Dangerous Ideas: College Extracurriculars Are MeaninglessJuly 23rd, 2008 · 40 comments
Microsoft Doesn’t Care About Clubs
In college, I spent a lot of time writing. I started as a humor columnist for the student newspaper and a staff writer for the campus humor magazine – the venerable Dartmouth Jack’O Lantern, whose previous staff members include Dr. Seuss (Dartmouth class of ’25). I eventually worked myself up to become editor-in-chief.
My senior year, a few months after reaching the apex of college humor writing career, I interviewed for a competitive project manager position at Microsoft. After surviving the resume screen and two rounds of interviews at Dartmouth, I was flown out to Redmond, where I went through six more rounds of interviewing.
Guess how many times my impressive, time-consuming extracurricular activity was discussed?
I didn’t mind, because I didn’t expect it to be mentioned. I had worked on the Jacko because, from an early age, I had an unhealthy obsession with the tradition of Ivy League humor magazines. I wrote for the Jacko because I loved it. It had no effect on my job hunting.
A Dangerous Idea
This article proposes a dangerous idea: Outside of a few exceptions, college extracurriculars are of minor importance to your efforts to find a job after graduation. There is no benefit to be gained by suffering through an overwhelming load of activities at the college level.
Below, I briefly explain, to the best of my understanding, the role activities play in the job hunting process. I’ll then cover graduate and professional school admissions, and conclude with a recommendation for how to better integrate extracurriculars into your college life.
How to Get Hired
For many jobs, the hiring process proceeds as follows:
- Your grades, where you went to school, and to a lesser extent, your major, are used to decide whether or not you’re someone they might want to hire.
- If you pass the above screen, you’ll be interviewed. If the job is in finance, consulting, or is at a famous tech firm like Microsoft or Google, there will be a formal series of interviews to test your ability to think on your feet. If it’s a smaller firm, the interview will be more informal. The goal is to see if you can express yourself well, seem like a good person, understand their business, and, in general, are not a jerk.
- A hiring decision is made.
What role do activities play in the above? A minor one.
As mentioned in my story, the mega-firms don’t care. They’ll rely on their own battery of brutal interrogations to test your mettle. For other companies, your activities, at best, add a little bit of personality color. It’s nice, but not nearly as important as your grades, where you went to school, and your interview performance.
For example, it helps to have done something outside of classes, as the absence of any activities will make you seem boring and anti-social. It might also give you a bit of a boost to have a leadership role in a club, because this shows that you can manage people. Google, I’ve heard, likes people who did something quirky, because they think this makes their workplace more innovative.
But there are minor nudges: like having a good handshake, or making good small talk at the beginning of an interview. The key point is that having a huge slate of demanding activities — unlike, for example, when applying to college — does not make this nudge stronger.
(Certainly, there are some exceptions. If you want to be a journalist, it matters that you work yourself up to an editorial position in your campus paper. This is tough. Similarly, if you’re at Harvard, and want to write for The Simpsons, put your focus on the Lampoon. But I’ll assume if you’re going for one of these types of jobs you already know what you need to do.)
Other Factors that Count
Other factors, of course, are also important to get hired. Many industries like to see relevant work experience. If you want to be a banker, for example, it’s important that you try to intern in the field during your summer breaks. Similarly, if you want to work in development, intern at your college’s development office.
And to be honest, a large number of you will likely find your first job either through a personal connection or a previous internship with the company. Again, your activities don’t enter the equation.
Graduate and Professional Schools
What about graduate school? As we’ve discussed before, all that matters for graduate school is that you did research. The professors who make the decisions don’t care about non-research related activities. I was at MIT for a year before my advisor figured out I had written a book.
For medical school, you do need to prove that you know what medicine is really about, and you are not just applying because your mom likes the idea of a doctor in the family. This means some sort of involvement in medicine-related fields — be it research, internships, or volunteering. Many applicants do this during their summers.
For law school, it’s all about having high enough grades and LSAT scores.
Remember this mantra: college is not high school. There are no admissions officers in your future who are going to pour over your extracurricular activities and come up with a subjective score that will determine whether or not you get to move on to the next stage. What you do outside of your classes will play only a minor role in landing a job after graduation. And doing lots of hard things will probably not add an appreciable advantage over doing one or two things you really liked.
- Join a small number of activities that interest you and that surround you with interesting people.
- Don’t do a large number of activities.
- If you ever feel stressed or overwhelmed by extracurricular obligations: cut back! Their is no reason for activities to cause you hardship. Their main purpose is a source of happiness for you.
This lesson is tough for some to swallow. The lingering impact of the college admissions process is hard to shake. But you must. It’s okay not to feel overwhelmed. It’s okay to actually have free time. It’s okay to simplify and try a life that’s a little more zen. Your future bosses simply don’t care about that extra volunteer gig you are trying to squeeze into your schedule. So let it go. Make your extracurriculars, as tough as this may be, about you — not some vague plan for what you want to achieve down the road.
I’m interested in your thoughts? Are you a college student that feels overwhelmed with activities? If so, why do you think you are doing so much?