How ExtraCurriculars Can Make You Extra Special (featured in Forbes 05/07/14)

May 22, 2014 | by Matt Symonds

Admission teams typically receive more applications for a seat in their MBA program than they have places to fill. So how do they select who to interview among so many qualified applicants?

An often underestimated way to differentiate your MBA application from the competition is through extracurricular activities. Why do business schools pay such close attention to aspects beyond your professional life? It’s often because they need an approach to pick out a candidate from amongst so many.

Think of it from the admission committee’s point of view. Imagine there are 10 spots left and they have the challenging task of selecting from 30 comparable profiles. You’re all from blue-chip companies with advanced professional growth, demonstrate leadership potential, and have high GMAT scores. Let’s say they’re presented with a candidate who volunteered once at an orphanage when he was 18 years old and hasn’t done anything since, and with a candidate who regularly competes in chess competitions, gives time every week at the soup kitchen, and is helping to increase membership and fresh ideas at the local Rotary Club. Who do you think they’ll select? When it comes down to the wire, dedication to volunteering and/or interesting activities might make a difference.

A history of non-scholastic engagement from your time as an undergrad through your career to-date is a big advantage. Even if you’re from a culture that places less emphasis on extracurriculars and volunteerism, keep in mind that the top candidates in your competitive pool will most likely have activities they can refer to.

You also need to do your research and get an idea of what the school is looking for in an admit. It might not be obvious, but there are slight differences in what some schools favor. Harvard prides itself on leadership; therefore, ideally, this should also be reflected in your personal undertakings. While Stanford looks for applicants who set out to change the world, they may give more weight to activities making meaningful ‘contributions’.

No matter which school, when evaluating you versus other candidates, they all want to know:

Are you really a well-rounded person, or are you only interested in work? For example, for the consultant who works 80-hour weeks and is always traveling, you still need to demonstrate some sort of commitment or activity outside of your professional life. There will always be some consultant who works just as hard as you, but participates in something else – so who do you think admissions will choose?
Are you someone who participates in activities that you’re passionate about? Schools are seeking engaged individuals who understand their own personal and career purpose. If your activities are random and not associated to interests or passions, you’ll have a less captivating story to tell.
Are you an individual who’ll contribute to life at school beyond the classroom? A major part of your MBA experience will take place outside of the classroom. Can admissions expect you to organize a career trek to Silicon Valley, contribute to a student blog, or run the Private Equity Club?
Are you a high-achiever? High-achievers tend to shine not only in academics but in other aspects of life. Being a member of the National Synchronized Swimming Team meant long hours at the pool before and after school/work, disciplined training, team collaboration, and a lot of competitive drive.
In the future, will you be an active alumni member of the school? An active and engaged alumni network is invaluable for the continued success of an MBA program. Your experience gives an indication of what kind of alum you will be.

When you apply for an MBA, there’s a lot about your profile that’s already carved in stone – where you were educated, your career to-date – but extracurriculars are an area where you can enrich your profile in a relatively short period of time. If you think your profile needs an extracurricular boost, here are a few tips:

Don’t wait until it’s too late. If your extracurricular activities are a bit light, don’t sign up as a volunteer weeks before the school deadlines. In the eyes of the admissions committee this just looks calculated.
Go for quality not quantity. It’s better to get deeply involved in one thing you’re really passionate about, than to start four new activities simultaneously.
Pick something that supports your personal purpose in life. Don’t just get involved because it’s an admissions criterion. Do it because it genuinely resonates with who you are, your values, and your sense of purpose. It will reflect positively on your character and enhance your entire application. In any case, it’s very often the right thing to do.
Think about how it can complement/enhance your profile. If, for example, you’ve not had an occasion to show leadership qualities at work, can you take a leadership role in a different setting? Managing a fundraising campaign can illustrate your initiative and drive. If you’re passionate about the Heart and Stroke Foundation and want to cycle in their ‘Ride for Heart’ event this summer, why not put an office team together?
Think about what traits can be communicated through your extracurricular activities. For example your marathon running can carry more weight than saying you enjoy wine tasting. Though there’s no fault in enjoying fine wine (in fact this Shiraz beside my laptop is delicious), the former requires much more discipline and dedication which can speak to your drive. Or going every Wednesday evening after work to a deprived neighborhood to give complimentary math tutoring to high school students shows altruism as opposed to impressing your partner in the kitchen after having completed a cooking class. Save your culinary flair for the weekend!

Cultural Differences
There are cultural differences in levels of extracurricular engagement. In North America, getting involved is promoted from a very young age and is not optional for aspiring leaders. In other parts of the world, it’s not always as common or mandatory. In certain countries, young people are led to dedicate themselves entirely to vigorous academics leaving no time (or even no choice) to partake in anything but studies.

For Indian applicants, Caroline Diarte Edwards from Fortuna notes, “When I was Director of Admissions at INSEAD, frequently we would see extracurricular activities from Indian candidates from their undergrad years, but then nothing afterwards. Also, a cultural norm is to play cricket so you pretty much see this on every Indian male’s application. Even though cricket is a challenging sport and requires terrific skill, the candidates that were notable would be the ones who were participating in other different and interesting activities.”
Even though admissions are familiar with these cultural variances, candidates who stand out show broader interests than work.

Having Kids
Admissions committees know that being a parent is a major commitment and can lessen a candidate’s ability to participate in extracurriculars. But don’t use this as an excuse. Admissions will look to see how engaged you were pre-kids, and be impressed even more if you’ve continued or taken on new passions such as coaching your daughter’s soccer team. Judith Silverman Hodara from Fortuna says “Recently a client incorporated in her essays that she has two small children. She made it clear that while her career is very time consuming, she’s also very engaged in the lives of her children. She talked about choosing her MBA program based on the integration of her entire family into the community, recognizing she was making a commitment that was going to affect not only her own path, but that of her whole family. She had also been very involved in extracurriculars pre-children, and maintained hobbies that she was really passionate about (in this case, cake decorating and website design) that meant she was able to demonstrate that she would be a fully engaged member of the MBA cohort.” For the record, this individual was admitted.

Today, there seems to be less time for ‘doing things’ and often extracurriculars are abandoned. But, if you’re applying to b-school later in the year and are concerned that on paper you’re coming up short to project the well-rounded person that you are, it’s not too late to begin or re-engage in your hobbies, interests, and passions. Don’t forget that these other commitments are what you do for pleasure and personal enrichment, so you just might have some fun too!

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