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  • Brennan Barnard

Take Me To Your Leaders: What College Admission Deans Are Looking For

“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.

Leadership—few other words 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.

“Position/Leadership description:_______________________” they are asked. 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.

Leaders of the Pack

As we emerge from the contentious 2016 presidential election cycle, the notion of leadership has been turned on its head and dragged through the dirt. We watched as the individuals who are charged to lead our nation, traded insults and acted imprudently. Audaciously, candidates and their ambassadors engaged in a race to see who could talk the loudest and capture each stunted news cycle or Twitter feed by spreading fear and discouragement throughout a preoccupied populace.

Likewise, when we look to high profile athletes, artists and other leaders of our time, we often find individuals embroiled in scandals, lies and abuse. It begs us to question: do we mindlessly ordain positions of leadership without intentionality and substance but rather based on status, strength or symbolism?

In many ways leadership is a misnomer—it has become a throw away term and we easily default to a “leader of the pack” mentality where the alpha dog rules the day. It can elicit images of a drill sergeant marching his soldiers around or the captain of a ship barking out commands. But what is a leader really and how do we determine leadership potential? This is a dilemma that has stumped college admission officers and intimidated prospective applicants for ages.

What Does it Mean to Lead?

Ask three individuals about the significance of leadership and you are likely to receive as many different responses. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines leading as:

“a : to guide on a way especially by going in advance b : to direct on a course or in a direction c : to serve as a channel for.”

Indeed, a combination of these meanings encompasses true leadership. It often requires the initiative to take a risk and “go in advance,” being willing to serve as a pioneer and sacrifice comfort for the betterment of a group. Leading can also require a readiness to direct or make a difficult decision, owning the outcome for one’s self and the people one represents. The final and arguably most important facet of leading is the idea of “channeling” the hopes, aspirations and initiatives of those who one guides. A true leader serves as the vehicle through which a community or organization functions at its best.

At The Derryfield School our working definition of leadership is “intentional and sustained engagement for the common good.” To lead without purpose is misguided, and dedicated leadership requires connection and involvement that goes much deeper than the surface. A thoughtful model of leadership is one where ego is left at the door and the central focus is on a greater objective that benefits the whole. We need leaders who provide inspiration, not perspiration—individuals that motivate others by encouragement rather than by instilling fear. We need paradigms of leadership that involve listening as paramount to success.

Lessons on Leadership

While it may be easy to define a leader in principle, college applicants want to know how colleges view leadership. Who are these “leaders” that admission committees want to admit, and what qualities are they searching for? I asked colleagues in college admission to share their ideas on what it means to lead. Here is what they had to say:

“Someone who stops to ask the question: “what is the RIGHT thing to do in this circumstance?’”—Andy Strickler, Dean of Admission & Financial Aid, Connecticut College

“Leadership is deep engagement in an area of interest - not necessarily an officer in an organization. Rather than the president of the student government, I love the student who has been the chair of the dance cleanup committee for a few years. Who wants that job? And yet, she consistently gets a few students who will stay late after the dance to clean up the detritus left by classmates. That, to me, is leadership. No accolades but lots of commitment and follow through.”—Deb Shaver, Director of Admission, Smith College

“A leader is someone who shoulders responsibility for larger group decisions. A leader is also someone who inspires others to act, holds forth broad ethical and inclusive principles and organizes the time and energy of all people to a purposeful and successful diverse community of living.”—Paul Thiboutot, Vice President and Dean of Admission, Carleton College

“Someone who inspires others and who brings differences together toward a common goal. A leader is willing to take risks in the presence of adversity.”—Beth, Wiser, Executive Director of Admissions, The University of Vermont

“A leader is someone who influences others to make a difference. A leader can be loud and bright but a leader can also be quiet and soft - if he or she inspires, excites, and motivates others, I would call that leadership.”—Kelliann Dietel, Admissions Counselor, Lafayette College

“Someone with highly developed emotional intelligence who is a mentor, a decision maker (through collaboration and consultation), and an ethical role model. A leader is engaged in the discussion and is sensitive to the validity of ideas outside of their comfort zone.”—Beverly Morse, Associate Dean of Admissions for International Admissions, Kenyon College

“A leader is someone willing to establish a collective following, however a great leader is one who takes in the advice of their peers to achieve a collective goal or initiative. A great leader listens and understands the need to persist when the going gets tough.”—Tim Neil, Assistant Director of Admission, Sewanee, The University of the South

“A leader is someone who notices what is not being accomplished that should be worked on and improved...not for their own gain but for the benefit of the group or a special subgroup that has less resources and needs help. A leader also organizes others to assist her/him in this effort.”—Don Bishop, Vice President for Undergraduate Enrollment, University of Notre Dame

“A leader is a great listener who can motivate others to be thoughtful and effective. Too often we are stuck assessing leadership roles and have a harder time identifying leadership qualities.”—Peter Hagan, Director of Admissions, Syracuse University

“A leader is someone who supports and encourages those around them; communicates big picture goals clearly and effectively; and continually builds relationships to advance the mission of the team. Someone who tempers action with wisdom and balances humility and confidence.”—Rick Clark, Director of Undergraduate Admission, Georgia Tech

“A leader is one who motivates and inspires others to a common vision.”— Michael Sexton, Vice President for Enrollment Management, Santa Clara University

“A leader is someone who takes initiative to stand up for what they believe in, who is critically self-reflective, and who knows how/when to support the voices of others when others step up to lead.”—Erika Blauth, Assistant Director of Admission, Colorado College

There you have it…easy right? These sentiments can be inspiring, and simultaneously overwhelming. While it is comforting to realize that colleges are looking beyond traditional position titles for demonstrated leadership, it does present a greater dilemma. How on earth does one begin to show these lofty qualities on a college application beyond the small box where a candidate can list “club president,” “lead in the musical” or “athletic captain?”

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.

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.

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