How INSEAD Coped (And What It Learned) In A Year The World Stood Still

Students at INSEAD during the pandemic

One upshot is that the list of firms that employed MBAs this year looks different from usual. As usual, plenty of graduates went to perennial big employers like Bain, McKinsey and BCG but more of INSEAD’s graduates have gone into private equity and venture capital, notably in the tech space. Whether this is a result of COVID, a new trend, and how much it is attributable to INSEAD’s new San Francisco outpost in the middle of the tech industry’s ecosystem, is unclear.

Still, it seems that people have found employment. In the last non-COVID year for which records are available, 84% of graduates had landed a job within three months (the figure for both Harvard and Stanford was 88%) and it is too early to know whether this year’s numbers will be different, but “it’s looking positive,” says Montgomery.

The enforced change in teaching methods even had some benefits. While in the past students would have to move across the world to take a class with a particular professor – or, if they could not, simply to miss out on that course – delivering those online has allowed anyone who wanted to, to join in. The tours delivered by VR headsets could become a regular fixture which could avoid travel.


Having speakers appear on a screen has meant that more senior people who could not jet hundreds of miles to appear in person were willing to spare some time to address students. Some classes have been tweaked, too, to accommodate the new reality. For example, a course on negotiation was re-tooled to look at how to carry out high-stakes negotiations when you cannot meet in person. Also, professors have become even better at maximizing the all-important face-to-face time and the pre-and post-classroom learning, an enhancement that the school hopes will stick.

How have applications held up? “Thus far we’re seeing good numbers,” says Montgomery. In fact, 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.

Meantime, those who had applied for the two classes that started in 2020 were already well down the route of applying and being accepted when the pandemic hit, and those applying now will do so with their eyes open about the situation in 2021, and with the hope that effective vaccines will be rolled out soon. The traditional pattern that people want to do MBAs during a recession also suggests that 2021 will be a good year.


INSEAD officials say that they are seeing more applications from Africa and the Middle East, largely because of a concerted effort to recruit from those regions to further boost the diversity that is at the heart of INSEAD’s mission. The school is painfully aware that it lags in some aspects of diversity – just a third of MBA students are women, and 20% of faculty. As Montgomery says, “we are still pushing 330 female leaders out into the world” every year and the numbers are similar to those at other top European schools, including London Business School and Spain’s IESE Business School, though well behind the likes of Wharton and Harvard Business School whose numbers of female students are solidly in the 40s.

It is to address issues like this that the school is creating a new Office of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion, whose head will report directly to the dean. Indeed, INSEAD is looking to heighten its understanding of diversity in other ways, too – racial, socioeconomic, and sexual identity are all on the radar. “Recently we were teaching a case-study on Lululemon moving from women’s clothing into men’s, and someone asked, ‘Why does clothing have to be binary?’ We are always looking to add new perspectives like that,” Montgomery says.

2020 has been a tough year, and the world is about to change in ways that we do not yet understand. What we do know is that many ambitious, globally-minded people still see an MBA from a school like INSEAD as good preparation for whatever the future throws at them. Why is it in such demand? That is always hard to pinpoint, but it is notable that even in a year like the one just ended, it has not just survived but continued to look inwards and focus on its own evolution. There’s a lesson there.


Questions about this article? Email us or leave a comment below.