How to write an essay about leadership

college admissions Common Application supplements

Leadership essays, or essays where you are asked about your work as a leader in your school or community, are not as common as you might imagine. Given all of the emphasis schools and clubs put on leadership roles and titles, essays asking students to dive deeply into this work are actually pretty rare in college applications. That said, it is important to consider leadership very broadly! You do not need to be the President or Founder of a club to write an effective essay for one of these prompts. In fact, sometimes the less common considerations and definitions of “leadership” can make for more compelling essays.

Example Leadership Essay Questions:

  • U of California: Describe an example of your leadership and a way that you have positively influenced others, helped resolve disputes, or contributed to group efforts over time.
  • U of Texas: How do you show leadership in your life? How do you see yourself being a leader at UT Austin?

LET'S BREAK DOWN THE ESSENTIAL POINTS YOU NEED TO HIT WHEN RESPONDING TO THIS SUPPLEMENT:

Leadership is more than titles – it is important, when you consider questions like these, that you reflect on activities where you have contributed to an accomplishment and learned something (about yourself, about your community). In fact, it would be a more powerful essay to reflect on a leadership contribution that was not connected to a title of leadership, but where you learned something important, than to reflect upon your activity where your leadership title is big “in name only.”

Sometimes leadership happens within your family – you do not need to limit your focus to leadership that happens during your school day.

You can consider this essay happening in two distinct ways: narrative structure – where you present a challenge you faced in a leadership role, actions you did that had an impact, and lessons you learned (skills you gained); OR montage structure – where you take on two different activities that both taught you a common lesson about leadership. Don’t muddle these together! Decide whether you want to write linearly (and chronologically in time) about one activity or if you want to write non-linearly about one leadership lesson.

THINGS TO AVOID:

Try to stay away from topics where your leadership takes the reader on a familiar journey. If you want to write about your leadership on an athletic team, that is wonderful, but try to avoid an essay about how your leadership of your team during The Big Game contributed to (winning/losing) The Big Game and the team becoming closer and being “one-strong-team.” Does that feel familiar to you? That’s because college admissions folks will have read thousands of essays that tell this type of story. If you select a common team to lead, take your essay in an uncommon direction.

Avoid lengthy introductions that take away from your word count and don’t actually support your essay response.

Avoid overemphasis on one aspect that detracts from your ability to talk about the other aspects of your story. In other words, if you spend half of your words outlining the challenge you faced, you only have ¼ of the remaining words to discuss your actions and ¼ to discuss the lessons you learned. This is not a good balance!

ADDITIONAL TIPS AND TRICKS:

Brainstorm activities where you can consider your responses to each of the following questions:
  • What did you do?
  • What problems did you solve?
  • What lessons did you learn?
  • What impact did you have?
  • How have you applied these lessons?

Answering these questions (and in this order) actually builds you an outline for this essay!

Do you have an extracurricular activity where the character count really limits you in terms of describing your work and impact? Consider using this essay to further highlight your contributions!

Do you have an extracurricular activity that speaks directly toward your intended major or field of study? This might be a great time to make your application stand out by sharing your leadership and contributions to this field! What problems have you solved? How can you use this prompt to share these solutions?

Elise holds a BA in Political Philosophy from Williams College and an MEd in Administration & Social Policy from Harvard. She has spent the past twenty years working in top-tier independent schools.

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