Make Your Leadership Case for B-School Admission
More than ever, business schools want applicants with leadership skills. Here’s how to mine your past for compelling examples.
By Francesca Di Meglio
Leadership is a word thrown around a lot at many a top business school. In fact, leadership is considered the key to getting your foot in the door of top MBA programs. But what does leadership mean and how do you demonstrate to admissions committees in your application that you’re a leader worthy of admission?
To determine if you are leader material, most admissions committees will be scanning your application to find certain characteristics””charisma, relating well to others, communicating well, handling difficult situations with grace, strategizing and having a vision, taking action, persuading others, willingness to take risks, committing to something for the long term, working well in teams, and being a great role model. “It’s about leaving a footprint on whatever situation you’re in and doing more than a good job,” says Stacy Blackman, president of Stacy Blackman Consulting. “Leadership is not a solo effort. You’re inspiring others and bringing out the best in them.”
Promotions and raises at work and titles held in extracurricular organizations are common ways applicants indicate their leadership potential in their applications. They may bring up these accomplishments when they list extracurricular activities, in essays or interviews, or through their supervisors who write letters of recommendation. Although you don’t want to sound like a braggart, you still have to prove to an admissions committee that you belong. “Take credit for what you’ve done,” says Isser Gallogly, executive director of MBA admissions at New York University’s Stern School of Business (Stern MBA Profile). “You’re just telling the facts, helping admissions committees understand what you will bring to their class.”
While obvious examples of leadership””from being the editor of your college newspaper to supervising three junior staffers at your office””are great, there are other, more subtle, examples that could help you show off your leadership potential, too. “Leadership is not the big hairy example of your greatest achievement ever,” says Blackman. “It can be really simple things.” Here are six ways you might not have realized were valid to demonstrate your leadership potential in a business school application:
1. RECRUIT AT YOUR UNDERGRADUATE PROGRAM
Sometimes, people have a hard time snagging leadership opportunities on the job, where top-tier supervisors often get all the cool tasks. Most employers, however, turn to their employees to find new talent for hiring. Many have programs where alumni from different undergraduate programs help recruit for the company. The admissions committees at Stern and the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School (Wharton MBA Profile) say this is a way to take initiative at work, help shape the talent at your office, and take action even if you can’t lead a project or manage anyone. The bonuses of recruiting at your alma mater are that you will probably improve your own network, become a mentor, and stay in the loop on the hiring front.
2. TAKE CHARGE AT HOME
“Think broadly about leadership,” says Mae Jennifer Shores, assistant dean of MBA admissions and financial aid at UCLA Anderson School of Management (Anderson MBA Profile). Admissions experts, in fact, want you to scour your memory bank for all sorts of examples that prove your leadership skills and potential. Gallogly says even examples of how you led your family can be effective. He mentions examples of candidates who led a family business, handled the finances, or organized the care of a sick family member.
Some just had a single mom, which meant taking on more responsibility at a younger age.
Working these examples into an optional essay or the interview is perfectly acceptable if done with aplomb. That means don’t harp on the number of diapers you changed to help mom but do mention helping mom stick to a budget and organizing the household chores. Translate for the admissions committee how these skills can be transferred to your roles on campus and later in the office.
3. SOLVE A PROBLEM
A candidate from an impoverished part of Latin America had few opportunities for a good education. He rallied support from his neighbors and managed to get a scholarship for a boarding school and worked his way through high school and college, remembers Shores. He took initiative and found the resources to make his goals possible, she adds. In another case, the student who became student government president at Stern reunited trafficked children from Nepal with their parents before entering business school, says Gallogly.
While these initiatives are wildly impressive, you can solve smaller problems and still show leadership potential. Blackman recalls one candidate who was applying to business school with just six months of work experience under her belt. As a result, she had few obvious leadership examples. 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 great 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, says Blackman.
Think long and hard about when you’ve solved problems. Many candidates write off team experiences unless they were given the title of president of the group. But players on the team often resolve issues or conflict during the course of a project. What role did you play? How did you contribute? Admissions experts say that often you’ll find examples of your leadership or potential for leadership when you’re interacting as part of a group or team even if you weren’t the head honcho. “It’s really more about substance than title,” says Linda B. Meehan, assistant dean and executive director for admissions at Columbia Business School (Columbia MBA Profile). The bottom line: don’t get caught up with labels when looking for examples of when you’ve solved problems.
4. LAUNCH AN ORGANIZATION OR BUSINESS
Shores and other admissions experts will tell you that people who start and maintain side businesses or nonprofits on top of their careers are impressive to admissions committees. Besides demonstrating their ability to take action and execute a plan, they also prove that they have a good work ethic. The success of the business is almost irrelevant, says Meehan. The business might have bombed, but if you tell the admissions committee in a thoughtful way about what you learned and how you even got the idea off the ground in the first place, you could win their support, she adds.
Starting a club, organization, or charitable group works, too. One of Blackman’s clients launched an English club in his native China because 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, says Blackman. He showed he could inspire and motivate others, organize a group, and learn a new language to boot. The applicant ultimately was accepted at Harvard Business School.
5. BE A RISK TAKER
Showing that you are willing and open-minded enough to take the road less traveled is a way to show strength of character, a sign of a leader. Kathryn Bezella, associate director of MBA admissions at Wharton says that’s why she was impressed by an applicant from London who jumped at the chance to work for his firm in Beijing. The applicant, who was admitted to Wharton, showed he was willing to test himself and brave new waters to achieve his goals. He was able to learn lessons and cultivate leadership literally in foreign territory, says Bezella.
Part of being a leader is having an open mind, being flexible, and sometimes working outside your comfort zone. Moving across the world is not the only way to prove you are capable of these things, but it is a way that is becoming increasingly common and feasible in the global economy.
6. PROJECT YOUR FUTURE LEADERSHIP ACHIEVEMENTS
Admissions committees at top business schools are assessing what you will bring to the B-school community and how their school can benefit from your leadership skills when reading your application. Gallogly says one of the best ways to show your potential for leadership is to tell the school exactly how you’d like to get involved on campus””what programs you’d like to start or improve and how you’d like to accomplish this, what roles you’d like to play in particular student clubs or organizations, and the talents you plan to share with the community. He adds that many applicants mention the courses and clubs that interest them, but few get specific about how they’d like to actually contribute to these groups.