If you look through the undergraduate admissions webpage of the University of Oxford, it reveals how its admissions officers view prospective students: “We pick the best and brightest students purely on their academic merit and passion for their chosen course.” You’ll find it hard to find a similar statement on the admissions webpage of an American university. Take Harvard for example: “While academic accomplishment is important, the Admissions Committee considers many other factors—strong personal qualities, special talents or excellences of all kinds ….” Leadership is listed at the top of their “strong personal qualities”, alongside others like maturity and warmth of personality. As you can imagine then, applying to a US university involves much more than presenting academic credentials.
References to leadership appear throughout the Common Application (or Common App), the undergraduate application system through which students apply to nearly 700 colleges and universities in the US and Canada. In the “Activities” section of the application, students are asked to not only detail their activities, but also describe their associated “position/leadership” role. The Common App’s Teacher Evaluation Form asks teachers to rank students on 15 key areas. Alongside areas such as intellectual promise and resilience lies – of course – leadership. Students will also come across leadership in the Common App’s essay section, whether in the personal statement or in a supplemental essay for a particular college. Take, for example, the following supplemental essay prompt from the University of Oklahoma: “The University of Oklahoma believes strongly in educating leaders of communities in Oklahoma, as well as across the country and the world. Please share your leadership experiences and why they are important to you.” In short, when applying to a US college or university, presenting “leadership” credentials is all but unavoidable.
But what exactly does leadership mean to a college or university – and why is it such a sought after trait? Yale University’s undergraduate admissions page gives a clue: “We are looking for students we can help to become the leaders of their generation in whatever they wish to pursue.” For Yale, leadership qualities are what will help carry a student’s intellectual promise to the highest level of their field or profession. Put differently, leadership serves as an indicator of what students can do (and how far they can go) with their education: their capacity to not only have innovative ideas, but to take those ideas to engender progress, catalyse change, influence discourses … while bearing the banner of their alma mater.
Some universities go as far as to describe leadership as central to their values. UC Berkeley’s undergraduate admissions clearly underscores what leadership means to its institution: “Leadership is an important aspect to the UC Berkeley culture. It’s in our DNA; after all, this is the home of the Free Speech Movement.” Demonstrable ability to lead is important to UC Berkeley because it seeks students that personify its core values, not only because its students are a reflection of its institution, but also because a student that shares its values is more likely to thrive there compared to a student who does not. This highlight an important read-across for prospective applicants: when researching a US university, dig deeper to get a sense of its values and culture. Then ask yourself: do these values align with my own views, and – if so – how can I show that I share them?
Convincing a university that you have leadership potential is not the same as listing a string of positions. When it comes to leadership, actions speak louder than titles. If you have been a “class president” or “captain of the football”, you will want to explain what it is you did in those roles. Remember also that leadership can arise in a variety of settings, whether at school, in extra-curricular activities, or in the home. For example, you may have managed a challenge or a setback in academics and found a resourceful way to bounce back from it. You could also demonstrate leadership by showing initiative in and dedication to an organization, job, or hobby. Leadership in the home can arise in surprising situations: have you chosen to help care for your grandparents or to take an after-school job to help out your family financially? Such actions show that you have initiative and maturity. And sustained, meaningful actions speak the loudest.
So, what can students do to start building their leadership resume? First, start now. It is never too early to become involved in something that you are passionate or curious about. Second, choose activities or hobbies that genuinely interest you. Engaging in activities that you enjoy will take you in a direction where you will be more naturally inclined to demonstrate leadership. You are more likely to remain committed to and go the extra mile for such activities, which raises a third point: don’t join an organization or start an activity only to pad your resume. Doing so risks the possibility that you will become bored or even frustrated, which will prevent you from making any real contribution to it. And that’s the key, a leader is someone who makes a difference to what they are doing.
Leadership matters to universities because they believe that student leaders will best placed to transform what they learn at university into meaningful contributions to the world afterwards. The conclusion is this: do what you love, do so earnestly and do make a difference. Then the leader in you will emerge.
Scientia Education was created with the aim of preparing students to get the most out of their time in university. Our tutors work with secondary school and university students to help give them the skills, curiosity and confidence for future success.