Positioning Extracurriculars On Your MBA Application

If you run and cook 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 admissions committee starts to review a new candidate, they often go straight 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 for students who will do more than excel in class. They are looking for active contributors to the community. What you do in your free time (what little you might have of it) is as interesting and important to the admissions committee as what you do at work, because it sends a signal about the kind of student and alum you’ll be.

“The top business schools are intense and fast-paced,” explains my Fortuna colleague Karla Cohen, former Associate Director at HBS. “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 are looking to create a positive change in the world and will serve a larger purpose. You can share the undertone of that in terms of what motivates you and gets you up in the morning, and volunteer work and extracurriculars are a great way to demonstrate your commitment and sense of purpose.”

So what do business schools look for in your extracurricular involvement? To echo Karla, they want to know what matters to you, and then to get a sense of the skills you’ve developed through your experiences. Your extracurricular section is an opportunity to showcase leadership, collaboration, initiative and passion for a cause. It’s also about your commitment to, and involvement in, the communities to which you belong.

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

My Fortuna Admissions colleagues are opinionated and savvy on the importance of showcasing 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 extracurricular and volunteer experience in a compelling and memorable way.

Top 10 tips for positioning your extracurricular involvement: 

1. Quantify: “If you helped organize volunteers, how many? If you support a yearly fundraising event, how many people attend and how much does it raise annually?” asks Catherine Tuttle, former Associate Director of Duke Fuqua. “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 impactful than, “Assist with planning annual gala.”

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

3. Demonstrate impact: There’s also no doubt that some activities carry more weight than others, but often it’s about the positioning. Explain to the admissions committee why what you did is important.  Consider, for example 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 2014-2015, totaling $15,000 in prizes.”

4. Be specific: Everything that goes on your application needs to be working toward setting you apart, so the detail is important. “Claim your own angle by getting really specific about what you do in these organizations or hobbies,” says Judith Silverman Hodara, former head of MBA Admissions at Wharton. “Is there a specific mentee that you have which had meant a lot to you? Do you have a favorite marathon that you have run? Be prepared to share details.”

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

6. Link to your career goals: “Extracurriculars that illustrate specific skills and experiences linked to your career goals help strengthen your story and show your passion and commitment to this particular goal,” says Malvina Miller Complainville, former Assistant Director of Career Services at Harvard Business School. “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 perfect opportunity to highlight the team management experience you’ve had as head of your regional club.”

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

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

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

10. Connect to character traits. “For example, your athletic involvement can convey grit, determination, perseverance and teamwork,” says Melissa Jones, former Assistant Director of INSEAD’s MBA Program. “It’s worth mentioning if you were a team captain of an undergrad sports team or VP of a specific club, 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 involvement at school.”

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

Fortuna’s Heidi Hillis

Heidi Hillis is an expert coach at admissions coaching firm Fortuna Admissions and has an MBA from Stanford GSB, where she also served as an admissions interviewer. Fortuna Admissions is composed of former Directors and Associate Directors of Admissions 12 of the top 15 business schools.