Associate Admissions Director Johanna Hellborg and a student discuss getting into -- and succeeding -- at the top global school

Our guest at a BusinessWeek Online chat on June 6, was Johanna Hellborg, associate admissions director at INSEAD (No. 1 in BusinessWeek's latest rankings of global B-school programs).

Hellborg screens the 4,000 or so MBA applications that arrive at the school's headquarters in Fontainebleau, France, each year -- the initial step in the process INSEAD uses to decide which 20% to 25% of those applicants it will offer admission.

Hellborg was joined by Larissa Jester, an INSEAD MBA who will graduate in July from the school's one-year program. Both fielded questions from a live audience about admissions, student life, and career options. The chat was co-hosted by BusinessWeek Online's Mica Schneider and by Jack Dierdorff, consulting editor of BW Online. Here's an edited transcript of the event:

Q: Johanna, how would you characterize this year's volume of applications, vs. prior years? Was the competition for a seat in the September class stiff?


Applications are stable. We had a huge increase last year, but this year is about the same. The competition is as harsh as usual. We accept 20% to 25% of the pool.

Q: This is the first year that INSEAD has begun staged admissions, rather than rolling admissions. How has that affected the competition?


Staged admissions started for [the session beginning in] January, 2004, so we are in the middle of it, and it's difficult for me to tell how it will impact competition. But it's much easier for applicants, who know exactly when they will get an answer. (Editor's note: INSEAD's deadlines for the class beginning in January, 2004, are Mar. 28, May 30, and July 11.)

Q: What percentage of seats get filled in during the first round? Should an applicant apply earlier, rather than later?


Round one and round two give you about the same chance to get in. Round three is a little bit tougher, as there are fewer seats available.

Q: When can applicants expect to be invited for interviews for the next round of January, 2004, applications?


We are sending people to interview currently, and our latest decisions will be made by July 11.

Q: What percentage of applicants are interviewed?


Fifty percent of our pool gets to the interview [stage]. And everyone accepted to the MBA program needs to have had an interview.

Q: How many years of work experience are sufficient for INSEAD?


Our students average five years of work experience, but it really depends on what the applicant has been doing. The important thing is what the applicant can contribute.

Q: Larissa, you're approaching the end of your MBA. And you studied at INSEAD's campuses in both Singapore and Fontainebleau. How different are they? Is one considered more fun than the other among INSEAD MBAs?


The campuses are very different, but not in terms of fun. Both have unique opportunities, and both have exceptional students. So while there are different ways to socialize in each environment, both are terrific experiences.

Q: How has the severe acute respiratory syndrome affected INSEAD's Singapore campus?


SARS is no longer a problem whatsoever for Singapore. In fact, the Singaporean government did a great job of dealing with the problem. I was in Singapore during the epidemic and felt quite safe the whole time. So the campus should be basically unaffected going forward.

Q: Since INSEAD is a one-year program, do you find that students are disadvantaged during the recruitment season compared to students with a two-year degree?


This is not a problem, as an MBA is an MBA, whether [the program lasts] one or two years. INSEAD has maintained a terrific reputation despite its condensed program. That said, for students arriving in January (instead of September), it may be a bit more difficult, as the recruiting cycle for many companies (particularly consulting and banking) peaks in the autumn.

Hellborg: Students who enter in January also have the opportunity [to complete] an internship during a seven-week or eight-week summer break.

Q: Compared with the two-year programs, how good is INSEAD for people hoping to change careers? Does the school limit the number of career-changers it admits each year?


I don't think it's much different [from the two-year programs], except that you have less time to look for new jobs and to figure out what you want to do next (if you don't know already).

Hellborg: Sixty percent of our students are doing a career change. And more than 50% work outside their home country. But you shouldn't choose a one-year or two-year program based on the jobs or curriculum. It's a matter of personality. If you enjoy a very tough and intensive time, then choose a one-year MBA.

Q: Can applicants make up for a bad grade point average (GPA) with a good GMAT score and an essay?


It depends what a "bad" GPA. is. It definitely should not be failing! However, an excellent GMAT can compensate for a bad GPA. Also, make sure you explain why you got those bad grades.

Q: What makes INSEAD different from top B-schools in the U.S.?


Diversity. We enroll students from 75 nationalities, and no nationality is more than 10%, so no nation is "dominating" the others. This makes everybody equal.

Jester: From the student perspective, INSEAD is different because of its one-year program, but particularly the global nature of the program. Your group work and projects are all done in a multicultural environment, and you end up with friends from all over the world.

Q: From an academic perspective, what do you consider to be INSEAD's core strengths?


General management, entrepreneurship, and leadership, but of course all the core functional areas are very strong. Particularly, the cross-cultural elements of strategy and management, and there has been an increasing emphasis on ethics in business.

Q: Do you advise Asian candidates to join the Singapore campus?


Not necessarily. In fact, they might prefer France. The idea is to experience a culture that you're not from. But there are some native Singaporeans who do choose the Singapore campus because of family commitments, etc. And that's great too, as we need someone to show the rest of us around!

Q: What's the main reason that INSEAD rejects 75% of the applications it receives, and what sets apart the 25% who get in?


It's a matter of excellence in different areas -- academics, managerial potential, personality, and international orientation. Interpersonal skills are important too.

Q: How do you determine interpersonal skills from an application? Is that determined from the interviews, or do you have means to evaluate such skills from a "paper" approach?


We look at an applicant's essays, recommendations, and interviews. Even the way you fill out an application shows a lot about you.

Q: How important is an applicant's response to the essay question in your selection process? Will the essay questions change much for the fall 2004 admissions season?


The essay is as important as the rest.

We are currently looking at our essay questions, but they should not change drastically. In any case, you can use the current essay questions [in your application this year].

[Editor's note: INSEAD's 2003 application essays are: 1. Give a candid description of yourself, 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. 2. Describe what you believe to be your two most substantial accomplishments to date (at least one must be professional), explaining why you view them as such. 3. Describe a situation taken from school, business, civil or military life, where you did not meet your personal objectives, and discuss briefly the effect. 4. Discuss your career goals. What are your alternatives to INSEAD? 5. Please choose one of the following two essay topics: a) Have you ever experienced culture shock? What did it mean to you? or b) What would you say to a foreigner moving to your home country?]

Q: What are some of the common mistakes applicants make in their essays, and how might they avoid those mistakes?


They try to write something they think will please us. Please just be honest, and don't try to say things that you think will get you into INSEAD.

Q: How does the INSEAD admissions committee look at students who receive professional help for their essay?


Well, I'm not sure we're always aware that you are using professional help. However, we choose to evaluate more the content [of the essay] than the way it is written. Remember, more than 75 nationalities apply to INSEAD.

Q: When you screen applicants from all over the world, what is the most critical and influential factor?


There is no critical factor. It's a matter of balance on the strengths and weaknesses of a candidate, and it's a matter of competition. We do have to reject very good candidates.

Q: Is the large increase in applications over the last two years the reason that INSEAD appears to have reduced the number of its global information sessions held in cities such as Zurich, Kuala Lumpur, and Bangkok?


I am surprised by this. I don't think we have reduced them. The global information sessions are usually concentrated during the fall season.

Q: From what regions is your office hoping to recruit more students?


We are actually trying to recruit more women.

Q: A lot of U.S. B-schools look seriously at community experience, or volunteer work. Does INSEAD give similar importance to such things?


Our motto is "work hard, play hard." So what you do, or have done outside of your work and studies, is important to us, including things in your community, in sports, arts, etc.

Q: Johanna, some readers are wondering if you have to have business experience to be accepted at INSEAD. Take a look at this audience member's question: 'INSEAD claims diversity but doesn't seem keen on taking in people from nonbusiness backgrounds. Why?'


I am surprised by that comment. We are always open to diverse backgrounds. We have medical doctors, army officers, veterinarians, dentists, and we even had an opera singer and a ballet dancer, who all showed great leadership potential in their own field.

Q: We've had some questions about INSEAD's language requirements. Perhaps you could quickly touch on what INSEAD wants to see from its students in terms of language?


French is not required and has not been required for a long time. We ask you to speak two languages to enter INSEAD. One language should be English. But if English is your native language, you should master the other one at level three, which is explained in detail in our brochure.

Jester: INSEAD offers good language courses to help students master a third language while they're here.

Q: We've also received a lot of questions about INSEAD's relationship with the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School.


It's nice to have the option to spend a period at Wharton. Then you could potentially see three continents and three campuses in 10 months of business school! It's also, I imagine, a bit of a boost for our U.S. reputation.

Q: Do you find direct competition from U.S. schools such as Harvard, or do employers come to INSEAD for a different breed of MBAs?


INSEAD students have the advantage of being more international and global in their outlook and preparation. We distinguish ourselves by our abilities to work anywhere, where many U.S. schools produce candidates only for the U.S. But at the same time, the big employers come to all of the major B-schools, so it's still very competitive.

Hellborg: It depends. Some companies recruit every year on both [continents], and some will focus on one or the other.

Q: Johanna, 10% of INSEAD's MBAs are sponsored by an employer -- Larissa included. Do those companies have a special influence on the B-school curriculum, as they're repeat customers? Larissa, is there a division between the sponsored MBAs and those who are paying their own way?


INSEAD works in partnership with sponsoring companies and nonsponsoring companies around the world, because the school always wants to be in tune with the real business world.

Jester: People don't really know -- nor really care -- who's sponsored. I haven't noticed any particular fragmentation along those lines at all, except eagerness by the sponsored ones to help the others find jobs.

Q: What type of financial aid packages does INSEAD offer?


A variety of financial aid opportunities are listed on our Web site and American students can all benefit from federal loans.

Q: Do loan packages cover the cost of living as well as school fees?


We don't really have loan packages, but we are always looking for loan opportunities for our participants

Q: To paraphrase a question often asked of students: What would you identify as INSEAD`s biggest weakness, and what is being done about it?


We're in France, and there are lots of strikes! (I'm kidding, sort of.) INSEAD is working hard to truly become "one school with two campuses," but there are challenges associated with making everything integrate seamlessly. The transfer process is improving a lot, and the administration is working to make more physical linkages within the program [between the two campuses].

Hellborg: The Career Management Service has been struggling in this tough market, but we have just hired a new director of the CMS. The director will dedicate a lot of her time to expanding job opportunities for our participants.

Q: How is the lifestyle at INSEAD's Fontainebleau campus for someone who is married, with children, and from a foreign country?


For families, it's pretty great. There's a lot of space, you can get a big house. The countryside is safe and pretty. I'm not sure how it works with schools [for the children] and if that is an issue. The spouses and partners often get together and socialize at school and at their homes, so I've heard that the families enjoy it here.

Q: What competitive value does INSEAD's MBA curriculum offer for students affiliated with the technology sector?


INSEAD can develop general management and entrepreneurial skills that many 'techies' don't have when they arrive at B-school. Also, we are much more global in our perspective and reach, which is important as more and more technology is being outsourced abroad.

Q: How does the placement scene differ between the two INSEAD campuses?


First of all, the job market is tough everywhere right now. And the Career Management Service puts a lot of emphasis on equal opportunities. Company presentations are video-linked to the other campus, and students can interview via videoconferencing.

Jester: Apply for the campus where you really would like to be. For instance, do you prefer an urban campus vs. a rural one, a smaller campus vs. a larger campus, or Asia vs. Europe? The jobs will come, regardless of which campus you pick. Also, you can always transfer campuses if the other continent will be better for your job needs.

Q: Have you felt an impact on students' post-MBA choices from the tightened U.S. visa regulations?


Not really. The U.S. is a part of our job market, but people find jobs all around the world, so those regulations have not really impacted our placement. In fact, we have not really heard so much about the visa issues here.

Jester: I've seen it limit some of my friends' options, but overall it hasn't been a big deal. Those students are finding jobs elsewhere.

Q: Do you two have any final suggestions for students interested in INSEAD?


INSEAD has been an absolutely terrific experience for me, and I hope many others can come and appreciate it -- both in Singapore and Fontainebleau. Singapore, in particular, is a gem, and as it's relatively new, I'd encourage more people to apply there.

Hellborg: When you write your essays, please show your personal and creative side, and if you have a sense of humor -- use it!

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