F1GMAT: Nearly all Business School asks about the applicant’s involvement in community service. What are some of the points to keep in mind while writing about the community service experience? What should an applicant do in cases where he doesn't have any community service experience?
Stacy: Business schools pride themselves in training future leaders, not just educating a bunch of people who know how to calculate an IRR and overuse the word “leverage.” This is why so many ask about an applicant’s involvement in community service. MBA programs look for individuals who are concerned about doing great work and improving the world around them.
Community service experiences are important for the following reasons:
1) They show that an individual is multi-dimensional. They demonstrate, interests, passions, personality. As such, they help the admissions committees get to know you beyond your professional goals.
2) Being involved outside of work shows that you can balance multiple commitments, and that you are the type of person who will be able to balance academics with clubs, conferences, recruiting, and more, once you are at school.
3) They can show that you have a larger view of the world—that you see what is happening outside of your office and you are interested in being involved and contributing in some way. They can show that you understand your own role as a leader and your ability to leverage your position and give back.
4) They make you a more interesting person—someone that can contribute to the diversity and vitality of a class and alumni network.
5) It’s an opportunity to demonstrate qualities such as creativity, leadership, teamwork, communication skills, initiative. These qualities are important outside of a professional setting as well as at work.
Unfortunately, if you have spent the past five years buried in your office, “joining” an organization at the very last minute or volunteering at a soup kitchen one Sunday is not going to help you much. That kind of effort is pretty transparent. The schools realize that many of you are extremely busy with demanding jobs and committing to several hours a week is not possible. Still, the most successful applicants find ways to carve out time for interests and contributions.
When thinking about ways to become involved, don’t get hung up on traditional volunteer work. There are many, many ways to become involved and highlight your unique contributions. A good place to start is with your own interests and passions. Think hard about what excites you, and how you can leverage those interests. A couple of examples from my clients:
Client 1: Enjoyed painting as a hobby until she accepted an investment banking job out of college. She felt she had no time to become involved outside of work. She rekindled her interest in art when she became involved in a company-sponsored fundraising initiative. She designed t-shirts to raise extra money and unite the team.
Result: Showcased her artistic talent and interest, became involved in a great cause, and demonstrated creativity and leadership.
Client 2: Was on the swim team throughout high school and college. She decided to mentor through coaching a middle school swim team. Consequently, she developed meaningful relationships with the kids on her team and ended up learning a great deal from them.
Result: Showcased athletic interests and found a personally meaningful way to give back to her community. Highlighted important coaching and motivational skills.
If you haven’t been participating in outside activities, look up a few opportunities on the internet and get involved next weekend. It’s really as simple as that, to be honest. Candidates who get involved even early in the year they apply will have a six- or even nine-month track record by the time apps are due. True, young professionals work long hours and often have demanding travel schedules, sometimes ruling out activities such as Big Brothers/Sisters or tutoring. But the next person I meet who cannot take out two hours on a weekend to help clean up a park or paint a school or talk with seniors at a nursing home will be the first.
Keep in mind that quality is far more important than quantity. Rattling off a list of 10 involvements will not help as much as something that truly reflects who you are and can showcase important interests and skills. You may be surprised to find that these involvements will add a great deal to your life, which is exactly the point!
Stacy Sukov Blackman has been consulting on the MBA application process since 2001. She earned her MBA from the Kellogg Graduate School of Management at Northwestern University and her Bachelor of Science from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. Stacy has worked with the admissions committees at both schools, conducting alumni interviews and evaluating applicants. Stacy has published a book, The MBA Application Roadmap,. Stacy has been profiled in several publications, including Fortune Magazine, BusinessWeek and the Wall Street Journal.
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