Showing Leadership in Your B-School Application
At Stacy Blackman Consulting, we do a lot of thinking about leadership—what is it, how best to showcase it, why it matters, and more. Conveying leadership in your b-school application should be one of your top three most important goals. While some schools emphasize it more than others, leadership is essential to every school. After all, their job is to groom leaders, not just number-crunchers, marketers, or statisticians.
Many applicants freak out when faced with any iteration of the leadership question on their MBA essays. They imagine they have got to come up with an example of their most extraordinary life or professional achievement.
But just because you achieved something outstanding does not always mean it involved leadership skills. Leadership also often gets confused with management. Yet being a great leader is not just about managing something, although that can be a part of it.
Leadership is about leaving a footprint on whatever situation you’re in and doing more than a good job.
Remember, leadership is never a solo effort. One of the central tenets of leadership essays is showing that you can galvanize other people’s actions. You bring out their passions, educate them, and help them see organizational priorities in new ways. And then they share in the achievement. You’re inspiring others and bringing out the best in them. These two points are critical and help to explain how leadership differs from just any achievement.
The most impacting leadership essays will have heroes other than yourself. If you helped Henry in accounts receivable realize his full potential on a project you led, showcase him as a hero in your leadership tale. In the best of all worlds, people create a good balance between these types of essays at the beginning of their application process, even before they start writing.
Tips on How to Highlight Leadership in Your B-School Application
In many instances, you can still adjust your application late in the process to achieve the appropriate balance between individual achievement and leadership.
Adding in a few sentences here and there about enabling others, or educating and defining priorities for group endeavors, will go a long way toward rounding out your profile. What kind of experiences will make the best tales of leadership? Think about challenges where the following came into play:
- Identifying/defining a problem
- Resisting conventional approaches; challenging status quo
- Marshaling resources to address the problem
- Motivating others
- Making good use of others’ talents
- Being open to new information, input, etc.
- Building consensus with appropriate stakeholders
- Guiding substantial mid-course corrections; overcoming mistakes
- Building on success
Keep in mind, leadership is not just about the titles. Some candidates try to build their leadership essays around the fact that they were selected for or elected to certain positions where they had a high level of authority and responsibility: editor-in-chief of a college paper, fraternity president, captain of the hockey team, director of product development, V.P. of marketing, etc.
Collecting impressive titles does not make someone a great leader—helping a team overcome significant challenges does.
Don’t worry about coming up with wildly impressive situations, even if you’re applying to the most elite MBA program in the world. You can solve more minor problems and still show leadership potential. For instance, we advised one younger candidate who was applying to business school with just six months of work experience under her belt. Consequently, she had few obvious leadership examples to share. But, she had taken it upon herself to overhaul an Excel spreadsheet for the investment bank where she worked.
To do this, she had to state the problem, come up with a solution, and sell others, including supervisors, on her idea. Her improved spreadsheet—containing market information including Treasury rates—saved time, became a tremendous internal resource, and helped the bank communicate better with clients. Taking the initiative to change this spreadsheet was what she wrote about in her application.
Look for “Outside the Box” Leadership Examples
If you don’t have obvious career-related stories, you can also mine your extracurricular activities for examples that convey leadership in your b-school application. Writing about how you started a club, organization, or charitable group will work, too. If you have been involved in an activity as a member, think about taking on a leadership role. This is your opportunity to demonstrate that you can run a project and motivate a team.
For example, one of our former clients launched an English club in his native China. He needed to improve his language skills for business school and thought his neighbors might benefit, too. The club grew, and he made his mark in the community, which was something he could point out to admissions committees. He showed he could inspire and motivate others, organize a group, and learn a new language to boot. This applicant ultimately was accepted at Harvard Business School.
When it comes to evaluating your application, members of the MBA admissions committee believe your past leadership achievements are the best gauge of your potential for realizing your future ambitions. You can’t go wrong if you use your essays to show how you’ve worked to inspire others and bring out the best in them.