You like to run and cook and travel? Great! You and everyone else applying to business school. If you really want to stand apart from the rest of the applicant pool, extracurriculars are a great place to start — but the detail matters.
Business schools are looking for students who will do more than excel in class. They are looking for active contributors to the community. That’s why when the admissions committee starts to review a new candidate, they often go straight to the ‘Other Info/Extracurricular’ section of the resume. That’s where they can gain real insight into the type of person they are considering.
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 Fortuna’s Karla Cohen, former Associate Director at HBS. “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 signal 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. But they want 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 career track profiles, such as consulting and finance. As an analyst at a top consulting firm, for example, the admissions committee understands that 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. View our team’s best practices for highlighting your extracurricular and volunteer experience in a compelling and memorable way.
TOP TIPS FOR POSITIONING YOUR EXTRACURRICULAR INVOLVEMENT
“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 Fortuna’s 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 powerful than, “Assist with planning the annual gala.”
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. “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,” Catherine explains.
- Demonstrate impact:
There’s 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.”
- Be specific:
Everything in 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, Fortuna cofounder and director and former head of MBA Admissions at Wharton. “Is there a specific mentee that you have who had meant a lot to you? Do you have a favorite marathon that you have run? Be prepared to share details.”
- 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 Fortuna’s Emma Bond, former Senior Manager of MBA Admissions at London Business School. “It’s about engagement —demonstrating your own unique skillset to make a difference in the community, whether that’s at a local, regional, national or international level.”
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 into the kind of person and leader you are.
View all 9 tips for positioning extracurriculars in your MBA application on Fortuna’s website, and part two of this article, Positioning Extracurriculars: 8 Mistakes to Avoid.
Heidi Hillis is an expert coach at MBA consulting firm Fortuna Admissions, as well as a Stanford GSB alum & former MBA admissions interviewer. For a candid assessment of your chances of admission success at a top MBA program, sign up for a free consultation.
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