A while back, Bryan Caplan observed,
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.
He asked for theories and Tyler Cowen offers one:
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. Other than legacy admissions, I wonder what other features of applications predict future donations? Might extra-curricular activities be one candidate here?
The problem, however, is that the question is based on a false premise. As Jim Manzi observes,
I started a software company that hires many university graduates. We care about extracurricular activities. I was a hiring partner at a large management consulting firm. We cared about extracurricular activities. My first job out of school was at AT&T Laboratories. They asked me about extracurricular activities at many points in the interviewing process
But have the companies where I worked been bizarre outliers? CareerBuilder does an annual survey of several thousand hiring managers and HR professionals who say that prior experience is “one of the most important factors they look for in applications from recent college graduates.”
My guess is that Caplan and Cowen are confused by two related facts: universities don’t typically look at extracurriculars of the undergraduate type when hiring faculty members and employers, generally, tend not to care much about that sort of thing for more advanced positions. By that stage of one’s career, people are hiring based on one’s professional achievements and competencies, including networking skills.
But when dealing with very young people — whether it’s a college admissions office or an employer hiring young folks right out of college — extracurriculars are a logical way of separating the wheat from the chaff. All the candidates had excellent grades because, face it, who doesn’t these days? So, membership and leadership in clubs and activities are at least some indicator of an ability to play well with others and balance the competing priorities for one’s time.
As someone who reviews résumés of kids finishing up college from time-to-time, I must say that I pay some attention to extracurriculars. One of my pet peeves, however, is applicants who list partisan political activity on the CV. Unless you’re applying for a partisan political job, that’s just a sign of good judgment.