Positioning Extracurriculars: Mistakes To Avoid

In this second installment of our two-part series on extracurriculars in your MBA application, our team drills down on what schools are looking for, and common mistakes to avoid. 

As an MBA candidate, how you articulate your extracurricular involvement contributes to your overall story. Ideally, well-positioned extracurriculars will clarify and reinforce your passions, involvement in community and commitment to pursuits outside of work. As mentioned in the first of this series, 10 Tips to Positioning Your Extracurriculars, what you share with the Admissions Committee valuable insight into your future community contributions as a student and later alumnus.

“It also helps the admissions committee get a better grasp of a candidate’s fit with an MBA program’s community and culture,” says my Fortuna Admissions colleague, Jessica Chung, former Associate Director of Admissions at UCLA Anderson. “Many of the programs and events in business school are very student-driven. Schools want students who show strong evidence that they will be actively involved in clubs and organizations, and successfully work together to drive a variety of events that are so vital to the MBA experience for everyone.”

So how do you decide what to include? And what NOT to include?

“Credentials are important, but so often when I was working at HBS I would see files that put the committee member to sleep. You are not going to be able to compete for a place at the top schools if you only have deals or client work to talk about,” explains Fortuna’s Karla Cohen, former Associate Director at Harvard Business School.

The more personal you can be in terms of why you do what you do, the more interesting you will be to the MBA admissions committee. “An engaging volunteer experience can say so much more about you than preparing a slide deck for a client presentation or negotiating another deal.” adds Karla. “Your extracurriculars should help you to speak from you core being, and reinforce what you want to do with your life, and why you want to do it.”

Too often, candidates overlook the importance of extracurriculars. Here are the common mistakes to avoid, as told by my Fortuna Admissions colleagues, former business school admissions professionals at top tier programs.

8 Mistakes to Avoid for Your MBA Extracurriculars 

1. The laundry list. “Admissions committees are not impressed by a laundry list of activities when it’s clear there’s no substance or true commitment to the cause, club or organization. They’d rather see a consistent relationship and understand the passion and dedication behind a few select causes,” says Sharon Joyce, former Berkeley Haas Associate Director of Admissions.

2. Poor positioning. “If you run and cook and travel you’re the same as everybody else,” says Jody Keating, former career coach at Wharton and Georgetown. But if these are truly your passions, a more compelling resume reframe would be: “Travel to 23 countries on three continents; Ran the New York Marathon (2015); Volunteer twice a month making meals at local soup kitchen; Mentor a seven year old weekly through Big Sisters of New York.” As you choose what activities to cite, be able to answer: How has a particular extracurricular contributed to my personal growth, to the development of skills essential to my career goals and to the impact I wish to have on my community?

3. Lack of uniqueness. Like poor positioning, the vague or too-typical citing will sink you. For example, citing ‘reading’ as a personal passion. “Although reading is important, it is quite common and uninteresting to put as an extracurricular since most people, you know, read. But if this truly is your passion and you spend most of your time reading, then you could tie it to how it has shaped you or affected you in some way,” says Melissa Jones, former Assistant Director of INSEAD’s MBA Program. “For example, one of my clients told me he read approximately 10 books a month – which alone is quite impressive – but he particularly liked to read text books to learn new things. He would teach himself new things such as modelling or how to create staffing optimization models, which he ended up using successfully at work. In this case, this would be great to mention in your application as it showcases both personality and aptitude.”

4. Lack of context. “Don’t assume that the person reading your application knows how many hours you’ve committed to your passion or the critical leadership or teamwork skills you’ve gained as a result,” says Kristen Beyers, former Deputy Director of Admissions at Yale SOM. “Some activities may be more well-known to the Admissions Committee, including the level of commitment required of those engaged in the activities (such as the intense commitment required of Junior League, versus the nice-but-easy to do ‘volunteer at a soup kitchen around the holidays’). Ask around to see if your extracurriculars are familiar to people in your network – if they don’t recognize the organization or the duties of the role, make sure to spell it out in your application.”

5. Missing connections. Be aware that there are plenty of applicants who have competed on a collegiate or national level, so listing ‘running’ as an interest is not likely to help you stand out, says Melissa. “But talking about sports is a great way to show a long-term commitment and leadership, such as: ‘Trained 15 middle-school girls to run 5k, through twice-weekly practices focusing on fitness and socio emotional health.’” Setting yourself apart means you’ll want to be really specific about what you do in these organizations or hobbies.

6. Omission. “One mistake candidates often make is they fail to mention activities they were involved with when they were young, as well as when they were in undergrad, assuming it was too long ago,” adds Melissa. “For example, if you were a child actor or a competitive athlete in your youth it’s worth mentioning as it can reveal a lot about a person – especially if you can show a meaningful connection over time.”

7. Lack of outcomes. “A common missed opportunity is not providing a clear picture of the impact you had in your extracurriculars, and a good way to showcase your impact is to provide quantitative information,” says Malvina Miller Complainville, former Assistant Director of Career Services at Harvard Business School. “How many children did you coach? How many events did you lead? How big were the events? How many attendees? What was the budget?  How many members were in your club? How much money did you fundraise? What was the size of the budget you managed? You can also include percentages, such as the percent increase in fundraising as a result of your activities.”

8. Ticking the box. “Don’t start volunteering two months before application deadline and expect to impress anyone,” says Judith Silverman Hodara. “I would start as soon as possible – so if you are thinking that you would like to apply for the next cycle, NOW is the time to start to reach out to organizations and get involved.” While there’s no minimum timeframe that’s required, the admissions committee will notice if all of your engagement is the year prior to applying to b-school, or only during undergrad. Adds Sharon, “Ideally, your commitments should go back a few years, prior to applying, or it will look like the candidate is clearly “ticking a box” to be more aligned with what top-flight b-schools look for in competitive applicants: Engaged, dynamic, dedicated & sincere citizens.”

We’ve also had applicants worry about how listing religious or political activities may be perceived by Admissions. “As long as you don’t use the description of the activity to proselytize, but rather demonstrate skills gained, such as organizing and leading others, I think it’s fine to share,” says Judith. “If you are concerned then you do not have to put it in, but be assured that there is no bias.”

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.