Applying To INSEAD: Advice For 6 Typical Profiles

Many schools advise candidates against applying in the final round. INSEAD, on the other hand – which has ranked among the top three MBA programs in the world for the last four years by The Financial Times – works hard to keep the level of competition fair across all rounds (its round 4 closes March 6). It makes sense really: INSEAD wants the best of the entire pool and doesn’t want to reject someone in the final round who would have been admitted in round 1 (or accept someone in round 1 who would be rejected in round 3 or round 4). They achieve this through making an informed guesstimate of expected application volume by round, and through the use of the waitlist for borderline candidates.

That’s good news for anyone still hoping to matriculate at a top MBA program in 2019. At the same time, the dramatic increase in interest for top European programs, especially from U.S. candidates, means the level of competition is also increasing. It’s vital to have a deep understanding of what matters to INSEAD and what it is seeking in an MBA candidate.

During my seven years at INSEAD, where I served as director of MBA admissions, marketing & financial aid, I oversaw all aspects of candidate evaluation and policy decisions. Here’s my advice for positioning a stand-out application for six typical profiles.

1. Career-changers

Most INSEAD students are making some significant change in their career. The MBA program measures change across three dimensions: industry, function and country. In fact, typically about 80% make a change on one of these dimensions, and about 25% make a change on all three dimensions. If you are planning a pretty dramatic career change, you could be well advised to join the January intake, so that you can take an internship in July and August (the September entry doesn’t have an internship option).

Having said that, the stats quoted above do not vary much between the January or September entries, so if you are targeting a September start, you can still count on a big change being possible. And while many INSEAD students end up changing their minds about their future plans during the year, be warned that a 10-month program doesn’t give you a lot of time for mulling over infinite options. You need to be ready to make decisions about your future direction fairly quickly, and you also need to be able to juggle an intensive academic schedule with an ongoing and regular investment of time in your job search.

2. The ‘common’ profile

There are some profiles that pour in to the INSEAD admissions office by the hundreds: for example, management consultants based in Europe, or Indian IT professionals. Whilst INSEAD has no hard and fast quota, they also want to create a diverse class, so in reality, the competition can be tougher for some than for others. If you have a common profile, then you need to be strong across all elements of the application, including your academic profile, your professional track record, your international experience, and your activities and achievements outside of work or study. Try to weave a memorable story into your application that will help you stand out in the mind of the file reader. It’s not uncommon for file readers to review apps from candidates with similar profiles at the same time, so reflect on unique or distinctive elements that help make yours is a lively read.

3. Non-traditional candidates

Contrary to the notion that you’re at a disadvantage without the typical MBA track record, an uncommon background helps you stand out more easily. Schools like INSEAD work hard to craft a diverse class – and diversity includes professional backgrounds. There are always several students with non-business backgrounds, such as scientists, doctors, journalists, and military officers. There have even been performing artists, and a monk! As a non-traditional candidate, you need to demonstrate that you have a clear rationale for taking the MBA: a vision of what you want to achieve – and this has to be credible. The admissions team has to be convinced that you have the skills and drive to make a big career change work. And as with other candidates, you have to demonstrate that you are a high achiever in your work, whatever that may be.

4. Limited work experience

On average, INSEAD students have five to six years’ work experience, however the range is about two years to 10 years. Remember also that the length of work experience is measured as how long you will have worked by the time you start the program, not how long you have worked by the time you apply. If you would only have two to three years’ experience by the time you start, you’ll need to work hard in your application to demonstrate that you already have some significant professional accomplishments, that you have interesting experience and perspectives to share with team mates who may be further ahead in their careers than you, and that you have the maturity to fit in well with class-mates that on average are likely to be a bit older than you.

5. Limited international experience

INSEAD takes great pride in the international diversity of its MBA program: both as regards the range of nationalities represented (94 in the class of 2018), and the international experience of the students. But not everyone at INSEAD has a lot of international experience. Typically, those who gain admission without much experience beyond their own borders are from emerging markets (they may not have had financial means to travel), but are still able to demonstrate that they have the ability to collaborate in an incredibly diverse environment (qualities such as openness, flexibility, curiosity about other cultures, interpersonal skills, maturity – all these elements help). They have also demonstrated that they need to join such an international community – that it will be highly relevant for their future career plans. If your focus, past, present and future is really on your domestic market, then think twice before applying.

6. Lower GMAT Score

The average GMAT at INSEAD is 709; the range is typically around 600 to 800. INSEAD advises candidates to target the 75th percentile on both the verbal and the quant; they look more at this breakdown than at the total score. If you get less than 70th percentile on either part of the test, you’d better have a very strong academic track record, and/or have a profile that the school loves. So INSEAD is perhaps not as flexible as some top schools as regards the GMAT – this is largely because it is a one-year program, so the pace is fast, and the school needs assurance you have the academic ability to keep up. If your score is borderline, consider shoring up your academic profile with a standard quant-based course such as accounting, statistics and finance. Online quant courses, such as those offered by Berkeley Extension, or HBxCore, offer an opportunity to build your skill set while demonstrating your ability to handle the academic rigor.

For more insight on maximizing your chances of admissions success at INSEAD, view this recent article by my Fortuna colleague Melissa Jones: How To Prepare For The INSEAD Admissions Interview.


Fortuna-AdmissionsCaroline Diarte Edwards is a director at MBA admissions coaching firm Fortuna Admissions and former INSEAD director of admissions, marketing and financial aid. Fortuna is composed of former admissions directors and business school insiders from 13 of the top 15 business schools.