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Student volunteering to lead

What's the Value of Volunteer Experience on Your MBA Application?

Posted June 14, 2018 by Barbara Coward - Founder - Enrollment Strategies

Any candidate seriously considering business school wants their application to be the strongest it can possibly be. Yet it can be challenging when there are some things in your past you can’t change, such as a troublesome grade on your undergraduate transcript.

Academic results alone don’t have be the sole determinant for admission to a highly competitive program; candidates can strengthen other aspects of their application to provide a more complete picture of their abilities and potential.

Although it’s often listed as one of the last sections on your resume, volunteer experience can take a leading role in advocating your candidacy.

Showcasing volunteer experiences can:

  • Help you stand out among hundreds or thousands of other applicants with similar professional backgrounds.
  • Convey competencies that aren’t demonstrated in other areas of your application.
  • Illustrate a significant achievement not reflected in your professional experience.
  • Add context to choices reflected in your work history.
  • Round out a narrowly focused academic or professional background.
  • Communicate your character and values.
  • Signal your priorities and potential for impactful success.

In short, volunteering can reinforce all reasons why you are a remarkable candidate for admission.

But before you rush to sign up for volunteer work before submitting your application, there are some things you should know. For starters, it involves a lot more than adding a one-time charity run to your resume one month before you apply.

Admissions directors from some of the best business schools share what you need to know.

Kelly Wilson, Executive Director of Master’s Admissions at Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business

“My general advice would be that the specific volunteer position is less important than the candidate’s ability to demonstrate impact through the experience. For some, that may mean to showcase a volunteer leadership experience because they haven’t had the opportunity to lead at work. For others, it may mean highlighting a cause that they are passionate about—this gives us a view into what is important to them and what motivates them. In either case, the admissions committee benefits from gaining insight into another facet of their candidacy. So, for the prospective student who might be thinking about applying in the future, I suggest taking a step back and considering aspects of their application that might need bolstering or identifying a cause where they can make a difference.”

Christie St-John, Director of Admissions at Vanderbilt University’s Owen Graduate School of Management

“Any volunteer activity that will give the candidate leadership opportunities or show her or his initiative will be looked at favorably, especially for candidates who may not have had the chance to lead or launch new ideas in their work yet.

I always like to see passion for whatever outside activity is included on the resume or in an essay—not something like donating blood or having volunteered at the food bank only one time.

One of the best examples I have is from an interview I conducted with a Japanese banker. I asked him what he had been involved in that gave him satisfaction. He told me that he was passionate about the traditional Japanese tea ceremony and feared that its significance was being lost in modern Japan. He presented an idea to one of the largest department stores in Tokyo. He offered to teach the tea ceremony to customers in their store on a weekend and suggested that the store might want to showcase some of their tea sets at the presentation. They did, and the result was that the ceremony was so popular, he was invited to do it several more times—and the store also sold a lot of teapots!

This stood out for two main reasons: (1) he loved what he was teaching and that was communicated to the customers, and (2) it was very clever of him to show the store how to make a profit off the event, which they did because of his enthusiasm. That is why being passionate about something can make a candidate stand out from the crowd.”

Shelly Heinrich, Interim Associate Dean of MBA Admissions and Director of Marketing, Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business

“I think volunteer experiences that are the strongest assets to the application are those where people can tie their volunteer experience into either their future professional goals or their personal passions that have helped shape who they are. It’s important that they also be able to elaborate on how they’ve learned or developed from these experiences. When you do seek opportunities, determine what fulfills you, both personally and professionally. So, if you have a functional expertise in marketing and plan to do that in the future, perhaps you can volunteer to be the marketing chair of a committee or the vice president of communications for a local board or nonprofit. Perhaps there are skillsets of yours that are strengths, but that you don’t get to leverage in your job. A volunteer experience could be an outlet for leveraging those strengths.

But avoid volunteering for the sake of doing it. The admissions committee will see right through this, especially if you started just before applying to business school. If you want to volunteer, do it for the right reasons, to impact the people or community for which you serve. If it’s for the sole purpose of increasing your chances of getting admitted to a selective program, then that alone says a lot about your character and values.”

And Heinrich is not alone with the important caveat.

Luke Anthony Peña, Executive Director of Admissions and Financial Aid, Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College

“If you’re volunteering to enhance your business school candidacy, please reconsider. You’re not helping yourself, the organization, or the community. Strong business school candidates are wise leaders, and wise leaders invest their time and energy in causes with personal meaning, rather than to achieve an ulterior goal. Spend your time and energy in places that matter to you.”


Looking for ways to find an enriching volunteer position? Considering looking into local associations for your field, whether that be marketing, accounting or human resources. Join and get involved with their planning and leadership. Find nonprofits that may be looking for board members or volunteers to lead committees. You can search for global nonprofits on sites like Idealist or GuideStar. If you are currently completing your undergraduate degree, join groups and clubs on campus and aim to take on a leadership role. Positions like these are excellent ways to build leadership and business skills before you enter a profession.

Good luck!

Barbara CowardBarbara Coward is a business school industry analyst and the founder of Enrollment Strategies, providing expertise in graduate management admissions and marketing.