Extracurriculars in the graduate admissions process

Now comes the time to talk about a topic I neglected since the very beginning. Some application forms ask for community service and other extracurricular activities. Admittedly, one would think that they’re there for a reason: the admissions committees would look at them and assign some weight to that component. But do they actually look at ECs?

The answer is: depends strongly on the field. First, programs leading to the practice of healthcare professions actually expect you to do community service, take part in clubs, shadow professionals in your chosen profession. There have actually been reported cases of 4.0/35 students who were shut out from medical school because a close examination of their extracurricular record would indicate a lack of interest in medicine. But, while ECs are used to make a second cut (the first one, in healthcare professions, is the numerical component), they are by no means make-or-break once one makes it past, since once one gets interviewed, the interview is the deciding factor.

Business schools look at ECs differently: they look for leadership in them rather than simply devotion. And often it can make a difference; many would not even think about getting a MBA (with or without thesis; although the vast majority of MBA programs are non-thesis, there are those rare B-schools where one may be given the option of writing a thesis at the cost of taking less coursework, like University of Calgary Haskayne or UQTR) without having 3-5 years of work experience first, and work experience definitely counts there. Here ECs mean the difference between rejection and interview and, from there, acceptance.

And, of course, there are other professional degrees, like a MSW, a MEd, or, more generally, degrees leading to professions where human contact and values are important, where ECs that provide indications of one’s social skills are valued. But graduate engineering programs (MASc if with thesis, MEng if without) place value on internships (research or industry) instead.

But, surprisingly, for a professional program, law school doesn’t place much weight on ECs (or softs in legal education parlance) except at the edges of acceptability, where admissions committees actually scrutinize the minutiae. And, if you see research experience as ECs, these are the only ECs that actually matter to research-based academic degrees (some MA, MSc and PhD programs), with rare exceptions (University of Minnesota and Yale, as well as a few others). ECs, in the undergraduate sense of the term, might mean the difference between acceptance and waitlist but only, again, at the edges of acceptability.

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