After A Massive 58% Jump In MBA Applications, INSEAD Enrolled One Of Its Smallest Classes In Years. Here’s Why

A clip from a video for incoming INSEAD MBA students on how to ensure a safe return to campus

After MBA applications for its September intake soared by 58%, INSEAD decided to slash enrollment in the class by 38% so it could carefully manage social distancing guidelines and hold all of its MBA classes in-person. The decision to cut back the size of the incoming class to just 310 students from 500 is the most unique approach to delivering an MBA program in the midst of the pandemic, especially in the aftermath of a record surge in apps.

During a typical September entry, one of two intakes annually, INSEAD would enroll 300 MBA candidates on its Fontainebleau campus in France and another 200 at its Singapore campus. Instead, the school plans to welcome a total of 232 students at its European campus and just 76 in Asia. Roughly half of those students started their classes this week, with the remaining students now under government-mandated, 14-day quarantine requirements. They expect to join their classmates within days.

Mask wearing, frequent hand washing, social distancing, assigned seating in classes and cafeterias are part of the protocol for returning to campus. Classrooms are cleaned between sessions, and faculty, wearing transparent masks, are required to stay within a specified space at the front of the classroom.  The school even considered building plexiglass walls inside classrooms and starting an MBA cohort on its Abu Dhabi campus, ideas it ultimately rejected. “The main thing is we test everyone once per week,” says Virginie Fougea, global director of admissions and financial aid for degree programs at INSEAD. “If you want to be in the class you need to get a negative test. This is one of the big pillars for the safety and health of everyone. Then immediately you can know if a person tested positive. Every one of the handful of people who have tested positive on campus was asymptomatic so this is important. We have to be humble.”


Virginie Fougea of INSEAD. Courtesy photo

The unusual approach, after a spike in demand that could have resulted in even a larger-than-normal incoming class, occurs after consultations in the spring with students who strongly preferred to take their classes in person, if possible, and not in a hybrid or solely online format. “It all started back in April when we had fireside chats with the dean and my colleagues from program management,” says Virginie Fougea, global director of admissions and financial aid for degree programs at INSEAD. “We asked the students what they would prefer.

“We offered several scenarios. One was to defer because if this is not for them and they can’t bear the uncertainty. we told them they could defer. And we had a number of people who did that and come later. Then, we allowed people to change their home campus, knowing we would enroll fewer students in Fontainebleau and Singapore to respect social distancing.”

Admissions then aimed to cut in half the normal enrollment of 500 students to a mere 250. The school ended up with a total of 310. While classes are in-person, the school has designed every course to also be available online. “If someone needs to go back to his or her family and then quarantine again, they can take their coursework online,” adds Fougea. “So we will have both for the entire program, but we hope that the students will come in person.”


She attributes the increase in application volume to several factors, from the pandemic to accommodations INSEAD made for applicants during the outbreak and spread of COVID-19. “The pandemic for sure made some people think this is not the right time to go back to university,” explains Fougea. “We agreed to review applications without a GMAT or GRE (which could be submitted later) and that allowed people to apply who had not yet done that step. And when test centers began closing down, we extended our deadlines.”

Unlike most U.S. schools which have reported two to five consecutive years of declining interest in full-time MBA programs, many European schools were the beneficiary of a shift by some international applicants to avoid the U.S. due to rising anti-immigration rhetoric, high tuition costs, and uncertainly over H1b work visas. “European schools had started to see an increase a year ago,” adds Fougea.

“We saw smaller, incremental increases so the latest rise in applications is on top of that. It seems to be following the same direction for the next intake. It was really a combination of factors. Asians, in particular, are more and more considering other study destinations, including local schools within China or Singapore but also considering European schools as a study destination, not just the U.S.”


One result of the increased flexibility on standardized test scores was that INSEAD ended up admitting some applicants with GMAT scores as low as 600 and under. “We had to make conditional offers before some took the test and gave it to us,” she says. “Some people were surprised by their results. The GMAT online solution was not as easy as they thought it would be or for what they had prepped for. We saw results that were lower than expected so we had to ask some people to retake the exam. We saw lower scores so we went down below 600 which is rare for us because we saw that for people it was difficult for them.”

Even so, those exceptions did not significantly alter the class’ GMAT average. For this new class, it was 706, just four points from a more typical 710 score. For the Class of 2020 at INSEAD, the majority–51%–submitted GMAT scores between 710 and 750. Some 37% of the enrolled students had GMATs of 660 to 700. Just 5% got in with a GMAT score between 610 and 650. INSEAD does not reveal its acceptance rate for either intake of MBAs, but admission consultants believe the sizable increase in applicants likely drove the school’s admit rate down into the low 20% level from roughly 30%.

This week INSEAD decided that it would end, for now at least, the flexibility extended to applicants to its September intake. “We have just decided this week we will try to go back as possible to the old normal,” says Fougea. “You submit your test score with everything together and that is for round two for the next September intake. Obviously, it will not be black and white. I have looked at the reopening of the test centers for GMAT and more than 80% of the test centers are now open for the GMAT. It is less for the GRE but there will be people who will take the test at home so we will keep probably working with those students to see how that went for them and if they need time to retake the test.”

INSEAD’s newest class boasts an average age of 29 with five and one-half years of full-time work experience. Women make up 32% of the latest cohort which features 64 different nationalities. Some 38% hail from Europe, 32% from Asia-Pacific, 15% from North America, 7% from South America, and 4% each from Africa and the Middle East. “We still have people from the six continents,” adds Fougea. “We have a good mix.” But travel restrictions did change that mix somewhat. “The main difference is in the fact that in Fontainebleau, it is now more focused on Europeans and North Americans, while in Singapore we have more Asians due to its location.”

The largest group of incoming students–38%–bring work experience with them from corporate sectors, while 26% worked in consulting and 22% worked in financial services, and 14% from the technology industry.

A clip from a student video welcoming students back to campus during COVID.







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