“I never let my schooling interfere with my education,” remarked Mark Twain, well over a century ago.
Extra-curricular activities began in the United States in the 19th century. At first, they were additions to academic curriculum, and had a practical or vocational component. The history of education provides several instances of schools and colleges according extra-curricular activities high importance and space in their programs. The first extra-curricular activities that were formalized in schools started at Harvard and Yale. These were literacy clubs, such as various debate clubs, and Greek social organizations such as fraternities and sororities. American schools were also the first to initiate sports clubs, which soon overtook literacy clubs in popularity.
Today though the term ‘extra-curricular’ can have several interpretations, the consensus is that the term encompasses any activity that is not necessarily a compulsory part of the academic program, but requires student initiative.
The commitment to personal development and learning outside of a formal system is more relevant today than ever before. With prestigious degrees and a perfect 4.0 GPA being basic requirements in the increasingly competitive job market, extra-curricular activities (ECAs) offer an opportunity to stand out amongst piles of resumes. Even in the UK, over 70% of businesses prefer hiring job-seekers with some ECA experience.
Extra-Curricular Activities and Academic Success
In 1995, the National Center for Education Statistics found that ECAs have a positive effect on high school students. Students who engaged in ECAs had better grades (including SAT test scores) and attendance, and were more likely to earn a Bachelor’s degree or higher, than students who did not participate in ECAs.
A California State University, Sacramento study from 2002-2007 found that at the college level, students who engaged in ECAs outperformed others academically.
A Graduate Management Admission Council study in 2007 surveyed 150 business schools to yield similar results; even in such high pressure academic programs, ECAs provided valuable skills that helped students get better test scores and better employment opportunities.
Extra-Curricular Activities and Professional Skills
ECAs aid in improving overall academic performance through several skills and attributes. ECAs on resumes provide a larger picture of a person’s personality and work ethic. They provide an insight into the person behind the test scores, often forming a basis for the justification of academic merit. Research established a link between these skills and career success almost three decades ago: 70% of CEOs held a position in a club or organization in college.
Here are a few of the skills vital to business success:
Leadership skills: ECAs provide opportunities to take up a variety of responsibilities and leadership positions. These are important to employers not only to gauge suitability for future management positions, but also to assess personal and professional confidence in handling projects and analyzing situations in a given setup. It is not enough to have participated in ECAs, it is important to have a role that demonstrates value-addition
Interpersonal skills: Through organized team work, ECAs improve social skills and the ability to make and sustain personal relationships. Employers appreciate team players who enjoy collaborating with people to achieve goals, and balance personal and team development. Communication skills are immensely transferrable and valuable in almost every field, and the backbone of effective pitches and projects. ECAs provide connections or positive peer associations that build confidence, increase tolerance and the propensity for networking.
Universal lessons: ECAs teach lessons for life. Through dedicated practice, time management, and focus, students learn the value of earned achievement. ECAs are practical demonstrations of the fruits of perseverance, and provide lifelong lessons through application. ECAs help develop discipline, commitment and tenacity. These values are key skills for success, and in managing unknown complexities and challenges of life. Employers appreciate the commitment and initiative in honing and upgrading skills by taking advantage of learning opportunities. The European commission also defines all ‘life-long learning’ activities as a tremendous value-add to employers, and provides a standardized framework to assess the value of ECAs.
The Association of Graduate Careers Advisory Services’ Graduate Success Project reveals that interpersonal skills and leadership skills feature in the top two skills valued by recruiters in graduates. There is a higher preference for interpersonal skills due to the increase in teams as a standard mode of operation in organizations.
Each ECA experience can thus bestow several competencies that are key to a persuasive professional profile, provided these are communicated and highlighted effectively.
Interesting demographic data- Research from Leeds Metropolitan University shows women are less likely than men to consider their ECA experience a relevant part of their job application, as they are more likely to downplay their achievements in the personal space. Men are more likely to overstate their takeaway from an extra-curricular activity. Both approaches can decrease the odds of landing a dream job.
The ECA contribution towards an individual’s skills and attributes for a job, when communicated effectively, are quite measurable. For example, in roles that require refined interpersonal skills, extracurricular involvement in activities such as debating, student governments, MUNs add more value than other club activities. Media and communication companies value extra-curricular experience so much that they are even known to, at times, look past grades.
VMock.com is a SMART career analytics platform that can quickly scan a resume against more than a hundred parameters. It then provides an instant, detailed review of the resume, including specifics such as whether the ECA section on a resume has been appropriately optimized to cover key competencies such as teamwork, communication, leadership, initiative and analytical skills that catch and sustain recruiter attention.
The most employable Extra-Curricular Activities
Out of the hundreds of activities available to students throughout their academic career, which ECA is most valuable to employers?
Internships/work experience: Recruiters want to avoid wasting time and financial resources on training a person who is completely new to the work, from scratch. It is thus unsurprising that research shows undergraduates with internship experience have significant early career advantages. A National Association of Colleges and Employers survey in 2015 revealed that 31% of interns received a higher salary than those without work experience. Employers want experienced professionals, even in a pool of students who are yet to have worked full-time.
Other extra-curricular activities: A survey conducted by The Chronicle of Higher Education in 2012 found that extra-curricular activities such as professional clubs, athletics, and service, are valued more than a GPA. Employers such as global bulge-bracket banks, which are inundated with job applications value diversity of experience over quantity. The initiative to pursue something different with enthusiasm and commitment can provide a great edge. It can also give potential candidates excellent conversation material for an interview; a distinct interest ensures the interview will be memorable. For example, a senior analyst at a financial firm may not be wrong to believe that his passion for cooking, running and sailing across the Atlantic can set him apart from his experienced and equally educated colleagues. The difference between hobbies and extra-curricular activities is the level of commitment and impact. Even recreational efforts in blogging can provide transferable skills for a career in digital marketing, if pursued with dedication.
The pursuit of extra-curriculars is highly valuable to personal and professional development. As Barack Obama said, “The future belongs to young people with an education and the imagination to create.” Success can be found in the unlikeliest of avenues and activities for those with a receptive mind.