Surviving the Extracurricular Application Process

After my senior year college search, I thought I was all done with silly applications, essays and interviews until my next senior year job search. Oh, how I was mistaken.

Practically every activity on campus has either an application and/or interview process or comp process. You apply for a freshmen seminar by waxing poetic about marine biology. You write an essay on the proper use of punctuation for that literary magazine. You comp the Crimson with a few hundred other freshmen etc. etc.

This particular entry will focus on recruitment efforts that do NOT involve a comp, but instead have usually, a written application and then an interview for those passing the written part. (This obviously doesn’t include activities that involve try outs.)
There are a few basic tips to keep in mind to put your best foot forward when it comes to the extracurricular application process.

1) Understand the context

The goal of recruitment is to find people (generally freshmen) who will become committed long-term contributers to an organization. The nature of college extracurriculars is that there’s a high turnover rate. People bounce in, bounce out, get bored or stressed.

Your recruiters are looking for people they can see taking their position in a year or two. They are looking for reliable, dependable people — you may be the best computer programmer in the world, but if you don’t deliver, you’re worthless.

2) Talk to someone in the activity/Attend the info. session

There will be a crazy event in Soch where all of the extracurricular people come out and sell you on their great resume-building/exciting/rewarding/high-growth activity. For the organizations you are considering, talk to the person who’s manning that poor booth for hours. Ask about what they like best, the organization culture, whether they’re going to stay with the organization etc.

This will help establish a better understanding of the organization that you won’t get from a web site. This will also come in handy when you’re writing that application to best showcase what you can offer and it’s always good to drop names in interviews (wisely).

Also — most importantly, understand how competitive the process is and what they are really looking for. And remember, that different departments/boards/positions in a given organization will have its own requirements and level of competitiveness.

3) Understand the minimum requirements

Some organizations on campus practically require you to have the basic skills already, while others are willing to teach. Some organizations have training sessions, others sort of let you wing it on your own.

Understand what level you need to be at in order to get that position. If you don’t have that level, try looking for another organization that can offer you that training, be it in InDesign or Photoshop, HTML or editorial writing.

4) Sound enthusiastic and professional

Very straightforward. While it is easy to be a little lax, definitely put your best foot forward. Don’t stress out about it, but make sure it is presenting the image you need to in order to get that interview.

Also, double check spelling/grammar. Ask your roommate for a quick read through. And always, make sure you’re answering the explicit and implicit questions they’re asking.

5) It’s okay to ask questions

If you aren’t quite sure what they are looking for, shoot an email to someone in the organization. If they don’t know the answer, they’ll forward it to someone who does.

People are always pretty accommodating because they don’t want to scare you off from applying, and it’s always a good way to glean some insight that you may be able to leverage in your application/interview.

6) Late applications?

Sometimes you come across a cool organization just a *tad* too late. Ask if you can still apply especially if you’re late by a week or less. Just shoot an email, explain the situation and affirm that you’re super enthusiastic about X organization.

7) ALWAYS respect your interviewer’s time

This is a given. But really, seriously, please respect his/her time. Interviewers are generally stressed out upperclassmen who are probably somehow magically cramming in a number of 30-minute interview slots into a busy schedule.

So, get their phone number, facebook them (either the Harvard one or the “real” one) to get a sense of what they look like, and LEAVE early, especially if it’s farther away and in a place you’ve never been too (e.g. Leverett dining hall, which is sort of hard to find).

8) Rock your interview

Always ask what you should bring. Always ask what the dress code is. And don’t be late! :)

Don’t sound pompous. Seriously, it’s a no go. The number one thing you learn at Harvard is that no one gives a crap if you sound like a narcissist even if you cured cancer.

Know what you wrote on your application — interview questions are usually tailored from this.

Figure out 4-5 points they are looking for, and be prepared to tell the necessary stories.

For instance, every club wants a dedicated member, so elaborate on why this club is so fantastically mind-numbingly interesting. (You shouldn’t have to lie, if you do, you’re applying for the wrong thing.)

All clubs want members who can handle their duties, so be prepared to talk about what your semester will look like in terms of time commitments and your priorities.

Similarly, if an organization is looking for someone with art experience, be prepared to talk about how you took Studio Art AP etc. etc.

Figure out your weaknesses.

If you’re applying for something that isn’t really reflective in your past experiences, then be prepared to explain why this activity is for you and why they want you (because you learn quickly, really want to devote your time to this new pursuit, are willing to go the extra mile, etc.)

If you’re already at the interview stage, you should already know that your “weaknesses” shouldn’t be deal breakers. So, now is your chance to reaffirm your enthusiasm. (We all love enthusiastic freshmen.)

9) Don’t stress

Of all things to stress about, don’t stress about this. Apply for a few organizations that interest you, maybe prepare to comp one activity, shop around for a few more, and you’ll be golden in achieving your goal of a nicely balanced work-”play” schedule.

For every organization that you don’t get into, there are probably 4-5 that are similar enough to it in terms of goals and primary activity.

If you’re looking to be a writer/webmaster/programmer/designer/ business person/event coordinator etc. etc. etc., then pretty much ANY organization would love you on its team. These are functional roles. As a graphic designer, I’ve worked on maybe 7-ish different gigs for different organizations.

10) It’s okay to quit

And finally, it’s okay to quit an organization. Sometimes you get involved in too much. Just leave on good terms, cite your school work and other priorities, and always let them know that you’ll consider going back.

Remember, while many will prioritize things differently, academics should be up there.

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