Why American Universities Love Leadership Experience

August 08, 2014

More than 700,000 students submitted the Common Application for college admissions. They sent along academic transcripts and SAT scores, along with attestations of athletic or artistic success and—largely uniform—bodies of evidence speaking to more nebulously-defined characteristics: qualities like the Harvard admissions website—“maturity, character, leadership, self-confidence, warmth of personality, sense of humor, energy, concern for others and grace under pressure.”

Why are American colleges so interested in leadership?

On the Harvard admissions website quoted above, leadership is listed third: just after two more self-evident qualities. So too the Yale website, which quotes former Yale president Kingman Brewster's assessment that

“We have to make the hunchy judgment as to whether or not with Yale’s help the candidate is likely to be a leader in whatever he [or she] ends up doing. Our goals remain the same today” before going on to stress that “We are looking for students we can help to become the leaders of their generation in whatever they wish to pursue.”

The language of Princeton dean Janet Lavin Rapeleye in The New York Times is strikingly similar: “We look for qualities that will help [students] become leaders in their fields and in their communities.”

In his study The Gatekeepers, Jacques Steinberg describes how the admissions officers at Wesleyan scored the “personal” section of an applicant's portfolio: “A 9 [out of 9] at Wesleyan...someone 'sure to “have significant impact on campus in leadership roles”; a 7 or 6 would be assigned to someone who was “likely to be a leader in some areas, contributor to many.”

Leadership alone rarely makes or breaks an application, says Emmi Harward, director of college counseling at The Bishop's School in La Jolla, California and the Executive Director of the Association College Counselors in Independent Schools. But, she says, “Not only does leadership distinguish a student in a competitive applicant pool from other students but also serves to foreshadow the impact the student could make on the college/university campus, and the potential impact they could make once they graduate.” 

It's possible, of course, to understand “leadership,” as conceived in the college admissions process, as a broad church of qualities: encompassing a whole host of attributes desirable in bright, motivated teenagers. But its rhetorical prevalence bears investigating. The tacit assumption is that leadership, like “maturity” or “concern for others,” needs no qualification or explanation; it is not only de facto desirable, but indeed essential. To be a “contributor,” to use Wesleyan's parlance, to a chess club is to be merely average; to be president of that chess club, by contrast, is to display some intangible merit.

Rather, there is something quintessentially American about the system advocated by former Dean of Arts and Sciences at Tufts University Robert J. Sternberg in his book College Admissions for the 21st Century: a system in which “students should be admitted to college on the basis of their potential for future leadership and active citizenship, at whatever level of society.” While Sternberg makes sure to tell us that he defines leadership “not in the sense of achieving a level of authority, but rather as making a positive, meaningful, and hopefully enduring difference to the world at some level,” his assumption is that those worthy of admission at elite colleges are not simply good scholars, or even good workers, but rather those who will take initiative, those who will be pioneers in their fields, those who will—implicitly—manage those others who are not.

It is no surprise that Sternberg's book often runs into the language of business: he writes of how “talking to a high-level executive at a major investment bank, I mentioned our desire to enhance admissions at Tufts University. His response....was that tests like the SAT and the ACT, as well as college grades, predicted quite well who would be good analysts...What they did not predict as well was who would be able to take the next step—who would have the capacity to envision where various markets are going.” Sternberg then goes on to discuss his fund-raising efforts, which involved meeting “some of the most successful alumni of Tufts, as measured not only by their financial resources (and, hence, giving capacity) but also by the contributions they have made to society.” While Sternberg's caveats are doubtless made in good faith, the parameters he sets up implicitly reward “leadership” as conceived, quite straightforwardly, as managerial: artists and doctoral students in the humanities, no matter how “successful” in their fields, do not tend to congregate at fund-raising appeals.

College admissions has come a long way in recognizing how candidates from different backgrounds and different levels of opportunity might present themselves differently. At its best, the holistic admissions process allows admissions officers to assess test scores and grades in context. But so too it’s worth looking at the context of the personal qualities admissions officers value. Do we need a graduating class full of leaders? Or should schools actively seek out diversity in interpersonal approaches—as they do in everything else?

Tagged: Affinity Education, Leaders

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