An Insider’s Perspective on INSEAD’s New Essays

February 21, 2014 | by Matt Symonds

By Caroline Diarte Edwards, Former Director of MBA Admissions at INSEAD

If you’re in the process of applying to INSEAD, or plan to in the future, you should be aware that INSEAD just released a revised set of MBA essay questions. These changes are not as far reaching as those made by some U.S. schools in the past year or two. INSEAD prefers to make small, incremental changes to their admissions process. However, it’s important to understand what these changes mean to an applicant, especially with less space to communicate important information about yourself. Here’s a summary of the changes:

Reduced Word Count and Essay Consolidation
The school has made an effort to reduce the overall length of the application, recognizing that INSEAD’s application is the longest amongst top schools, which can deter some candidates. The reduction is not dramatic: the total word count for required essays goes from 2700 to 2300, with the number of required essays dropping from 7 to 6. These changes show that INSEAD is seeking to balance their desire to gain a very complete and wide-ranging picture of the candidate, with streamlining the process to make it more manageable for candidates.

Greater Emphasis on Soft Skills
The changes to the essay questions are subtle, and largely reflect a desire to get deeper insight into the soft skills of the candidate. The school is making a slight shift in emphasis in the essays away from hard facts (many of which are in any case evident in the resume data contained in the personal profile section of the application) and towards reflection and soft skills. For example, in the essay about accomplishment and failure, there is a new element: “How did these experiences impact your relationships with others?” The essay focusing on cultural awareness and sensitivity has been reworded to: “Tell us about an experience where you were significantly impacted by cultural diversity”. The school is looking for more personal reflection and evidence that the candidate has learned and grown through exposure to other cultures – not just the sequence of events.

Elimination of “Why INSEAD?” Question
At first glance, it seems surprising that the school is no longer explicitly asking for any explanation of why the candidate wants to go to INSEAD! However, it is virtually impossible to write anything very original in 250 words on this topic, and the essay therefore typically gave rise to a lot of platitudes about what a great school INSEAD is. Instead, INSEAD will assess the candidate’s motivation through the interview process. This makes a lot of sense: in a conversation, it is much easier to gauge how genuine the candidate’s motivation actually is, whether they have done their research, and whether they really have a strong sense of affinity with the INSEAD community.

New Essay about Extra-Curriculars
There is a new question simply asking about the candidate’s extra-curricular activities and interests, and, equally significantly, “how are you enriched by these activities?”. This addition is a consequence of the introduction of a new online application form last year, that has less room for candidates to explain extra-curricular activities than the previous version of the form, and had been a source of frustration for candidates and INSEAD admissions file readers alike. The extra-curriculars are an important element of how INSEAD evaluates the candidate on one of its four key admissions criteria: “Ability to contribute”. They want to know if the candidate has the right personality for the program, and whether they will make a good contribution not just to interaction in the classroom, but also to the life of the community outside the classroom, during the MBA, and later, as a member of the alumni network. Candidates who have other interests outside work that they are passionate about, and who perhaps have some noteworthy achievement outside a professional context, are, in the school’s experience, more likely to become students who will take the lead in student clubs and be actively involved in the alumni network.

If you would like to discuss your INSEAD application with Caroline, contact us at

Sign up for a