The Collegiate Leadership Obsession

Admissions officers spend a lot of time sorting through raffs of transcripts, standardized test scores, essays, recommendations, interview summaries, portfolios, and lists of extracurricular activities in search of clues of leadership, that prized trait sought by hundreds of American college campuses.

Jeffrey Brenzel, the former Dean of Undergraduate Admissions at Yale listed his preferences: “We seek academic excellence, evidence of leadership, and integrity.”

The Harvard website delineates attributes it seeks in a promising candidate as, “maturity, character, leadership, self-confidence…grace under pressure.”

Princeton’s admission’s website also heralds its desired applicant: “We look for students who make a difference in their schools and communities, so tell us about your leadership activities, interests, special skills and other extracurricular involvements.

Claremont McKenna College takes this search for student leaders to an even more pronounced level. The college’s motto is “preparing leaders,” and Ronald Riggio, a CMC professor of Leadership and Organizational Psychology, acknowledges that colleges are becoming ‘obsessed’ with assessing the leadership potential evidenced in each application that crosses the admissions department’s threshold. 

Why is there this obsession to get leaders on campus? One reason is that leaders are usually highly motivated, and this motivation affects those around them. Leaders have goals and the willpower to achieve them. Moreover, they often look beyond academics for accomplishments, leaving a trail of achievement that often carries others in its wake.

More importantly, it often takes a highly motivated ‘leader’ to figure out how to take advantage of many of the resources a college has to offer. For example, Yale wants to bring in students who will take advantage of the laboratories, the Beinecke Rare Book library, the British Art Museum, the Political Union, Choral groups, or the Yale Daily News. To give this an economic perspective, Yale actually spends $157,000 on each undergraduate attendee, which is only partially offset by its $42,000 tuition. (The costs are spread among instruction, student services, academic support, operations and maintenance, and institutional support. You can find details at ‘’).  Obviously, the university wants to invest in students who are driven and motivated to use its facilities, faculty, and peers to their fullest.  

Furthermore, there aren’t enough leaders. Most organizations are relatively flat: much of management has been cut to the bone, and those working in many organizations must fend for themselves—they must become leaders. Leadership is needed at all levels throughout society.

Acknowledging leadership is an important part of any application, you can best show leadership through the quality of your extracurricular activities. The more involved you become over your high school years in one or two, the better. Admissions offices are looking for depth of involvement and an increase in responsibilities as you get closer to graduation.  You might want to check the quality of your efforts by periodically evaluating activities: was the time spent useful, productive, and meaningful? Do they allow you to demonstrate leadership, initiative, and drive? And, were any of your achievements recognized? Be aware, outside of school, the answers to these questions might be negative, and that doesn’t mean such activities should be abandoned. Few entrepreneurial efforts would succeed, for example, if recognition was a chief criterion. Learn to let judgment and passion be your guide and assuredly leadership will be in the mix.  

A student need not get involved in a slew of activities outside of high school. What truly shows leadership is taking full advantage of what’s offered within a school: becoming an editor of the school newspaper, heading up the chess club, or captaining an athletic team. Maximizing what’s available demonstrates that you are an inventive, focused and realistic student who can lead no matter what set of resources you might encounter.

Fully engage the resources you have to drive change and you will find a world without limit ready to be led, whether in high school, college, or life.