Maria was a pediatric oncology nurse who tenderly promised each child she cared for that she would always tell them the truth about what was about to happen to them in the hospital.
Ben was an army captain who joined his troops cleaning bathrooms in the punishing heat of Iraq.
Amy was a social worker who visualized a better, more efficient way for the agency she worked for to perform new client intakes, which led to their obtaining services faster. She convinced her manager to give it a try.
Phil discovered he had made an error in a financial calculation in a report that had just been sent to a major client. He went to his supervisor right away to take responsibility for the mistake.
What do these examples have in common?
Maria, Ben, Amy, and Paul all demonstrated several traits of successful leaders, including exceptional communication skills, earning trust through empathy and honesty, pitching in with a team under your authority to get a difficult job done, transparency and being accountable, creative thinking and salesmanship, and empathetic listening. Whether they were leading groups or individuals, they showed their target programs that they had the raw material to grow into mature leaders.
Whether you are applying to med school, b-school, law school, grad school, or college, admissions committees are looking for candidates who inspire trust – people who can lead. These leadership qualities are closely connected to the personal character traits that colleges and grad programs value.
Leadership takes many forms, and you probably already have meaningful experiences that you can write about in your application essays. But how do you go about conveying these experiences effectively?
Breaking Leadership Down into Its Component Parts
It’s tricky to show leadership in a highly specific and meaningful way. Too often, applicants write about their leadership generically, making them sound the same as a lot of other people. Generic writing is boring, and boring is the kiss of death for your admissions chances. Furthermore, admissions committees are all about diversity, which by definition is specific, not generic. Writing about very particular experiences and qualities that are the ingredients of outstanding leadership will ensure that your essays won’t sound like those of anyone else; they will sound like YOU.
Here are some key leadership elements to keep in mind that will help you pinpoint your strongest, most distinct leadership qualities and experiences:
When you present evidence in an essay of interconnected attributes such as these, you will distinguish yourself from the competition. Admissions committees will see you as a potential mover and shaker – someone they just might want as a member of their class.
You Have More Leadership Experience Than You Think
Many applicants worry that they lack leadership experience. If you work in a flat organization, your title might not reflect the extent of your real influence. If you work on the bottom rung of a hierarchical organization or in teams at a nonhierarchical organization, it might be more difficult to find opportunities for leadership.
But here’s the good news: you can still be a leader, even if nobody reports to you. You might also have leadership experience that is separate from your work experience!
You lead when you inspire members of a team, club, or committee to take a course of action that you have advocated. You lead when you propose a new policy to higher-ups, gather support for the policy, and convince your supervisors to accept your proposal. And yes, you (usually) lead others. But this is not necessary for you to show leadership.
Don’t think of leadership in narrow terms such as having a title, overseeing other employees, and reporting to supervisors. Admissions committee members recognize the breadth of the many flavors and nuances of leadership. In fact, they know that titles can be flawed or inadvertently misleading measures of leadership, responsibility, and character. Whether you have a title or not, your job in your essays is to demonstrate that your leadership flows from caliber, not status. Caliber is based on trustworthiness, integrity, and a focus on group goals; it reflects the change and impact you’ve had.
What Makes You a Leader?
You have the ideal opportunity now to begin presenting yourself in your applications as a promising leader of the future. In your own sphere of influence, you have demonstrated vision, boldness, commitment to a cause, excellent communication, empathy, and other elements of leadership.
Sift through your inventory of significant achievements to select the strongest examples you can write about. As you do so, think about the following questions, which can help you frame answers of substance:
- What was the obstacle, challenge, or problem that you solved in this accomplishment? A tight client deadline? A complex merger transaction? A new product launch amid fierce competition?
- What did you do to rise to the challenge you are writing about? Motivate your team to work overtime? Sell senior management on the deal’s long-term upside? Identify a marketing profile for your product or service that no competitor could match?
- What facts demonstrate that your intervention created a positive outcome? Did your team submit the project deliverables three days early, despite being 20% understaffed? Did your client approve the $500 million merger – the largest ever in its industry? Did your new product reach 20% market share after only one year?
When you portray your leadership, look for opportunities to incorporate strong verbs that illustrate your strengths in these areas, such as the following:
Writing about your leadership skills and experiences is not easy. It requires introspection about the qualities you possess, the challenges you faced head on, and the people you inspired and motivated to act. If you need help preparing and writing about leadership for your application essays, reach out to our expert admissions consultants for advice.
This blog includes excerpts from our free Leadership in Admissions Guide. For more detailed advice on how to address leadership in your applications, check out the free guide here.