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