Leadership for College Applications: How to Gain Hands-On Experience


Leadership for College Applications: How to Gain Hands-On Experience

“Leadership is personal, not positional” – Julie Foudy

As the college admissions process becomes increasingly competitive, it’s time to start thinking about how you can make your application unique, to stand out in a pool of highly talented individuals. The most active way of building an impressive profile is by demonstrating leadership for college applications. Oftentimes, we assume an individual must hold a certain position in order to be a leader: the CEO of a company, the captain of the team, or the president of a club. But this isn’t true. The aforementioned are certainly all leadership positions, but they are not the only ones.

Students have the opportunity to show their leadership in innumerable ways throughout high school by capitalizing on their passions and pursuing them in meaningful ways. It might seem a tall order, after all, your leadership skills - or lack of - could make or break your chances at your dream school. To help make sure that you’re making the best of your opportunities, below you’ll find just a few ways to convey leadership for college applications through tangible experiences that are all within your control. 

#1 – Take initiative

Before you can lead others, you must first lead yourself. Leadership is very personal and it’s important to be authentically you – in pursuit of interests and in execution of character. Leadership for college applications will not impress admissions officers unless it aligns with your academic interests and goals. Think about what subjects or activities you enjoy the most. Pinpointing your passion can take time, so try brainstorming what’s important to you when thinking about how you can show leadership for college applications. Once you identify what it is you are passionate about, take initiative! Pursue your passion in every way that you can, whether through starting your own organization, writing an article, or preparing a talk. However you pursue it, take an active approach to your learning and growth. Believe it or not, this is a very real display of self-leadership and something you can start today. Let’s look at an example.

Jack wasn’t quite sure what he was passionate about. He had never really taken the time to think about it. He knew that he was interested in the environment but didn’t really know why. Every night before he went to bed, he wrote in a journal for 5 minutes and focused on what mattered to him and why. It didn’t take long for him to identify his passion for sustainability and realized it all started during a family beach trip where he was shocked (and impacted) by the trash that had accumulated in the ocean. He knew he wanted to do something about it. 

#2 – Take advantage

Take advantage of the resources at your disposal and start working towards leadership for college applications sooner rather than later. Take a free online course in leadership and management at Coursera or edX. Read books on leadership, such as The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey, Drive by Daniel Pink, and Made to Stick by Chip and Dan Heath. Or, register for the InGenius Leadership Program and enjoy an intensive leadership curriculum followed by execution of your own leadership project. Increasing your exposure to leadership practice will help you develop your own personal style. We can learn so much from others who have both failed and been successful. Sometimes learning strategies for success can be just as powerful as learning what not to do to avoid failure. Let’s go back to Jack to exemplify how to take advantage.

There was no real way for Jack to pursue his passion at school – there were no courses or clubs to join, so he took advantage of the resources available to him online. He wanted to learn more about what was happening in the world around him, so he downloaded The New York Times application to his phone and read the news three times per week. He also started listening to The Sustainability Agenda podcast on his way to school every day. And during the summer, he registered for an environmental science course online focused on sustainability solutions. 

#3 – Take risks

Whether you want to assume a leadership role in a club or start something of your own, don’t be afraid to take risks. Admissions officers note when you have gone out of your way to make your voice heard or execute a plan. Going ahead with a new project and displaying a willingness to fail opens you up to opportunity. As cliche as it sounds, you should not let fear get in the way when trying to build leadership for college applications. I have seen students fear failure and as a result, they have avoided the opportunity to develop their leadership and create something great with their resources. Get comfortable being uncomfortable and say yes! Once you do, you’ll gain the experience necessary to develop effective leadership and ultimately a better understanding of yourself. Take a look at the example below.

After Jack learned more about sustainability, his interest in making a difference only increased. He sought out opportunities and started volunteering at the local recycling plant and developed an awareness campaign at school to get more people involved. He is even working with the Principal to eliminate single-use plastic (like straws) from his school. He took a big risk by putting himself out there to start something that had never existed at this school, but the end result was worth it. The risk of failure did not outweigh the benefit his project would bring to the school community. He got to explore his passion further and used his leadership skills to bring about change.

#4 – Take ownership

Once you’ve engaged in the work and put your ideas into action, don’t be afraid to take ownership of the legacy of the project. Share it with your peers, teachers and counselors. Teamwork is an essential trait, both in college, and in life. At the end of the day, the bigger your initiative gets, the more help you’ll need. Plus, having a team by your side only expands your leadership and communication skills. Your peers can join you and help you expand the impact beyond your school community. Quantifiable examples such as how many members you recruited and led, or how many communities you reached look excellent when highlighting your leadership for college applications. This also provides your teachers and counselors with a reason to celebrate your impact in their letters of recommendation. Sharing your story and leadership journey will help inspire others to do the same! Let’s go back to Jack one last time.

After seeing the impact his campaign had on the school, Jack didn’t want to stop there. He wanted to get more people involved and ensure that the impact could not only continue, but increase, after his graduation. He codified his campaign so that it could be replicated annually. He empowered underclassmen to shadow him and take the reins the following year. He shared his vision and goals to engage other school campuses. Teachers were on board and everything was in place for the sustainability of this project and its impact. Jack didn’t just start this initiative to improve his own leadership for college applications, he started it to make a difference. He wanted to start a movement and ultimately, his leadership inspired the broader school community.

Hopefully this is helpful to get you started on maximizing your own interests and skill sets in a way that reflects leadership for college applications. Stop thinking of leadership as an unattainable trait that is only meant for specific individuals or personality types. Once you eliminate the negativity, embrace your resources and start brainstorming. Each individual has leadership qualities that can manifest in many different ways. So, take a chance and put yourself out there. You never know what could happen!

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