While there are many elements to the MBA application, there is one that candidates often underestimate: volunteer experience.
Why volunteer experience is important in your MBA application
In order to understand why this category is important, candidates should keep in mind that the adcom is responsible for crafting a dynamic class each year. The aim is to admit individuals who will support a vibrant campus community and step into leadership positions. In other words, as admissions officers consider each applicant, they ask themselves, “What’s in it for our school?” An applicant who has previously demonstrated a talent for writing, for example, by contributing to a nonprofit’s newsletter, will really catch the adcom’s attention if she also expresses her intent to contribute to a specific publication on campus.
Schools are also interested in admitting well-rounded candidates, not simply candidates that have performed well at work and in their academics, but have expanded their involvement in other activities. They seek students with good values and those who volunteer in their community demonstrate their good citizenship.
Volunteering is of course a great way to expand one’s extracurricular involvement. While many applicants participate in the occasional fundraising walk or an annual corporate outreach day, those who demonstrate ongoing involvement in one cause or organization will be of special interest to the admissions committee, especially if it is related to their current or future career. A candidate who has contributed over a longer period is likely to have developed his or her responsibilities beyond ladling soup or stuffing envelopes. What’s more, this can be a particularly important opportunity for applicants who are currently living and working outside of their home countries; for example, an Indian applicant who works and volunteers in Africa will stand out as being particularly engaged and well adapted to his or her foreign environment.
Passion plays a part
It is also important to be involved in something about which you are passionate. Passion will help in a couple of ways, it will mean that you will commit more time to the endeavor, it will also mean that you will be more likely to take on a leadership role. Thus, if you are passionate about animal welfare then volunteering at an animal shelter, or lobbying in Washington, D.C., to help shape future legislation, will be far more interesting to the adcom than if you intermittently volunteer at a soup kitchen.
Helpful for applicants older or younger than the average
Candidates who are older or younger than the average applicant should recognize that their extracurricular involvement is particularly important. A younger applicant who lacks leadership responsibilities at work might demonstrate his talent for motivating others outside of the office. Meanwhile, older applicants can use their extracurricular involvement to reassure the adcom that, despite family responsibilities or distance in age from one’s classmates, the broader life of the community remains important to them.
Separates strong applicants
The majority of candidates who apply to top schools are admissible, they have good work experience and strong academic numbers. Oftentimes it is what they do during their volunteer experiences and extra-curricular activities that help separate strong applicants. If you feel this aspect of your candidacy is relatively weak, then increase your involvement now. While it is never too late, you should also recognize that the adcom will be skeptical of a candidate who has no tradition for volunteering, but starts 6 months before the application is due. Remember that it is important that your volunteer work appears to be genuine.
Volunteer experience provides content for MBA essays
Lastly, applicants will have a much easier time writing their application essays if they have a variety of experiences from which to draw. While applicants can certainly respond to most essay prompts by reflecting on their professional experiences, relying exclusively on one’s work is a mistake. With each essay, the applicant should aim to share a different side of him or herself—submitting five essays about electrical engineering or investment banking is not the most effective way to do this.
Accounting for volunteer experience in the age of COVID
Schools are going to be very understanding when it comes to the impact that COVID may have had on your career and volunteer activities/hobbies. It is perfectly understandable that a candidate may have faced significant challenges in these domains! The key will be for applicants to explain the circumstances and ideally point to creative ways they stayed active (beyond binge-watching series on Netflix or honing their Mario Cart skills). Did you organize virtual book club meetings? Write a business plan? Help your company innovate in the face of adversity? Assist the most vulnerable in your community (who needed groceries or other help)? Work on a passion project? In all cases, outlining the challenges faced and underlining the steps taken (perhaps via an optional essay) will go a long way.
We hope that this sheds some light on the opportunities and value that activities outside of work provide with respect to one’s b-school candidacy and applications. Now, get to volunteering!