Don’t underestimate the value of extracurricular activities in your b-school application! An extracurricular activity is a non-academic, non-professional project or pastime such as a hobby, sports, creative endeavor, volunteering, or community service, where you are an active participant.
Examples of MBA extracurricular activities include:
- Spending a month in Mexico helping to run a vaccination clinic
- Organizing a small backyard camp for your younger, autistic brother and two other special needs kids from the neighborhood
- Completing an online certificate program in interior design
- Leading a committee to recruit membership for your church, synagogue, or other group
- Volunteering weekly to tutor elementary school children in reading
- Learning to play an instrument, taking an art class, or other creative venture
How extracurriculars strengthen your profile
It should come as no surprise that top MBA programs don’t want workaholic nerds. These activities show the adcoms a fuller, multidimensional portrait of you as a person. They reveal breadth and well-roundedness – who you are beyond your stats and work profile. The schools already know that you work forty or fifty hours a week crunching numbers at the desk or designing marketing plans for product launches. But if that’s really all they know about you, your MBA application can appear flat. When they learn that you ran a book recycling drive at a local school, or are working toward a black belt in Taekwondo, or helped direct a rebranding campaign for your church, they appreciate you in a more holistic way.
This is why extracurricular activities work in your favor in broad strokes. More specifically, they do many important things for your application:
They prove your commitment to an activity, cause, or group.
Even if it has been a relatively short-term involvement, it shows that you are reliable and dependable. MBA admissions committees like that.
They demonstrate creativity, caring, passion, and/or an eagerness to expand their minds.
Even when your extracurricular activities don’t specifically relate to business, they burnish your image as a vibrant person who cares about others, looks for ways to expand their life experiences and knowledge, and finds outlets for creative expression. In fact, leadership, initiative, passion, and creativity can still be read into many of these experiences.
They demonstrate leadership and organizational skills.
When you are in your early or mid-twenties, it can be hard to show lots of leadership, especially when you are in a hierarchical organization. But in a community service or volunteer context, there are leadership opportunities galore. Grab them! Admissions committees can’t get enough examples of applicants demonstrating leadership.
Looking at the examples of extracurricular activities at the beginning of this article, we see how they highlight an applicant’s ability to make commitments, expand knowledge and creative skills, and show empathy and altruism.
Some of these examples will also give you the opportunity to show leadership and organizational skills. For example, how did you tailor activities in the backyard camp for the special needs of these children? How did you plan for difficult moments with the children? And about the vaccination clinic in Mexico: What role did you play? Did you just sit around and do what you were told to do, or did you take initiative to present your own suggestions to make things smoother and to calm nervous patients? From your interior design course, have you been able to redesign your office for better efficiency? Do you see physical spaces differently now?
Is volunteering an extracurricular activity?
Well, that depends on how closely connected the volunteerism is to your work. For example, you may have volunteered at your company to help plan a holiday party or design an employee satisfaction survey. That’s nice and earns some brownie points, but that kind of work-related volunteer role will probably be seen as one motivated primarily by a desire to promote your profile on the job. Any volunteerism outside of work in any group – whether in a book club, teen drop-in center, religious institution, or other special interest group will count more because it speaks to your values and interests outside of professional self-promotion.
Help! I don’t have any long-term extracurricular or community service commitments!
If this is your situation, don’t fret about the past – make a change NOW. Pick something that interests you and start right away, even if it’s application season and any involvement you can claim will have been very recent and short-term. It’s crucial that you don’t come off as a workaholic who has no time or interest in anything non-work related. Pick something you feel you can really get into.
Also, consider that you may be waitlisted, change your mind and decide to push off your application to next year, or even be rejected and need to reapply. In any of these cases, you’ll 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 involvement has had a greater impact – on you and on others.
Bottom line, last-minute community service is still better than no community service at all. You can’t hide the fact that you only recently joined your church’s adult literacy outreach program, but you can focus on how this new experience has unexpectedly enriched your life, and motivated you to explore the possibility of expanding this program in an underserved community across town. Or you can talk about how your new volunteering stint has added a meaningful angle to your long-term vision.
And so, while a short-term and recent commitment will not shine as brightly as one that’s lasted a year or more, at least you will show that you are capable of committing to one. You may be surprised at how soon you can show impact and expand your thinking and knowledge in a new area. In other words, a little extracurricular activity can go a long way.
Is community service more important than other extracurricular activities?
We stop short of claiming that community service is more important than other extracurricular activities, but let’s be real: Community service often demonstrates selflessness, giving for the sake of giving. That definitely suggests “extra credit” on your application. Community service can include involvement in sports teams, professional organizations, alumni groups, religious institutions, literacy programs, political campaigns, environmental or other causes …whatever you define as your community.
This kind of commitment goes beyond making financial donations or occasionally helping your elderly neighbor go shopping. Like with other types of extracurricular involvements, community service expresses your values and provides an outlet for you to demonstrate those qualities and skills that bump you up in the competitive pool of applicants: leadership, initiative, interpersonal skills, the ability to handle responsibility. It expresses your willingness to be other-centered and contribute to something beyond your own self-interests.
Whether your community service is unusual – you began a clothing recycling drive for victims of a disaster in Haiti – or more typical – volunteering in a homeless shelter – remember that the best community service is the one you do because it means something to you.
Accept or reject? Extracurricular activities and community service can make the difference
When adcoms are sizing up two applicants with similar competitiveness, they will choose the one with a greater track record of involvement outside of work or school. This is because adcoms know that past behavior predicts future behavior. They are proud of their schools and know that their continued reputation depends on a steady influx of new, active, involved students who look for opportunities to expand their world through extracurricular interests, hobbies, volunteering, etc. Furthermore, they want students who are likely to become involved as alumni and community leaders after business school.
And so, with only one seat left in the class, and weighing two applicants with virtually identical scores, equally persuasive essays and letters of rec, and similar professional experiences, it’s easy to see that the applicant who helped run that committee or volunteered in that clinic will earn that seat.
If you are already involved in community service and extracurriculars, keep up the good work and strive for a leadership role. If you haven’t yet done so, step up to the plate. Choose an activity, cause, or organization that you will find meaningful or rewarding and see where you can make an impact. Be consistent and actively involved, generating great material to write about other than school and work. You’ll find extracurriculars rewarding in many ways – go for it!
Working with an expert advisor will help you discover your competitive advantage. Why not take advantage of the Accepted track record, and get the guidance that will steer you toward creating a successful, admit-worthy application? Explore our MBA Admissions Services here.
By Judy Gruen, former Accepted admissions consultant. Judy holds a Master’s in Journalism from Northwestern University. She is the co-author of Accepted’s first full-length book, MBA Admission for Smarties: The No-Nonsense Guide to Acceptance at Top Business Schools. Want an admissions expert help you get accepted? Click here to get in touch!