Three Students Conferring

Why Leadership Matters (for College Admission)

There are over 35,000 high schools in the United States alone. Which means each June, over 35,000 valedictorians graduate and head to college (along with 35,000 more salutatorians). You’d think they’d all end up attending an Ivy League university or top tier college. But that doesn’t happen. It’s mathematically impossible. (The top 25 schools in last year’s Forbes list only admitted a total of 20,900 freshman students). That’s actually great news for you, even if you don’t rank at the very top of your class, because your outstanding leadership will not just level the playing field, it can tilt it in your favor! This is why out of school leadership matters throughout your high school career. The inspiration that can change your future direction as a human being, as a professional, or as a college applicant is not necessarily inside the walls of your high school. That’s where every other student is looking for leadership. If you want to be noticed and you want to find out what you’re made of, leave school behind at the bell and find something that fascinates you; then YOU will become fascinating: to your friends, to the people you meet on your way up, and to college admissions officers.

Now, a momentary reality check: under average grades and scores are rarely outweighed by leadership. However, I have folders of success stories over the past 26 years about students who “punched above their weight class” and gained entrance into much more eminent colleges than they would have otherwise—all as a result of their exceptional and creative leadership.

Let’s look at Leila’s story. Leila was a very good student (but not an academic superstar) and an accidental late bloomer. Maybe you have a story like hers. Leila was a prolific writer for her school’s newspaper. She specialized in interviews with the administration and village officials on topics involving high school policy and technology. Leila held an A- average, had taken three AP courses on which she scored fives by the end of junior year, and had SAT scores hovering around the low 700s. She wasn’t one of the popular girls, but she didn’t expect popularity to play into whether she would be named the paper’s news editor at the end of the year. To make a long story short, the students on the editorial committee had sole responsibility for choosing editors, and they chose someone from their inner circle as news editor. Leila was left without in-school leadership for her college application (and, more upsetting, was humiliated by not having been recognized for her talent and three years of hard work).

A go-getter by nature, Leila decided to move her talents outside the school. By the end of June, she was writing a column about the detrimental effects of the Common Core curriculum on elementary school children for the local paper. By mid-July, Leila had started a blog charging high school students to take up the mantle of leadership outside their school’s walls so that their leadership success did not rise and fall on a high school popularity contest and so that students would know what it felt like to be empowered by the time they hit campus. Leila’s blog became wildly successful, prompting a call from a marketing and branding company in her city. Impressed by her copywriting skills, the recruiter asked Leila if she would like a summer internship with the firm. Another happy ending.

Leila didn’t need that high school editor’s title on her college résumé. She was accepted by her top choice Ivy League school, along with four other top-tier colleges. Because Leila took the reins in her life and made something impactful happen, admissions officers noticed her and knew that she would make an impact on their campuses as well. Past success is a powerful predictor of future success. Leila told me that ultimately the most important outcome of this process for her was learning what she was made of, so that she could call upon that strength again in her future professional life.

That is why leadership matters.

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