(this posting is intended primarily for MBA applicants looking to add interesting contents to the additional section of the resume they'll use in their admissions package, although it should be of general interest to a range of applicants to other programs, as well as those interested in building their resume in general)
I live in Japan, where in some cases people place a stronger emphasis on their career and the company they work for, at the expense of developing strong extra-curricular activities. The work-life balance suffers as a result, and when it comes to the MBA application process, often this means a lot of people with great professional activities, but not a lot to show for outside of work. This can be a disadvantage.
Why is it important to show extra-curricular activities in your MBA application?
There are many reasons. One is that this is an effective way to tell a little bit about what you value or find important. After all, if you didn't like the activity or feel you could benefit from it in some way, you wouldn't do it. So your choices here say something about you.
Another reason is that your job, colleagues, clients, responsibilities and accomplishments gained at work won't come with you to b-school. You'll instead go yourself. And who is this person? Well, once you strip away the career, and everything related to it, what is left over? That is you - at least the non-professional you - and this should be defined at least in some way in your MBA applications.
The final thing to keep in mind is that an imbalanced application - full of work stuff but offering no insight beyond work - can leave you at a serious disadvantage. No matter how successful you have been, someone else also applying may have achieved the same pinnacle of success, but with interesting extra-curricular activities. This doesn't mean you shouldn't apply - it might not even be true - but it should motivate you to at least consider what activities you can mention.
What should I do?
From my experience, the longer a laundry list of extra-curricular examples you dangle in front of someone, the better the chances they will realize that something they do outside of work is worthy of inclusion in the additional section of their resume, or in an application essay. So, let's start by making that list, and then we can come up with some parameters for evaluating each possible item in order to choose only the strongest and most interesting contents.
1. Volunteer Work
This is ideal if you have such experience. Two varieties to consider when brainstorming:
a) standard, roll-up-the-sleeves volunteer work
b) volunteer work done through your company
I am mentioning point b) here because many people just consider it work. But if you have done volunteer work that was organized by your company, it is still volunteer work! So it can be listed.
Note: it is best to avoid listing experiences where all you are doing is contributing money.
a) team sports can show teamwork
Teamwork is a valuable skill that you will utilize repeatedly in your MBA program. This is the value in emphasizing your participation in a weekly pick-up basketball game each weekend. Soccer, futsal, baseball - participation in any of these things shows - or at least hints - at the presence of someone who works well in a team. Take the activity to another level if you can - maybe you started-up these pick-up games, and now a lot of people attend regularly, or maybe you are the captain.
b) individual sports or athletic exercise are ok too (like running)
Devotion to a higher goal can also make for an appealing story, even if you are the only one involved. If you run regularly to train for marathons or triathlons, this can be emphasized too. If applicable, list off the marathons you finished - whether you were in first or last doesn't matter.
If you take clarinet lessons at a school, put it in your resume. It may not show an accomplishment (although if you have ever performed in front of an audience then you've got one) but it does show an interest that could become an interesting talking point (Why did you decide to start to do this? What is it that you like about playing this instrument?)
4. Cultural Activities
There are numerous examples of things that can count as "cultural activities". The obvious ones include holding black belts in judo or karate, or studying tea ceremony or flower arrangement. Many people here in Japan have such experiences, but don't immediately think of them when putting together their resume. hence the value of carefully taking stock of your experiences as you draft your resume. These experience can add color to your resume, and so can be included.
Beyond the few example listed above, there are many other things that can count as cultural activities, such as helping out in your local community summer matsuri (festival). What seems like normal life to you may be interesting or unique to others.
5. International Experience
This can be broken into two sections: living abroad, and traveling abroad.
a) Living abroad. If you have lived abroad, this is worth mentioning in the additional section of the resume. Unless of course it is because of your own working experience or university / post-university educational experience, and then in that case you do not need to mention it in the additional section because it will be in the professional experience or education section.
Note however that those with such overseas experience may have also afforded themselves the time to get involved in extra-curricular or extra-employment activities, and those from working experience can go in the additional section if there is little else to put there. I usually recommend people to include extra-curricular activities earned at school to include them in the same section of the education section that describes those experiences.
b) Traveling abroad. This can work if it involved some degree of time, like studying English in Australia for two months at an English school. In this case you would not put it ion the education section (because you did not earn a degree from the studies) but you can certainly list it in the additional section. This can also work if you have been to a lot of places. I've met people that have traveled through 30-40 countries, which is more than most. This kind of experience certainly shows dedication to international travel directly, and may also show some degree of cultural awareness, at least indirectly.
6. Memberships in Associations or Organizations
Especially good if you actually contribute something towards their organizations. Nonetheless, make a list and when necessary or not entirely understandable, describe the nature of the organization or association to which you belong.
This is for those who hold some kind of engineering or securities license, or the ability to sell real estate, or something else which allows you to do something.
8. Academic Publications, Patents, and Presentations
The first word here demonstrates pretty clearly what you're demonstrating: academic experience and ability. This is less important for an MBA application than you may think (separate tests are administered to test these things, and besides you've also got a neat and tidy GPA to summarize all 4 years) but if the content is impressive and (importunely) something you are passionate about talking about, then it may be worthy for inclusion - especially if you have little else to draw upon.
If you have won anything, put it in. Be clear about what you won, when you won it, and the selection criteria.
10. Fluency in a Third or Fourth Language
This is especially true if the application doesn't ask (though honestly most typically do). It's not necessary to note in an MBA resume that you speak English, or your native Japanese. But if you've got a third language ability there that is more than just conversational, and the application doesn't call for this detail, consider it as additional section content.
I have intentionally placed this low on the list. For many, their "hobbies" will have already appeared above, as in sports or music. But beyond this, don't underestimate the value of exploring deeply your hobbies. Maybe you took a ceramics class with your wife recently - and made stuff you use in your home. Maybe you then took another lesson, and made more stuff. This isn't ideal content - but for those with no content, it is content. So keep going to ceramics class, and put it on your resume.
12. Academic Interests
Be careful here, because writing about "reading books" is far from ideal. But, if in your spare time, you have become something of an expert in 14th century Japanese history, then this could be worthy of inclusion, especially if you can discuss the topic coherently and having something worthwhile to say. If, on the other hand, this interest has made you active in some type of group where people gather to study such things, I'd think it better for you to mention membership in this group instead, as that demonstrates more practice building people skills than reading can.
If you have nothing to put in your additional section, and are company-sponsored for your MBA, then this can go in the additional section. I usually recommend it be placed elsewhere, but it is certainly flexible enough in nature to go here too.
Qualifiers to Determine Which Items are Best
Now that you have been able to come up with a long list of possible items, you'll probably recognize pretty quickly that some items have more potential than others. How to ultimately choose? Put each idea you generated to the test using the following 5 criteria.
a) Is it interesting? This is pretty straight forward I think. Can it be used to add color to an interview? If so great.
b) Is it active or passive? Doing something is always going to be better than getting something, all other things being equal. Volunteering time to accomplish something looks better than receiving recognition for donating money, for instance.
c) How committed are you to the activity? It should be something you have devoted time to. One game of basketball isn't enough to merit inclusion in your resume. However, if you have played twice per month for 1 year, then it is enough to put in the resume. Along the same lines, a dedicated interest in some activity that started yesterday might not seem very convincing either.
d) How recent is it? Taking saxophone lessons in 2009 will always be better than a local soccer participation award earned in 1994. The former is simply more telling about who you are today - while the latter is describing someone who has changed a lot since that time. Generally speaking, activities from high school and earlier should not be included in the resume for business school if at all possible. (note: unless you are really young, but even so it had better be a major activity)
e) (for Japanese applicants to b-school in particular!) International experience. If choosing between two extra-curricular activities, one that has something to do with interacting with foreign cultures might be best. So if you are stuck between describing your love of local onsens, which you've been to 6 times, and your love of climbing mountains in Nepal, which you've also done 6 times, I might recommend the Nepal experience. Not only is it more international, but it is also more significant, and might also show you in an "active", rather than "passive" way as well.
When in doubt, or when brainstorming, you should include everything. Later on you can cut out the things that aren't as good when trimming your resume down to one page.