MBA Application Advice: Demonstrating Leadership

Out of all the profile characteristics of business school candidates, there is one which seems to consistently rise above the rest as something admissions committees look for in an ideal candidate, and no, it’s not a 750 GMAT score.

It’s leadership.

Unfortunately, leadership is not only difficult to precisely define (after all, you can ask 100 different people and get 100 differing opinions of what leadership means), but it is also difficult to demonstrate in the application or on the resume, particularly if you are fairly early in your career when you apply to business school.

One easy way out of course, is when you are fortunate to have a position at work where you are in charge of others.

Having direct reports or subordinates is a very straightforward way to show you have leadership ability; after all, if you had not demonstrated to your boss you could lead others, then why would you now have people reporting to you in the company (aside from the dreaded Peter Principle of course, where you are promoted to the level of incompetence, which hopefully does not apply to you). Make sure you speak to your personal view of leadership and how you lead others, not just that you lead them.

But what about those of us who are not in charge?

What if you are a mere analyst or engineer, slugging away at your spreadsheets and working on a team where your superior is several years your senior? Or perhaps you are working on projects which draw from a broad and diverse set of responsibilities, but don’t actually have any one who officially calls you “boss.” How then do you demonstrate leadership? It might be easier than you think, if you frame it correctly. Leadership doesn’t mean bossing someone around or checking over their shoulder. What about thought leadership? Do your ideas and influence seem to catch on around the office? Do you consistently show talent to build consensus on your team? Tell the admissions committee how you lead when you are not in charge—that could possibly even mean more to them than being randomly assigned by your boss to “lead” a team officially. How about leading upwards? Are you able to convince your managers of new and better ways to achieve results? Have they started to ask your opinion on projects? All these things demonstrate leadership and leadership potential. If you think like an admissions committee person who is looking every day in the applicant pool for these kinds of attributes, you may just be able to come up with several examples that put you on the top of the pile. And that’s far better than wallowing in what you may have thought was a weakness.

Whatever you come up with, know that true leadership in the workplace makes a very strong impression on admissions committees and indicates your future potential and employability is a good bet for most top schools.

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