Bryan Caplan  

Schools, Jobs, and Extracurriculars: MR Edition

The Decline of Coverture... Public Choice Symposium on ...
Tyler and his readers are trying to solve last week's puzzle: Why do colleges care so much more about extracurricular activities employers?

Tyler's answer is that it's an attempt to raise future donations:
Colleges want to expand the heterogeneity of the selection criteria so they can pick who they want.  If it's a top college or university, mostly this means limiting the number of Asians and maximizing the number of future donors and by the way those two goals tend to move in tandem.
Many other readers just dispute the premise - several from personal experience.  I'm willing to buy that some employers care, but could they possibly care as much as admissions committees?  I've often heard high school students talking about their need to do extracurriculars to get into college; I can't recall anyone in college talking about feigning interests to make themselves more attractive to employers.  Is my experience atypical?

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COMMENTS (15 to date)
Tom P writes:

Here's a theory: within any high school, there's high variance in the intelligence of the students. As a result, the brightest kids can easily succeed at the schoolwork that is dumbed down for their peers' benefit. Hence grades are not informative and kids need extracurriculars as an additional signal.

In college, the variance in intelligence levels is much less, so there is less dumbing down of class material, and grades become informative again, obviating the need for extracurriculars.

Devin Finbarr writes:

I can't recall anyone in college talking about feigning interests to make themselves more attractive to employers. Is my experience atypical?

When I was at Yale a few years ago it was definitely quite common for students to angle for club leadership positions in order to build their resume. The conventional wisdom was that if you were going to law school or medical school that you needed to concentrate on grades. But if you wanted to go into consulting, leadership positions were more important. For other fields, experience and internships are very important. I don't think most normal employers care much about grades much at all.

John writes:

What are extracurriculars signals for? Involvement and initiative. High school students have few ways to signal these qualities, but the one that is readily available is extracurricular involvement. College students can signal the same qualities through extracurriculars, but also through summer internships or jobs in their industry of choice (college students obviously find it easier to get jobs that will act as good signals of their quality).

So I'd say that employers care about extracurriculars as signals, but if students have other ways to send the same signal, extracurriculars are unnecessary.

hamilton writes:

"Is my experience atypical?"


bill woolsey writes:

Students at The Citadel list extra=curricular activities on their resumes all the time.

The placement people tell them to do this. When I get a chance, I will discuss it with our placement director.

I would assume that social skills are important for management and sales positions. I have always assumed it is less important for accounting, finance, engineering, and computer science.

It may be that people with high grades from top schools are worth interviewing, and the interview will determine if they have social skills directly.

I suspect that students with more modest grades (B+?) from less prestigious schools may need to provide some evidence of charisma in order to get an interview.

Most universities don't interview all the students. I think most firms do.

Are G.M.U. faculty so insulated from the placement process? I wouldn't at all be surprised if Tyler and Bryan's social circle at undergraduate school were atypical. I am pretty sure that both were top students at Harvard and Berkeley.

tgb1000 writes:

We bring employers (of engineers) in all the time to talk to students, and they all say that they care about candidates' extracurricular activities. It's very common for them to say "I'd much rather hire someone with a 3.3 and lots of leadership, teamwork, and organizational experience than someone with a 3.95 and none of those things."

mark writes:

In big law firm hiring, and therefore in law school, some sort of extracurricular is expected - even though there is virtually no time in big law to pursue an extracurricular activity and you really would prefer someone who has no interests outside of billing hours. Why then the employer's interest in extracurriculars? Because law students begin working for a firm in the summer between the 2nd and 3rd year of law school and thus the hires go back to campus for the third year. The firms want people who are outgoing and extroverts to be ambassadors for the firm, marketing it to the next crop of potential hires. That is why they value people who are involved in extracurriculars.

More generally, to an employer, work ethic and drive are at least as important as academic performance - one could argue that academic performance is valued as much as a measure of work ethic and drive as it is of native ability - and extracurriculars are another measure of that important trait.

Allan Walstad writes:

My school (Univ. of Pittsburgh at Johnstown) has probably gone overboard in pressuring students to develop what amounts to an extracurricular transcript to go along with the academic one. Nevertheless, I do think employers are interested in the fact that students have taken on leadership positions in campus organizations. I advise a fraternity, and the guys put down their positions on their resumes. I serve as a reference for some each year, and when I've been called by potential employers they seem impressed not just by a particular leadership position, but also by what I can tell them about the large number of time-consuming activities requiring coordination, money handling, time budgeting, as well as leadership. It's not just social, but philanthropic, fundraising, organizing teams for intramural athletics, planning for the return of alumni at Homecoming and "Founders Day," etc, not to mention all the activities surrounding the recruitment of new members.

That may be more than anyone was interested in, but the bottom line as I see it is that if you are going to grad school in Physics all this stuff may not matter, but if you are looking for a job in engineering or in the business world, it matters significantly.

Fabio Rojas writes:

"I can't recall anyone in college talking about feigning interests to make themselves more attractive to employers. Is my experience atypical?"

As one of your college friends, I can safely tell you that I did not feign interest in extra curriculars in high school. But, Bryan, your friends were a very self-selected group of nerdy kids!

I did encounter many people who just stacked their resumes in high school. Usually, these were kids from wealthier schools where people knew about the elite admissions game. Compared to the whole high school population, a small slice. But they are there.

Noah Yetter writes:

Speaking as an employer, I don't give a crap about extracurriculars, unless it's like the MIT Robotics Club. I want to see internships or actual employment.

Bayesian writes:

At Penn recruiting for finance jobs it maybe mattered for investment banking, but for sell-side sales trading and hedge funds it doesn't matter.

SydB writes:

Peacock feathers.

TDL writes:

Just to counter a point made by an earlier commenter; finance is a highly social industry. Likeability (assuming this is a word), is much more important in finance than many of the technical skills required (unless you have previous experience in the field.) In most cases (at least in finance) you will be trained in which skill sets you need. All that being said, bankers, money managers, etc don't really care how many extra-curricular activities you have; how you come across during the interview process is more critical.

This is also my impression of most industries.


Dave Tufte writes:

When I started to consider applying for a Rhodes scholarship I was advised that I didn't have enough college athletics, so I was pushed towards another (a Marshall scholarship) I think.

It's not looking for a job, but at least its a college level example.

Bill writes:

I have had seven jobs in the last 19 years. (Software Engineering). Not one has expressed any interest in my extracurricular activities except for background investigations for security clearances. However I first went to a community college and then got my Bachelors from a small technical college and they did not care about my extracurricular activities either.

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