Essentials Of An Awesome App

If you’re applying to B-school in fall or winter, then we hope you’ve already begun assessing your profile. In this series we’ve already discussed taking the GMAT and evaluating your GPA; today we’re going to examine extracurricular activities and volunteer experience. The main question you’ll need to ask yourself is: Do I have enough extracurricular experience? And then: Do I have time to add more?

In your best case scenario you will have participated in non-work, non-academic extra-curricular or volunteer activities during and since college. In such a case, you will have no trouble presenting a strong summary of your activities and their significance to you. Please note that you don’t have to have a laundry list of activities. one to three consistent commitments with increasing responsibilities can be extraordinarily impressive.

Now, there’s a pretty wide spectrum between our best case scenario above and our worst case one, which is that you haven’t participated in any regular activities, even for a short period of time, outside of school and work.

But even in the latter situation, it may not be too late for you to pack in the activities between now and when you apply to business school.

You may ask, “Won’t it look bad if my resume or essays reflect that the only extracurricular activities I’ve participated in were in the last few months only? Won’t the adcom members see right through that and know that my involvement was only in an effort to bulk up my B-school qualifications?”

Those are good questions, and if we were to answer honestly, we’d have to say “Yes” to both—it may not look great that all your extra-curriculars were crammed into the last few months, and the adcoms will probably be on to your scheme. HOWEVER, recent, crammed-in extra-curricular activities are still better than no extra-curricular activities at all.

Top business schools are looking for well-rounded students who are committed to pursuing life outside the classroom or office, in addition to their busy professional and academic lives. The fact that you are stepping up and showing that commitment now, albeit a little late in the game, still reflects that commitment, and is therefore still better than nothing.

Furthermore, if you maintain your commitment and are waitlisted or rejected, your participation will start to carry a little more weight. And of course if you need to reapply, then you will be able to show a consistent commitment that went beyond bulking up a resume and continued over a lengthy period of time, regardless of your original motives.

Be sure to show that your activities are not just quantitative, but qualitative too. Blandly listing “basket-weaving” on a list of activities is not nearly as impressive as explaining how every summer since high school you volunteered in a women’s business co-op in Northern Uganda weaving baskets.

Finally, community service and other non-professional commitments provide a great venue for you to show leadership and impact — sometimes tough to do when you are a low person on the totem pole of a large corporation. It is usually much easier to assume responsibility and show your motivational talents on a sports team, fund raising committee, or band. Take advantage of that opportunity.

Your extra-curricular activities will add depth, personality, and life to your application which is otherwise filled with job descriptions, numbers and test scores. This texture and color will be particularly important if you are teetering on the line of acceptance or rejection. In such cases, the adcoms will likely turn to the non-academic, non-professional aspects of your application to establish whether your personality and humanity are a good fit with their top MBA program.

Still worried your few months of extra-curriculars won’t be enough? Mine your experiences for activities that you may not have initially considered “extracurricular” or “volunteer.” Singing in a church choir, participating in your little sister’s annual ballet bake sale, or tutoring a day laborer for his GED are all perfectly valid volunteer options. Not everyone needs to volunteer in a soup kitchen to qualify as a good Samaritan!

So, MBA applicants, if you’re not already involved in an extra-curricular activity, take some time to find something that you feel passionate about. Then, follow your passions and DO something!

By Linda Abraham, CEO and founder of, the leading MBA admissions consultancy, and co-author of the new book, MBA Admission for Smarties: The No-Nonsense Guide to Acceptance at Top Business Schools.  Linda has been helping MBA applicants gain acceptance to top MBA programs since 1994.

Our Series on the Essentials of an Awesome MBA Application

Part I: The GMAT

Part II: Grade Point Average


  • jay

    I think it’s a bit naive to think that “if you are a good fit for school XYZ, you will get in.” The competition for spots at top schools is fierce and thousands of qualified applicants get rejected each year. I certainly am not advocating that you fabricate accomplishments or community activities in your application, but you’d be hard pressed to find a student who hasn’t embellished a personal anecdote or added a social agenda to their otherwise capitalist career goals. HBS produces a surprising number of consultants and bankers given how many admitted students write about their run non-profits or help the underprivileged.

  • Diane

    After reading quite a few articles and comments on P&Q, I’m left wondering why the admin hasn’t already banned this Alois de Novo person. He/she is always posting inflammatory stuff, displaying a serious case of the trolls, not to mention poor judgment. I sometimes wonder whether he/she is causing misinformation among people who are just starting out their research and who don’t sense the kind of garbage he/she is posting.
    My take on this: people, don’t lie on your app. If you are a good fit with school XYZ, you will get in. If you get caught lying, bye bye MBA from top school. And if you don’t get caught now but continue on this path, there’s a good chance we’ll see you on TV like Mr. Rajaratnam.

  • Naser

    I would love to attend an intimate class in St Louis Olin, and gain close friends, focusing on my career and knowledge rather than fighting for Harvard.

  • Alois de Novo

    I would argue that admission to GSB or HBS constitutes a “positional good” (see Wikipedia entry for definition) and that it is impossible to gain possession of a positional good by fraudulent means. And because it is a positional good it is therefore not a thing that can be stolen or fraudulently obtained. It’s not gold, it’s not sexual favors, it’s not an Audi: it’s just something other people seem to want because it’s deemed preferable by artifact of a ranking.

    I would also argue that lying, skillfully lying, represents an inefficient and cost effective means for gaining possession of a positional good, e.g., admission to GSB or HBS. It’s simply much cheaper than going to all the trouble of actually motorcycling to Mexico and building a school building for blind children. Better to know the guy who runs the board of the organization that sponsors those projects in Mexico.

    Think strategically and profit mightily!

  • @Bethany,

    Amen. And congrats!

    @FuriousStyles I appreciate a voice of integrity. Frequently — admittedly not always and not immediately — what goes around comes around. If it always came around immediately with absolute clarity, acting unethically would simply be incredibly, obviously stupid and not merely wrong.


  • Furious Styles

    The sad truth is that people will lie to get what they want but it really depends on your own ethics and to rephrase GSB’s essay what matters to you most and why. I would love to go to H/S/W but I would not lie to get in. Integrity matters more to me. I would rather get rejected on my own merit than get accepted thanks to my lies. However, I agree that if you can lie and feel good about it, there is nothing anyone can really do to stop you.

  • Bethany

    Seriously? I am appalled at the integrity of some posters here. Lying is NEVER all right, and please do NOT assume that everyone does it. I have a humble background and profile and will be attending a M7 this fall. All I can say is that, karma has a funny way of catching up with you.

    @Clint: Well said, kudos. – “My only point (and not directed at anyone in particular) is that someones time and energy would be better served by making themselves into an extraordinary candidate, than by pretending to be one.”

  • Ramni


    this is exactly what I meant by the differences between cultures in extracurricular activities. He easily can prove every single sentence he wrote, but he and I from the same culture and we know exactly how to do that, especially when Harvard and Stanford and all top schools CAN NOT investigate! we know the limits of investigations, we know the limits of Kroll Guard, we know the scandal of live GMAT questions 3 years ago, what about thousands of students whom benefited from this help and graduated? we know how to do it, we also, know that if your father is rich he can donate and get you in whatever your qualification, we know that in every class at harvard there are places for politicians and certain businessmen..but what really make me sad is that I’ll never enjoy my degree if I lied about any thing..and if I were honest, I simply can’t get in..this is my message to the adcoms, why the hell you accept someone who is already rich or on fast track and actually the MBA is just for advance connections and contacts..why the hell you don’t accept normal people and turn them to successful ones? why you force people to for lying..and guess what? B schools didn’t make differences in serving communities and human beings..can you imagine b school to win Nobel in Peace? NO, but it is easily to imagine B school responsible directly about bankruptcy of pension fund and firing thousands of can imagine that Wall Street is filled by hedge fund managers whom good in numbers and very poor in making positive changes in other lives..and you can notice obviously, that most if not all b schools changed their MBA curriculum, and emphasizing more on CSRs and social impact? WHY did they do that? because the terrible impact they created originally, and NOW they are talking about ethics!!! and credibility!!!

  • jay

    @ Ramni

    If you do in fact have a friend who lied his way into Stanford, you did him a disservice by posting about it here. If that information were to make its way to the adcom, I’m guessing it wouldn’t be terribly difficult for them to locate a Class of 2011 graduate with a 590 GMAT who now works at Bain Capital.

  • Clint

    its true that an ADCOM’s perception of talent is imperfect, and that “superhuman” admits will do stupid idiotic things (financial crisis). And its also true that one doesn’t need an MBA to have “superhuman” accomplishments (Steve Jobs, Gates, Oprah Winfrey, etc)

    None of this means that there aren’t people whose talents surpass what is measurable, and observable by an ADCOM, or by anyone else. Look at Jeremy Lin, why wasn’t his talent recognized until just now? Because people are incredibly poor judges of talent.

    All this however, doesn’t negate the fact that extraordinary talent exists, and so long as it exists, people will be able to detect hints of it (if they’re looking for it) Whether ADCOMS are looking for it in the wrong places is another discussion.

    There will ALWAYS be a disconnect between true talent and how talent is percieved by a group of invididuals evaluating a candidate on paper. Gaming the system won’t get you very far. who cares that some dude works at Bain Capital? it means nothing. Bain Capital isn’t the ultimate judge of talent, neither is an ADCOM. The only true judge of talent is results.

    My only point (and not directed at anyone in particular) is that someones time and energy would be better served by making themselves into an extraordinary candidate, than by pretending to be one.

    The opportunity argument (that extraordinary people came from privilige) is a crock, invented by the lazy. It doesn’t take a single dollar to develop some really cool life stories to impress an ADCOM with.

    Working nights mopping floors to pay your way through undergrad. Or going to a community college, working hard transfering, and making it. Your activities to demonstrate greatness don’t have to be altruistic. A really cool story, or clever insights from bar hopping can be enough. Often times people aren’t as concerned with how you became great, just that you became great (Steve Jobs credits his success to LSD, go figure)

  • Alois de Novo

    Linda says: “What you don’t know is the applicants who lied on their application and got rejected because their essays didn’t pass the smell test.”

    Nonsense. Which is worse, not to lie and never be considered for admission or to lie and incur a small risk of being found out? I’d rather take my chances.

    I say lie audaciously. Hire an admissions consultant who will counsel you on the most plausible sounding lies. Hire an admissions consultant with a successful track record of writing essays for applicants. Even more annoying than extracurriculars and and “community service” are the essays. I say get a consultant who has zero ethics to write the essays for you.

    We can all benefit from outsourcing!

  • Ramni,

    What you don’t know is the applicants who lied on their application and got rejected because their essays didn’t pass the smell test. They get the same rejection letter as the applicant with the low GMAT or GPA, or vague goal, or inadequate work experience. You don’t know about those admitted applicants whose offers of acceptance are withdrawn — the incident I mentioned above is not unique — because background checks reveal discrepancies, AKA lies. Even when their “friends” keep their mouths shut.

    You also don’t know of potential cost down the road. My husband had a colleague who was forced to resign after 15-20 years with a major corporation because he lied when hired about an athletic activity in college. It had nothing to do with his work or his qualifications. There also was a well-known case of an MIT admissions director who lied about a particular college credential and in her fifties was forced to resign because someone had it in for her and let MIT know that she had lied about her long-ago education.

    Finally, there are cultural differences towards community service and extra-curricular activities. Adcoms recognize these differences. It is much more a part of the U.S. educational system than it is in many if not most other parts of the world.

    However, if you want to stand out in a positive way, and not as a troll trying to seduce other applicants with tales of acceptances based on lies, then do something exceptional! Do something, take initiative, and assume responsibility for something that reflects your values and interests and gives you a chance to show leadership.


  • Alois de Novo

    @Chris: I can think of a fair number of applicants, MBA students and alumni who have no intention of ever building schools for blind children in Mexico. Just the thought produces an unpleasant sensation in my bowels. Just speaking for myself, I don’t intend going nearer to Mexico than Chipotle.

    Other things to lie about: URM status, 1st generation college.

    A friend of Italian descent but with an Hispanic sounding surname got into one of the Ivy med schools by telling them she was an Hispanic. To which I say, way to go Miss Gomez!

  • Ramni


    I know personally someone with GMAT 590 and lied many in his application got into stanford, graduated in 2011, and now working with Bain Capital!!!
    May be we are different in what we mean by normal people or superhuman..THERE IS NO SUPERHUMAN, all human beings are equals and have same brain cells and same legs and hands..if someone lucky of having his opportunity this DOESN’T mean that he is actually better human than the others…FYI, financial crisis created mostly by your superhuman whom separated from the actual and real life to the virtual economy and playing with billions of savings and pension funds..and FYI, most of forbes list of billionaires have no MBAs, who need an MBA is actually not superhuman, if he is then why he does need it??!!!

  • Clint

    Wow. this thread is quite entertaining. “coerced into allegedly voluntary activity” “admission board MUST be realistic and realize that the applicants are just normal people trying to enhance their lives.” wow.

    First off, admits to top b-schools, or top law or medical schools are NOT “normal people,” far from it.

    During orientation at top medical schools, students are reminded that eating and sleeping are necessary for academic and professional success, and some required as a condition of admission to seek counseling for obsessive compulsive study habits (no joke). Later on in their training, their superhuman habits are put to work with residency shifts that stretch into their 40th consequetive hour (no sleep, no food, only partially diminshed mental focus).

    B-school students accomplish similarly difficult feats, though arguably of less social value (12-hour happy hour binges following a full day of class, awkward networking, and death by spreadsheet)

    As to the “coercive” nature of adcoms *yawn* no one is asking you to compromise your integrity to get in. If you’re not awesome enough, save the $200 application fee, and put it toward becoming awesome. Soup kitchen experience never landed someone into Stanford, quitting your job and heading to mexico on a motorcycle with only $200 and a spanish dictionary in your pocket, and coming back 3 years later fluent in spanish, having built a school for blind childred, DOES get you in.

    My advice to you is to refuse to be “normal” and to go out there and live a little. If you’re bitter because the Adcom saw through your lies, and you haven’t lived enough to acquire a few interesting stories, then you’re not suitable for business school anyway.

  • Alois de Novo

    Another thing is: I just don’t have any interest in these empty gestures of dogooderism.

    When not at work, I want to spend quality time watching TV, drinking with my friends in expensive bars, and pursuing pistol-hot chicks in NYC. This was my life before an MBA from — what do you call it? — Give-Up -Your-Eyeteeth School and it’s my life now.

  • Ramni


    the problem is when we are honest and real on our application, we simply can’t get in. I know many many students whom did their MBAs at all M7 schools lied in many part of their applications and got in. I believe admission board MUST be realistic and realize that the applicants are just normal people trying to enhance their lives.. I am talking as an international, admission board should consider difference in cultures when talking about extracurricular and voluntary works and also, the differences between education systems and many things associated. and by the way, most of those lied and did MBAs at top schools they are actually did well in job market and achieved their know life isn’t fair..and always there is mistakes..I am not justifying rather telling reality..

  • Alois de Novo

    @Linda, your theory of adverse consequences from lying relies on hypothetical of a falling out. Most of us know how to assess the reliability of our friend.

    Again, there’s more integrity in lying than in allowing oneself to be coerced into an allegedly voluntary activity. I’d rather spend that time with my friends avoiding a falling out.

    To all of readers of PoetsandQuants: It’s time to break free of your chains. This is the one place on an application where no one will blame you for lying!

  • Considering your advocacy of lying, you may have a certain lack of credibility, not to mention integrity.

    However, let me help you out. I too know of someone who got in to his top choice school — one of those most of you dream about — by lying. It did work, at first. He was accepted and then several months after he was accepted, he contacted us that his offer of admission had been withdrawn. Why? He lied about extra-curricular activities on his app. He also had a falling out with someone who knew he lied about those activities (I don’t remember if it was someone he had convinced to lie on his behalf or an uninvolved party.) In any case, after the happy applicant had announced to all his friends and family that he was accepted at Give-Up -Your-Eyeteeth School, he was contacted by the school that Informer X claimed the extra-curricular activity was bogus. The school asked the accepted applicant to respond to the allegations of lying. He couldn’t. The offer of acceptance was withdrawn. Frankly, he was lucky the incident wasn’t reported to GMAC so he could reapply. He was accepted elsewhere, but Top Choice was out of the question.

    Oh yes, and the “friend” who lies on your behalf could be horribly guilt-ridden and remorseful if you happen to have a disagreement. He could be driven, absolutely compelled, to confess his lie — if he’s ticked enough at you.

    And that’s how “It works!”

  • Alois de Novo

    I wish to add that this approach to solving the of those annoying questions about extracurriculars has been successfully field tested. It works!

  • Alois de Novo

    I advocate lying on these questions to preserve one’s integrity. Nobody likes being coerced into a voluntary activity by the prospect of applying to HBS or Stanford. Pro tip: socialize with board members of non-profits and get them to lie in your behalf. One’s friends are always eager to help.