How Much Does Community Involvement Matter?

One of the most contentious components of a business school application is the part where you detail your involvement in activities outside of work.  Every year, hopeful b-school applicants face down the ghost of a busy career, one which often haunts them with the fact they have had very little time to do anything other than drive work results in their job since they graduated.  But how much does it really matter to the admissions committees whether or not you are engaged in your community?

Look, we get it.  Working in today’s breakneck rat race is demanding.  Especially if you have had an eye on going back to business school from the beginning, you have likely felt the pressure to perform, impress your boss and advance your career, in order to can stand out from the crowd when applying for a top MBA program.  Then there’s the added pressure to “do something” for your community, to impact organizations outside the workplace and to be recognized for extracurricular efforts. 

Some applicants make it look easy, pulling off promotion after promotion while also running for city council or leading the local food drive.  For others, it’s all you can do to spin the job plates.

There has been an interesting shift in MBA admissions over the years in this area.  While it’s always been expected that applicants demonstrate engagement and impact beyond the workplace, it’s no longer necessary to have a litany of involvement that takes a spreadsheet to sort out.  Led by some of the most highly respected b-schools in the world, the recent trend has become one of quality vs. quantity of involvement.   Evidence for this shows up in some of the schools’ online applications, where they limit the word count or character count to describe this involvement.  For those who are actually engaged with several outside organizations, this forces them to pick and choose the ones which are most important to them.  What is important to you reveals a bit about who you are, so make sure you truly select the areas that are personally valuable, not the areas you think will look impressive.  Schools want to see how you have impacted an organization and why you choose to make your mark there, not check boxes and tally totals.

The reason it is important to the schools to hear about your outside involvement is because, in short, they are looking for the “whole package.” 

Top schools know that unlike the stock market, with people, past performance is actually a predictor of future results.  Applicants who demonstrate engagement beyond their jobs are likely the kind of people who will also be more deeply involved outside the classroom, and a positive b-school experience is at least 50% reliant upon things that happen outside the classroom. 

So if the pressure is off to have a plethora of extracurriculars, how can you best demonstrate your passions via the things you do outside of work?  Certainly the most impressive way to do this is to have a history and a thread.  Sometimes, this is easy, since you may be the type who has always been involved with children, for example, or working with the elderly, or volunteering with animal organizations, and you can trace this interest all the way back to childhood.  This kind of involvement is valuable, because the proof of the pudding is in the tasting, and these folks have been cooking up their pudding for a long, long time.  This kind of person didn’t just run out and work on a Habitat for Humanity house last month, or volunteer for a soup kitchen.  They have been actively engaged in a movement, or an area that deeply moves them. 

If you never really plugged into a hobby or outside interest in a way which shows you have passion or dedication, it’s more challenging.

If this is you, the best thing to do is to thoughtfully explore the things you have done in your past from which you might be able to cobble together a trend, and then go out and “re-establish” a connection in this area within your community.  Let’s call this lassoing your past.  When you throw back and lasso something you used to do more actively, you can build a bridge of involvement which at the very least, gives the illusion of continuous interest and impact.  While it’s never a good idea to fluff or pad your experience, when you go back and lasso something you have done before, and then truly re-engage with it, you might be able to resuscitate a lackluster record of engagement.

The bottom line is:  do you need to be involved in things other than work?  Yes.  Do you need to be involved in 20 different organizations?  No.  And the more passion and impact you can demonstrate, the better the admissions committee will receive your application.

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