College Essay Leadership Roles In School

"Leadership" is a major buzzword in college admissions; it is found across applications through essay supplements, work experience, and extracurricular activities. But what do admissions officers really want to see?

Why Leadership Matters

On a scale of 1-4, with 4 being of most important value, schools like Princeton, Yale, Stanford, MIT, and University of Pennsylvania gave personal character a 4/4 in terms of importance in an application. This specific data is derived from Synocate, and the software allows users to search for other factors influencing an application such as talent/ability, work experience, and extracurricular activities. Yale and Stanford are the top two schools focused on character AND extra curricular involvement, giving both a 4/4 in terms of importance.

This data reveals that leadership is one of the best, and most impactful, ways to show character and exceptional extra curricular involvement, especially for Top 50 schools. Admissions officers from these schools want to find students who are visionary, entrepreneurial, thoughtful, inquisitive, and exemplary.

What Admissions Officers Want to See

These are direct excerpts from Top 50 schools' Undergraduate Admissions websites, note the similarities:

" We want to see the impact you have had on that club, in your school, or in the larger community, and we want to learn of the impact that experience has had on you" - Stanford University

"We seek to identify students who will be the best educators of one another and their professors--individuals who will inspire those around them during their College years and beyond" - Harvard University

"Decade after decade, Yalies have set out to make our world better. We are looking for students we can help to become the leaders of their generation in whatever they wish to pursue" - Yale University

"The Admissions Committee is interested in knowing the duration of your commitments as this gives us insight into the depth of your involvement and a sense of the impact you've made in your community. Note leadership roles and/or specific responsibilities. These details highlight your initiative and developed capacity as a leader, role model, and doer" - University of Pennsylvania

"We take particular note of leadership and exceptional talents or accomplishments" -
Princeton University

There is definitely a common theme here. Words like "impact," and "inspire" highlight why "leadership" has become such a buzzword this application cycle. Admissions officers across Ivies, Stanford, UC's, and other Top 50 schools ask themselves these type of questions while reviewing applications: How has this student made lasting change to their club/team/etc through his leadership? How has he inspired others with his attitude? How can this student bring that spirit to my university's campus?

How You Can Show and Develop Leadership

An application can answer these questions in many ways, but a student must properly market his leadership skills and experience in the right way. It is not enough to simply "hold" the position of National Honor Society President or Soccer team Captain if nothing changes due to your leadership. It is also detrimental to look for leadership in every extracurricular, as you risk looking unprioritized and uncommitted. Anyone can apply to be Vice President of Math Club or run for ASB President. The key to writing about leadership is to show, not tell. These are some examples:

Explain your influence on club attendance; did you gain more members? Add more dedicated volunteers or players?

Give an example of your creative thinking through the activity; did you plan a fundraiser that brought everyone together or increased the club's budget?

Write about an anecdote when you realized you wanted to make a change and how you did it; did you focus more on organization? Attitude? Mentorship?

Check out this Synocate blog post for more specific details on how to deepen extra curricular involvement regarding the questions above. Admissions officers will read the applications of thousands of club presidents, captains, and elected officials. It is not enough just to have a position. Look for ways to better evolve your club or team; don't be afraid to make changes for the better. Tangible accomplishments within leadership are what show character-- not just the position itself.

For more comparative analysis and admission data check out www.synocate.com and www.synocate.com/profiles for specific universities like those mentioned above.

Follow Ishan Puri on Twitter: www.twitter.com/synocate

Question: What exactly is required for the leadership portion of the application? Is everyone expected to be an officer in a club, etc?

Admission officials don’t expect everyone to be a club officer or to hold any sort of elected position in or out of school, but they do want to give applicants a chance to point out that others (fellow students, teachers, administrators, etc.) have deemed them responsible and worthy of being in charge.

Students who have never headed a school group or who never captained a sports team may feel that they have no “leadership” posts to include on their applications. But, for college admission committees, leadership can take diverse forms – and not just the most obvious ones. For instance, I have advised students who have:

-been appointed managers, shift supervisors, etc. at their weekend, after-school, or summer jobs

-served as camp counselors or counselors-in-training

-spearheaded campaign efforts for a school, community, state, or even national election

-worked as babysitters in private homes, at their church or synagogue, etc.

-volunteered as peer mediators or mentors

-taught math, music, etc. to younger children

All of these duties require a form of “leadership.” You don’t have to be a student body president or Spanish Club secretary to qualify as a leader. Granted, some applicants really can’t come up with any leadership roles at all, and there’s no reason to force the issue. But, before leaving that section totally blank, all seniors should think hard about what they’ve accomplished and about those times when, perhaps almost unwittingly, they may have served as a leader, organizer, or role model for others.

(posted 11/04/10)

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