When applying to INSEAD, the piece of advice I received most was “be yourself”. It took me months to fully understand the meaning of it, but I am now convinced that it is the best possible guidance for INSEAD applicants.
What does it mean to “be yourself”? How could I possibly be somebody else? I was looking incredulously at the alumni telling me this piece of advice and I had no idea what to do with it. Hearing it over and over again, in one form or another, I knew that there must have been something to it, but I could not figure out what. While preparing my application file, I would have much preferred tips like “focus on your GMAT score” or “put your extra-curricular activities to the front”, but I never heard anything that concrete. I could not grasp how “being myself” would convince the admissions committee to choose me among thousands of outstanding applicants in the pool. As INSEAD’s main focus is on diversity, I knew that the school was neither looking for another native French speaker nor for just another banker to fill its seats. I wanted to show something truly valuable but I did not know how to stand out, so I gave it a try.
I sat behind a desk, in front of a blank sheet of paper, decided to look for what I genuinely stood for. It was not an easy task. While I thought that I perfectly knew my drivers in life, I realised that putting them on paper for the first time was a considerable challenge. The essay questions in the admissions process focus precisely on that kind of introspection: they are essentially asking “How did you become who you are today?” I drafted some useful answers but I was not satisfied with them. They were mostly platitudes that only showed that I had never thought about it deeply enough. Day-to-day responsibilities made it hard to come up with answers to existential questions, so I decided to take a break for a couple of weeks and hoped to find the answers I was looking for.
Going on holiday helped a lot. My girlfriend and I went on a road trip across the north of Sweden to disconnect from working life for a while. Finding my inner self became easier as daily stress decreased. Surrounded by the stunning beauty of Swedish nature, I found great support in reading the best-seller book “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People“. As time went by, peacefulness filled my mind, enabling more profound consideration of existential questions. Close the the Arctic Circle, I could finally find the serenity required to identify the key events in my life that made me become who I was and who I wanted to be. It took me weeks of reflection to succinctly articulate what I stood for on a single page and be fully satisfied with it. This process was emotionally hard as it required to psychoanalyse my former self and discern the reasons for every major event of my life. I had to admit many mistakes and give credit of some previous achievements to luck rather than skills. Even if my application had not been successful, the process would have definitely been worth it.
True answers to essay questions are very difficult to find and require a high level of self-awareness. This is where the “be yourself” piece of advice takes its meaning: do not answer what you think is socially acceptable or what you believe the admissions committee would want to hear. It is crucial to answer what, deep in your heart, you really believe to be the key, no matter how relevant you think it would be for others. If you truly believe in your answers, readers will notice the difference.
In two words: open up. Share your weaknesses, get rid of the mask you put on whenever you go outside and show the person that you genuinely are: with feelings, dreams and limitations. Explain how you could overcome the limitations, how your dreams could become reality and why you are uniquely qualified to make them happen. We all have an amazing story to tell.