How to Position Extracurriculars On Your Business School Application

September 03, 2019 | by Heidi Hillis

If you cook and run and travel, you’re the same as everybody else. Everything that goes on your application needs to work toward setting you apart, so the detail matters.

When the MBA admissions committee starts reviewing a new applicant, they often scan ahead to the ‘Other Info/Extracurricular’ section of the resume. Why? That’s where they can gain real insight into the type of person they are considering. Business schools are looking active contributors to the community, not just candidates who will excel in class. What you do in your precious little free time is as important and interesting to the admissions committee as what you do at work, as it sends a signal about the kind of student and alum you’ll be.

“The top business schools are fast-paced and intense,” explains Fortuna’s Karla Cohen, former Associate Director at Harvard Business School. “So they are looking for people who are ahead of the curve, who are progressing at a faster pace than their peers. But it’s not just about wanting to be successful in the business world. HBS is a very culture-heavy place where being mission driven is at the core, so they want to bring in people who will serve a larger purpose and are looking to create a positive change in the world. You can share the undertone of that in terms of what gets you up in the morning and motivates you, and extracurriculars and volunteer work are a great way to demonstrate your sense of purpose and commitment.”

What do MBA programs look for in your extracurricular involvement? To echo Cohen, they want to know what matters to you, and then to discern the skills you’ve developed through your experiences. The extracurricular section is an opportunity to showcase initiative, leadership, collaboration and passion for a cause. It’s also about your engagement in, and commitment to, the communities to which you belong.

This is particularly true for some of the more typical profiles, such as finance and consulting. For example, if you’re an analyst at a top consulting firm, the admissions committee understands that a you’re not often given the opportunity to lead a project. If, however, you lead the firm’s annual charity drive (which, by the way, raised the most money ever when you were in charge), or if you also serve on the board of your local SPCA (and have done so for years), you’ll credibly distinguish yourself from the pack.

My colleagues at Fortuna Admissions are savvy and opinionated on the importance of highlighting your extracurriculars, and how best to frame them. Part one of this two-part series focuses on why they matter, with best practices for highlighting your volunteer and extracurricular experience in a memorable and compelling way.

Fortuna’s top 10 tips for framing your extracurricular involvement: 

1. Quantify:“If you support a yearly fundraising event, how much does it raise annually and how many people attend? If you helped organize volunteers, how many?” asks Catherine Tuttle, former Duke Fuqua Associate Director. “For example, the concise description, “Serve on the gala planning committee; assist Executive Board with the planning and execution of an annual event raising $300K+ each year,” is more meaningful than, “Assist with planning annual gala.”

2. Qualify: “The key is to concisely describe your unique contribution, impact and learnings from that experience – especially if you are describing a more typical volunteer effort like being a Big Brother,” says Kristen Beyers, former Yale SOM Deputy Director of Admissions. Adds Tuttle, “As long as you can show prolonged engagement and added value, then I don’t think it matters whether you’re volunteering for Big Brothers/Big Sisters, Habitat for Humanity or a smaller, local non-profit initiative.”

3. Identify impact: There’s also no doubt that some activities carry more weight than others, but often it’s about the positioning. Demonstrate why what you did matters. For example, consider the person who lists their interests as, “Hiking, Soccer, Volleyball, Backpacking, Poker, USC Football,” versus the applicant who, “as Vice President of Women in Business, secured over $25K corporate sponsorship for funding events, scholarships and investments for the largest student organization at the university.” Or the person who identifies as a self-taught coder citing, “1st place winner at 3 hackathons 2015-2016, totaling $15,000 in prizes.”

4. Show engagement: “MBA programs look to see a variety of characteristics in an applicant’s profile, whether they are evidenced by personal interests, professional experience or extracurricular activities,” says Emma Bond, former London Business School Senior Manager of MBA Admissions. “It’s about engagement – demonstrating your unique skill set to make a difference in the community, whether that’s at an international, national, regional or local level.”

5. Get specific: Everything that goes on your application needs to work toward setting you apart, so the detail is important. “Claim your own angle by getting really specific about what you do in these hobbies or organizations,” says Judith Silverman Hodara, former Wharton head of MBA Admissions. “Do you have a specific mentee that means a lot to you? Is there a favorite marathon that you have run? Look for ways to offer salient details.”

6. Connect to your career goals: “Extracurriculars that illustrate experiences and specific skills linked to your career goals help strengthen your story and show your commitment and passion to this particular goal,” says Malvina Miller Complainville, former Harvard Business School Assistant Director of Career Services. “This can be especially helpful to fill gaps in your professional experience. For example, if team management is crucial in your long-term goal but you haven’t had the opportunity at work to lead teams, this is the ideal opportunity to highlight the team management experience you’ve had as head of your regional club.”

7. Demonstrate shared values with your program. “Are you someone who wants to make a difference in the lives of others? Are you connected to your community? If the themes of your participation can be tied to the core values of the school, then you’re establishing fit from a more personal perspective,” says Tuttle. Adds Miller Complainville, “For example, the first trait listed in HBS’ “What Are We Looking For” online statement is “A Habit of Leadership,” so it would be shrewd to highlight leadership experiences within your extracurriculars. You might do this by reflecting on the leadership skills you developed while starting a new undergrad club, building a start-up outside of work or coaching a soccer team.”

8. Address gaps in your application. “If you’re in finance but want to start a social enterprise after earning your MBA, showing demonstrated involvement and interest in nonprofits as extracurriculars would answer potential concerns on the career front,” says Beyers.

9. Underscore specific skills you’ve acquired. “Leadership is a key (and obvious) one, but others might include the ability to adapt in different cultural situations; volunteering abroad in places where conditions can be challenging; communicating persuasively through fundraising; mobilizing support through managing charitable events – among many other valuable skills,” says Bond. “Perhaps your charitable involvement has honed your decision-making skills in a challenging, fast-paced environment of the type that might arise after a natural disaster.”

10. Connect to character traits. “Your athletic involvement can convey determination, grit, teamwork and  perseverance,” says Melissa Jones, former INSEAD Assistant Director of the MBA Program. “It’s worth mentioning if you were VP of a specific club or a team captain of an undergrad sports team, or that you were part of the drama club and performed in several plays. These all speak to your character plus shows the admissions committee a track record of participation at school.”

As with the rest of your business school application, the devil is in the details. You might think that your interests or activities are too boring, but even the most ordinary of activities can be given the nuance and detail that will help the admissions committee get insight to the kind of person and leader you are.

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