Leadership: What Admissions Officers Really Want to See

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Empowerly Team
Empowerly Team

Our collaborative team of content writers and researchers stay up-to-date on the latest news to help you ace your applications. We hope you enjoy the blog.

“Leadership” is a major buzzword in college admissions; in fact, it is found across applications, through essay supplements, work experience, and extracurricular activities. But what do admissions officers really want to see? What communicates leadership most?

Why Leadership Matters

On a scale of 1-4, with 4 being of most important value, schools like Princeton, Yale, Stanford, MIT, and University of Pennsylvania gave personal character a 4/4 in terms of importance in an application. Yale and Stanford are the top two schools focused on character AND extracurricular involvement; specifically, these schools rated them both Very Important

This data reveals that leadership is one of the most impactful ways to show character, developing through exceptional extracurricular involvement. In addition, this proves true especially for Top 50 schools. In reality, admissions officers from these schools want to find students who are visionary, entrepreneurial, thoughtful, inquisitive, and exemplary.

What Admissions Officers Want to See

These are direct excerpts from Top 50 schools’ Undergraduate Admissions websites. As you read, note the similarities:

“We want to see the impact you have had on that club, in your school, or in the larger community, and we want to learn of the impact that experience has had on you.”

– Stanford University

“We seek to identify students who will be the best educators of one another and their professors—individuals who will inspire those around them during their College years and beyond.”

– Harvard University

“Decade after decade, Yalies have set out to make our world better. We are looking for students we can help to become the leaders of their generation in whatever they wish to pursue.”

– Yale University

“The Admissions Committee is interested in knowing the duration of your commitments as this gives us insight into the depth of your involvement and a sense of the impact you’ve made in your community. Note leadership roles and/or specific responsibilities. These details highlight your initiative and developed capacity as a leader, role model, and doer.”

– University of Pennsylvania

“We take particular note of leadership and exceptional talents or accomplishments.”

– Princeton University

There is definitely a common theme here. In other words, leadership is incredibly in-demand! Words like “impact” and “inspire” highlight why “leadership” has become such a buzzword this application cycle. Admissions officers across Ivies, Stanford, UC’s, and other Top 50 schools ask themselves these type of questions while reviewing applications:

  • Do we see that this student made lasting change to their club/team/etc through leadership behaviors?
  • In what ways has he inspired others with his attitude?
  • And most of all, how can this student bring that spirit to my university’s campus?

How You Can Show and Develop Leadership

An application can answer these questions in many ways, but a student must properly market his leadership skills and experience in the right way. It is not enough to simply “hold” the position of National Honor Society President or Soccer team Captain if nothing changes due to your leadership. It is also detrimental to look for leadership in every extracurricular, as you risk looking unprioritized and uncommitted. Anyone can apply to be Vice President of Math Club or run for ASB President. The key to writing about leadership is to show, not tell.

These are some examples:
  • Explain your influence on club attendance; did you gain more members? Or add more dedicated volunteers or players?
  • Give an example of your creative thinking through the activity; for instance, did you plan a fundraiser that brought everyone together, or increased the club’s budget?
  • Write about an anecdote when you realized you wanted to make a change and how you did it; did you focus more on organization? Attitude? Mentorship?


In the end, check out this Empowerly blog post for more specific details on how to deepen extracurricular involvement regarding the questions above. Admissions officers will read the applications of thousands of club presidents, captains, and elected officials. Therefore, it is not enough just to have a position. Instead, continually look for ways to better evolve your club or team; furthermore, don’t be afraid to make changes for the better. Tangible accomplishments within leadership are what show character, not just the position itself. That is what admissions officers want to see.

Questions? Let us know!