Experience: You know it once you’ve had it. While a formal education is widely considered a key to living a fulfilling life, it isn’t the end-all and be all, particularly in America and Europe.
While East and South Asian cultures often focus on a rigorous regimen of standardized testing, often to the exclusion of other experiences, Western education has been increasingly moving away from this model, seeking well-rounded students with crucial life experiences.
Why this movement away from traditional educational methods? Well, for one thing, a student’s ability to perform on tests can be indicative of quantitative skills, but isn’t always a reflection of how well they’ll perform outside of test-taking environments. Undergraduate and graduate school applicants today have often been prepped by tutors and specialized classes in order to get a leg up on the competition for standardized tests like the GMAT and SAT, and knowing how they will perform once those extra resources are out of the picture can be uncertain.
Real-world experience, on the other hand, can indicate how well a student will perform in a more dynamic environment, with a lot fewer controls and a far more unpredictable set of factors. Let’s take an MBA program for example. Demonstrated success and experience working at a consulting firm or a technology company is far more indicative of future potential than a standardized test that seeks to measure aptitude in specific areas. That’s why you won’t see many top-tier MBA programs taking applicants fresh out of an undergraduate degree. Adcoms at these elite MBA schools don’t want students that have only academic experiences. They focus on preparing graduates for business leadership, rather than continued academic pursuits, and need to see a track record of demonstrated real-world success to judge applicants’ eligibility for their programs.
Real-world experience means more than just professional experience, however. In keeping with the idea that a candidate should be multidimensional, someone who went straight from an undergraduate program to a career track with little else going on in their lives can appear just as one-dimensional as a career academic to university adcoms. Even in M.A. and P.H.D. programs that are geared towards professorships and tenure tracks at academic institutions, adcoms are looking for candidates that have lived a variety of experiences. Put yourself in the mind of one of these adcom members. Who seems more interesting to you: a person whose entire life has been going from one school to the next, and then directly into a corporate job… or someone with similar grades and a similar professional history who also found time to volunteer with at-risk youth, and who’s visited some exotic, remote parts of the planet for leisure? Graduate programs want interesting people, and traveling, volunteering, pursuing a passion and even dealing with hardship all contribute to making applicants seem more like real, three-dimensional people, not simply a collection of degrees and job accomplishments.
Beyond securing admission the program of your dreams, real-world experience will help any student generally become a better leader and person. Having your car break down in the middle of a cross-country road trip, hitchhiking to the nearest gas station, staying with a local family and changing your route and plans accordingly will prepare you to deal with project delays, sudden changes in policy and difficult team members. Volunteering for a cause you care about will teach you project management skills you couldn’t obtain through classroom learning. However, don’t simply seek out experiences to get a story for your application essays, throw yourself into it – you might just have fun and become a better and more authentic candidate while you’re at it.
Below, we break down a few examples of what real-world experiences might look like.
The first, and perhaps most obvious example of real-world experience is working… in the real world. Whether you’re a current undergraduate student seeking a summer internship in your field to gain preliminary experience, or several years removed from academic life with a detailed professional history under your belt, work experience counts. As we mentioned above, however, work experience isn’t a sure-fire differentiator, particularly if you’re applying in a field where applicants are expected to have a certain amount of professional experience. Nevertheless, a good work story can go a long way, and for younger applicants, early professional experience can deflect any concerns regarding a lack of maturity and can help offset any blips on an academic transcript.
Why travel? Here are just a few reasons.
- You’ll become more confident and independent.
- You’ll collaborate with and speak to a diverse set of people.
- You’ll learn to take responsibility for yourself in a new environment.
- You’ll gain hands-on experience in a variety of tasks, from booking tickets in a foreign language to planning a schedule.
- You’ll be forced to adapt to new situations.
- You’ll come back with a story or two.
- You’ll develop your self-esteem.
- You’ll gain cultural awareness and self-awareness.
- You’ll gain a new perspective on life, something that’s impossible to gain from whichever corner of the world you come from.
- You’ll prepare yourself for a job market that increasingly requires international travel.
Travel isn’t cheap, and you may not have time to take an extended vacation. If that’s the case, consider combining travel with volunteering or seek work that includes a travel component.
Volunteering is a rewarding experience, and making a difference in your community or abroad, particularly in your field, can be incredibly enjoyable. Whether it’s in education, the environment or helping the less fortunate, seek volunteering opportunities that are of interest to you. Additionally, volunteering is one of the best ways to gain hands-on experience for a future career. Are you planning on becoming a nurse or doctor? Volunteer at your local hospital. Going into entrepreneurship? Help run a non-profit for a year. Finally, volunteering brings people from all walks of life together behind a common cause, and no matter your personality or background, you’re certain to make valuable connections and even some new friends.
Hobbies (with a twist)
When it comes to hobbies, you want to set yourself apart from the pack. That doesn’t mean you have to take up Yak riding, competitive yodeling or some other unusual hobby. Instead, you’ll want to pursue something that you care about and that you’re ready to take seriously. For instance, gymnastics is fun, but you’ll gain more experience if you develop this hobby enough to participate in some competitions. Cooking is fun, but why not combine it with volunteering by helping organize meals at a food bank? The point is this: whatever hobby you pursue, try to take it seriously so you can get something out of it.
Finally, not all life experience has to be sunshine and rainbows (or travel and hobbies). Sometimes, life isn’t easy, and when applying to a program, stories of overcoming adversity can demonstrate just as much life experience as volunteering or travel. Perhaps you took care for a sick relative or struggled with a chronic condition yourself. With careful framing, you can leverage that experience to showcase your personal development in your admissions essays.
As you can see, there are plenty of ways to gain real-world experience. With that in mind, stand up, take a deep breath and leave the classroom or office for a bit. It’ll do you some good.
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