In today’s digital age, the MBA application process extends beyond academic achievements and test scores. Admissions committees now value a combination of academic excellence, leadership potential, and unique experiences. This shift emphasizes the importance of the “extras” – those intangible factors that set applicants apart.
In this episode of Business Casual, we explore how aspiring MBA applicants can leverage their passions, extracurricular activities, and diverse backgrounds to craft compelling narratives that capture the attention of admissions committees. Our hosts, John, Maria, and Caroline, discuss the significance of leadership, community involvement, international exposure, entrepreneurship, and personal development in making an application stand out in the competitive MBA admissions process.
[00:00:06.970] – John
Well, hello, everyone. This is John Byrne with Poets of Quants. Welcome to Business Casual, our weekly podcast with my co host, Maria Wich Vila and Caroline Diarte Edwards. We’re going to talk about extras. What do I mean by extras? I mean the extracurricular activities that you’re involved in that can greatly enhance your application. A business school. One of the things that people really want to see in the admissions office is they want to see ambition beyond oneself. And depending on what kind of extras you get involved in and what kind of leadership muscles you’re able to stretch in, those extracurricular activities can mean a lot to your chances of getting in. Because, let’s face it, pretty much everyone has a 700 plus GMAT if you’re applying to Harvard, Stanford or Wharton or INSEAD. And pretty much everyone has had good grades at the undergraduate level. But a lot of times you can really distinguish yourself by doing something different and special. And I’m going to talk a little bit about what really adds value to your application when you think about extras and what adds less value. And if in fact, you’re planning well ahead, meaning a year in advance, how can you decide which extras to get involved in to help your chances at a highly selected business school?
[00:01:28.440] – John
Caroline, you have a colleague, Heidi, who just wrote a column on this for us. What’s your take on extras?
[00:01:35.490] – Caroline
Yeah, I think it can add a lot to an application. It can really enrich your story. It can often be the most interesting part of a candidate’s application. And quite frankly, when you’re scanning through tons of applications and reading through everyone’s professional achievements and academic achievements, it can often be the extracurriculars that jump out and can really add color to a story and can really grab the file reader’s attention. So I would definitely take advantage of those opportunities to bring your story to life. And it doesn’t have to be. This is something that candidates often ask about and they’re concerned about. Does it have to be volunteering? Do I have to have raised a lot of money for a charity? Do I have to have started a nonprofit? They feel like some extracurriculars are better than others, and schools aren’t looking for any particular extracurricular.
[00:02:36.030] – Caroline
Right. They’re not sort of waiting sports coaching versus running a marathon, right, or fundraising for a charity. There’s lots of different things you could do. It’s really about showing your passion and what you care about and also showing a track record of something they like to see that you have interests outside of your day job and outside of study, and that it’s something that you have committed to and that you’ve engaged in over a period of time, and that it’s not something that you’ve just picked up. Coincidentally, three months before the application deadline, you’ve started walking puppies at your local animal shelter. And you’ve never done anything like that before. It looks a little bit suspicious that perhaps this was something that you picked up because you realized that there was a bit of a gap in your extracurricular profile. So a track record and length of engagement is important, but it doesn’t have to be anything in particular. It’s more about showcasing who you are, what you’re passionate about, what you care about. And ideally, you can showcase some characteristics and qualities that can round out your application. So, for example, a candidate who perhaps hasn’t had a lot of opportunities to demonstrate management skills and leadership skills in their day job, but perhaps that’s something that they can have demonstrated in their extracurriculars, right?
[00:04:07.070] – Caroline
Perhaps they’ve led a project or they’ve coached a sports team and they can demonstrate those leadership qualities through their extracurricular profile and they might not have had formal leadership responsibilities in their day job. So it can be a really nice way of rounding out your application and showcasing some additional relevant characteristics.
[00:04:28.320] – John
Maria, do you have some favorite extras that you like to see candidates have?
[00:04:33.100] – Maria
I don’t know that I have a favorite extra per se. I think, as Caroline said, the ideal kind of extracurricular to have is anything that lets you demonstrate some of the leadership qualities that schools are looking for. This is especially important for people who might be in jobs in which their day jobs might not allow them to have those leadership roles. So I don’t care if it’s walking dogs or coaching a sports team or tutoring inner city children primarily. I would like to see that you have a mindset of someone who likes to make an impact and that you ask yourself in a situation instead of saying like, what’s the bare minimum? If the bare minimum is I show up for 2 hours a week and I teach these fifth graders how to read. Can I go beyond that? Right? What can I be doing to make it better? Maybe I can do a fundraiser to buy books for them. Maybe I can convince 20 of my other classmates to come and start reading to these children as well, right? How can you go above and beyond to demonstrate those abilities of yours, to influence others, to be creative, to be innovative?
[00:05:33.470] – Maria
All of those positive attributes that business schools are looking for are all things that you can probably demonstrate through continued dedicated involvement in an extracurricular. I was interested when Caroline said before you don’t want to just start something three months before the admissions season and suddenly and pretend that they’re not smart enough to notice that you didn’t do anything for five years. And now all of a sudden you have three different things that all happen to start in March, 6 months before your round one deadline. In fact, I’ve even told people there are some times where I try to gently because I do think that what people do is they start to look into the MBA admissions process and they suddenly realize, to their horror, if they are from, especially from other countries where there is not such a strong culture of the extracurriculars as part of who you are, they might realize, oh, no. I was supposed to be volunteering this whole time and I haven’t been. And so they just start volunteering. They suddenly just start throwing the kitchen sink at doing all of the things, hoping that something will stick, throwing spaghetti at a wall, as it were.
[00:06:30.860] – Maria
And I’ve actually told people sometimes one tries not to be cynical. It’s very hard to not be cynical, but one tries not to be cynical. And what I’ve said to people at times when they have started a brand new extracurricular out of nowhere, out of thin air, that has nothing to do with anything, it just kind of seems like a slap, dash, desperate attempt to put something on the resume. I’ve actually advised people to leave it off the resume and I’ve said to them, look, I’m sure that I know that this isn’t you. I’m sure that your heart is in the right place. I know that you probably have a genuine interest in teaching these puppies baseball. But the truth is it risks looking to an admissions officer. Like maybe you just started doing this only to bolster your application and your heart’s not really in it. So there have been times that I’ve actually told people to leave those things off of their application because there are times when it just really is so obvious that it actually kind of it’s a little gross and leaves a bit of a bad taste in the mouth. So I would not advise anyone, if they are listening right now, to suddenly say oh no, quick, let me sign up for 20 different things and hope that something works.
[00:07:33.560] – John
Yeah, perception is reality for sure. The other thing though, I’m reading in your comments, Maria, is that simply volunteering for something isn’t as powerful as being proactive in leading an initiative or leading a club or an organization. Because when you lead something you are showing your potential for leadership, right?
[00:07:56.790] – Maria
I think it shows two things. You’re right, it demonstrates your ability to lead groups of people and to make things happen. But I think it also on a broader level can demonstrate a mindset sort of a habit of HBS has this phrase that they use sometimes called the habit of leadership. That’s what they’re looking for. And the way how I describe it in far less elegant terms is that they’re sometimes looking for people who almost can’t help themselves but get involved. If they join the baseball team, they kind of can’t help themselves and say what if we practice three times a week and what if we fundraise and what if we did this? And so showing them. So I think that the best extracurricular involvement that also involves a level of initiative isn’t just about like, yes, I can manage a budget. I can do a project management thing where we spend six months organizing the gala event. That’s great, those organizational skills and finance skills and teamwork. But I think the very best ones are ones where it’s almost like you couldn’t help yourself. And you have such a passion for this thing that you use that passion to go above and beyond.
[00:08:57.470] – Maria
Because that signals that if that’s the sort of person you are even in your extracurricular life, hopefully that’s the sort of person you are kind of just in your fabric of your being. And you will be that person as an alumnus and hopefully do positive things in the world with your degree.
[00:09:11.450] – John
Yeah, totally true. Now, I just came back from Paris, and I had the pleasure of going to Attache Paris, which has annually an MBA Olympics. It’s called MBAT for MBA tournament. And there’s a leadership team there of 31 people, and every one of them has worked their butt off for at least six months. Now. They’re already in an MBA program. Yes. So in this case, this is a great addition on your resume for a future employer. Because thinking about it this way, this is an event that occurs over three full days, requires the booking of six hotels, over 150 bus trips for transportation for 1300 plus people in over 60 different competitive events, many of which require referee and just tracking that making sure 1300 plus people are fed, are kept safe and don’t get into trouble. Boy, that is the ideal extracurricular activity. But we are focused on the pre MBA extra. Caroline, I wonder, among the applicants that you’ve worked with, give me a couple of examples of extracurriculars that really made a powerful difference for the people that you worked on.
[00:10:36.240] – Caroline
I mean, one comes to mind where we worked with a client who actually wasn’t going to include something in her application. And she was a ballet dancer as a teen and had danced for the Bolshoy Ballet. And she thought because it was when she was a teen, it wasn’t relevant. It was no longer relevant to her business school applications. Like, no, really, you should include it.
[00:10:59.650] – John
The world renowned.
[00:11:01.730] – Caroline
Yes. Right. And you know, Maria mentioned that other countries often don’t have the same culture of extracurriculars because often in other countries, you don’t have to have extracurriculars to apply to an undergraduate program or even postgraduate program.
[00:11:17.680] – Caroline
[00:11:17.930] – Caroline
So often outside the US. And outside the world of business schools, educational institutions are just looking at academics. And so there is not a culture of necessarily investing as much time and effort in extracurriculars. And so candidates outside the US. Are not necessarily aware of the fact that extracurriculars can carry such weight in their applications. And so, as Maria mentioned, sometimes those things can get overlooked, and sometimes those candidates might not have as fantastic extracurriculars as some of the candidates have been through the US. System who have been brought up with this ethos from the time that they could walk. But then also some of the international candidates do have great extracurriculars, like this ballet dancer, and what incredible qualities it shows to have been able to juggle intensive dance training and that discipline, as well as her academics to get into a top undergraduate program. It demonstrates wonderful qualities that are a great addition to her profile.
[00:12:32.350] – John
The discipline to dance in a world class company is just mind boggling. And any admissions director who sees it on a resume knows this person can pretty much do anything. If you’ve been able to compete at that level.
[00:12:50.790] – Caroline
Yeah, I mean, if you can cope with that kind of pain, you can survive MBB, right?
[00:12:56.630] – John
Indeed. Okay, here’s a fun question for you. Give me an extracurricular activity that would be the equivalent of a 750 GMAP, and then give me one that would be a 700 and then one that’s 650. It’s a tricky question, isn’t it?
[00:13:14.590] – Maria
It’s a good question. It’s such a good question. I wish I would have known that it was coming so that I could let’s see. Okay, all right, I can do this. All right, what’s a 750 extracurricular? For me, sort of a top, top notch extracurricular is something where someone has started, let’s say a nonprofit, but not just like, started it, because anyone can really file the paperwork and get a 501 C three and call it Maria’s nonprofit. DuJour. The starting of the nonprofit doesn’t do a whole lot. It’s then being able to demonstrate that that nonprofit has done stuff, not just that it has raised money. Because that’s the other thing is, sometimes people have, like, the wealthy uncle who writes the check for $10,000, and then it’s like, oh, I raised $10,000. And I’m like, how did you do that? And they’re like, well, really, it was my uncle. And I’m like, oh, that’s not good. But so something that has shown not just the ability to raise money from outside sources, but then actually has made an impact, right? Being able to point to the number of children who have now been able to go to college, being able to point to the number of families fed, the number of vaccines distributed, whatever that is.
[00:14:17.960] – Maria
That, to me, would be the ideal. And it would be to Caroline’s earlier point about showing a long term commitment to a cause. It would be something that carries over. Let’s say this is someone who works in the healthcare industry, and in college, they did public health volunteering and they volunteered at a public health clinic. And then after college, they started a nonprofit that helped bring public health services to impoverished areas. It would sort of show this track record. But the number one thing would be to show that impact, right? Because somebody who starts I mean, look, everything that anyone does to volunteer and to help others is wonderful, right? But there’s a difference between if you help ten people versus if you help 1000 people in a significant way. So I think that would be like the 750, the 700 equivalents would be something along the lines of I am on the local young board for the Ronald McDonald House charity and which is a real charity, by the way. I know I often say things that are a little sarcastic, but that’s actually a real charity. It does really great work. And I helped organize a fundraiser and the fundraiser usually brings in $100,000 and I said, let’s add a 5K fun run to it.
[00:15:24.630] – Maria
And then now it raised $300,000. Hooray. So that would be more taking something that’s existing and moving it to the highest level. And then the very sort of basic thing would just be like I’ll tell you the worst extracurricular. I think at least the one that sticks out in my head is one of, like, the lamest ones ever was someone who started volunteering, like, two months, and they only did this for like, two months and they were volunteering at a local Red Cross blood bank. And it was their job to bring the people, after they had donated blood, to bring them, like, a cookie and some lemonade. And I’m like, really? And they’re like, yeah, because somebody told me that I need to volunteer and I’m like, literally a robot with a little tray of cookies and lemonade could have done that.
[00:16:11.910] – John
That’s not even worth a 650, thats.
[00:16:15.990] – Maria
A negative 700.
[00:16:18.470] – Caroline
Maria the room.
[00:16:19.820] – Maria
The thing is, I like this person. I don’t think this person did it with a smile. I think they were probably they were not doing it because they cared at all about the people giving blood, I can assure you that. So anyway, that was one where I was like, leave that off because it’s so lame that it actually works against you. It’s better just to have nothing. So, okay, those are my off the top of my head answers.
[00:16:43.620] – John
Now, what about someone who doesn’t have anything? Okay, there are people who, regardless of where they come from, it could be in the US. Let’s say they’re an analyst at investment banking. We know how hard those jobs are and we also know how time consuming they are. You really have no time left for anything, not even going out socially or even paying attention to your parents in those jobs. What about that investment banker type? How do they get involved in an extra of some kind? Because a work related extra isn’t as valuable as an outside work related extra. Here’s my thinking on that. Because it’s really for your career if you’re involved in a company extra, right? I mean, you’re really bolstering your own career as opposed to really being ambitious for someone else. So what does the investment banker do? Caroline?
[00:17:36.200] – Caroline
Well, yeah, it is challenging and schools do understand that. To a certain extent. And it’s not just people who have demanding day jobs, right, who are working very long hours. It could be people who are traveling a lot for their jobs. It could be people who have families, right? If you’ve got spouse and kids, you have less time for extracurriculars than if you’re young, free and single. So it can be worth explaining that in your application. But ideally, you still find a way of doing something. And I guess the earlier you start planning for that, the better. Ideally, I would suggest pick up on one thing rather than trying to do a lot of different things that holds true for anyone, it’s better to focus on a small number of extracurriculars rather than spreading yourself too thinly. But if you have very limited free time, then focus on one thing. And I would suggest focusing on one thing where you have a track record already, so something that has been a genuine interest for you and you’ve been involved in the past, so that you have a story that you can build on. And it’s not something where you just plucked it out thin air, but perhaps it’s something where you’ve got a story to tell how you’ve been engaged during your undergraduate career and then now you’ve got involved again.
[00:18:59.050] – Caroline
So that can help to bolster the story that you’re telling now about what you’re doing if you already have been involved in the past. And perhaps you can build on that experience. So hopefully candidates can still find a way, because especially if they’re applying for the very top programs. Unfortunately, in an intensely competitive environment, even if you do have a very limited free time, you may be up against candidates who also have very limited free time, but yet have managed to do something quite impressive in their extracurriculars. So that’s just something, unfortunately, that you have to have to try to figure out if you’re applying to the very top school.
[00:19:46.360] – John
True. On Poets and Quants website, we have a section called MBA Watch where candidates actually enter basic details about themselves and we essentially have a look at their chances at their target schools. And some of the people say things like this for extras. Oh, I’ve traveled to 48 of the 50 states and my goal is to hit two more. Or I’ve learned three languages and I’m now studying a fourth. These are not the kinds of extras that are going to get you any brownie points at Harvard or Stanford, are they?
[00:20:25.080] – Maria
I think we need to differentiate between an extracurricular activity versus a hobby.
[00:20:30.590] – John
A hobby, yeah.
[00:20:32.570] – Maria
I do think that hobbies can be hobbies can be interesting. Right. It can certainly be sort of a little bit of spice on top of what is already a well made meal. Right. It can be that little kick of chipotle that you sort of say, like, OOH, that’s interesting. I will say that I do think that there are, especially within the MBA, cohorts the applicants. Everyone loves to travel, right? And so for me, when somebody says, well, I love to travel and I love to eat good food, I’m like, oh, you’re human. That’s like saying I love to breathe. I’m a really big fan of oxygen. And so some of those I don’t think have as much impact. I think it’s more like, oh, if I’m interviewing you and I’ve got a few minutes left at the end, I’ll be like, oh, so tell me about tell me about the fourth language you’re learning. Why did you choose to study Arabic? But that’s more of like a sort of interesting, that’s kind of cool, but it’s not the reason I would necessarily take someone. So I definitely think and if you do have one of these hobbies, that is one of the very common travel yoga exercise types of hobbies, I advise that people don’t just say, I like to travel exercise and do yoga.
[00:21:42.520] – Maria
But to actually put a little bit of again, going back to the spice analogy, don’t just say, I like to travel to 36 countries, but say something more like, I love to travel parenthetical. I was once trapped in a train in Thailand overnight. Or try to throw some specific details into it instead of just listing out 27 countries in four languages. If you are going to mention it, try to put something that’s a little bit more eye catching, perhaps a specific detail or alluding to an anecdote or a good story that you might have that might be interesting to talk about.
[00:22:17.760] – John
Maria, that’s always good advice because you want to essentially create a vivid memory of what you’re writing, right? So if you’re stuck on a train in Bangkok overnight and had to sleep on a park bench or something, that’s a vivid memory and that’s something that people are going to visualize when they think about you, which is what you want to have happen. Okay, so hobbies are different than real extras and an extra for two months serving at a soup kitchen once a week ain’t going to help you a whole lot just before you apply to business school. We know what the 750 is now. It’s a high hurdle, but I think a lot of people are in the more of a middle range that have shown an interest and a passion and topic that has helped others and has shown that that person has leadership potential. I think that’s a key as well. Well, Caroline, Maria, thank you so much for all your help. Really appreciate it. And for all of you out there, I hope you pile on the extras that are meaningful that will help you in your journey to business school. This is John Byrne with Poets and Quants. You’ve been listening to Business Casual.