I just finished reading The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton by Jerome Karabel. This book’s 557 pages plus 100+pages of footnotes tells the story of admissions at these elite institutions since the beginning of the 20th century, when frankly they were more like male finishing schools than rigorous academic institutions. Mark Twain’s line “I’ve never let my school interfere with my education” comes to mind.
Throughout, The Chosen presents a consistent theme. The Ivy League administrators have known that their institutions are producing the leaders of tomorrow. They have created classes reflecting their beliefs as to who would and should lead professions, the country, and the world in the future. They knew and know they are creating a leadership class.
While societal views on diversity, inclusion, and exclusion have evolved over the last 100 years, the elite schools are elite because they produce leaders. To paraphrase Harvard Business School, it’s easier to develop leaders than create them. Consequently, if you want to attend a program dedicated to producing leaders, you need to show leadership in your essays.
The need to demonstrate leadership in applications isn’t really news, but it does present a problem: If you show you are leaders and write and talk about leadership, you all sound the same. Kind of boring. Furthermore that homogeneity butts up against another major admissions value: diversity.
In contrast, if you write about different aspects of leadership, then suddenly your essays will not sound like all other essays. You will choose different qualities to write about and focus on those elements of your experience that reveal those qualities as opposed to the overarching principle of “leadership.”
I listened this morning to a Businessweek podcast called Leadership Lessons from Top CEOs , in which special guest Jason Jennings, author of the new book, Hit the Ground Running, discusses the leadership qualities he discovered after studying top business CEOs. For example:
- The importance of transparency and integrity. In Jennings’ words, “You reap what you sow.”
- Humility. The value of seeking help.
- The ability to “select a destination,” or determine a goal, and inspire.
- A drive to simplify.
- Desire to balance long-term and short-term interests.
- Willingness to share strategy with your followers.
- Good listening.
You probably can’t discuss all of these attributes, but by portraying one or two in an essay, you can reveal qualities valued by admissions committees, and you will distinguish yourself. Help them see you as a mover and shaker whom they may just want as a member of their class.
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