The top MBA programs don’t want workaholic nerds. The schools already know that you work 40 or 50 hours a week crunching numbers at a 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 also learn that you ran a book recycling drive at a local school, are working toward a black belt in tae kwon do, or helped direct a rebranding campaign for your church, they appreciate you in a more holistic way.
This is where extracurricular activities add real value to your b-school application. What counts as an extracurricular activity? Any non-academic, non-professional project or pastime, such as a hobby, sports, creative endeavor, volunteering, or community service, where you are an active participant. These activities reveal a fuller, multidimensional portrait of you as a person. They show a well-roundedness – the “you” beyond your stats and work profile.
Examples of MBA extracurricular activities include the following:
- 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
Not only do extracurricular activities work in your favor in broad strokes but they also, and more specifically, achieve the following for your application:
They prove your commitment to an activity, cause, or group.
Even a relatively short-term involvement has the potential to show that you are reliable and dependable. MBA admissions committees like that.
They demonstrate creativity, caring, passion, and/or an eagerness to expand your mind.
Your extracurricular activities don’t need to relate to business. They still burnish your image as a vibrant person who cares about others, looks for ways to expand your 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-20s, it can be hard to show lots of leadership, especially when you work 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 listed above, we see how they highlight an applicant’s ability to make commitments, expand their knowledge and creative skills, and show empathy and altruism.
Returning for a moment to the idea of leadership, some of these examples also provide the opportunity to demonstrate it, as well as show organizational skills. For example, how did you tailor activities in the backyard camp for the special needs of the children? How did you plan for difficult moments with them? What role did you play in the vaccination clinic in Mexico? Did you just sit around and do what you were told to do, or did you take initiative and offer suggestions to make things smoother and to calm nervous patients? Thanks to your interior design course, have you been able to redesign your office for better efficiency? Do you see physical spaces differently now?
When does volunteering count as an extracurricular activity?
Well, that depends on how closely connected the volunteerism is to your work. For example, you might have volunteered to help plan a company holiday party or design an employee satisfaction survey. That’s nice, but that kind of work-related volunteer role will probably be seen as one motivated by a desire to promote your career profile. In contrast, volunteerism outside of work in any group – whether 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 – make a change now. Pick something that interests you and start ASAP, 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 for or interest in anything non-work related. Choose something you feel you can really get into.
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.
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 might 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.Finally, consider that you might be waitlisted, change your mind and decide to postpone your application to next year, or even be rejected and need to reapply. In any of these cases, you’ll be glad to have begun your extracurricular/volunteer experience now. What looked like a brief volunteer stint during your first application effort will later look like an impressive long-term experience. By that point, your involvement will have had a greater impact – on you and on others.
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, and 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. As with other types of extracurricular involvements, community service expresses your values and provides an outlet 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 confirms your willingness to focus on people and concerns beyond yourself.
Whether your community service connects with some sort of global disaster, such as a clothing drive for victims of a disaster in Haiti, or more typical and local, such as volunteering in a nearby homeless shelter, the best community service is the one you do because it means something to you.
Accepted or rejected? Extracurricular activities and community service can tip the scales.
When adcoms size up two applicants with similar competitiveness, they will choose the one with a greater track record of involvement outside of work or school. Why? 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 ways to expand their world through extracurricular interests, hobbies, volunteering, and so on. Furthermore, they want students who are likely to become involved as alumni and community leaders after business school.
And so, in a situation in which only one seat is left in the class and the adcom is 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 a committee or volunteered in a clinic will earn that seat.
Are you already involved in community service and extracurriculars? Great! Keep up the good work. Strive for a leadership role. If you haven’t yet found an extracurricular outlet, choose an activity, cause, or organization that you will find meaningful or rewarding, and go for it! See where you can make an impact. Be consistent in your involvement. Not only will you find it personally rewarding but you will also be generating great material to write about other than school and work.
Working with an expert advisor will help you discover your competitive advantage. Why not 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 and 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!
• Navigating the MBA Application Maze: 10 Expert Tips to Getting Accepted, a free guide
• 5 Tips for Writing About Extracurricular Activities You Started at the Last Minute
• How to Add Detail to Your Social Enterprise/Community Service Goals