How important are extracurricular activities for MBA application essays

There’s something about an MBA application that is very different from any other application to any other stream of education out there. Business schools, through their applications, seem to want to know everything about a candidate – life history and future plans, past academic performance, future academic potential, career progress, leadership skills, communication skills, what others think about the candidate, and finally, some other stuff that, for most Indian applicants at least, seems to come from the far left field – extracurricular activities.

Applicants have often wondered aloud in front of me:

  • What are these confounding extracurricular activities?
  • Why do business schools even ask about them?
  • How does it impact a candidate’s chances?
  • Which are the best extracurricular activities for MBA applications?
  • Is there a silver bullet that will get me in?
  • What if I’ve never done something along these lines?
  • When is a good time to start doing something about these activities I didn’t really think about until now?

The rest of this post is dedicated to throwing some light on this seemingly extraneous topic.
 

Are extracurricular activities important for MBA students?

Top 10 MBA Admissions Officer - SudsAdmissions Committees of Business Schools take extraordinary efforts to try and identify the best possible candidates for admission into their MBA programs. Ultimately, these incoming students graduate and go on to make their mark in the world of for-profit businesses or non-profit organizations or the government or any other walk of life of their choosing.

No matter which field she is involved in, the alumna is, by definition playing multiple roles at once – as a business leader, as a member of the board of non-profit(s) in her local community, as an advisor to startups that are of interest to her, as a career coach and a mentor for her protégés, etc. Such multi-tasking and handling of multiple competing priorities is a given as the alumna grows in her career.

Business schools, then, become living laboratories where such varied experiences are thrust upon her, even as a student, to ensure she’s prepared for the many roles she will no doubt juggle long into the future.

Being involved in multiple activities surrounding career clubs, social clubs, organizing events for the broader student community, managing academic performance alongside career aspirations, getting involved in non-profit organizations through consulting activities (Tuck Student Consulting Services is case in point), etc., is par for the course in an MBA program.
 

What extracurricular activities are business schools looking for?

When Admissions Committees are evaluating applications and scouring for admissible candidates, they are looking for evidence that the candidate in question is going to take ownership of her own experiences as a student while also enhancing the experiences of those around her for the next two years.

Thus, it makes complete sense the Committees should not look for candidates that are one-dimensional (i.e., those who are only focused on either academics or career) but look for the individual who is able to stretch herself in different ways and push the envelope for herself as well as her classmates.

In short, someone who is going to leave an imprint that’s as unique as her during the two years at business school, someone who is going to leave a legacy at the school as a harbinger of the career and multiple roles she’s about to take up after graduation.

Ergo, extracurricular activities! It’s the closest proxy the Admissions Committees have, to get a sense of whether the candidate has what it takes to multi-task while at business school and beyond, whether the candidate is someone who will do bigger and better things simultaneously after she starts wearing the alumni hat.

That brings us back to the questions candidates have asked me along the way.

Are extracurricular activities compulsory for MBA applications?

I’d say yes, if the candidate is serious about staking a claim for admission from a really good school.

They’re never the deciding factor, but think of them as the distinct flavor, that ingredient that adds character and a unique smell/taste to the dish that’s being prepared – the winning application.
 

Which are the best extracurricular activities for MBA students?

Many Indian applicants find it onerous to come up with reasonable extracurricular activities that will make a convincing case and most resort to discussing the Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) activities that they’re expected to participate in, at work.

Is that a valid extracurricular activity? Yes.
It is convincing? May be.

The impression a candidate makes when listing CSR initiatives at work as extracurricular activities is of someone who is checking the box – so to speak – but not necessarily of someone who’s going to push the envelope and go outside her comfort zone.

CSR is perfectly fine, but Indian applicants should try and give the Admissions Committee something to ponder beyond CSR. Think of it in terms of “impact.”

Whatever it is you’re doing, are you having an impact on someone or something that goes above and beyond your day-to-day activities at work?

Do you play a musical instrument and have you been able to enthrall an audience whether in a formal or informal setting?

Are you part of a group that goes on treks to surrounding hills and takes up clean-up activities over weekends (helping yourself while helping the environment)?

Do you espouse a social cause that’s close to your heart?

Do you play a sport?

Are you a writer, a naturalist, a teacher, or a weekend warrior – or whatever else it might be – apart from being a full-fledged working professional?

Do you take pleasure in these activities because you look at them as necessary distractions from the rigmarole of your daily professional commitments?

Or do you think these are chores that need to be done because they’ve been imposed on you by the CSR arm of your employer, and that somehow you’ll be evaluated on your contributions there as well?

Do you believe in the adage “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy?” And if you do believe in it, how are you ensuring you don’t end up like Jack?

That’s what the Admissions Committees are looking for – evidence that there’s more to you than your day job, evidence that you’re the candidate they’re looking for who’s going to get involved in myriad activities and initiatives on campus, evidence that you’re not simply matriculating with the sole intention of flitting from classroom to dorm room and back.

If you’re able to make that case for yourself, you’ve put yourself in a pretty good spot. You’ve now given the Admissions Committee, the flavor they’re seeking in the dish you’ve put in front of them – that aroma that’s stimulating their olfactory nerve, that elusive taste that draws them closer and closer to what you really want them to see. And that’s the whole point of these extracurricular activities.

Just quickly, it’s never too late to get started to do something beyond what your daily routine dictates. It’s a healthy habit to inculcate that’s sure to improve your quality of life while also helping you make a strong case in your business school application.

There’s no silver bullet – the activity you take up could be whatever you think defines you – something you deeply believe in. It doesn’t matter which friend of yours is doing what kind of activity – as long as you’re loving doing what you’re doing.

MBA or not, you’ll see for yourself how you’ll grow as a responsible individual and as a community citizen. And that’s how change happens. So take up whatever you think is interesting. You’ll be glad you did – and in more ways than one!


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Sudershan Tirumala //
Sudershan Tirumala
Suds' association with the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth (an Ivy League university) as Regional Director has given him rich & unique insights about international & Indian applicants that very few admissions officers have. In an exclusive series for MBA Crystal Ball, he writes on a wide range of topics from MBA admissions to careers.

12 Comments

  1. Amritansh says:

    Great Write up!!

    I am currently working in Cognizant and having almost three years of experience in IT(2 yrs HCL and 1 yr FIS, recently joined cognizant). I understand that IT experience is quite generic these days. I am preparing for GMAT and want to start building my profile appropriate to get into a reputed Indian B school.

    My academics are average. I have 62.4% in 10th, 65% in 12th and 7.9 CGPA in B.Tech. respectively. Can you please suggest which areas I should focus on or what proactive measures I can take to come up with a great profile at the time of my admission which would be down the line 2-3 years.

    Thanks
    Amritansh

    • Suds says:

      Amritansh,

      Glad to hear you found the post informative. To answer your question, at this point, your academic performance is set in stone, so if you believe it’s average, try and take up opportunities now that can compensate for it – such as online courses that show you have the quantitative abilities, a decent GMAT score (whatever that means to you), performance at work, etc. – things that demonstrate how you have matured over the years. Since you seem to be at least a couple of years away from matriculating in an MBA program, time is on your side, so use it wisely to make the most all-round impact possible on your personality and hence the application. That should set you up nicely.

      All the best,
      Suds.

  2. Hari says:

    Hello Sir,

    I am Hari, aged 25 yrs. I already have :

    BE in Mechanical engineering in India &
    MSc. in Purchase and supply chain mgmt from France (1yr prgrm).

    finishing my Masters, I did 6 months internship in a well reputed industry at France and returned back lagging from VISA issues. At present I am working in India in a MNC, I am getting paid to a sum of 3.5L PA (the highest pay I can secure here, still considering me in an entrant fresher post inspite of my PG) which I am not satisfied.

    In terms of work (related to my course in MSc), I am very meagerly satisfied as the work really doesn’t require the level of knowledge I have. At office, I am a very outgrown person (in terms of work knowledge) and sometimes efficient more than my manager itself.

    In this case, I plan to prepare for PGPX programme – 2019 batch, aiming to complete afterwhich I believe to have a higher position in my career both in terms of management as well the pay offered.

    I see that the age limit for this course is 27 yrs so, I can actually prepare well for GMAT (having 2 yrs time yet). Still, I am worried about the competitiveness for admission in IIMs and the final placements.

    So at this point of time, should it be good that I take this call for IIM ?
    will the IIM board be convinced of my reason for taking the programme ?
    or is it better for me to be advised that I continue with my current profile ?

    My profile :

    12 months – internship in India
    2013 – BE
    2014 – MSc
    6 months internship in France
    6 months+ – working in India at present

    Thank you for your guidance in advance.

    Regards,
    Hari

    • Suds says:

      Hari,

      Thanks for your note and the details about your situation. Please don’t consider this response as professional advice, but more an opinion that you can evaluate on its own merit among a host of other opinions you’re no doubt seeking.

      While remuneration is a function of the industry, don’t let that be the driving force behind your taking next steps. Pay more attention to the role and responsibilities – and it does seem like there’s some pent up frustration there as well. Be aware that organizations in general have some inefficiencies built in by definition – be they process-related or bureaucratic or something else. So don’t be surprised to find something similar or on a different dimension no matter where you land.

      Having said that, an MBA or an equivalent degree should give you the fillip you’re looking for in terms roles/responsibilities/remuneration. Of course, there’s a lot of work that goes into getting to a business school – some of which I’ve tried to highlight through these blogs – and you’ll need to put in tremendous effort to get into the school you’re targeting (IIM in this case). Of course, there will be competition and there will be uncertainty, but that’s the whole point, right? Only the ones who are truly motivated and are able to communicate their thoughts really well while also demonstrating sound analytical skills end up making the final cut.

      All said and done, are you willing to commit the next couple of years in this direction to put your best foot forward, all the while knowing well that there’s always that slight chance that you might not get through? If so, go right ahead. Think of it as the big bet – a discontinuous change – that will pay off handsomely if it works, and leaves you right where you are, if it doesn’t. If the above approach doesn’t seem too palatable, you’re a risk averse person (nothing wrong with that) and you maybe better off shooting for incremental change that will see you rise through your organization slowly but surely.

      You mentioned final placements – no one can predict that. It depends on how well prepared you are for the interviews. It depends on how the broader economy is doing at the time. It depends on how well your school handles recruiting. What you do have in terms of data is past performance, and you can try and correlate it to future opportunities.

      Ultimately, whatever you decide to do, first introspect and figure out what kind of a personality you have and based on that, take a call on next steps. By the time you’re ready to take the leap, you should have a couple of years of work experience, which will stand you in good stead.

      All the best!
      Suds.

  3. Ritika says:

    hello
    I graduated this july in btech in Mechanical and Automation, from a very reputed college ( now a govt affiliated university) of GGSIPU,delhi . I used to be an above average and a dedicated student till class 10th, then came the downfall, and i was no longer confident of myself.
    Fast forward 6 years, i under performed at college. Could not do extra or co curricular due to low self esteem at college, as a result, my resume is not very impressive. I did not score much impressive at college either.
    I had learnt german at school and continued with it after school as well. Did part time courses of certificate and diploma from DU.
    i had really good companies for placement at college, but unfortunately, i could not bag any placement. I could not appear for many interviews, as i could not make it to their shortlist. Now i am sitting at home, not knowing what to do. Please advise.

    • Suds says:

      Hi Ritika,

      Thanks for your note and for sharing your details. Based on what you’ve written, I don’t think the issue is academics or performance – it’s self-esteem. You’re probably entering the interview with your shoulders heavy with self-doubt. “I’m not sure if I’m going to do well.” “What if I fail?” “I think I didn’t do that well.” etc. The outcome is not going to be much different if you go in expecting to not do well. It’ll become a self-fulfilling prophecy before long, and I suspect that’s the case with you.

      First develop confidence about yourself. Do things that you like, bring your self-esteem back. If that’s continuing with your German language skills, so be it. You’re already an engineer – specially a degree that Germans are good at. You do well in German and think about yourself as a technical document writer – someone who can understand the language of engineering, someone who can seamlessly transition from English to German and back. Imagine how invaluable you will be to a German manufacturer who wants to get things going in India? Or for an Indian manufacturer who wants to tie up with German companies?

      Think along those lines and the sky is the limit. The bottom line though, is if you continue to doubt yourself, nothing much can be accomplished. If you start believing in yourself, you’ll start to make things happen. Rather than brood about what happened, how are you utilizing time now? Sitting at home, have you continued working on your German skills? It’s a matter of shedding that baggage and looking ahead. So just get into a positive frame of mind and get going!

      All the best,
      Suds.

  4. VIVEK KUMAR says:

    GMAT : 700

    I am an ardent chess fan and a state level chess champion. Immediately after my graduation I started online chess coaching to people via chess.com. I worked (full time) for 12 months as a chess moderator as member of “Anti cheating and Fair Play Detection System”. After this I decided to explore the corporate sector.
    I joined an IT company (US based MNC) and worked for 38 months as a software tester. During my stint of 38 months I was actively involved in all the CSR activities and hence I was the Student head of the CSR department. To enhance my managerial skills and interaction with people I decided to switch to the Social Sector.
    I worked full time for about 7 months for a NGO related to rural development.
    I am a bit worried how to connect these dots of diverse fields to justify my reasons for doing MBA.

    Please help.

    • Suds says:

      Vivek,

      Thanks for your comment/question. All of your statements are in the past tense and I’m not sure what you’re doing now. In any case, you’re not an outlier; most people make career moves based on the situation and rarely based on strategic goals. It’s another thing that they tend to explain away all the moves as if these are well thought-out strategic movements based on a preconceived plan.

      In graph theory, it’s called curve-fitting. Given the data is already there (all your career moves), figure out the curve that best fits your case. It may not be an ideal curve, but it’ll explain most of the data points with better fidelity. You will anyway need to think about this as part of the introspection you’ll need to make on your next steps (i.e., MBA).

      My only caveat is, do not let the MBA plans be part of the existing curve as well. Be more strategic now, so that the MBA will result in your curve developing a higher slope going forward. That means thinking long and hard about what you want to accomplish and how you can get there. So put your thinking hat on.

      Hope that helps. Good luck with the next steps.

      Best,
      Suds.

  5. Abhay says:

    Hello Sir, this was a great write-up to read about. But I have my own doubts. I actually suffer from a chronic illness and that, no excuses, hinders me to push myself beyond what I am currently. I have been an above average student in my school. Though I could not cope up with the enormous pressure and tight pack routine one needs for entrance and board exams in my intermediate and I ended up in some private college. My self-esteem degraded and did not improve much during my time at college. Due to my family’s financial limitations, I did not use to take my expensive regular medications. So, watching everyone else being more energetic, engaging and organizing extracurricular activities used to make me depress. But now I want to turn it all around, I have managed to grab a placement on campus in an IT MNC company that means I would be able to take medications regularly and improve my quality of life.

    What I want to ask you is this, would you personally advise me to go for a MBA in future? If yes, how do you think I would be able to justify my lack of quality of a good resume?

    • Suds says:

      Abhay,

      Thanks for your note. You asked whether or not you should go for an MBA. I don’t think anyone should be deciding that for you. You should consider where you are, where you want to be, and what you should do to get there, and how you should pursue those enablers. Regarding the lack of quality that you speak of, if you yourself believe your resume lacks quality, how are you going to convince anyone else that the contrary is true? And if due to a variety of reasons, you haven’t really had an opportunity to do things outside your normal routine, maybe now is the opportunity for you to push the envelope and do different things while also working. That’s a way for you to explore other dimensions of your personality and along the way, if it helps make a better case for your MBA application (or whatever other enabler you choose to take up), nothing like it. So don’t look back, but look forward!

      Hope that helps.

      Best,
      Suds.

  6. Anindita Dey says:

    Hello Sir, this is a very helpful article..But I am my own doubts. I have 93% in 10th, 87.5% in 12th, 84.41% in graduation. currently I am working in a IT MNC and have around 32 months of work ex..Is it better option to appear to CAT this year or GMAT as I want to move to a different role in Administration or business perspective. Also how to improve my resume as I don’t have specific any extracurricular activities to mention in my CV

    • Suds says:

      Hi Anindita,

      Thanks for your comment/question. CAT or GMAT is something you’ll need to figure out based on whether you want to pursue the MBA in India or overseas. That’s something you’ll need to think through since there’s serious commitment for both. As for extracurricular activities, why wait any longer? Get started on doing contributions to the extent you can today – by being a part of the company CSR activities, by working with local NGOs whose agenda is something that speaks to you, or doing your own contribution to the community around you in ways you think are meaningful. So get going and all the best with next steps!

      Best,
      Suds.

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