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Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Favorite Questions: Leadership Experience

Part of an on-going series of favorite interview questions you'll run into during your college admissions interview --CJ

Question: Tell me about a leadership experience you've had, and tell me what you've learned from it. (Alt: What activities are you most involved with, what positions do you hold, etc)

Background/why you're being asked:
Every school likes to think that it's training tomorrow's leaders, so it's natural that you'll be asked about the leadership experiences you've had in high school during your college admissions interview (ignoring, of course, that some students are late bloomers and others fade fast--the assumption is that high school leadership will translate into college leadership. And yes, it's a faulty assumption.)

When I ask this question in admissions interviews, I'm also asking two slightly different questions--first, what are you passionate about (since if you're a leader in a given group or activity, chances are that you're also passionate about it. Read more about answering that question here.)

Slightly trickier, I'm also learning about how (and if) you're able to manage your time effectively. If one thing is common among all students at top-tier universities, it's that they're over-committed--and the successful ones have learned to balance varying demands on their time well before setting foot on campus. If you've been able to balance your time well in high school (and taking a leadership role typically means you have), you'll probably be more successful--and have more fun--in college.

How NOT to respond

Since different admissions interviewers ask this question for different reasons, there's only a handful of sure-fire missteps you can make. Among them:
  • Have a weak leadership role. There's a certain amount of judgment that's being checked when you're asked this question--do you know what's a "real" leadership role and what, well, isn't? If the closest activity you've had to a leadership role was being assistant treasurer for your school's Key Club... probably best not to cite it (unless, of course, it really was a leadership role--and if it was, be ready to explain why to your admissions interviewer).
  • Not answer correctly if you don't have one. Note, I'm not saying you must have a leadership role--some students are outstanding students, but not the types to win class president. If you don't have a real leadership role, how do you answer? See below.
  • Admit to having to drop an activity/leadership position. Again, you're really being asked whether you can juggle multiple demands on your time or not--if you admit that you can't, that's not good. Best not to mention the activity at all.

How to nail it:
There's two pretty easy ways to nail this one:
  • Have a traditional, significant leadership experience--and be able to talk about it. Class president? Captain of your school's soccer team? Started and run a local homeless shelter? Great, but that's only half of the answer--you need to be able to talk about it. What has it taught you? How have you grown as a person? If possible, keep it short so your interviewer can ask follow-up questions if he or she wants (bonus: tie it into something larger): "My biggest leadership experience so far has been being the captain of our lacrosse team for the past two seasons. We were really going through a rebuilding year during my first year as captain, so I saw first-hand the value of mentoring and teaching the younger players. That's really gotten me interested in the idea of becoming a teacher after school."
  • Have a non-traditional leadership experience and be able to talk about it. Not everyone gets to (or wants to) be class president. If your experience was more non-traditional--you started a club, led an effort to rehabilitate a local park, etc--that can be a lot better (and certainly more interesting). Just be ready to spend more time explaining what you did. "This fall, I led started a website with a couple of friends that helped students find volunteer activities in their communities better. It was a great leadership opportunity for me because we had to raise money from local business people to cover our start up costs, figure out what our users needed, etc."

Finally, what do you do if you don't have a leadership activity? First, don't lie and make up one--it'll invariably backfire on you.

Instead, redirect the conversation to your strengths in your answer: "Although I've been involved in a couple of different extracurriculars and play softball, I haven't taken on a leadership role. Instead, all of my spare time outside of school I've devoted to playing the violin. Last year I was fortunate enough to be selected for the all-state orchestra."

Like any college admissions interview question, as long as you're ready for it it's a piece of cake. ---CJ

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