Leadership is one of the key traits colleges look for in students. This causes many high school students to take on leadership roles in clubs and results in a lot of stress. How much do you need to do? What leadership roles are good enough to get a college’s attention? What do admissions officers mean by “leadership” anyway?
In this article, we’ll explore what colleges mean when they say they’re looking for leaders. We’ll go over how you can demonstrate these qualities, and pitfalls you should avoid. Colleges aren’t trying to trick you, but that doesn’t mean what they want is always clear. Let’s get started and learn how to demonstrate leadership in high school!
Colleges look for students who will contribute positively to their campus environment. These are students who are actively engaged; who join clubs, participate in traditions, and enrich the campus’ culture by their presence and activities. While there are myriad ways a student can positively impact a campus, those don’t always come through in an application.
When schools ask for students who demonstrate leadership, they are looking for students who will take the initiative to make a positive impact on their communities. Contributing to your school or other communities requires taking on responsibilities, and a level of maturity and understanding.
The best way to show you will contribute to a school’s campus as a leader is by already having shown this ability in high school. Just as a student with stellar grades in high school will likely go on to perform well academically in college, a student who eagerly and actively contributes to their community in high school will go on to do the same when they are in college.
In this way, the term leadership can also be misleading. Schools want to see that you’ve shown initiative and taken on responsibilities, not just that you were president of many clubs (though this is leadership as well). Thus there are two types of leadership: de jure and de facto. These are fancy legal terms, and therefore in Latin because terms in Latin make you more serious and important.
De Jure leadership is an officially recognized and sanctioned role. For example president of a club, a member of the student council, or an Eagle Scout are all examples of de jure leadership. These are the most easily recognizable and achievable forms of leadership, but they are not the only valid ones.
De Facto leadership is leadership that arises out of a non-officially sanctioned role. People can display leadership even when they haven’t been officially put in charge of a situation. For instance, maybe you organized your friends to put together an apology when things went wrong in class, or maybe you independently organized a neighborhood soccer game or cookout to raise money for a local charity.
Leadership Traits to Demonstrate
When trying to demonstrate your leadership potential, you should do the following. Each of these shows schools that you are serious about what you’re doing, and that you have a high potential for future engagement.
- Sustained effort: Whatever you’re working on, you should be involved for at least six months. Doing something once then quitting is not a sign of someone capable of following through.
- Responsibility: Can you (1) craft a compelling vision, (2) communicate that vision to people to bring them together, (3) plan how to use each person’s talents, and (4) troubleshoot when things go wrong?
- Value-driven service: Deliberately selecting or creating service opportunities that help make the world a better place in a way you’re passionate about. That last part is critical. You can’t just do things that are good. You must personally care about the issues you’re working on.
- Uniqueness & Innovation: Finding a fresh viewpoint, approach, or method. Look for challenges that other people in your environment don’t consider, especially problems others aren’t addressing, or methods they aren’t using.
- Independence: Creating your own structure without relying on pre-existing guidance.
- Community Engagement: Working with others to help take on responsibilities in any community you belong to. Even if you think of yourself as a solitary person, you belong to a family, school, neighborhood, political group, and cultural heritage – each of which are communities in which you could work to make life better.
- Overcoming Challenges of Diversity: Interact with people different from you in a way that forces you to reconsider your beliefs and develop new skills. The value from diversity isn’t that you happened to work with people different from you; it’s that those differences gave you useful perspectives and skills that can contribute to your campus.
You don’t need to do all of these with every activity, but these are what colleges look for when they ask you to demonstrate leadership.
What to Avoid
While the above list was things to demonstrate, this is a collection of traits to avoid demonstrating with your involvement, as they give the wrong impression to colleges.
- “Flash in the Pan Syndrome:” Admissions is full of students looking for quick fixes, and admissions officers are leery of applicants claiming tremendous personal growth in a short span of time.
- “Follower Syndrome:” Looking for opportunities to fit into someone else’s vision, be told what to do by someone else, avoid planning, and let other people handle problems. Notably, this doesn’t mean you have to be the leader, especially when working with adults – just that you have to take the lead in places. It’s perfectly fine to join an existing organization as long as you take the initiative to do something the organization wouldn’t have done without you.
- “Service Hour Syndrome:” Taking any service activity that comes your way, especially to fulfill graduation requirements or award criteria. You must demonstrate personal connection to your service so admissions officers know you’re doing it for the right reason.
- “Someone Told Me to… Syndrome:” Following the viewpoints, approaches, and methods provided by others without searching for a way to make them better. Doing what everyone else does, what is comfortable, or what is easy won’t distinguish you to admissions officers. Notably, this doesn’t mean you have to question everything, especially when working with adults – just that you have to be on the lookout for places you can make things better. It’s perfectly fine to work within someone else’s structure, as long as you create some structure of your own as well.
- “Dependence Syndrome:” Waiting for someone to tell you what to do and how to do it. Notably, this doesn’t mean you can’t take orders, especially when working with adults – just that you have to create some of your own structure and solve problems on your own. It’s perfectly fine to seek instructions from your supervisor, as long as you prepare for the conversation, take notes, ask questions to understand the spirit of those instructions, and remember what to do next time.
- “Isolation Syndrome:” Not engaging with others who care about the things you care about. If you won’t engage and build a sense of community as a high school student, admissions officers will be concerned that you won’t engage and build a sense of community on their campus.
- “Disengagement Syndrome:” Finishing an activity and leaving it behind, disconnecting from the community and whatever your participation meant to you. Admissions officers need to see that what you’ve done is meaningful enough to impact you.
- “Do For Syndrome:” Activities where you “do for” rather than “do with” tend to trigger this perception in admissions officers. For example, going to a foreign country and helping by building/teaching/volunteering there sounds great to the general public, but admissions officers generally look on these activities negatively. In almost all these activities, students don’t authentically engage with the social, cultural, economic and political issues in this new country; they just fulfill their task in a sort of vacation-volunteering hybrid.
Leadership is a key skill, in college and beyond. Not everyone can be a leader all the time, but everyone can and should show initiative, be actively involved, and seek to contribute to their community.
If you want help getting involved, or don’t know where to start, schedule a free consultation with us. We have a long experience helping high school students reach their full potential, and are always happy to hear from you.