Leadership potential is one of the most common selection criteria for national scholarship and fellowship competitions.  Applications often ask candidates to write a separate essay describing an example of their leadership.  The Truman Scholarship, for example, includes the prompt: “Describe one specific example of your leadership.”  Even for scholarships such as the Rhodes and Knight-Hennessy Scholarships that do not include a specific leadership essay, students will often want to include stories in their essays that illustrate their future leadership potential.

One of the most common mistakes that applicants make when they first approach these essays is to write about leadership positions, for example, having been elected to the executive board of a student organization.  When students tell me that they do not have a good story to tell regarding their leadership, most often they mean that they have not held such a position.

However, brief reflection should be enough to remind us that holding a leadership position is no guarantee that a person has exercised leadership.  Indeed, we can easily think of situations in which organizations foundered because those in leadership positions failed to do so.  Similarly, we should be able to think of situations in which others within the organization “stepped up” to exercise leadership in certain situations.  What do these examples tell us?

Often they are situations in which a problem or opportunity has arisen.  A leader steps forward to offer a solution to that problem or a plan to take advantage of that opportunity.  This solution or plan is enacted and has a significant impact on the organization, it’s members, the surrounding community, etc.  Ideally, the impact is one that can be quantified or demonstrated in ways that others will recognize as significant or important.

Problem, Action, Results

These intuitions provide a simple formula for writing a leadership essay:

  • Problem - In two to three sentences describe the nature of the problem or opportunity that arose in your organization, volunteer experience, internship, research, etc.
  • Action - Describe the solution or plan of action that you proposed and how this was enacted.
  • Results - Describe the impacts of your actions, making clear to the reader why these are significant and important.

If this sounds familiar, it is very similar to the S.T.A.R. technique that is frequently used to answer behavioral interview questions.  S.T.A.R. stands for Situation, Task, Action, Result.  The similarity is no accident.  Behavioral interview questions are meant to provide employers with evidence for how you will perform in future scenarios based on your previous performance in similar situations.  In the same way, national scholarships want to promote the early careers of future leaders in their field, especially those who will offer bold and innovative, but also effective solutions to the world’s major challenges.  Leadership essays are meant to provide evidence for your future potential based on past actions. If at all possible, you should select a situation, problem, or opportunity that is analogous to the work that you hope to do as a future leader in your field.  However, this is not always necessary.  Sometimes a story from a different situation can provide evidence of character-traits and skills that you’ll carry forward in your future career leadership.  If so, you should realize that this is the strategy of your essay and clearly demonstrate these character traits and skills in your story.

We’ve made a lot of progress, but the above schema is not yet complete.  What we have described is not yet a leadership essay, but rather an initiative essay.  The difference is that an initiative essay places the emphasis solely upon your ideas and actions.  A leadership essay describes your interaction with a group of people to accomplish something that you could not have accomplished on your own as an individual.  The essay is still your essay, but it should have the appropriate balance between “I” and “we.”  One of my favorite questions to ask potential candidates is: “Tell me about a time when you created a shared vision within a group and worked with other members to make that vision a reality?”

The similarity between initiative essays and leadership essays is a natural one.  One of the distinctive traits of leaders is that they take initiative.  We might say that initiative is a necessary, but not sufficient condition for leadership.  (In other words: you can’t be a leader without exercising initiative, but you can exercise initiative individually without being a leader of others.)  Sometimes an initiative story is the best story we have to answer a leadership prompt.  I’m sure we can all think of situations in which we were the only ones in the group to step up - where the group endorsed the idea, but did none of the work. 

I recommend brainstorming several potential stories before committing to a particular one for your essay.  As you do, ask yourself whether this is an initiative story or a true leadership story.  If you decide that an initiative story is the best story to tell for a particular application, emphasize collaboration where you can and be ready to talk honestly in an interview about (a) what you learned from the experience and (b) what you hope to do differently in future situations to encourage broader participation.

Want More?

The Schwarzman Scholarship has one of the most extensive prompts for their leadership essay.  It serves as a great brainstorming guide for applicants to many other scholarships that emphasize leadership: 

Describe at least one distinct example that best illustrates your leadership. This may draw from your professional, academic, or personal life when you demonstrated leadership qualities which highlight: 

  • The intellectual/analytical abilities to identify and understand challenges and opportunities, and envision solutions; 
  • The initiative to act and communicate why;
  • Interpersonal skills to inspire a team effort;An ability to push through resistance and/or challenges to reach positive results/change for the better.

Outline the situation in detail, along with your learning and growth, and how you envision this will impact your aspirations to be a future leader. Consider the following: 

  • What was the problem or issue you identified, and why did you choose to act? 
  • What was your plan of action? 
  • What obstacles or challenges did you face and how did you overcome them? 
  • What were the outcomes and impact on the community or purpose? 
  • What did you learn and/or what lessons would you pass on to others? 
  • How has this experience shaped you as a leader and how does it connect with your vision for future leadership aspirations?