International Experience for INSEAD: Important?

Is International experience for INSEAD important? Is it critical? Does visiting the US for a 2-day conference count as international experience? How about working with international colleagues? Does that count as experience or is it just global exposure?

These are all questions that we often get from aspiring INSEAD applicants, especially those from India and China. These questions are not without basis – after all, INSEAD itself mentions international motivation as a key criteria on which it evaluates applicants. However, does that mean that those with little time spent working away from their home nation stand no chance?

How INSEAD looks at International Experience

International experience for INSEAD is a nuanced matter. It is important to first understand why the school looks at international experience as a criteria at all, and why it explicitly states as much (international experience is valued by all schools, but they rarely mention it as part of their evaluation criteria, at least officially). At INSEAD, almost 96% of the class is international, drawn from 77 countries around the world. Compare that to 40% at Stanford, and 34% at Harvard Business School, and you realize how far ahead of the curve INSEAD is, even when compared to other top, non-European schools (European schools such as LBS and IMD are closer to INSEAD’s average).

The key reason INSEAD looks for this experience is that it wants potential students to be comfortable in this multi-cultural environment, and also contribute strongly their own experiences in shaping perspectives for a class that will take up roles across the world after it graduates. Not only is your exposure of interacting with varied cultures and backgrounds valued, but the international business perspectives you bring are valued too. At the Business School for the World (as INSEAD describes itself), that matters.

Is International Exposure Enough at INSEAD?

Many applicants do not have experience working abroad, but they do have international exposure (working with foreign colleagues/clients/third parties) instead. Is that enough?

The answer is less than direct. In today’s world, almost everyone has international exposure (indeed, it would be difficult to find someone who doesn’t). Therefore, this by itself will not be a distinguishing feature. It will also pale when compared to the international experience of other INSEAD applicants who have actually spent weeks/months/years living and working abroad. The bad news here is that mere exposure is usually not going to be enough by itself. The good news is that it could be, if it is presented impactfully and highlights the right qualities that INSEAD is looking for.

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Things to Avoid in INSEAD Essays

While the right context will vary from applicant to applicant (depending on one’s profile), there are a few things that all applicants, especially those with little or no international exposure can avoid. These include trying to pass off international exposure as international experience, mentioning personal trips as work trips, or restricting oneself to only the perspective that exposure to a different culture ‘broadened my horizons’. If you do not have actual international experience, you might like to spend a considerable time shaping this perspective on your INSEAD application, first creating a strategy on how you will overcome it. GyanOne’s experience with prior clients has been that this is certainly possible, but it will take some doing, especially if you are from India or China (there is a surfeit of applicants with little international experience applying from these countries).

Similarly, if you are widely travelled, don’t focus your application only on your international experience. Focus on other points and areas of capability and potential contribution too. INSEAD has many essays, and it is easy to overlook this point if one does not plan them well.

Overall, international experience for INSEAD is a requirement you should look at carefully before you apply to this school, ranked the best in the world by FT in 2016.

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