Essay 1: Give a candid description of yourself (who are you as a person), 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 (500 words maximum).
This has been an INSEAD staple for a few years now. The only real change here is in word count. Now, the one thing they haven’t done here, which they should have, is to distinguish between a passive description and an active one. A passive description just tells you about something, and it ends there. “The ink stain is permanent.” “This coffee is very hot.” Thanks, but we don’t want passive. We want that other thing — the description that teaches us something. Makes us develop an ATTITUDE about the subject.
“The ink stain is permanent, and it’s a good thing—I don’t ever want to forget the day the woman I fell in love with haplessly broke the cartridge over my white shirt. Crazy as it may sound, this blemish is a living monument of her innocence.”
Oh, so… the ink stain being permanent here was a GOOD thing! Hah! Without that context, we had no idea. Context, folks. Your job here is to describe yourself… with context. Give us a reason to learn something about you. Adjectives by themselves are meaningless.
How can you figure out WHICH characteristics give you your color? Have contributed to your personal development? Make you… you? (And not just “you” but… interesting, compelling, worth meeting, etc.)? That’s the hard part, isn’t it. Here are some tips to help:
- Has there been a moment in your life where you experienced a fundamental SHIFT in thinking? And we’re not talking about switching from Coke to Pepsi, but rather, an EPIC shift in worldview?
- Was there ever a moment where you acted in a way that was truly SURPRISING to others? And even to yourself? Where you went against the grain?
- Was there ever a moment that challenged you to your core? Requiring considerable strength or courage to overcome?
Defining moments that taught you something about what you were made of… really made of. Strengths and weaknesses are fair game here. Acknowledging weakness can be a sign of GREAT strength, and can be extraordinarily appealing. The guy who can introspect like that probably cares about improving. That’s the guy I want on my team, not the guy who is comfortable with finding himself to be flawless, beyond reproach, etc. Don’t shy away from this, if you have a neat weakness to talk about. Humility (especially in Europe) can go a long way.
Outlines for this essay can take many shapes and forms. But consider hitting these pieces in whatever you end up with:
- Provide examples of the traits. In fact, walk us through an action that DEMONSTRATES the trait over merely telling us about it.
- But then, make sure you give a reason we should care—this is the “context” we alluded to above. So what, the ink stain is permanent. Give us the VALUE.
Essay 2: Describe the achievement of which you are most proud and explain why. In addition, describe a situation where you failed. How did these experiences impact your relationships with others? Comment on what you learned (400 words maximum).
400 words for both essays tell you something, because there are a lot of components to this one. Let’s break it down:
- Explain your top-most achievement (what it was, why should we impressed)
- Then, explain why this ranks highest among all your achievements
- Next explain a key failure (what it was, exactly)
- Then, explain the ways in which these experiences impacted your relationship with other people (this is a twist – very few schools ask about this specifically)
- What were YOUR lessons?
Those all need to be dealt with, and you have 400 words. So, be straightforward, folks. It’s actually a great exercise in high-yield communication. Let’s focus on #4 though. How does a success or failure leave some kind of imprint on the way in which you relate to others? This is where you need to paint by clear examples. Imagine DELTAs between each scenario. There was a before and after associated with your success story. Somehow, that success affected the way you related to people – thus, the delta between before and after. What was it? Similarly, before you failed, you related to people in some way. Then after that failure, things changed with respect to your relationships with others. What changed? Examining those DELTAs will be the first KEY step toward crushing this question, and demonstrating how thoughtful and strategic you can be.
Essay 3: Describe all types of extra-professional activities in which you have been or are still involved for a significant amount of time (clubs, sports, music, arts, politics, etc). How are you enriched by these activities? (300 words maximum).
Part I of this essay will be all about the stuff, and a very clear indication of how involved you are. Leadership roles, special awards and distinctions, etc. Anything that gives us a clue about how excited you are about any particular activity, is good. Part II is about the way in which any given activity has made you… cooler. “Enriched” you. Again, we return to the concept of deltas. Picture what you’d be like without the activity, or all of them. How different would you be? What qualities, therefore, do those activities nurture in you? This doesn’t have to be separated into Part I – Activities, Part 2 – Enrichment. They can be integrated as you’re going through each activity.
Don’t leave your passion out here. Straightforward, yes, but… if your extracurricular activities seem to be part of a checklist routine, you’re not gonna excite anyone. The idea here is to come across like a sparkplug. Someone dynamic with interests and hobbies and talents and THIRSTS for things. The awareness that is revealed through articulating just how each activity has improved you in some way is icing on top.
Optional Essay: Is there anything else that was not covered in your application that you would like to share with the Admissions Committee? (300 words maximum)
Standard optional essay stuff. INSEAD’s applications are famously kinda bloated, so, whereas for schools that ask for only a SINGLE essay, we may recommend seizing this opportunity, for INSEAD, we’d recommend using some caution. Sure, address red flags, but in terms of telling “that one extra story you think will push it over the top…” give a hard think, cuz if you’ve done it correctly, you’ve already found a way to weave in your “greatest hits” into your main INSEAD essay questions.
You can also read through our team’s analysis of the rest of INSEAD’s application essays.
Learn more and explore each step of the INSEAD full-time MBA application process here.