Don’t underestimate the value of extracurricular activities in your b-school application! Use the following Q&A to help you prioritize and then write about your extracurricular activities.
What are extracurricular activities?
An extracurricular activity is a non-academic, non-professional activity that you participate in. These activities include hobbies, sports, the arts, and volunteering or community service.
Why are extracurriculars important?
Extracurricular activities play a critical role in your MBA application. Here are five reasons why:
1. Extracurricular activities add color and texture to an otherwise one-dimensional application. They help the adcom get to know YOU – not just the you that works nine to five (or six to ten) crunching numbers at the desk, but the YOU that also has ten state-wide blue ribbons in figure skating or that has quilted the largest quilt east of the Mississippi with the help of your town’s local special ed school.
2. Extracurricular activities prove your commitment. You’ve taught piano (pro bono) to the same kid for eight years straight? You must be a committed, reliable, and dependable person. Admissions committees like that.
3. Extracurriculars demonstrate creativity and passion. Extracurricular or volunteer commitments don’t need to be typical soup kitchen or Big Brother/Big Sister experiences, although those are valuable too. Think beyond run-of-the-mill examples to other things you’ve done – like all those winter breaks you spent running a camp for your autistic baby brother and two other kids from the neighborhood, or that summer you traveled to India to help run a vaccination clinic. These examples don’t specifically relate to business, but creativity and passion can easily be seen in each experience. If you share your passions, you’ll inspire your readers!
4. Extracurricular activities allow you to demonstrate initiative, as well as leadership and organizational skills. Let’s look back at our examples from above and ask a few questions: What steps did you take to set up your backyard camp? Whose idea was it? What sorts of activities did you plan and execute with the kids? And about the clinic in India: What role did you play in running the vaccination clinic? Did you just sit around and do what you were told to do? Or did you take initiative to present your own organizational ideas? Did you fund raise? Get others to commit too? In both of these cases, it shouldn’t be hard to demonstrate that you are the type of thoughtful, inspirational leader who transforms an idea into reality.
5. Extracurricular activities can tip the scale in your favor when you’re up against an otherwise equally competitive candidate. Extracurricular activities and community service can make the difference between acceptance and rejection when adcoms are sizing up two applicants with similar competitiveness. A fundamental assumption of admission is that past behavior predicts future behavior. Admissions committees are proud of their schools and know that to thrive, these communities constantly need new, active, involved members. Furthermore, they want people who will also be involved as alumni and community leaders after business school. If two applicants have the same scores, equally persuasive essays, impressive letters of rec, and similar professional experience, AND if there’s only one more seat to be filled, then the adcom members will choose the applicant who has served her community or shown commitment, leadership, and all those other good things we’ve discussed above, through an extracurricular activity, over the guy who’s focused only on furthering his career.
What should you do if you don’t have long-term extracurricular or volunteer commitments?
This is a common question I’m asked, and a good one. If you don’t have much (or any) extracurriculars to write about, then it is better to start an activity, pick up a new hobby, or resume participation in a past activity or hobby just before applying to b-school so that you have something to write? Will the adcom view this as a shallow or phony move? Is it better to not mention any extracurriculars and hope that the adcoms just don’t notice, rather than highlight the fact that you just a few, or none at all, worth mentioning?
My Answer: You should start now! Here are four reasons why:
1. A little volunteering or a new extracurricular activity is better than no volunteering/extracurriculars at all. The impact you can make in even a short period of time can be great. Involvement in an extracurricular activity or in community service can dramatically affect you as a person, and therefore can significantly affect your MBA candidacy as well.
2. A little commitment is better than no commitment at all. Obviously a commitment that’s lasted only a couple of months will not be as effective as one that’s lasted years, but it’s still better than no commitment at all. Think of it this way: If you don’t show that you’ve been committed to a non-academic, non-professional activity, then the adcom may think that you’re incapable of doing so.
3. Even a little extracurricular activity will liven up a flat application. See #1 in the first list. You don’t want to come off as a workaholic who has no time or interest in anything non-work related. Demonstrate your humanity and liven up your application – a little could go a long way.
4. What if you’re waitlisted or you need to reapply? Obviously we hope for the best, but it doesn’t hurt to think ahead and make room for Plan B, which is: You may be waitlisted. You may need to reapply. If yes, then won’t you be glad that you started your extracurricular/volunteer experience as early as you did? What looked like a brief volunteer encounter during your first application effort now looks like an impressive long-term experience. By now your endeavor is more impressive and has had a greater impact – on you and on others. The same goes for people who plan on applying this year, start volunteering, and then change their minds to apply next year.
So, to sum up: If you’re not already involved in an extracurricular activity, take the time NOW to find an activity that you feel passionate about. Then, follow your passions and DO something.