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Anne Bresman, Programme Director for Executive Master in Finance, breaks down the finer points of INSEAD's admissions process and outlines what they look for in a typical participant.
Anne Bresman, Senior Associate Director
of Specialised Degree Programmes at INSEAD
Q: For whom is the Executive Master in Finance?
The profile we’ve been attracting and targeting has always been the same. Adding “Executive” before Master in Finance is a way to signal to the market that it’s a post-experience master in finance versus pre-experience.
That means we’re looking for someone with at least five years of work experience in the finance industry.
Q: What does the Executive Master in Finance offer to working professionals that a typical pre-experience degree doesn’t?
The fundamental difference [between a post-experience and pre-experience programme] is the dialogue or exchange in the classroom. Experienced professionals bring a much richer perspective to any debate or discussion. In most industries — and particularly, in finance — things are changing constantly. Unless you’re working real time, you don’t have the opportunity to witness this dynamism, or have the experience of addressing a problem or workplace challenge as they happen.
If you come to a pre-experience master in finance programme, the classroom is populated with recent university graduates, so their perspective is very much based on theory and concepts that they learned in the classroom, as opposed to what they encountered in the job. In our programme, our participants discuss real problems and projects that they have worked on.
Finally, it’s important to recognise that INSEAD’s Executive Master in Finance provides holistic learning. Our executive master looks at three broad categories of finance which are corporate finance, capital markets, and accounting. To move within this industry and the hierarchy, you need to be well-versed in all those areas.
Q: Other than work experience, what do you look for in a candidate? And what makes their profile stand out to the admissions committee?
When a CV comes across my desk, I look at the number of years of work experience in finance, what organisations this individual has worked for, and their roles. If you come from a well-recognised finance organisation, that will make you stand out. But it also needs to be the appropriate role. If you’re in a sales role, for example, that’s less relevant.
Other than that, similar to our other programmes at INSEAD, we’re also looking for national and gender diversity.
So if someone has an interesting CV and a fantastic GMAT score, we’ll definitely want that candidate in the programme.
Q: How important is the GMAT score?
It’s very important because we need to understand that this individual is capable of performing at a highly technical level especially in maths. The foundation of our core courses is driven by quantitative work, so you need to be comfortable with numbers.
But here’s the interesting thing about the GMAT: We’ve done an analysis recently, and we’ve discovered that people who don’t do as well in the quant section of the GMAT but have done extraordinarily in the verbal part have also done really well on the programme.
At the end of the day, you need a good GMAT score to prove you can fulfill the academic requirements of a quantitatively rigorous programme.
Q: That is interesting! If that’s the case, is there a recommended score for GMAT?
We generally recommend all candidates to at least get a GMAT score in the 75th percentile across the verbal and quant sections.
The bottom line is that the GMAT is one of the simplest ways we can accurately judge a person’s quantitative skills. However, we can see from our data that high performers in the verbal section are also some of our best performers in the classroom.
So this is why it’s important for people interested in the programme to reach out and talk to us. We do have flexibility within the GMAT if they have something else to prove their high-level understanding of mathematics.
Q: What are other ways for candidates to demonstrate their quantitative skills?
Another way we can judge this is whether they are CFA Charterholders. If they have an undergraduate degree in hard science, mathematics, or engineering and did well in those subjects, that also demonstrates good quantitative skills.
There’s no hard and fast rule when predicting someone’s performance in the programme. It always goes back to the overall profile of the candidate. If they have a great profile, then we need an indicator that they can deal with the academic requirements of the programme. This can be through their GMAT, the CFA, or their undergraduate degree—sometimes, it can even be a recommendation. We have to take the whole picture into account, but we need a benchmark.
Q: There seems to be a strong emphasis on quantitative skills. Apart from finance professionals, those trained and working in STEM* fields also have strong quantitative skills. And STEM professionals are occasionally known to move into finance. Would the EMFin programme suit them?
This is a tricky question to answer. STEM professionals may not have the five years of work experience in finance, but they have the quantitative skills required for the programme. I would certainly encourage professionals from these backgrounds to reach out to us and have a conversation to see whether their profile is suitable and to understand their career objectives. Based on their professional history and trajectory, what outcomes do they want to achieve?
If I see somebody who has an engineering degree and they’re working in a bank as an engineer, then absolutely, I’ll be interested in that profile. What’s changing now is that the line between finance and technology is blurring. A lot of the big backend systems that need to be built for frontend finance professionals to do their jobs are done by people from STEM fields.
What we’ve started to realise is that to be able to build those systems, they need a fair amount of understanding of the business. So even though they’re working as engineers, they know quite a bit about what’s going on so that they can build something that satisfies the challenges of the business.
The world is so varied now and there are so many gray areas, so we always encourage people to talk to us. We’re always looking for non-traditional profiles. One of the biggest areas right now in finance is that intersection with technology, making STEM professionals interesting for our programme.
*STEM = Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics
Q: Let’s talk about other admissions requirements. What advice can you offer for putting together recommendation letters?
First of all, they need to be professional recommendations, not academic or from a professor, unless they work in a school or university environment. It’s also helpful to get a recommendation from a current manager.
We understand that getting a recommendation from a current manager may not be possible sometimes, or it can put the candidate in an uncomfortable situation. If so, then ask a former manager. We want to get an assessment from someone who has seen the candidate perform in their roles. What were their capabilities and responsibilities? What do they think is the candidate’s potential career trajectory? What are their strengths and weaknesses?
For the admissions committee, this could be a very important component of the candidate’s profile. So make sure you ask somebody who will give you a good recommendation.
Q: How does INSEAD review applications? How does the process look like and who are involved?
We have a dedicated admissions officer to review submissions for any missing requirements. If there is anything missing, the admissions officer will follow up on those requirements.
Once the application is complete, it is sent to the academic committee composed of faculty that teach on the Executive Master in Finance. They will review the file, and they will often have a discussion to determine the candidate’s fit for the programme. Then they come to a decision.
The decision is either: Yes, this person can most probably do well on the programme; or, no, it’s not going to work—they should be rejected. This process takes about three to four weeks from submission of a complete file.
If the academic committee says yes, the candidate moves onto the interview with me [the programme director]. From here it takes anywhere between one and two weeks (depending on the volume) to make a final decision.
Q: What happens during the interview? How does this help INSEAD assess the fit of the candidate for the programme?
Once they reach the interview stage, it means the academic committee has decided that this candidate is fully capable of performing in the programme. So the interview is about assessing why they want to do the EMFin.
It’s important that expectations are aligned as to what the programme can deliver and what they want to get out of it. How would the programme contribute to their career trajectory? And more importantly, why INSEAD?
For the most part, we can get a good assessment of their motivations from their file. But the interview makes that very clear.
It’s a big red flag if all of a sudden during the interview, they want a career change to management consultant. If somewhere along the way, expectations become misaligned, then we need to communicate that this may not be the right programme for them.
The interview is mostly a dialogue. I also encourage candidates to ask me questions about the programme.
Q: You offer multiple rounds of applications. Are there any advantages to applying in particular rounds compared to others?
No, applications submitted at different rounds receive equal treatment.
But we encourage people to apply early if they are seeking scholarships, as they are filled on a first-come, first-served basis. If you are a Singaporean and looking at a MAS [Monetary Authority of Singapore] grant, you should apply during Rounds 1 and 2.
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