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Articles / Applying to College / Leadership And College Admissions

Leadership And College Admissions

Dave Berry
Written by Dave Berry | March 16, 2017

This post is targeted at high school freshmen, sophomores, and even juniors. Parents may learn some valuable information, too. Even if you're a current college freshman or sophomore, there may be a nugget or two of wisdom for you.

The topic is leadership — do you possess it and, if so, how can you express it and use it to enhance you college admission chances or campus life?

When we think about leaders, sports may come to mind. There are the team captains to whom team members look for inspiration and support. Maybe we think of the military, with its admirals, generals, and even top sergeants and base commanders. How about politics? Naturally, there is the President, but there are also “leaders" (even by title) in Congress: the House Majority Leader, the Senate Minority Leader, and so forth.

If you are a high school student, you can probably quickly identify the leaders among your classmates. You have a class president, the captain(s) of the football or basketball team, the club presidents, your school principal, etc. What is it about these people that makes them stand out and occupy positions others look up to?

That's a good question to ask, because if you're headed to college or are already in college and vying for a leadership position, you need to know what it takes, how others define and assess a leader, and you must examine yourself to see if you are, in fact, a leader.

In doing some research on the topic of leadership, I found an interesting article entitled College admissions define 'leadership'. Another way to look at that title might be “How colleges discern leadership in their applicants." Some highlights from the article may help you understand whether or not you are a leader, at least in the eyes of some of the colleges to which you may be applying.

The article's author, Brennan Barnard, begins by talking about college admissions representatives visiting high schools:

“The college invasion."

This is how my high school seniors describe the scene on our campus each fall. Admission visitors – like extraterrestrials – arrive in their rental cars with big smiles and stories of bright new worlds. Their message is always the same: “Take me to your leaders."

College admission officers spend weeks on end traveling the world, recruiting tomorrow's leaders. But what exactly are they searching for? How do they define a leader? Who will they choose to take back with them? What qualities will these individuals embody? How will they be identified, wooed and culled? These are the questions silently percolating in young minds as they listen to these visitors describe fascinating futures filled with exploration and engagement. …

You may have seen this in your own high school. It's a kind of campus visit in reverse. Representatives from colleges, most always members of the admissions committees that will be evaluating your applications, come and speak in organized sessions to both students and sometimes parents about the advantages of attending their college or university. In many cases, these representatives are from schools that are aggressively recruiting applicants so that their selectivity can go up, thus possibly enhancing their ranking on the various ranked lists so popular among students. The more applicants, the more denials, which is a strategy that deserves its own discussion, but we're talking leadership here.

Defining leadership can be difficult. That's why you need some kind of benchmark against which to judge your own aspects of this quality. Barnard notes:

… “Leadership" is one of those words that have such power to instill angst in college applicants. Perceived as a referendum on one's strengths as person and admission candidate, assuming the “lead" is coveted as a prerequisite to college success. Books have been written, movies made, classes created and whole industries born around leadership development. High school students are seduced by summer programs with “leadership" in the title, as if the secret to college admission triumph. These same students scramble – Hunger Games-style – to assume positions as leaders among their classmates in the hopes that they can fill in the “I am worthy" blank on their admission application.

They are asked to describe their leadership position. The mere omission of an answer feels like the kiss of death to the average high school senior. They ruminate over feelings of inadequacy, if in their young lives, they have not been anointed with an official title. Before long, in the race to the top, leadership loses meaning and purpose. …

You should be asking yourself, “How would I describe my leadership qualities? What have I done that embodies leadership?"

From my experience in dealing with high school seniors applying to college, I have found that in many cases these applicants overlook a number of leadership examples simply because of the stereotypes that exist about being a leader. One particular example comes to my mind.

Jeffrey was a senior at a larger city high school near me. He and I were discussing his plans to apply to a range of schools that included his first choice, Cornell University. We had a number of meetings to cover his essays, his interview skills, and application details, among other things. When it came time for him to attack those portions of his applications that applied to leadership, he was thwarted and became flustered. “I really haven't done anything that stands out. I can't think of something that would represent leadership, either in school or out of school."

He seemed frustrated about this and maybe even a little self-conscious. So, I applied my technique which I refer to as Achievement Dentistry. I call it that because sometimes getting a high school student to discuss the positive aspects of his or her profile history is like pulling teeth. Accordingly, I began to drill down into Jeff's activities.

My allegorical dental skills paid off on two levels: (1) for an example of (unusual) leadership and (2) for an interesting essay topic. In my discussion with Jeff, I discovered that while he was a camp counselor during his rising-junior summer, he was awarded the camp's Toilet Bowl Trophy. At first, I thought this was some kind of joke, or at least something negative, but Jeff went on to explain that there had been some problems with the boys' bathroom facilities caused by general misbehavior. The raucous activity rendered several of the lavatory's facilities useless and in a huge mess.

The camp administration was poised to expel the perpetrators. That's when Jeff stepped up. He intervened and promised the administrators that there would be no further misbehavior if they would allow him to oversee the cleanup and restoration of the bathroom. They cautiously agreed to allow him to do this and said that if his efforts met their expectations, no expulsions would be made.

So, Jeff assembled the youngsters in his charge and explained the situation. They were grateful that he had saved them from the wrath of their parents and agreed to pitch in for the cleanup. Jeff led the charge, laying out what needed to be done, how to do it (even demonstrating how to clean a toilet), and what the deadline for completion was. Twelve hours after they, including Jeff, started, the restoration was complete. The bathroom was now neat, clean, and even sparkling in places, mainly the toilets. An administration inspection sealed the deal. All was forgiven, the perps remained at camp, and behavior charges dropped.

Later, at the camp's closing ceremonies, several of his former bathroom bandits presented him with the camp's newly created Toilet Bowl Trophy, “For outstanding leadership during messy circumstances." Jeff was both honored and a little embarrassed. He told me that he merely did what he thought was the right thing to do at the time and under the circumstances.

That was leadership.

Had I not dug into Jeff's almost forgotten memories of accomplishments, we would have never discovered this little gem of leadership. Jeff then wrote a wonderfully touching and funny essay about this event, listed his toilet bowl award on his applications' EC lists, along with an asterisk pointing to his essay, and eventually enrolled at Cornell. One could say that he was flushed with success, but I won't.

Barnard alludes to my dental technique in his article …

… An experienced admission officer is like a miner, digging for evidence of leadership in many forms. It is incumbent upon them to look deeper and value different models and demonstrations of leading. Educators must refuse to accept a narrow concept of effective leadership. It is the applicant's job to find creative ways to provide the evidence for which the admission office can dig. Students need to articulate for themselves the authentic story they want to tell and then communicate that message in their application.

… and summarizes this way:

When asked how they identify the qualities of a leader in an application, admission officers point to interviews, essays and teacher or counselor recommendations – each as a way that candidates can highlight unique stories of thoughtful leadership. Absent a title, ongoing involvement in an organization or activity with increasing engagement can show commitment and one's growing role in their community. Application readers are looking for instances when students are willing to make a stand or take a risk. They are curious to see how students show care for, and positively impact, others' lives. Even small signs of responsibility such as an applicant taking the reigns in the college search and not just following the crowd or their parents' direction. Frequently it is the pursuits that students don't do for a resume that carry the most weight, so don't chase the position, live the qualities.

Leadership is about the common good, not divisiveness, isolation or touting one's greatness at the expense of others. It is not about always being right or having the answers. It is about openness, listening, dedication, support, unification and intention. Compassionate leaders are those who can positively influence culture, and who can accept failure and admit imperfection. These are the young people that colleges seek as they scour the country for our next leaders. True leadership will be a collective effort, much greater than any one title or position.

After reading that article summary, try matching the admission committees' search goals you see there with my story about camp counselor Jeff. In case you need some re-emphasis of the key points, they are these:

– You need to think back carefully over what you've done. Not all of your leadership accomplishments will be easily apparent.

– Once you've identified those accomplishments, find a creative way to express them in your applications.

– Think about ways in which you have affected others' lives in a positive manner, be they seemingly insignificant. Most leadership counts when it comes to college admissions.

– Finally, keep these words about leadership in mind: “It is about openness, listening, dedication, support, unification and intention. Compassionate leaders are those who can positively influence culture, and who can accept failure and admit imperfection."

You are most likely a leader in some way. Think about what you've done and how you did it.

Then, incorporate that information into your college applications. Thoughtfulness leads to success.


Be sure to check out all my college-related articles on College Confidential.

Written by

Dave Berry

Dave Berry

Dave is co-founder of College Confidential and College Karma Consulting, co-author of America's Elite Colleges: The Smart Buyer's Guide to the Ivy League and Other Top Schools, and has over 30 years of experience helping high schoolers gain admission to Ivy League and other ultra-selective schools. He is an expert in the areas application strategies, stats evaluation, college matching, student profile marketing, essays, personality and temperament assessments and web-based admissions counseling. Dave is a graduate of The Pennsylvania State University and has won national awards for his writing on higher education issues, marketing campaigns and communications programs. He brings this expertise to the discipline of college admissions and his role as a student advocate. His College Quest newspaper page won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award, the Pennsylvania Newspaper Publisher's Association Newspapers in Education Award, the Thomson Newspapers President's Award for Marketing Excellence and the Inland Press Association-University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Mass Communications Inland Innovation Award for the Best New Page. His pioneering journalism program for teenagers, PRO-TEENS, also received national media attention. In addition, Dave won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award for Celebrate Diversity!, a program teaching junior high school students about issues of tolerance. His College Knowledge question-and-answer columns have been published in newspapers throughout the United States. Dave loves Corvettes, classical music, computers, and miniature dachshunds. He and his wife Sharon have a daughter, son and four grandchildren.

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