The Case For Writing About Your Passions

Who Cares What I Do for Fun?

You might think, “This is a business school application. This is serious stuff. Why would the adcom care what I do for fun?”

Believe it or not, there’s so much you can communicate by talking about your pastimes. Here are a few things to consider, in no particular order:

Creativity: Over the last few decades, businesses have realized the importance of creativity and right-brain thinking, whether it comes to innovating products, solving business challenges, or boosting morale. If you make things with your hands, write music or stories, choreograph dances, act, etc., share this information, especially if your academic degrees and work experience have been very left-brained.

Sense of aesthetics/design: This is a corollary to the above. While it used to be sufficient to have highly functional, decent-looking products, many companies now earn their competitive advantage through captivating design (think Apple products). Accordingly, some MBA programs have been adding design-related courses such as “Design Thinking and Innovation.” So let them know that you like to draw, do graphic design, or take pictures. I invited one heavy-duty operations-engineer type to write up visually descriptive “postcards” that matched his photos from some of his favorite international destinations, which enabled him to convey his aesthetic sensibilities.

Adventurous nature/willingness to stretch beyond your limits: Successfully leading in rapidly changing, uncertain times takes curiosity, risk taking, and courage. A number of my clients have highlighted these qualities by sharing their experiences with extreme and/or outdoor sports like back-country skiing, bungee jumping, and deep-sea diving. For example, in reattempting rock climbing after a serious fall, Sarah demonstrated how she moved through fear to regain her self-confidence, while Marco mused about the intense focus required in mountain biking Utah’s perilous Porcupine Rim.

Tenacity/discipline/humility: Some fun things don’t come easily. You may have a pretty steep learning curve, with the rewards slow in coming. Take Vijay, who decided he wanted to learn how to play the violin at age 16 after being moved by the orchestra in a Bollywood film. No one takes up this instrument at 16—or so everyone told him. Undeterred, he dug into his savings to purchase a violin and private lessons. Initially, his daily practice sessions were grueling. His fingers hurt; he stumbled over key notes; his rhythm was awful; and his neighbors complained about the racket. After hundreds of hours of practice, he was good enough to play in a local ensemble, and to this day he continues to try to master even more complex compositions.

Team orientation: If you’re involved in a fun group endeavor, this can be a great way to convey that you’re a team player, particularly if you have no other means to disclose this. This could be through a collegiate or post-university team sport, but you might also be involved in a dance troupe, a revue as part of a fundraiser, a choir, or a music ensemble like Vijay’s. He hit this point home with “But it isn’t as a soloist that I’ve enjoyed playing the most; rather, playing in orchestras has been even more rewarding. In a group, it isn’t simply about individual excellence. It is about harmonizing with others, having your contribution enhance theirs, sometimes following the conductor, and at other times leading the symphony.      

Funstigator tendencies: This may seem frivolous, but think about it. If you’re in a study group or deal team or software-development team, you all haven’t slept in 36 hours, and you’re on a tight deadline, would you rather be working with people who know how to have fun or those who are all business? Of course, you want everyone to be pulling his or her own weight, but there’s an organizational value to knowing how to enjoy yourself and how to invite others to join you. You can convey this in different ways, but I’ve seen some clients do so via their recommenders, who might note in a sentence or two that Michaela regularly helped the team through some tough deadlines through sharing the hysterically funny cartoons she liked to draw. (Note: in this era of increasingly shorter recommendations and fewer essays, don’t use up precious space talking about what a blast you are until you’re sure you’ve covered the critical bases first!)

The wisdom to recharge: Let’s face it—there’s always more than enough work to do. I’ve seen that the leaders who sustain high performance over the long haul make sure to recharge their batteries, whether through leisure activities, time spent with loved ones and friends, or retreat. Business schools have been catching on to this, with Stanford offering such courses as “Work and Family,” “Leading Your Life,” and “Designing Happiness.” Andrew, a private equity associate who strongly valued work-life balance, knew that he was even more on his game when he made time to play tennis and nurture his relationship with his fiancée. To carve out time for this, he found ways to work smarter instead of longer, including training junior analysts to assume more lower-level tasks so he could focus on higher-impact activities.

When or Where to Talk about What You Do for Fun

You have a few channels for broadcasting your FQ (fun quotient).

Resume: If you have room on your resume, do include your interests there. Even if you don’t get to write about them in an essay or send samples of your creations, you may be asked about them in an interview. Be as precise as you can if you have room. For example, putting down “reading” doesn’t convey much, but noting “reading Civil War history” or “reading dystopian graphic novels” could pique an adcom member’s curiosity.

Online form: Many schools will give you a place to list your interests on the online form, so if you don’t have room on your resume, you’ll probably get the space to do so here.

Interview: Your interviewer may ask you specifically about an interest you noted in your application or ask the more general “What do you do for fun?” Be prepared to give a nuanced answer that genuinely transmits your passion about the activity.

Essay prompts that want to know more about you than just work: These could be rather explicit, e.g., more obvious prompts such as “Outside of work I . . .” or “Imagine your work obligations for the afternoon were cancelled and you found yourself ‘work free’ for three hours, what would you do?” Stern’s Personal Expression option is also a great place to show them what you do for fun: “Please describe yourself to your MBA classmates. You may use almost any method to convey your message (e.g., words, illustrations). Feel free to be creative.” (Note: they don’t accept perishables, so you can’t send your killer chocolate-chip cookies.) An avid handicrafter who was pursuing a marketing career, Sylvia had to overcome a low GPA, low GMAT and challenging work history; she wowed the Stern adcom with a richly detailed scrapbook.

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