How to discuss your extracurriculars in your application

I often come across discussion threads where people ask others to evaluate their odds of admission. Many of them will include discussions of community involvements or extra curricular involvements such as these.

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Often these sections exceed the length of their education and professional work experience.

The problem is that these applicants have given their extracurricular activities as much real-estate on their profile as their work experience, but the former is not nearly as important as the latter. The dirty truth is that business schools generally do not really care about your extracurriculars at all. This is for two reasons.

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First, strategically, whereas college admissions has retrospective criteria (what have you done to earn this spot?), business school admissions has prospective criteria (e.g. what will you do with this opportunity?). This is because an MBA is an entirely elective degree. Whereas you need a JD to practice law, no one needs an MBA to practice business. Therefore, any good application needs to explain what the candidate will do with the degree on their professional journey, and even insinuate what negative consequences will befall them and the world if they don’t obtain it. The answer to this question lies in work experience and narrative, not in your free-time hobbies.

Second, tactically, extracurriculars are just not as valuable to business schools. Colleges (especially elite colleges) really value the community experience and look for students to take leadership in this important area. That’s why they give steep scholarships to athletes and little admissions boosts students who will round out difficult-to-fill spots in the orchestra (like oboe players). Talking about your extra curricular activities on your college essay made sense because you had something of value to offer to the school. In contrast, the whole point of business school is to secure an internship and later a full-time job offer. Almost all extracurricular activities exist to advance that singular goal. For example, the finance club meetings will either be to network with prospective banks or to tutor students on building models in excel. Playing the oboe at business school gives you a lot of money in a worthless currency.

The right way to talk about extracurriculars

There are two ways that extracurriculars can be useful in your application. The first is when they accentuate your Narrative. Say that you are a consultant who wants to come to business school in order to improve economic opportunities in Latin America. While this may be a sincere and profound interest, it is a hard story to tell if your work experience has been entirely in the United States, even if it gave you relevant skills. That’s because you need to show the admissions committee that you are already working on this mission; if your mission instead seems disconnected to your past professional experience, your mission comes across as insincere and your application uncompelling. Say that one of your community involvements is with a Habitat for Humanity chapter in Latin America, or volunteering for a community organization helping to integrate Latin American immigrants. Even a quick mention of those activities could really bolster your narrative.

Second, they humanize you and make you seem more interesting. Reading MBA applications gets boring really quickly. Anything you can do to pique the interest of the adcom plays to your favor. On your resume, in your personal section, include a few interesting or surprising activities, hobbies, or accomplishments. “Running” is not interesting and “traveling” is not surprising, so don’t include those.

Fascinating MBA Talk of the Week: What Pixar and Disney know about MBA Storytelling (Steve Jobs)

One question we often get is why Ivy Admissions Group is more efficient at navigating our Complete School Package clients through the admissions application process than other consultants. The answer comes down to our approach to storytelling. Rather than let our clients flail in the wind by having them writing resumes and essays for us to edit and form into a compelling story, we start with a personal narrative and build the entire application around that. In fact, we don't let our clients write a single word of their resume (of course, in the provided template for their dream school) until they complete the Narrative Bootcamp Exercises that comes with all Complete School Packages.

Don't take our word for it. This is the same approach that Steve Jobs took when he made Pixar, a technique that he argues enabled the movie company to have such a long string of smash hits, while other traditional live-action movie companies plod along with their fair share of flops. In this week's fascinating MBA talk, note the approach that he recommends for storytelling and then think about how to apply it in your own application.

Highlights:

  • Traditional movie companies shoot between 10-100x more film than is needed, and then build their movies in the editing room. If they have a flop, they only realize it in the editing room.
  • Because animation is so much more expensive to shoot, it is impossible to produce even 10% more footage than is necessary.
  • To overcome this and ensure a hit, companies like Pixar build minimum-viable products, watching and perfecting their movies at every phase of construction, correcting problems before it comes time to animate.

"Narrative" vs "Brand" - Which is best?

Many admissions consultants focus on "brand" while we at Ivy Admissions Group focus on "narrative." Every future leader who works with us on a Complete School Package has their personal narrative developed through our proprietary Narrative Bootcamp.

What is the difference? Which should you maximize in your application? 

Brand

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A brand statement is a pithy phrase used to describe an admissions candidate. In 25 words or fewer these statements seek to capture the essence of who you are, what you have done, and where you are headed. These statements are relatively easy for people to write themselves. For example, 

Battle-tested female veteran accomplished in leading analytical teams in high pressure environments seeking a job as an investment banker in Chicago.

Athletic and analytical male ex-consultant with start-up experience seeking to build competencies as a general manager at a large manufacturing conglomerate.

The problem with these statements is that they just sort candidates into buckets. All they do is tell the admissions committee who they are supposed to compare the candidate against, not why this candidate is the best one. In this way, brand statements for people are just like brand statements for cereal -- they tell us that Lucky Charms is different than Shredded Wheat, but don't offer a compelling reason why it is the best.

Narrative

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In contrast to the who, what, and where of a brand statement, a personal narrative focuses on the why. Whereas the brand statement distills the facts on your resume, the personal narrative is a story arc that connects your personal inspirations and motivations to your career aspirations. In the case of an MBA application, a personal narrative will inform the admissions committee how you ended up on your current life story arc, show where this arc will take you by projecting it into future, and then argue why business school is the logical next step in your career because it is the perfect bridge to connect the two. Consider a narrative we can tell for the military officer in the first brand statement above:

I joined the military as an intelligence briefer because I wanted to personally advise senior leaders, work with top-talent peers, and thrive in a team-first culture. As I complete my service, I'm applying for an MBA because I want to transition to investment banking where I can still experience all the best qualities of my former job, while also helping reinvigorate businesses back home in the Midwest. 

This narrative is much more compelling than the brand statement above because it explains to the admissions committee why the applicant did what she did, what she values, where she is going, and how an MBA will help. It makes total sense why she is going to business school and the admissions committee should give her a spot in the class. She is a person, not a product.

The power of narrative building - Sinek's Golden Circle

Before writing any essays, constructing a resume, or even approaching recommenders, every applicant need to understand their personal narrative. That personal narrative will drive their entire application and tie together every piece of it from the recommendation letters to the random short answer questions.

In this TED talk, Simon Sinek clearly explains the power of narrative building that starts with why, rather than the traditional brand building that starts with what.