship. We have a number of centers of excellence which focus on entrepreneurship in all its aspects, and a comprehensive program for our students which begins from day one. Students don’t necessarily immediately take the entrepreneurial route on graduation (about 5% to8% will do so), but later on, we estimate that about 50% of our alumni will go into some kind of entrepreneurial role. And a recent analysis by Pitchbook, a provider of PE [private equity] and VC [venture capital] data, found that INSEAD’s entrepreneurs raised the most funds outside the United States in the past five years. We’re very proud of our entrepreneurs!

mbaMission: Perfect. So how does the student experience differ between the September start and the January start? I know that one has an internship, or the possibility of an internship, and the other does not, but what are some of the other differences in the two student experiences?

PB: I think you’ve hit the nail on the head, actually. It is a ten-month course in both cases, except that the January class has a break in the summer where they can do an internship if they wish. It’s not compulsory, but about 50% of our January class will do an internship. I would say that’s probably the biggest difference. What it means in terms of preparation, of course, is that whereas the September class won’t actually start the recruiting process or the job search, per se, until the last four months of their program—although they’re preparing throughout the first six months—for those in the January class who do want to do an internship, there’s the additional need to start to look for an internship practically from day one when they arrive on campus. So that does add to the intensity of their program somewhat, but at the same time, it’s a good option to be able to explore future desires for different careers. So I would say the intensity is balanced out by the opportunity that doing an internship brings.

mbaMission: I see. So how would you suggest people prepare for this and the intensity of the ten-month program? What advice do you give incoming students?

PB: Sure. I think one of the things to underline here is that, of course, we don’t recruit undergraduates. We are looking for people who have a certain maturity to be able to deal with that intensity. The average work experience [of our incoming students] is about five years. In some cases, we will admit people with as low as two years’ work experience, and those tend to be folks who have a very dynamic and successful first two years in their career, so they have probably already been in an intensive environment and have that maturity to be able to deal with the workload, the job search, and the social activities at the same time. That’s probably the best preparation.

On our side, we do filter them in talking to prospective candidates, underlining the fact that it is going to be intense, and we encourage them to talk to alumni to try and get an understanding as to what those first four months are, where you’re doing in the majority of your core courses. How intense are those first four months? What are the challenges? And I think the alumni are probably best placed to give their insights into that, into how to deal with it. I think the reality is that there’s so much going on. There’s a little bit of time management that’s needed, and there has to be a bit of prioritization, as well. You can’t go to every single social event. You can’t go to every single presentation. You have to be in class. You have to deliver your assignments on time. So at some point, you have to prioritize.

mbaMission: Sure. We did an interview with an alumnus of your school, and he said INSEAD involves three main components—studying, socializing, and sleeping—but that you can really only have two, so most people give up sleeping. I thought that was kind of a funny anecdote.

PB: I think a lot of people would probably agree with that. A lot of these folks are going to go into a very intense job when they graduate from INSEAD, so I think it’s an amazing training ground for them.

mbaMission: Very true, especially for the bankers and consultants out there.

PB: That’s right.

mbaMission: So how do you build a strong community when your students are spread out among different campuses?

PB: That’s a very good question. If I can sort of backtrack a little bit to how do you build a community amongst the people that are physically on campus, we do that through group work. All of our students are put into groups when they arrive. First of all, they’re in sections, so each section is around 70 to 80 students, and then within each section, they’re divided into groups of about five to six students who are put together for their diversity, so they’re really hand matched, if that explains it a little bit. They spend the first four months with their section, and they spend the first four months working within that same group. And then there’s all the social activities and clubs, whether careers or other interests. There is a lot of bonding around common themes. Obviously, in mixing between the two campuses, there is the campus exchange, and as you probably know, students get an opportunity to go to the other campus at some point during the program. So that’s another opportunity to continue to build a community.

I think the reality is when you have a class of 500 students, you can’t possibly know all 500 of them, but you will find that students sort of group together around common interests or meet each other at social events, or come together perhaps because they’re working on a specific project together, or they’re interested in a specific career, or they’ll reach out to each other because one student comes from banking and another student wants to go into banking. There’s a lot of exchange going on through these sorts of informal activities across the campus.

mbaMission: Sure. What can you tell me about how INSEAD evaluates applicants? What is the process when you go through an application?

PB: Basically, we read every single application that comes to us, so we have a team of dedicated professionals who evaluate the files and make the first analysis. We’re looking at four different areas, four different criteria that we take into consideration when we’re evaluating a file, and the first one is academic potential. That’s quite important in a one-year program, to be able to deal with the course content and to get through the academic side of things and to really take away a good learning experience. So obviously, we look at the academic background of the person, as well as their GMAT or their GRE. That gives us some insight into how they’ll be able to perform in the program.

Then we look at the international motivation of the candidate. What I mean by that is a certain cultural sensitivity or curiosity. A lot of our students have worked or lived outside of their home country at some point during their life, whether it’s on a personal level, on a professional level, or for those that actually haven’t, they have an intellectual curiosity to learn more about different cultures and how different cultures do business. So that’s the second dimension we’re looking at. We also measure that to a certain extent by the languages. We do have a language policy of two languages for entry to INSEAD, then a third language for exit at a basic level, for graduation.

The third component, as a general management program, is their leadership potential. Now, we obviously recognize that many of our candidates are not in a leadership position yet, but we are preparing them for one, so we want to be sure that they have that potential. And the way we do that is to look at their background, look at how they’ve evolved in their careers so far, what sort of responsibilities have they had so far. We also are looking at the recommendations, so how do the people that have worked with them, whether it’s their bosses, whether it’s clients, how do they actually see them? Where do they see their skills in terms of leadership? And how would they see them in the future, would they see them in a future leadership position?

And then there’s a fourth component, which I think comes back to perhaps the social components of the INSEAD experience, which is we’re looking for well-rounded personalities. It’s very important to have interests outside of the workplace, to be able to take a step back from work from time to time and to relax. And the students we’re looking for are people who are very well grounded with good personalities. We’re looking for people who are able to contribute in class, who are really dynamic. How are they going to contribute in class? I mean, that’s the big question. It’s all part of the learning experience.

mbaMission: Absolutely. How do you screen for fit when you’re assessing applicants? How can you tell whether someone is the right fit for your program?

PB: When we’re looking very closely at those four criteria, that gives us an initial impression of how we feel that person would fit at the preselection committee stage. Obviously, we get a little bit of insight into their personality through the essays that they send to us, and if we feel that there is a potential fit, then we’re going to send them to interview, and they would do two interviews. Our interviewers, by the way, are alumni, and one of the questions that we ask our interviewers is, “Would you be happy to have this person as a classmate?” I think the graduates from INSEAD are probably in the best place to be able to judge, by meeting the person, whether they really would fit with the INSEAD community.

mbaMission: Sure. INSEAD is so internationally focused, and we talk to our clients a lot about highlighting that in their applications. Are there things you look for at INSEAD that you think are different from what the U.S. schools look for?

PB: Well, it does come back to diversity. I think all schools are going to be looking for leadership potential, right? I mean, that’s for sure. Some schools may focus more on the academic side more or less, but for us, it’s equally balanced. I think probably the two factors which can differentiate from our perspective are the international components and the personality or the ability to contribute. I’m not quite sure if U.S. schools today are looking for that international component, but for us, it’s equally important. I think a lot of U.S. schools have a high applicant pool of domestic candidates, so they’re measuring their overall pool perhaps on different dimensions than we are. But for us, this cultural awareness and this cultural sensitivity and curiosity are important.

And then, if you speak to somebody who has gone through INSEAD, and if you speak to somebody who has gone through Harvard, or somebody in Europe who has gone through LBS [London Business School], there’s always that little something that differentiates them, and it’s really difficult to put your finger on. But you know, an INSEAD-er will say, “I’m an INSEAD-er.” An LBS-er will probably say, “I’m an LBS-er,” and I think that does come down to the personality. It’s definitely all the criteria that we look at, but definitely the social components and sort of the outgoing side of the personality is very important.

mbaMission: Sure. I’d like to get your views on the GMAT versus the GRE. Are you seeing an increase in students applying with the GRE? And what kind of applicants do you typically see applying with the GRE?

PB: We don’t have huge numbers with the GRE who submit an application compared to our U.S. peers, perhaps because U.S. domestic students are more familiar with the GRE. We have some applicants who have actually done the GRE and done the GMAT as well. So I would say we’re probably not yet even in double digits in terms of percentages of GRE takers who apply to INSEAD. But to answer the second part of the question, I would say they are from across the board.

We’re always a little bit cautious about giving ranges, both with the GMAT and with the GRE. We sort of give a rough target, and what we say generally is that when we’re looking at GMATs—and we look at the Verbal and the Quant, by the way—we would say that candidates should be more or less aiming for a 70th percentile on both Quant and Verbal. And in GRE, it’s a little bit higher, according to what we’ve seen in terms of conversion, which we’ve got from ETS [Educational Testing Service]. So we would say around 75th to 80th percentile for GRE. But I do want to emphasize the fact that the GRE and the GMAT is just one component, and we often get candidates saying, “Oh gosh, I’ve looked at the average at INSEAD, and it’s 700+. Should I be retaking my GMAT, because I’m at 690?” And quite honestly, we’re looking at so many other aspects, when you’re so near to that mark, you really don’t want to retake the GMAT.

mbaMission: I agree. I always tell clients when they’re so close like that, that’s not going to make or break you.

PB: No, it really doesn’t, and I do want to reassure anybody who has questions about that. It really doesn’t. In some cases, if we see what we would find to be a relatively low Quant score, for example, we might go back and look at other elements of the file, just to make sure that the candidate, if we were to admit them, would be able to deal with the quantitative courses.

mbaMission: Great. Because your program is so condensed, I imagine students really have to come in with a clear idea of what they want to do after graduation. How do you judge the employability of an applicant? Is that part of your equation?

PB: We do look at what their career goals are, because we want to make sure that when they apply to INSEAD, they already have a clear idea—what is their story, where are they coming from, where do they want to go? We’re also very conscious that they’re going to discover so many new things when they come on the program, that some of them will change their opinion, change their direction. Of course, it does have to happen quite early on in the program; it’s a ten-month program. But I would say, yes, we do look at career goals, and if we see something completely outrageous, which hasn’t been well thought through, then we would question the good sense of the applicant.

mbaMission: Do you work in conjunction with the career services office?

PB: We do. When we have a question about some career goals that we’re asking from applicants, we actually go down to the careers team and say, “Is this candidate being realistic about their objectives that they’re setting themselves?” Not to say that we would refuse the candidate, but just to say that we might want to be aware of some goals which are maybe a little bit unrealistic, to be able to set expectations as well, from day one, from when they actually come on the program. And the other thing that we do is we have a bit of a debrief session with our careers department and our program management department after the program, just to see who were stars and who were kind of the lower performers. And we try to figure out if there is anything that could have helped us in the application process to identify either the stars—is there a trend there, where we could have been looking out for more stars?—or those who underperformed. Is there anything that we could have picked up on in the applications which might have raised alarm bells?

mbaMission: When you say a star, you mean somebody who is easily employable versus someone who may be less so?

PB: Yeah, absolutely. Again, it’s two different things, because you’ve got the academics and you’ve also got the careers outcomes. So we bring together both the careers teams and the academics just to debrief. It’s not an incredibly formal process, but it does help us on the admissions side to really figure out if we’ve admitted a candidate where we might have had some concerns, but we thought we’d give the person the benefit of the doubt. It’s always good to have the feedback on how things have gone and whether our decision was the right one.

mbaMission: Sure. We’ve been hearing from some waitlisted applicants that the schools are asking for a Plan B because their career services offices aren’t sure the applicants can achieve the goals they’ve set for themselves.

PB: That’s interesting. I would say in our case, it wouldn’t be make or break. We know that sometimes the career goals are… sometimes they might be telling us a little bit the stories that they think we want to hear, which is not a good thing either, by the way.

mbaMission: Right.

PB: But we certainly would not refuse a candidate based on their career goals. Unless that career goal is completely ridiculous—and no examples come to mind—but maybe somebody whose career goal has got nothing to do with an MBA, you would really question why they would want to do an MBA. Let’s say, somebody who is a banker and comes to INSEAD and wants to be an actor. I mean, that’s a ridiculous example, right? We’ve never had that, but obviously, you’d question it. This person’s story doesn’t make sense. Why aren’t they going to theater school? Why are they coming to INSEAD to get an MBA? In some cases, if we did see something like that, we’d dig a little bit deeper at the interview stage to better understand their motivation.

mbaMission: Waitlisted clients often come to us for advice about how they should manage that stage of the admissions process. What does INSEAD expect from applicants who are waitlisted? Is there an ideal approach?

PB: We know how difficult it can be for waitlisted candidates awaiting an answer from the school. We do try to get back to them as soon as possible, either to make an offer or to let them know that there are no longer any spots available. There really isn’t an ideal approach for them, though, except to be patient.

mbaMission: Sure. I wanted to quickly touch on another aspect related to employability. We get many clients who are interested in INSEAD but who want to work in the United States after graduation and have some concerns about that. What can you tell me about placement in the States for your MBAs?

PB: Sure. I think the majority of our alumni are based on the East Coast and the West Coast. I was in San Francisco a couple of weeks ago, and we did an event at Google, and we have a huge base of alumni in Silicon Valley, on the Google campus. So that’s one example. Otherwise, we have good relationships with the big consulting firms, so definitely a lot of our students go into consulting in the U.S. But I think the reality is that somebody who is coming from the U.S. and who wants to go back to the U.S. should also be prepared to use their own network. They can definitely use INSEAD’s network, but they should also be able to use their own network to find a job in the U.S.

We do have less presence in the U.S., so it’s kind of a mixture of both. As I said, there are the obvious suspects on the East Coast and the West Coast. We would always do our utmost to facilitate relationship building with new companies in the U.S., but the candidate coming in who does want to go back and has got a very specific idea of where they want to go, if that’s not a company with whom INSEAD is in contact, not a company with whom we have a strong relationship through alumni or corporate relationships, then the candidate should be prepared to work on building those relationships and putting a lot of effort into their job search as well. Which is what we say to all candidates, by the way. The careers team is there to facilitate the job search, but at the same time, the candidates need to be willing to put in a lot of their own time as well.

mbaMission: Of course. I think that’s something a lot of MBA students don’t really understand. The recruiting process begins even before you show up on campus.

PB: Completely. Absolutely.

mbaMission: What advice would you give an applicant who has made it to the interview stage at INSEAD?

PB: The biggest piece of advice that I can give to an applicant is to be themselves. The interview enables us to get some insights into the candidate’s personality, their stories, their motivation for INSEAD, and their fit with the school. It’s also a dialogue that lets the applicant get to know the school a little better through an opportunity to ask our alumni interviewers their questions. So take advantage of this opportunity. Obviously, it still remains an interview, so approach it as you would an interview for a job, be prepared, ensure you’ve done your homework about the school and that your motivation for joining is sound.

mbaMission: Great. Thank you again so much for your time. I really appreciate it.

PB: Thank you.

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