CA: How does your team approach the essay portion of the application specifically? What are you looking for as you read the essays? Are there common mistakes that applicants should try to avoid? One key thing they should keep in mind as they sit down to write them?
VF: The essays are an additional data point. We don’t consider them separately from the rest of the application. They serve to bring the applicants to life in a way—they are where you get to see who the person behind the application is.
We all say this, but it is very important for applicants to be themselves and present their true selves and their life stories. We want to know the person behind the application. What is their true personality? How will they contribute to the INSEAD community and beyond? In this way, the essays are no different than the interviews or the videos. Everyone is unique and brings a unique perspective. Through these components of the application we sometimes learn if someone is from a humble background or, on the contrary, if someone was born into a family that already has a good education. It all helps us understand the dimensions and the personality and how that person can contribute to the overall class. We really take a holistic approach—we combine all of these elements as part of our effort to understand what makes a whole person.
CA: You introduced the video component last year. What drove that decision?
VF: In our opinion, we see video as an innovative way of applying to business school. Instead of just writing an essay introducing yourself, why not make a video? It’s also helpful to us in terms of getting a sense of applicants’ communications skills. We recruit from so many different countries that we ask a full 80 percent of our applicants to provide test scores demonstrating English proficiency (only 20 percent of the students have English as their native language). But even for those who demonstrate proficiency on these tests, we find it can be a little different when it comes to expressing themselves in English.
Applicants really took to the video component well—this generation understands completely what it is to record a short video. We have had great surprises as a result of adding this feature to our admissions process. For example, there were people we may have wondered about whether to interview or not and then when we looked at the video we thought, “Yes, let’s definitely give her a chance.”
CA: You’ve read many essays during your tenure at INSEAD? What percentage of those essays do you remember now? What about those most memorable essays made them so?
VF: In the last 15 years of reading essays at INSEAD, I definitely remember pieces of them—sort of like you might remember parts of a good book. Usually what I find most memorable is an idea a person explained or expressed really well. What I really like is the life story that comes when you read some of these essays—there are times when you start the first lines and you can’t stop because you want to know what happens next or why the person did that or what they learned from it. It can be anything from a personal story of someone racing cars and what he learned from that to a war refugee moving across borders with her family. It’s the stories that I remember—actually, I think I remember quite a number of those I’ve read.
CA: Are there any notable changes planned for the application process in the near future?
VF: We are not planning any major changes. We may tweak the essays a little here and there, and we do plan to add questions to the videos so that people can answer new questions as well. But we are not hoping to make any drastic changes. We are happy with the process as it is.
CA: What advice would you offer prospective applicants who may be trying to decide between a two-year MBA program, like many of those in the United States, and a one-year MBA program like INSEAD’s?
VF: I think that for applicants who are considering an accelerated one-year MBA program, it’s helpful to understand that the idea behind it is that you learn to master intensity. Whether this is something you want in your professional career or not is really for applicants to decide. I will say that recruiters tell us when they come on campus specifically to recruit INSEAD MBA students that they know they will be finding truly flexible and adaptable candidates. In a one-year program you learn to prioritize. You have to decide what is important and what is less important. You quickly learn how to prioritize and make decisions you are comfortable with—that is a major benefit of a one-year program.
I also think it’s very favorable for building strong relationships with classmates—I would say even stronger than those in two-year programs. You are helping each other rather than competing with each other. You really learn to share because you know that there is somebody in the class most likely who has either a similar experience to yours or who could help you with giving you information on what it is like to work in that sector, for example. Because the network is so big and so broad, you know you can count on someone to be there. We have this reciprocity ring where you help one person and another person helps you. I think the intensity of the one-year program really plays into that. You have classes together in the morning and then also in the afternoon, and then you have company presentations. Whereas at other schools you might only have classes in the morning and go off and do something else. It’s truly why people say after INSEAD, “Wow. That was the best year of my life, and I have made life-long friends.”