One of the most stressful moments in an applicant’s trek through the business school due diligence process is when they realize they have done very little engaging with anyone or anything outside of work. Let’s face it—life gets busy, and while you may have been in every club and organization you could get your hands on in college, once out in the real world, you may have found it very easy to simply go to work and come home at night without doing much else.
Needless to say, this is not the kind of “next generation of leadership” the top schools are seeking to fill their seats. Business schools desire to build a body of students who are able to make an impact both at work and in their community. In fact, it’s not even really enough to be a volunteer anymore. Business schools ideally will see strategic leadership outside of your day job where you have demonstrated a high level of impact and a lasting mark on someone, something or someplace.
This doesn’t necessarily mean you must be Chairman of the Board in a local non-profit, or a city councilman, although those things can sometimes give you an edge, by proving that you not only take the time, but are also recognized by others in the community as a leader. Schools know it’s all too easy to run out and volunteer at a soup kitchen or hand out cups of water in the local 5K race. What they are looking for is your being involved, deeply involved in some area you care about and in the process, have influenced or impacted an organization.
If you think about it, it’s actually easier sometimes to do this than it is to lead in the workplace. Volunteer or community organizations are hungry for people who are willing to devote time, energy and ideas. If you do this, you will likely find yourself quickly rising and perhaps even being given an actual leadership role. At work, promotions are fewer and farther between.
If you find yourself in a place in your career where you have not been engaged in anything but the job, you need to work quickly to plug in somewhere. Perhaps you should spend some time reflecting on what you really care about and see if there are any opportunities to engage locally. If you get stuck, you can always think back to things you did in college as a volunteer and see if you can reinvent or re-engage the same or similar activities now. This has the added benefit of appearing more like a long-term commitment or passion than something you ran out and did for application purposes.
In the end, business schools want to be bringing in future business leaders of tomorrow—people who are passionate, engaging and care about their broader community. Sometimes even postponing your application window is necessary to make sure you can do enough soul-searching to ensure you are the kind of person who will give back. But it’s never too soon to start doing so.
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Bryant Michaels has over 25 years of professional post undergraduate experience in the entertainment industry as well as on Wall Street with Goldman Sachs. He served on the admissions committee at the Fuqua School of Business where he received his MBA and now works part time in retirement for a top tier business school. He has been consulting with Veritas Prep clients for the past six admissions seasons. See more of his articles here.