Leadership questions in application essays usually come in two forms: the kind that ask about your “leadership style,” and the kind that ask you to discuss a “leadership situation.” You should not try to use a single essay to address both questions, because they require different emphases. The first question asks you to describe principles that define your approach to leadership. You should then back these principles up with evidence of how you’ve applied them.
The second question wants you to focus on a single experience (or in some cases two experiences). For these essays your first objective is to flesh out the details of the situation and the contributions you made. You must tell an in-depth, engaging story before you even worry about the insights and lessons you deduce. Then, when you get to that stage, your insights into leadership should be focused on the story you just told. Don’t stray too far and try to include everything you know about leadership.
After this basic difference in emphasis, the goals of both essays are essentially the same and include the following:
- Describe your strengths honestly. You don’t have to give much attention to weaknesses or even discuss them explicitly (though if you can mention plans for improvement, that can be very effective). The point here is to show a clear awareness of your personal strengths, as opposed to pretending to be the best at everything. Taking the latter approach will suggest that you only know the clichés of leadership, but don’t have a genuine understanding of how to exercise it in real life.
- Avoid oversimplified principles. You most likely won’t have anything entirely new to say, but you can still avoid stating the obvious. Again, the best approach is to stay specific and personal. You might, for example, combine two straightforward principles and show how you’ve combined them effectively.
- Show growth. One way to avoid having to cite the obvious is instead to show through examples how you came to understand a particular lesson. Your readers are interested in how you’ve developed and matured. Start off by indicating your uncertainty, and then frame your newly learned principles not as conclusions to share with the reader but as an integral part of the story’s arc.
- Illustrate your personal qualities. You want to convey both your own strong understanding of how to lead and indicate to the reader the valuable qualities you have for that task. These can include communication, collaborative, organizational, and problem-solving skills, as well as personal characteristics like inspiration, initiative, responsibility, and vision. As always, there’s no point in simply naming these qualities as ones you possess. You must show them through example.