One of the (many) anxiety-inducing expectations that can consume high school students applying to college in the US, often pitting them in a secret competition against their classmates and causing them to wonder Am I good enough? is that they be leaders. In its Activities section, the Common Application asks applicants to list any leadership positions that applicants have held.
To many domestic applicants, this requirement can seem unattainable and daunting and cause feelings of inadequacy as they feel that they cannot match up to all the leaders that they assume must be around them in their high school. And since leadership in this context is not necessarily emphasized in other education systems, foreign applicants often do not understand what it means, nor do they believe that they have done anything worthy of qualifying as such.
A leadership role will make an applicant stand out from the rest of their high-flying peers as someone who will make an impact on a college campus and in the wider world once they graduate. Leaders show initiative, they inspire and influence those around them, they think outside the box, and they make things happen. Applicants who have the potential to become this kind of leader are therefore considered to be very desirable to colleges.
Stressed high schoolers stay up into the early hours, writing and practicing speeches, hoping that their peers will elect them Treasurer of this, Secretary of that, President of this or that. They spend hours playing in football games or practicing with the marching band, and a select few will be singled out by their teachers and coaches as captains and drum majors. A talented violinist may be selected as first violin, a gifted writer may become Editor-in-Chief of the school newspaper. Holding these positions can indicate to colleges that the student will be a valuable contributor to their campus community.
But running for the office of Class President is not necessarily an option for the painfully shy student, and not everyone is athletically or musically inclined or even drawn to the clubs traditionally offered at school. In addition, sometimes a school is so large that it is virtually impossible to be seen, let alone be elected or selected as a leader.
So, what are other ways that a high schooler can demonstrate leadership, and in turn cause colleges to do a double-take?
As is the case in all of the best college (and life!) advice, applicants should first think about what they love to do, what it is that they are passionate about, what is authentically them. What have they been doing and enjoying for as long as they can remember? Then they should do something with that, turn it into activity, and encourage others to join in!
Here are some examples of how some students I have known became leaders by doing the things that they loved to do:
Corrine loved to knit. She ended up beginning a knitting club at her school, teaching others to knit blankets, which they, in turn, donated to animal shelters (she was an animal lover, too).
Maddie spent lots of her spare time doodling, and she started to submit her little comic strips to the school newspaper, even though it did not have a comic section. Students enjoyed her contributions so much that they became regular features and Maddie ended up becoming editor of the comics section of the paper.
Levi loved to be outside. He noticed that the school garden wasn’t being tended to over the summer, so he enlisted the help of his friends to maintain and expand it, harvesting the vegetables and delivering the excess to local food kitchens.
Students can also demonstrate leadership through work or volunteering experience – being a camp counselor, babysitting, and even shopping for a home-bound elderly person all show initiative and responsibility.
So, even if an applicant doesn’t hold a traditional leadership role at school, there are many other ways for them to showcase their leadership skills to college admissions counselors. By following their passions, taking an active role, and sometimes a little risk, they can make an impact on their communities, no matter how small they think it is, and feel confident that they will be the type of person that colleges want to see on their campus.
Emma Hoffman was born in New Zealand and has been living in the United States since 1996. A true ‘Third Culture Kid,” she grew up and was educated in six countries, including Hong Kong, Western Samoa, and Gibraltar. Emma therefore has first-hand experience of, and is particularly sensitive to, the educational and cultural challenges faced by children and families who are moving internationally. After graduating from King’s College, University of London, with a degree in law, Emma followed her true passion and earned a Postgraduate Certificate in Education from the University of London, specializing in elementary education. She has dedicated the past twenty years to educating children in a number of capacities and has taught in public and private schools in the U.K. and the U.S. She currently tutors children across grade levels and subjects, also prepares students for U.S. standardized tests, including the S.S.A.T. and the S.A.T. Emma has a particular ardor and knack for getting kids to discover themselves through the writing of epic personal statements.
In case you missed our recent “Porch Talk” with Emma, you can watch the full interview here: “How To Approach the College Essay”
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