What did you do with time in home quarantine? When the Covid-19 crisis swept the world, upending lives and livelihoods, how did you respond? Six months from now, these questions will be top of mind to the admissions committee who reviews your candidacy for business school.
Maybe you suffered the shock of layoffs in the fallout of the financial and retail crisis, or watched your promising startup implode. Perhaps you were among the more fortunate who persisted in your 80+ hour-a-week consulting job from home. As former head of Wharton MBA Admissions, I can affirm that programs will be sympathetic if you have a gap in your resume given the scale of crisis and disruption happening worldwide.
But please, don’t consider a gap in your activities inevitable, and try to avoid turning your 80+ hours into 100 just because your commute and/or gym time has evaporated. It is easy to sink into too much work or too much despair. Neither will win you any favors with discerning admissions readers if you’re looking to stand out.
The way I see it, all of us are entitled to a short cycle of total freak out (whether from tragedies real or anticipated). And like the airline oxygen mask metaphor, it’s likewise vital that you tend first to your own mental and physical wellbeing. But I’d caution, too, that the physical reality of being quarantined or stuck at home can shrink our worlds and expand the myopia and self-focus.
This moment presents a rare opportunity to summon your creativity, skills, expertise, and experience to support the people and organizations negatively impacted by the Covid-19 crisis. It’s the kind of character-defining event that makes leaders and opens pathways to unknowable ingenuity.
NOW IS THE TIME TO BUILD YOUR MBA LEADERSHIP PROFILE
From Harvard to Haas, the MBA admissions office wants to better understand your leadership potential – how you have created positive impact, led a team, mentored others, gone beyond yourself. “Memorable leaders face times of uncertainty and challenge as an opportunity to unify, galvanize and implement a powerful vision for the future,” writes my Fortuna colleague Matt Symonds articulates in his article, How to Position Your Leadership Potential. “Any candidate, business or political, needs to make a persuasive case for his or her leadership potential. How will you make yours?”
Extracurriculars and volunteer work have always been a great way to demonstrate your sense of purpose and commitment (note: it’s often the first thing an admissions reader will scan in your resume, as it stands to set you apart and gives the reader good insights into what you may be like as a community member of their program.) Not only do a candidate’s extracurricular commitments give the admissions committee real insight into the type of person they are considering, but programs tend to perceive past performance as the best predictor of future potential.
In her article on Positioning Extracurriculars On Your MBA Application, Fortuna’s Heidi Hillis emphasizes: “Business schools are looking active contributors to the community, not just candidates who will excel in class.” Demonstrating your leadership potential through meaningful extracurriculars is about your engagement in, and commitment to, the communities to which you belong.
3 WAYS TO ENHANCE YOUR EXTRACURRICULARS – EVEN FROM HOME
- Schedule time for community involvement, virtual or otherwise.
It’s all too easy to squander anxious hours staying current on news or doubling down on work.
Can you reallocate your former commute or gym window into volunteer time, whether you’re providing comfort by phone to seniors isolated in group home quarantine or mentoring kids unable to attend school by offering video lessons? So many local organizations are looking for this kind of support.
- Look locally for gaps, then seek ways self-organize.
This global crisis has exasperated existing needs and crippled response systems. Nonprofits, already lean organizations, rely heavily on volunteers who are now a rapidly diminishing resource. The barriers to entry have evaporated, and many orgs need fresh recruits with tech savvy and ideas. If you’re part of a nonprofit or cause, have you reached out to its leadership to ask what they need or what you can do? If you’re not already involved in the community, what kinds of causes speaks to you and what can you offer? Chances are they will be very glad for your outreach, and you can have a very tangible and immediate impact.
- Seek inspiration and connect with others.
Earlier this week, I was inspired by the story of 17 medical students sidelined from academics at the University of Saskatchewan who self-organized a personal protective equipment drive to support frontline healthcare workers. In New York, more than 6,000 mental health professionals agreed to volunteer free services through a phone-in hotline. The next best idea may just be the one you come up with in a mindful pause from your work.
“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,” says Fortuna’s Karla Cohen, former Associate Director at Harvard Business School. “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.”
In my experience, altruism is an endorphin and focusing on something outside yourself can provide the satisfaction and energy to meet your personal fears and challenges. It also sends the message to the MBA admissions committee that you’re someone who applies the skills and expertise you’ve developed to serve a higher purpose – especially in times of crisis.
Judith Silverman Hodara, EdD, is a Director at MBA admissions coaching firm Fortuna Admissions and former Wharton acting head of Admissions. For a candid assessment of your chances of admission success at a top MBA program, sign up for a free consultation.