Business Schools

Admissions Tips from INSEAD

MBA Admissions Director Caroline Diarte Edwards talks about the advantages of the globally diverse program, and what it takes to make the cut

While so many schools in the U.S. are scrambling to become more international, INSEAD (INSEAD Full-Time MBA Profile) is way ahead of the global game. No more than one-tenth of any class hails from a single country. The school structure itself boasts linguistic diversity: INSEAD has a strictly French name (which stands for Institut Européen d'Administration des Affaires) and an English-only curriculum.

With one campus in rural France, one in urban Singapore, and one virtually identical curriculum between the two, INSEAD has no trouble fluidly crossing borders. And the school has the students to match. By graduation, each student must demonstrate proficiency in three languages. In 2008, INSEAD ranked third among BusinessWeek's top international business schools. In an interview with BusinessWeek's Mandy Oaklander, Caroline Diarte Edwards, director of MBA admissions, marketing, and financial aid, explains why students should commit to one realistic application deadline, prepare for two interviews, and start deciding which third language they've always wanted to learn. Below is an edited portion of the conversation.

How are the application numbers looking this year?

There is a growth in the market across the board. We've been seeing growth in applications for several years, but in the past 12 months growth has been in the double digits. We also have two modular Executive MBA programs. They have seen growth in applications as well.

Your applicant pool is growing, but the demand for MBAs in the recruitment market is not. How do you reconcile those two?

It's like what you typically see with a market downturn—there's a boom in applications to business school, but at the same time, clearly it's much more challenging for the recruitment market. It's not an uncommon phenomenon.

What are you looking for in an applicant?

There are four key criteria: academic capacity, professional experience and leadership potential, international motivation, and fit with INSEAD. In academics, we're looking at the academic track record: previous studies, quality of institution attended, grades achieved, and the GMAT.

In the professional evaluation we're looking at if the applicant has had a fast-track career, if they've progressed, and if they have had significant achievements in their professional life. We see if they have the qualities we believe will enable them to become a leader in the future.

INSEAD is a very international environment. We have over 80 nationalities in the program, and no nationality represents more than 10% of the class. We're really looking for people who are attracted to being in that type of environment and who have some international experience, whether it be through work or study. We see if they have a strong motivation to work in an international environment in the future.

Then there's the fit with INSEAD, and that's more about the personality [of the student.] Is it someone who's going to get really involved in classroom debate and student activities outside of the classroom? [We want] someone who really participates as a student while they're at INSEAD and then also as an alumnus when they graduate.

Is there anyone who wouldn't be a good fit for INSEAD?

There's no one element. We're always looking at the overall picture, so we're not going to rule someone out entirely because their GMAT is not outstanding, for example. But if they have a weakness across a number of the dimensions that I've mentioned, then they probably wouldn't be right for INSEAD.

Have there been any changes to the program recently?

We're constantly updating the electives that are available. We have over 80 electives. We're introducing an additional course on ethics for the class that starts in September.

Does this new addition respond to the accusation that MBAs don't learn enough about ethics in business school?

We already had an element of ethics in the program. I think it's an effort to consolidate that and reinforce it. I don't see it necessarily as a response to accusations. We've been developing ethics as part of the MBA program over several years.

What are some common mistakes made in applications?

A common mistake is to rush an application. The application does require a lot of time and effort, and MBA applicants are typically very busy people by their nature, so it's not easy to find the time. [They must] take the GMAT, and if they're not a native English speaker—and most of our candidates aren't—then they have to take the English language certification test, the TOEFL. They then have to prepare the essays and get their recommendations and so on. It is a very time-consuming process, so sometimes candidates don't dedicate the necessary time. It's a shame, because it means they don't necessarily put their best foot forward in their application. Sometimes they think, "I absolutely have to apply in first round and rush an application," whereas it may actually be best for them to take a bit more time in preparing their application and apply in a later round.

Can you explain how the admissions process works at INSEAD?

We have one class that starts in January and graduates in December and another that starts in September and graduates the following July. It's a 10-month program. There are four rounds of applications for September entry and three rounds for the January entry. We publish the application deadlines. Then for each round, we publish the dates by which the candidate will be informed whether or not they're selected for interview, and that's typically about six weeks after the application deadline. And then we publish the date by which they'll get a final decision, which is typically about six weeks after the interview decision deadline.

Who is the best source for a letter of recommendation?

We do like to see professional recommendations, and it's nice to see someone who supervised the candidate. It could be a current or previous boss. Another good choice, if the person is in a market role, is a client or customer. We'd prefer that it's a professional rather than a personal recommendation or an academic recommendation.

How are applicants interviewed?

We're fortunate to have a very strong international network of alumni around the world, so for the majority of our candidates we can conduct face-to-face interviews with the alumni in the location of residence [of the prospective student]. So they meet with two INSEAD alumni for two separate interviews, and then the alumni will talk to them about their professional background, goals, why they're interested in INSEAD, why they want an MBA, and so on.

So each applicant who is invited to have an interview actually has two. Why?

Occasionally there aren't two interviews available; it may be one. But the vast majority—I'd say 95% of cases—have two interviews. It's very useful to get two different perspectives. We often have two interviewers who are from different sectors, one from a sector similar to the candidate and one from a different sector. One may be a younger interviewer and one may be more mature and in a more senior position. They give us two different angles on a candidate.

Only 29% of students are female. What are you doing to increase that number?

We do specific outreach events for women, and we have a number of scholarships specifically for women. The percentage of women we have varies a lot by nationality. For example, among our North American contingent, we have over 40% women. Other nationalities—Russian, Chinese, and many Asian nationalities—have well over 30%, if not 40%. There are other countries where it's much harder to attract a good percentage of women. Because of the international diversity, we're taking a lot of candidates from countries where doing an MBA may not be such an obvious step as it is for women in North America. That can make it more difficult for us to attract a very high percentage of women.

What are you doing to recruit women in those countries where an MBA is not necessarily an obvious step?

For example, in most of the Asian countries, we have a very good percentage of women applicants with the exception of India. We're doing some specific events targeted at women in India. Also, the percentage is quite low in Western Europe, so we're doing women's events in the U.K., in France, and in Germany. Typically the format is that we will host an event where we have a panel of women alumnae from the program with different profiles. They'll talk about their professional experience, why they decided to do an MBA, what they got out of it, and what they've done since they graduated. Then the audience can ask them about their experiences. There's also a presentation from a member of the staff about the program, and there's a networking part of the event as well. A lot of it is really about the interaction with women graduates from the program.

Are students required to complete an international experience? What are the options available to them?

We like to see candidates with some international experience in their background, but it's not an absolute requirement. While they're in the program, there's no requirement to do an exchange, although 70% of the students do exchange. We have a campus in Fontainebleau, France, and a campus in Singapore. We also have an exchange with Wharton (Wharton Full-Time MBA Profile). Students can start on either campus, Singapore or Fontainebleau. After the first four months, they can exchange between the two campuses.

Are the same class options available at both campuses?

Yes. It's exactly the same program and they'll follow the same core courses. The most popular electives are normally available at both campuses, but there are electives that are specific to one campus or another. One example is in Singapore, we run an elective on Strategies of Asia Pacific. It's specific to the region, so that course is offered in Singapore rather than Fontainebleau.

Do you find a lot of career changers coming to INSEAD?

Absolutely. We look at career change across three dimensions: in terms of sector (for example, moving from pharmaceuticals into high tech), in terms of function (moving from marketing to finance), or in terms of geography (moving between countries or continents). Nearly 90% of our graduates are making a change across at least one of those dimensions, and about 50% are changing across all three dimensions. I think that number has been fairly constant over the past few years.

By graduation, all students at INSEAD are proficient in 3 or more languages. How do all students achieve this in a one-year program?

To enter the program, they need to have fluent English plus a working knowledge of a second language. Most people are not native English speakers, so they need to have fluent English because the classes are all in English, and then they would have their native language. If they're a native English speaker, they would need to have a working knowledge of another language. By the time they graduate, they need to have a basic knowledge of a third language. Many people already have that when they come, but if they don't, they can take language classes while they're in the program.

What's the difference between a working and a basic knowledge, and why does INSEAD have a language policy?

A working knowledge means that you can conduct meetings and do business in a language. Basic knowledge means that you're not necessarily proficient at a business level, but you can travel and function in a country.

INSEAD is a very international school. We believe that languages are important if you want to work at an international level. The effort to learn languages demonstrates the motivation and capability to have a career at an international level.

What do you think of all the new global requirements—to do something business-related outside of the U.S.—at MBA programs in the U.S.?

I think it's part of the recognition that students need to have an international awareness to be successful in an increasingly globalized business environment. That's essential in order to really be successful in the long term. It's something that INSEAD has recognized for a very long time, and it's why we're such an international school.

How does job recruiting look in the bad economy?

Obviously it's more challenging across the board for all schools. Of course, finance recruitment is down. A high percentage [of our graduates] will go into industry positions. The advantage that we have in a downturn in the market is that INSEAD graduates could basically go and work in over 50 countries around the world. We're not dependent on any local market, so while recruitment is very weak in North America and Europe, it's holding up stronger in Asia and in the Middle East. Because we have good relationships in those markets, that stands us in very good stead.

What about internship recruiting?

There are still internship opportunities, and many of our students do have internships this summer. Again, it is more challenging. Students have to invest more time in networking and so on to identify opportunities [than they] had to in the boom market.

What is the biggest challenge that INSEAD faces?

Executive education is obviously a very challenging market. Companies aren't necessarily able to invest as much in training programs as they might have been able to a couple of months ago. For us, maintaining revenues in that part of the business is the biggest challenge.

Twice as many INSEAD MBAs started their own companies in 2008 than in 2007. Do you see this as a trend that's going to continue?

I think it makes sense in an environment where regular recruitment is more difficult. A lot of INSEAD students have a very strong interest in entrepreneurship and have an ambition to launch a business at some point in the future. Many don't do it immediately when they graduate because they want to gain more experience, and financing can be a challenge immediately when you come out of business school and you have debts to repay. But during periods when the classic MBA positions are more difficult to come by, the opportunity cost of launching your own business is lower.

What about the social aspects of the program?

For example, there's an institution at INSEAD called National Week. Every couple of weeks, a group of students from the same nationality gets together and hosts a week of events showcasing their country and their culture. They'll have things like speaker events, film showings, and food and drink tastings. Some of it will be more serious about communicating the cultural or business environment, and some of it will be more fun. It normally culminates in a big party. That's one of the key elements that social life revolves around.

Can you describe the INSEAD MBA culture?

We have very ambitious, very driven people who come from a wide variety of nationalities and professional backgrounds. It's a very open environment where there's no dominant culture. Because of that, people feel free to express differences and to share different experiences. That creates a rich debate and rich exchange between the students. I would say we attract very motivated, hard-working, bright people who are very engaged intellectually and socially.

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