Bryan Caplan  

Extracurricular Puzzle

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Colleges care about applicants' extracurricular activities.  Employers don't.  What's going on?  I'm tempted to just repeat my adage that, "Non-profits are crazy," but even non-profit employers don't seem very concerned about how you spend your spare time. 


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COMMENTS (35 to date)
Ben writes:

Making the college attractive to other students perhaps? They feel an active student body will attract other students and thus like students they feel will be active. Remember with colleges you are choosing a community, customers in a firm just choose a good, so they don't care about community activity within a firm.

Allan Walstad writes:

I'd be interested in seeing any studies that show employers don't care about extracurricular activities.

Michael Sterling writes:

According to this New Yorker article from 2005, the consideration of extracurriculars was introduced to avoid letting in undesirables (i.e. Jews).

In 1905, Harvard College adopted the College Entrance Examination Board tests as the principal basis for admission, which meant that virtually any academically gifted high-school senior who could afford a private college had a straightforward shot at attending...As the sociologist Jerome Karabel writes in “The Chosen”...that meritocratic spirit soon led to a crisis. The enrollment of Jews began to rise dramatically. By 1922, they made up more than a fifth of Harvard’s freshman class. The administration and alumni were up in arms. Jews were thought to be sickly and grasping, grade-grubbing and insular. They displaced the sons of wealthy Wasp alumni, which did not bode well for fund-raising...The difficult part, however, was coming up with a way of keeping Jews out, because as a group they were academically superior to everyone else. Lowell’s first idea—a quota limiting Jews to fifteen per cent of the student body—was roundly criticized. Lowell tried restricting the number of scholarships given to Jewish students, and made an effort to bring in students from public schools in the West, where there were fewer Jews. Neither strategy worked. Finally, Lowell—and his counterparts at Yale and Princeton—realized that if a definition of merit based on academic prowess was leading to the wrong kind of student, the solution was to change the definition of merit...The admissions office at Harvard became much more interested in the details of an applicant’s personal life. Lowell told his admissions officers to elicit information about the “character” of candidates from “persons who know the applicants well,” and so the letter of reference became mandatory. Harvard started asking applicants to provide a photograph. Candidates had to write personal essays, demonstrating their aptitude for leadership, and list their extracurricular activities. “Starting in the fall of 1922,” Karabel writes, “applicants were required to answer questions on ‘Race and Color,’ ‘Religious Preference,’ ‘Maiden Name of Mother,’ ‘Birthplace of Father,’ and ‘What change, if any, has been made since birth in your own name or that of your father? (Explain fully).’ ”
SB7 writes:

Contrarily, I'd be interested in seeing evidence that colleges actually do care. They profess to care, and in the case that your extracurricular activities actually overlap with the things they can compete in or show off with perhaps they do.

Let's assume they actually do care though. Having spent some time around an admissions office, my theory is that extracurriculars give an admissions officer an excuse to prefer one candidate over another when they sit down at the conference table to hash things out. It's something concrete to point to that can be used to justify their opinions, even if said opinions aren't derived from that extracurricular activity.

Hiring decisions at most companies AFAIK are not such by-committee decisions, at least for entry level positions, so activities are no longer needed as smoke screens.

Mike Gibson writes:

This isn't strictly speaking true, but I have to say my sample size is very small and elite. Many Harvard grads and others from top schools get jobs ibanking or consulting based on their extracurriculars--whether they were team captains, edited the school newspaper and so on. I've even heard of interviews with Google where these activities mattered.

GU writes:

@Mike Gibson,

Yep, elite law firms look for the same things (leadership positions, club memberships, volunteer work, etc.). Elite law firms, ibanking, & consulting are not typical jobs though, so Caplan's point might still hold generally.

Brandon Berg writes:

I'm not sure that this is true, so don't take my word for it, but I'm heard that this dates back to the days when they were trying to keep Jews out. Because Jews tested well, they embraced the "whole person" approach, which provided a fuzzier set of criteria that made it easier to exclude Jews.

Eventually, I would guess, they started to believe their own propaganda. Or they just needed a rationalization to discriminate in favor of favored minorities without establishing formal quotas.

R. Pointer writes:


That comes from a Malcolm Gladwell's article in the New Yorker a few years back.

Josh Hall writes:


It seems to me that, at least at liberal arts colleges, extracurriculars are valued for two reasons: price discrimination and a form of faculty compensation. Although this was not the case for me, I have seen lots of people choose a school for the opportunity to play 4 more years of a sport, or dance, or theatre.

A large part of the compensation at a liberal arts college is in the consumption benefits of having good students. Even better if at least some of those students share the same extracurricular activities as you.

These two points would suggest that large universities would care less about extracurriculars, which I think is true. Empirically, however, this is clouded by size differences.

JPIrving writes:

I think this is an American or at most Anglosphere phenomenon. The Antisemitic angle makes some sense when one thinks about admission outside the U.S. (in areas with historically few Jews) I know Swedish and Chinese universities only care about grades and test results. I dare say it will be the same in other Asian and European countries.

Of course in most European Unis extracurriculars are independently funded and organized, even if they have an official relationship to the university. So Josh Hall's effect could be at work too.

chipotle writes:

I'm tempted to just repeat my adage that, "Non-profits are crazy"

Remind me, Dr. Caplan, precisely who your principal employer is and what their relation is to the profit motive?

Surely, you could find a nice position at a good, for-profit institution like the University of Phoenix if you wanted...

Sean Johnston writes:

I usually go for the simplest explanation. Both colleges and employers are trying to select the best candidates. The crucial difference lies at what age the selection assessment is being done. Colleges usually select from a pool of candidates who are under 20 – who do not have much work/life experience. In this pool, assuming equal academic scores the differentiating factor indicating incremental future success would be achievements in extra-curricular activities. An employer however is selecting a candidate who has already been tested through the college admissions process and also has usually acquired by this stage some adult/relevant work experience. Hence the lack of interest in a candidate’s spare-time activities.

Troy Camplin writes:

The theory is that the more extracurricular activities a student was in, the more well-rounded the student was and will be, and the more they will bring to the college, and the more successful the student will be. I don't know if any of that is actually true. It may be. All I know is that I hated extracurricular activities as schools defined them, and now I have a Ph.D., so I don't know acout the success part, at least -- but on the other hand, the exception doesn't negate the rule, either.

Gavin Andresen writes:

I'd look for a correlation between extracurricular activities in high school and alumni donations after graduation from college.

Are "social joiners" more likely to donate to their alma maters?

There is, of course, no such incentive for employers (do non-profits ever hit up former employees for donations?)

Joel writes:

Colleges care about applicants' SAT scores. Employers don't. What's going on? I'm tempted to just repeat my adage that, "For-profits are crazy," but even for-profit colleges care somewhat about SAT scores.

Ocean writes:

Well it makes sense if we assume colleges exist for the education and development of their students, while businesses exist to make a profit. This is all in theory, of course, but if they follow that in practice, then it probably means it's working quite well.

Nick C. writes:

I wouldn't say that employers don't care about extracurriculars. Many employers want reasonably happy, well-rounded employees; having an interest in things outside of school/work shows that you aren't just another worker drone that's going to hate your life (and job) when you turn 40. Since employers are real people too, they might prefer to hire those to whom they can relate. Of course this is a good bit less important than hiring people that can do the job, but it can make a difference when considering two equally qualified candidates. Also, sincerity is more important to employers, so a candidate with a sincere interest in fishing might get the job over a candidate with an insincere interest in starting a school chess club or a soup kitchen. Obviously the extent to which this is a factor highly depends on the industry, nature of the job, and company size.

Regarding colleges, remember that they're in competition with other schools and that intangibles are important factors to many students. It's good marketing for them to have an active student body with a diverse supply of loosely organized interests. A prospective student might look at a flier hyping the registered Ultimate Frisbee Club and say, "hey look, if I go to ______ I can play Frisbee!", even though they can do that anywhere. The school has an incentive to select opportunistic sycophants that take up activities (like the Math Club, for example) because it might get them somewhere, so the student has an incentive to be an opportunistic sycophant.

So to bring it all together, since schools stand to benefit from marketing people's spare time, they place an unusually high weight on extracurriculars--whether sincere or not. Since employers only marginally benefit, and since there can even be a cost associated with employing suck ups anyway, they place a lower weight on extracurriculars and have a stronger incentive to consider their sincerity.

Phil writes:

How 'bout:

Colleges are more fuzzy, leftish, feel-good types than business who have to make a profit. They are therefore more comfortable with measures of "merit" that make them feel good.

It makes them feel bad when a genius nerd gets in but a not-so-smart socially-pleasant person doesn't. The pleasant person doesn't seem any less "deserving" of having good things happen to them, and it doesn't feel as bad to reject a nerd.

Brandon Minster writes:

I think it's just further differentiation of applicants. How else do you decide between two students with identical GPAs and SAT scores? Also, could it be colleges wanting to enroll students who will boost the colleges' own extracurricular activities?

coyote writes:

I think the simple answer is twofold:

1.colleges judge their people acquisition differently than do businesses or non-profits. Businesses and non-profits judge their recruiting based solely on how the person contributes to their organization. Colleges think this is important as well, but also judge themselves on what the people they recruit do after they leave. Harvard will say "look at all the great things our alumni do after they left." Most companies don't do that (though I remember McDonalds used to say that 10% of the CEOs in the Fortune 500 got their first job at McDonalds, or something like that).

2. colleges define their mission more broadly. Exxon produces hydrocarbon products. Universities want to be academic-athletic-teaching-research-theatrical-political organizations.

Lo Statuz writes:

I agree with SB7. Admissions could be decided from a simple, open formula using objective inputs like SAT scores and GPA. Schools don't want to do this for several reasons. It would destroy the mystique of the status they confer if anyone could plug in the numbers. It would leave them open to charges of discrimination if the results have too many or too few members of some group. And it would force them to reveal how much preference goes to legacies, applicants with famous parents, etc. With lots of information available on each applicant, any decision can always be rationalized.

Employers have no choice but to make subjective decisions, since there's no standardized test for each possible position. So employers have no need to confuse the issue of why they make subjective decisions.

Joe in Morgantown writes:


Employers do care about a candidate's SAT scores and other IQ related numbers. However, they are forbidden to ask.

Phil writes:

Joe in Morgantown,

Are employers allowed to administer their own SAT-like or IQ test to candidates?

Corey writes:

I believe there was a supreme court case about whether it is legal to administrate IQ tests to job applicants and use the results to make selection decisions - Griggs vs. Duke Power Company... This is from memory though, so I could be wrong.

infopractical writes:

I wonder what prompted this post. Perhaps I missed a post from earlier with a link?

As an employer, I definitely do prefer workers who dedicated time to extracurricular activities -- particularly if they relate to the job.

To Phil: I took IQ-like tests when applying for jobs when I was younger. They are not uncommon on Wall Street.

Roger writes:

As an executive who hired hundreds of people over decades, I would give applicants a blank peace of paper and ask them to them to fill it out with what they have accomplished in life. I looked for broad patterns of success, energy, and a drive to excel. Certainly applicants could (and often did) include academic success, SAT scores, extracurricular activities and more.

A sample of one proves nothing, but I question the accuracy of your premise.

Miguel Madeira writes:

In Portugal, colleges don't care about extracurricular activities - you do a written test, your results in these test and you high school grade are computed according a predefined mathematical formula, and the "x" better candidates are accepted - we don't have these ridiculous anglo-saxon methods, like interviews, recomendatiobn letters, etc.

"Are employers allowed to administer their own SAT-like or IQ test to candidates?"

In Portugal they can (usually in a mix of intellectual and psychological test).

Jake Seliger writes:

Colleges and universities (at least of the "liberal arts and sciences" types you implicitly refer to) aren't that interested in employers; they're more interested in either a) knowledge (if you're friendly to them) or b) reproducing themselves (if you're less so).

In addition, it's possible that employers don't care about extracurriculars per se, but they do care about the kinds of traits that extracurriculars bring with them. Here's a post on that subject from Penelope Trunk's blog.

Although this bit of evidence is a stretch, the Atlantic reports in What Makes a Great Teacher? that tenacity and the willingness to engage in significant projects outside of school matter much more than, say, GPA:

Things that you might think would help a new teacher achieve success in a poor school—like prior experience working in a low-income neighborhood—don’t seem to matter. Other things that may sound trifling—like a teacher’s extracurricular accomplishments in college—tend to predict greatness.

If it's true for teachers, it might be true for others—including employers. Or colleges who want students disproportionately likely to change the world in some novel way.

(My distinction between liberal arts and sciences colleges versus ones that focus on business comes from Louis Menand's Problems in the Academy: Louis Menand’s The Marketplace of Ideas: Reform and Resistance in the American University, which I write about at the link. One of his points: talking about "colleges" or "universities" as if they were all the same lacks precision because of the heterogeneity of institutions.)

Craig Ball writes:

At least with regards to top colleges - you must also remember that filling the incoming class with 4.0gpa/2400SAT students would not be difficult. Extracurriculars are only one of a variety of criteria colleges use to judge the deeper quality of a candidate....4.0gpas are not all created equal. Not by a long shot. High school rigor varies wildly. Moreover, who is the most interesting candidate: a 4.0/2400 student who spent all their time studying; or a 3.8/2250 student who was also a nationally ranked tennis player, attended high school on scholarship (while working a job on the side), member of the national debate team....

this is of course an extreme example, but I think it illustrates the point. Bare grades and scores are not as revealing as an application that probes into the applicant's personal life - how they spend their time, what kind of passions they have/what drives them.

and, I would also note, employers may indeed ask for SAT scores (mine did, ~1.5yrs ago); and do indeed care about extracurricular activities for the very same reasons outlined above (this from a currently ongoing job search in my group).

Of course, at higher levels extracurriculars become more moot on a formal level (CEO - certainly don't care if he/she also is captain of the local soccer team), but the virtues of 'well-roundedness' do not ever go out of style (I would argue).

Again - only the opinion of one.

Chris writes:

Employers care immensely about extra-curricular activities. I recently completed the recruiting cycle as a first-year MBA student and many of the interviews involved discussions of extra-curricular activities, including why I had joined, what I had accomplished, and what I hoped to do in that area in the future. I believe they are trying to learn about student initiative and leadership skills.

Maximum Liberty writes:

Three points:

1. Top-tier colleges seem to care more about extracurricular activities than second- and third-tier colleges. That suggests two possibilities:
a. They need the additional information to differentiate between applicants that are way over in the right-hand tail of the normal curve, where both GPA and SAT scores fail to differentiate well.
b. They are looking for applicants that will succeed so thoroughly in some area that their reputations will rub off on the school. That is, the schools look for the bext debater, the best tennis player, etc. -- the best specialist in many disciplines, so that they can place a large number of high-payoff bets.

2. Employers recruiting at colleged ask about extracurriculars because the students' indicia of success at the job for which they are being recrutied are imperfect at best. For example, does a high GPA in marketing classes really tell yu that the student will be good at marketing in your company, or that the student is really good at studying for exams? Asking about extracurriculars helps by adding other data. I would note that the "extracurricular" that employers want to know most about is relevant internships.


JKB writes:

Employers have this thing called the Department of Labor to answer to. It is the foolish hiring manager that considers anything not relatable to the skills needed for the job. That doesn't mean that employers can't consider extracurricular activities only that the participation needs to have provided some job relatable skill. Outside of that employers should stay out of employee's lives lest they have to defend themselves against discrimination charges.

I will grant there are firms that make decisions on non-job-relatable criteria. There are far more potential lawsuits out their than actual ones. A charge would be hard to affirm but, by asking for a list of extracurricular activities, an employer is opening themselves up for an expensive legal fight. Better to ask for job skill experience including any non-paid experience the applicant might want to include.

JLM writes:

I have been a hiring manager for 20 years and the people I hire to be consultants should have extra-curricular activities. If they don't have any that they are willing to talk about, I am concerned that their activities could lead to something embarassing for the company. If they truly have none, then they probably aren't the type of person I need as they do not have diverse thoughts or interests that would enable them to be open to alternative ideas and solutions.

While the college experience certainly involves some team work and social interaction in pursuit of academic success, all work and no play makes John a dull boy.

Maybe if the job doesn't need skills developed through human interaction, team work, or social participation then there is no need to be concerned with extra-curricular activities. But that's not what I am looking for.

KMW writes:

What is the evidence for the assertion? It doesn't seem even plausible that employers don't care about extracurricular activities.

It is likely that some college cares more about extracurricular than some employer but it seems unlikely for colleges to care more on average than employers. As a faculty member that works closely with students and recruiters, I would say that employers care more about extracurricular activities than colleges do.

Theory: test scores, GPA (or percentile), and racial preferences explain more of a college's decision than an employer's. Of course, the remainder is not all extracurricular.

Derek Scruggs writes:

Bryan, you're just wrong. Good employers absolutely care about extracurriculars. I'm a partner in a software company and we place a lot of emphasis on this.

You know who else does? Google (I have friends who work in their recruiting dept). Ever hire (*every* one!) is signed off on by Larry Page, and the hiring packet includes a detailed report on the applicant's extracurricular activites and how that contributes to their culture.

Think about that for a second. Unlike some career paths, software is a discipline where the vast majority of interview questions have right and wrong answers i.e. there is a correct way to build a linked list in C.

But in building our company we've found that people who don't have outside lives tend not to do as good a job of interacting with and understanding the absolute most important thing a company must have: customers.

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