In this entry, we will take a close look at what the motivation essays of the INSEAD application are asking. This analysis will hopefully provide you with a basis for understanding how to begin answering your essays strategically. While the job essays give them an understanding of what you did, these essays should give an understanding of who you are. In these essays you will not give any overviews or summaries, but delve deep into the meaning of the things you did. Note that the applications now request “approximate” word counts in the motivation essays. This means that you can go over the suggested count by 10%, and on rare occasions, 15%.

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 (approximately 500 words).

Unlike the job essays in which the question is fairly straight forward, the motivation essays are a harder because they are more open ended. The trouble rests in how does one begin to give a candid description of oneself, using strengths and weaknesses to paint a portrait of one’s identity? In other words, how can lists of strengths and weaknesses demonstrate who you are in real life? The answer is, they can’t. No laundry list can, anyway. The best way to go about this is to think experientially. Pick a personal story to you that can demonstrate, through your actions and its impact on you, who you are as a person – this will not only give a better understanding of who you are, but will also offer credibility to the traits you claim to be yours. In order to find the right story, start by looking at turning points in your life: major events and milestones, life changing events, defining moments, moments in which you’ve dealt with challenges. In other words, think about moments in which your character was tried and you prevailed. They are asking who you are as a person. The key here is to think about personal stories – giving a list will never be sufficient to explain who you are, and going straight to professional experiences will flatten you and make you seem like a robot.

You can structure this in a couple ways. You can either start your essay with a declaration paragraph that describes who you are in a creative way and proceed to give examples that support your claims. Or, you can start with an anecdote or a personal story that demonstrates your personality traits and then explicate in what ways it does so.

You should be able to draw about two key characteristics from the story you chose. If you can’t find two key characteristics, your story is probably not a strong enough portrayal of your vibrant personality. Once you’ve told the anecdote in a full and compelling way, make sure that you explain why the story demonstrates the traits you choose to highlight. Don’t leave this up to the imagination of the readers! Admissions committees have hundreds of essays to read; if your essay is not clear on its own, they will not do the extra mental work to complete thought gaps to your benefit. For example, let’s say I choose to write about the fact that I am part of a musical improvisation group. First of all, I can choose to tell the anecdote as a description of our group dynamics and what is expected of every individual, or I can tell a story of our biggest performance. Next, I can draw out a million qualities that are inherent to a musical improvisational group: creativity; being a good listener; being a team player; musicality; making key decisions on the fly, just to name a few. It is up to me, the writer, to pick a two that are demonstrated strongest in my story, and then explain to the reader not only why they are present, but how they helped me grow and how they will serve me in the future.

If you don’t have one major thing that can serve as a metaphor to your personality (like improvisation) you can use two smaller anecdotes that center on more specific moments, followed by an explication of what key character traits you had to demonstrate in order to act in such and such a way. Whichever way you go about it, remember: describe actions, explain why they mattered, and what they tell about you.

The question asks about both strengths and weaknesses. Keep in mind that you should write 2-4 characteristics and 1 strategic weakness. A strategic weakness would be a trait that is fixable – moreover, fixable by an MBA program. For example, difficulty prioritizing tasks or that everything seems equally important to you. While this is clearly a weakness, it shows that you care and it can be fixed by learning the different elements of a project, what is important and when. Make sure that you tell a story that is taken from your personal life – there will be room for professional stories in the next essay.

One last thing: make sure that anything you write doesn’t negate things you wrote in your job essays. For example, if you write that you want to be an entrepreneur and proceed to describe your weakness to be a lack of ability to initiate projects, you will not be serving your overall story.

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 (approximately 400 words).

First of all, make sure that you take note of all the sub-questions that are being asked here. There are four distinct parts to this prompt: (1) what are you proud of, (2) describe a time you failed, (3) How did your accomplishment and your failure impact your relationship with others, (4) what did you learn from each experience.

Keeping that in mind, there are a few ways you can structure your answers. (A) You can split up your proud moment and your failure into two distinct sections. In other words, write about an achievement you are most proud of, describe the impact it had on you relationship with others, and describe what you learned. Then move on to the failure; what was the story, who did it affect, and what did you learn. (B) Another option is that you can write an achievement story, then a failure story, and then write about the general impact on relationships they had and general take aways. This option will work if both the failure and the achievement have a common thread or theme tying them together. Otherwise, it’s best to separate. (C) Another way to approach this is if the way you dealt with your failure led you to an accomplishment you were proud of. That is to say, you failed, you learned from it, you fixed it, in turn bringing you back to the top and leading you toward your accomplishment. In this structure, your revived failure and the subsequent success would be the proud achievement. Don’t try to force this one. If you genuinely have a failure that you were able to save big time – go for it. If not, there are two other very good options to go about answering this question.

Generally, you should pick stories that lend themselves to interpersonal conclusions. For example, if you had a solo project that failed, the impact on others, positive or negative, will be minor. Even if a lot of people depended on your code, you didn’t impact them or yourself on a personal level, but a purely professional level. That is to say, of course everyone wants the company to succeed, so they want your code to be good – but that’s not an interesting dynamic between you and others. Long story short: if you can’t extrapolate interpersonal epiphanies from your anecdote, it’s probably not the best choice.

While question 1 asks for your character makeup, this question is interested in your professional achievements, failures, and take-aways. This is your time to talk about a professional accomplishment unique to you. This is your time to stand out professionally, so try to pick something that shows a certain level of skill and acumen. Again, if you write a coding story, it probably wont be memorable unless your code saved the world.

Your achievement section should follow the SOAR structure: Situation (10-20%). Obstacle (10-20%). Action (40-50%). Result (10-20%). “Situation” asks you to give the context of the project or situation and describe what you were expected to do. “Obstacle” is your opportunity to show the difficulties between what needed to be done and getting there. It’s your time to show the blood, sweat, and tears of your project. After all, if there are no obstacles, you imply that anyone can do what you did, rendering your essay unremarkable. The obstacles are what show that it takes certain skills to accomplish the task – so really make sure you’re doing yourself justice here. “Actions” is the main meat of the four elements. It is weighted most heavily because you are judged by your actions more than anything. It matters less whether you were part of a small or big company – it matters much more how you went about overcoming difficult situations. Usually, for a reader to be convinced, the essay needs to offer about five to six steps of how the writer went about moving the project forward. Any less, and the feat does not sound convincing or impressive. Lastly, conclude by describing the results. Try to stay away from wishy-washy, overarching theories, and stick to quantifiable results. Numbers, if they are available to you, speak for themselves.

As for the failure, it should be a professional failure, but can definitely have a personal element to it. For example, if you were mentoring someone at work and you misread their learning style ultimately standing in the way of your mentorship – that would be a great story to discuss. The most important thing is your take away: what did you learn from the failure. What you learned from your failure shows the depth of your understanding, and therefore, positions you as an introspective and critical thinker that will not repeat the same mistake twice. Your choice of failure and subsequent understanding of your failure can position you as a person who always learns the right lesson and then moves forward. The failure section should be structured mainly around the story of your failure and what you learned. There is room to discuss outside feedback if you got any, and how you reacted or acted upon the feedback, but this is not necessary if your learnings are insightful enough.

If it hasn’t been made clear enough: the failure you choose is crucial. Don’t make it stupid – because it will make you look stupid. For example, “I had a startup and after working on it for a year, we realized there is already a company that does what we do.” Or, “I worked on a PowerPoint presentation for a month, and realized during the presentation itself that there was a typo on one of the slides.” These failures only point to your own negligence, which means your take away would probably be “I need to pay more attention and do my homework.” Lame! A good failure should require some analysis once you’ve described it. For example, you had to put together a team for a project in your startup, but you didn’t think about the motivations of the stakeholders and the team ended up conflicting so much that the overall project was halted. Your challenge was to understand the team building process and to understand individual motivations beyond professional skills in order to move the team forward. In turn, this understanding helped you restructure the team, the milestones, and the personal responsibilities to harness individual strengths both professional and interpersonal.

And of course, don’t forget to answer the last part of this question, which is: how did your failure impact your relationship with others. This impact should be an epiphany that you had about constructive and productive leadership. In other words, the impact should be one that not only teaches you something about interpersonal relationships, but rather, also impacts who you are as a leader, team member, or business partner for the better. Here is a reductive example, but it should serve our conceptual purpose: if your impact is “it taught me to be positive” this is only one sided. It simply taught you something about yourself. That was what essay 1 was for. But if your impact is “it taught me that people under my leadership respond more productively to my instruction when I am positive” that impact not only shows that you learned how to interact with others, but also how it taught you to be a better leader, get better results, and manage more complex projects. At the end of the day, business is done in teams: INSEAD wants to see who you are as a part of a team and your level of introspection as a sign of potential for growth.

Essay 3: Tell us about an experience where you were significantly impacted by cultural diversity, in a positive or negative way (approximately 300 words).

The phrasing of this question can serve as a clue for how to best answer it. Notice that the phrasing of “tell us about an experience where you were significantly impacted by cultural diversity in a negative way,” is suspect. How exactly can you be impacted by cultural diversity in a negative way? If they mean that cultural diversity proved negative to you in some way, then this is a trap because INSEAD is an international school and wants students comfortable in diversity. They want to see how you flourish amongst other cultures, not how they hold you back. If they mean that cultural diversity made you less culturally diverse, this makes no sense at all. Either way, it seems there’s no great way to answer this and make yourself look good.

Thankfully, we are blessed with the conjunction “or” – not “and” – in the prompt. So, we’re going to suggest sticking to the positive angle. That being said, let’s try to simplify the question. You are being asked to tell INSEAD about an experience that opened your eyes to the benefits of cultural diversity. Remember: INSEAD is “the business school of the world.” It is the most international school out there. Their objective to asking you this question is they want to make sure that should you be accepted, INSEAD will not be your first encounter with cultures other than your own.

One of the biggest mistakes people make in their essays is basing their stories on stereotypes: Germans are punctual and meticulous. Spaniards take their time. Middle Easterners cut lines. Italians eat pizza. If you find yourself writing that X group is Y, restructure your thinking. Don’t talk about what other people are or aren’t, but rather, what your specific experience with another culture was: how it influenced you, what you learned, and how it will help you in your future aspirations. Base your conclusions on personal experiences, not on stereotypes, general Wiki-philosophies, or popular theories. By focusing on something meaningful to you, you will show the admissions committee that you are comfortable around other cultures and will not be socially awkward around those different than you.

If your interesting cultural stories happen to be from your home country rather than your world travels, that’s okay. Working with other cultures, communities, or belief structures can make for a very strong story, but make sure that your essay, in passing, mentions that you’ve seen the world as well: “I’ve been around the world; I’ve seen the continents, debated with different points of view, spoke with many different people in many different hand gestures – and, yet, I realized that diversity can also be outside my own door. The most significant intercultural experience for me was…” etc. With this introduction, you can proceed to describe what your experience was and why it was the most significant. If your “why” is strong, the “what” is good enough.

Lastly, make sure that your analysis of what you learned is positive and profound. Your experience should have changed something about you or about the way you see the world. If your conclusion is “oh my goodness, I was shocked that everything was so different!” consider it weak and revisit. As always, bring it home with its impact on you.

Essay 4: 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? (approximately 300 words).

If you are applying to other schools, you’ll notice that this question is usually peppered throughout the online application itself. INSEAD asks it as an essay question. No Big Deal.

There are two classic structures to answer this prompt. One option is to write it in essay form, with stories that give a short anecdote to your activity and explain your positioning within the group, organization, committee, etc. The story should of course demonstrate why this activity is important to you. The other option is to answer in a more straightforward manner: here is the activity, this is how involved I am, this is how it enriched me. You can look at this option as writing out an identity card for each activity. While the content might be less story-based, you should still focus each activity in terms of meaningfulness.

Also, whichever way you choose to answer this question, make sure you separate your activities so they are clearly separated from one another. Make sure to think about all things you’ve busied yourself with: volunteering, personal hobbies, and extra courses or studies. While they mention “politics” as a talking point, it’s best to steer clear of that topic.

Optional Essay: Is there anything else that was not covered in your application that you would like to share with the Admissions Committee? (approximately 300 words)

There are two phrasings to this prompt that ask two very different things. One way the optional essay can be phrased is: If there is something you want to tell us about outliers in your application, please do so now. This speaks to weird gap years in employment, low GMAT scores, particularly low grades, etc. If there is a justifiable life situation that can explain any low performances, this would be the place to share.

However, the other version of this question is much more open-ended: Is there something else you want to tell us?

INSEAD asks for the latter. In this case, you should treat the Optional Essay as any other essay – one in which you have the opportunity to tell a unique personal story that serves to clarify who you are as a person. Do not, for example, spend this time talking about why you want to go to INSEAD. Moreover, they’re not asking for you to make excuses for weird sections of your application, so don’t stir or draw attention to what has been put to rest.  What they are giving you the opportunity to do is choose another story that helps turn you into a well-rounded person. The one exception is if you are reapplying to INSEAD, you can use the optional essay as an opportunity to point out how you’ve grown since you last applied.

Whatever story you choose, our rule of thumb is this: you’re wasting someone’s time. So make sure it doesn’t feel like a waste of time. Or, if that’s not blunt enough: if you’re wasting my time, it better be worth it. When you allocate stories to this section, make sure you are not repeating any characteristic, attribute, or strength that has been mentioned elsewhere in the application. If they read it and get no new information out of it, you will have left your audience cranky. That’s not a good emotional place for the people deciding your future to be!

As you can see, there are a lot of things to think about, cover, and convey within a 3,000-word budget. If you have any questions, concerns, or need closer and personalized guidance, one of the Ivy founders works at INSEAD, and would gladly share more details to anyone in need. As usual when it comes to business – the first step to success is reaching out.


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