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An Accepted Admissions Guide

By: Linda Abraham
2016 Accepted
Leadership in Admissions

Introduction ................................................................................................................. 3
Leadership Starts with Trust ........................................................................................ 4
Leadership Element: Responsibility ............................................................................ 6
Admissions Wants Leadership Not Labels .................................................................. 7
Leadership in Admissions ........................................................................................... 8
Different Styles of Leadership..................................................................................... 9
Lincolns Leadership Among Rivals ......................................................................... 10
Wearing My Military Uniform in the Business World.............................................. 11
The Leadership Essay ................................................................................................ 14
The Many Faces of Leadership ................................................................................. 16
Writing a Powerful Leadership/Achievement Essay ................................................. 18
Admissions Uber-Value: Leadership......................................................................... 21
Conclusion ................................................................................................................. 23

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Leadership comes in all shapes and sizes, and the admissions committees at the top
graduate programs are alert to all the variations and permutations. In this admissions
guide, a collection of past blog posts and articles, Ill take you through the ins and outs of
writing about leadership for your application essays, including the different types of
leadership and the clichs you should avoid.

If you learn only one concept in this report (and I do hope that you gain much more than
that), it should be that leadership is not a general and overarching term, but an exemplary
attribute with breadth, depth, and power to move mountainseven if done in such small
steps that at first the movement appears trivial. You are all leaders in one way or
anotheruse this guide to help you reveal your strengths and write about them in a
compelling, creative way.

Good luck with your applications!

Linda Abraham

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Leadership Starts with Trust

My youngest son passed away twelve years ago. In his memory, I am opening this
admissions guide with a recollection I have about him and the qualities he embodied that
are important to you, graduate school applicants.

At the time of his diagnosis, Joshua was a typical needle-phobic little boy. When he saw
or heard about a needle intended for him, he went the other way. And if prevented from
heading in the opposite direction, he cried, screamed, and did whatever he could to fight
the needle.

However, after his diagnosis he learned to overcome his fears. In a memorial booklet for
friends and family that I edited after he passed away, I wrote about how he learned to
cope with weekly spinal taps:

I was concerned about his handling all those [spinal taps]. I neednt have

Joshua, you did a great job! I told him afterwards.

Just six years old then, Joshua had marched into the treatment room, climbed up
onto the table, curled into a ball, and with Frans and Marias encouragement,
held still without apparent difficulty. I was impressed. No, I was amazed.

He quietly accepted my accolades, and then added:

Mommy, when youre with good people, it is easier to be good. And were with
really good people.

How exactly had Fran and Maria earned the trust of a frightened, sick little boy? How did
they obtain his cooperation and admiration?

And what does this have to do with you?

Trust is a critical element in leadership, and leadership is valued in admissions, whether

you are applying to med school, b-school, law school, grad school, or college. Programs
want to admit people who inspire trust and who can lead.

So back to Joshuas story: How did Fran and Maria acquire that trust?

Marias recollection of meeting Joshua provides clues:

I walked into the playroom. Joshua was very quiet, soft-spoken, and very scared. I
explained Our Rule about telling kids the truth and always telling them when
they would be having something uncomfortable done. In the months to come,

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Joshua helped to enforce this rule more than any other child Ive met. If you
wanted Joshuas trust and cooperation, you had to keep your end of the bargain
first. Once that trust was established, he was able to cope with even the most
painful procedures.

This unassuming woman knows that integrity is key to leadership. She knows how to
establish and maintain trust. She knows how to change the behavior and attitude of the
people around her. She knows how to lead.

Take these lessons and apply them in your lives. Leadership is not about grandstanding or
being a loud-mouth or being cool. Its about consistency, reliability, and trust. Its
about integrity.

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Leadership Element: Responsibility

All programs value leadership. In an admissions world where It depends... rules, and
there are exceptions to almost every rule, leadership is universally recognized as a desired

But what constitutes leadership? Do you need to have led a team, held a title, or served in
the military? What responsibilities and experiences shape leaders?

Responsibility and followers are the two critical qualities of leadership. If you act in
isolation, its not leadership. If you have followers, but your mission is insignificant or
doesnt require commitment, your leadership is equally insignificant.

If you become chairperson of a fundraising or event committee, you are assuming

responsibility for the money raised or the success of that event. The committee that works
under you is following your lead. As such you will work on the project with them, but
you will also persuade and motivate them to follow your lead. And of course,
responsibility for success or failure is first and foremost with you. That kind of role
reveals leadership and you should consider including it in your application.

Make sure that your leadership stories show you handling responsibility and motivating
or persuading others to act or think in a certain way. Show how your leadership had
impact and made a difference.

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Admissions Wants Leadership Not Labels

I recently read an article by Rabbi David Lapin, author of the book Lead By Greatness, in
which he argues, It is true that most leaders need the power of status to support their
effectiveness, but great leaders do not rely on that status to lead, they lead by their own

Rabbi Lapin explores the differences between status and stature:

Stature: People of stature do not compete with one another; there is an endless
supply of stature for anyone willing to invest in acquiring it.

Status: Influence by means of status however, is a zero-sum game: One persons

gain of status is generally the other persons loss. There is not an unlimited supply
of status. Status has value because it is rare: There can only be one president,
CEO, or [dean] for if titles were to be dished out liberally they would lose their

I am frequently asked questions reflecting confusion over the difference between stature
and status, character and captions, leadership and labels. While titles and awards may
reflect stature, character, and leadership, they are also sometimes given out like trinkets
or cheap rewards. They can be meaningless. Alternatively, one can handle responsibility
well beyond what is expected of most people with a given title and not receive an
elevated title. In that case ones stature has garnered trust and informal recognitionthe
foundation of leadershipbut not a formal designation.

Admissions committees know that titles can be flawed measures of leadership,

responsibility, and character. In your essays, whether you have the title or not, you want
to show the leadership that flows from stature, not status. Stature is an attribute based on
trustworthiness, magnanimity, and a focus on group goals; it leads to change and impact.

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Leadership in Admissions

Applicants often worry that they lack leadership experience. Many of you may work in
flat organizations, and your title may not reflect the influence you actually have. Others
may work in hierarchical organizations, and are on the bottom, or work in teams at a non-
hierarchical organization.

Does lack of official subordinates equal lack of leadership? Does lack of any work
experience imply a lack of leadership? Is a junior title an impossible obstacle?

The answer in all cases is a resounding No.

First of all, you do not need a title to lead. Eisenhower defined leadership as the art of
getting someone else to do something you want done because he wants to do it. No
mention of title or hierarchy there.

You lead when you convince members of your team, club, or committee to take a course
of action that you have advocated. You lead when you propose a new policy to higher-
ups, gather support, and they accept your proposal. And yes, you (usually) lead
subordinatesif you have them. But they are not necessary to show leadership.

In general, applicants tend to think of leadership in narrow terms: title, underlings, and
reports. It is far broader than that. Admissions committee members recognize that
breadth. So should you. And then portray it.

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Different Styles of Leadership

A brief look at US leaders who have graced or cursed the world stage will quickly reveal
that leadership is varied and multifaceted. Below is a list of leadership qualities and
leaders who are generally thought to have evinced these qualities.

Dynamism Theodore Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy

Communications Franklin Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan, John Kennedy

Charisma Bill Clinton, John F. Kennedy, Theodore & Franklin Roosevelt

Vision Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt

Logistical and organizational ability Dwight D. Eisenhower

I could go on, but this list shows that leaders excel in different areas and in different
ways. Think of leaders you know or admire. What makes them successful? Probably
different qualities.

For some it will be a steady reliability and responsibility that inspires trust and
confidence in others. For others it will be a compelling vision and the ability to
powerfully communicate it. For others its the skill of listening, connecting, or perhaps
making others feel important.

Now what makes you a successful leader? When have you demonstrated leadership skills
and enabled others to achieve beyond expectations. Finally, what has been the outcome
of your efforts? Has your organization grown? Raised more money? Increased sales?
Accomplished in some other way?

Dont think of leadership in narrow, conventional terms. It is varied and you can manifest
it in diverse ways. Duke Fuqua provides an excellent resource that lays out the many
facets of leadership in its Attributes of Consequential Leaders. If you are having any
difficulty describing your leadership style or attributes, review this list.

And when you portray your leadership, paint it not in the broad, bland brushstroke used
by everyone: leadership. Instead convey the different aspects of leadership at which you
excel-- your kind of leadership. If you do so, you will succeed in communicating both
your leadership and your uniqueness.

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Lincolns Leadership Among Rivals

Yes, schools want to see intelligence and achievement, but when discussing personal
qualities, leadership is at the top of every admissions professionals Most Wanted List.

You can read volumes about leaders and leadershipgood and bad. I just finished
reading Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns
Goodwin. In it, Lincoln comes alive as a consummate leader.

According to Goodwin, what qualities made Lincoln into one of the most admired if not
the most admired president in United States history? Here are a few:

1. Willingness to turn to rivals if he felt they were best qualified for a position. It
didnt matter to him whether they had hurt or helped him previously. The man
simply refused to bear grudges. With malice toward none; with charity for all
was not just a nice phrase; it was a way of life. And that nobility of spirit
propelled him to heights of leadership.

2. Patience with others. While Lincoln could forgive rivals, those around him
nurtured their peeves, disagreements, and grudges. Lincoln deftly navigated a
hornets nest of egos and rivals.

3. Willingness to share praise when things went well and shoulder responsibility
when things went wrong. He garnered trust from subordinates as a result.

4. Combination of principles and shrewdness. He didnt seek fights he couldnt win,

but he kept his eyes on the values that were truly important to him and pursued
them with consistency.

5. Gift for using humor and stories to make his point and defuse tension.

In your essays, when can you show a bigness of character, a willingness to reach out to
competitors or rivals? Can you show a principled approach to leadership? Can you
discuss a time when you told a joke to score points and release tension, and then turned
the tide toward your point of view?

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Wearing My Military Uniform in the Business World

Ben Faw, a combat veteran and former Army Captain, shares his thoughts on how prior
members of the military can use their unique skill sets to battle the dangerously high
young-veteran unemployment rate of 21.4%.

Rank never equaled respect in the military, and neither will your title in the private

Pinning the 2nd Lieutenant bar on my beret and shoulders as a junior Army officer
following graduation from West Point was an incredible moment. However, I already
knew any true respect from my subordinates would be earned through actions and care
for their needs, not through the rank shown on my uniform.

The same principles apply in business. As Theodore Roosevelt once said, No one cares
how much you know until they know how much you care. In my own case, helping my
Soldiers clean bathrooms when they were exhausted from the sweltering heat in Iraq
earned more respect than any rank or position ever would.

Post military, my experiences in private companies and academic environments have

shown this same principle at work. Serving others as a leader has translated into far more
credibility and respect than flaunting position, rank, or past accomplishments.

The Right Time, Right Place, Right Uniform Still Makes a Difference

While the peer from the private sector might know Excel modeling and financial
statements far better than a veteran, the self-discipline practiced in the military is rarely
ingrained as deeply in people from other backgrounds. Malcolm Gladwell writes about
the 10,000 hours it takes to become an expert in something; after the first few years of
service, many veterans have already completed the 10,000 hours in self-discipline

Whether you are going to a platoon meeting or the corporate board room, arriving a few
minutes early dressed in the right attire goes a long way in building trust, credibility, and
authority. I can still clearly remember an occasion when I was late in Basic Officer
Training, and I was the patrol leader for the mission! That terrible feeling in my stomach
after my commander woke me up late at 5AM is something I will never let happen again.

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Fitness, Health, and Wellness Create an Edge

Those early morning physical training sessions five days a week in the military were not
a waste. Instead, they built a habit and character trait that now becomes an advantage.
Maintaining this fitness routine post-military provides more than just a healthy feeling;
recent research indicates it may lead to higher wages as well.

Even if your health and wellness never directly impacts wages, the self-discipline and
work ethic can shine through to potential employers in a positive way.

Practicing healthy living can also help reduce stress and build the resilience and stamina
needed for the challenges of the future. With long winding and ambiguous career paths
for many in todays workforce, every reasonable way to reduce stress is useful!

Be Willing to Serve Based on the Job, Not the Location

Veterans tend to take jobs all over the country after business school. This should not
come as a huge surprise. In their military careers, veterans have been deployed in
locations far off the beaten path, and continuing on this same trend of serving based on
the joband not on the locationis nothing new for them. While it can be neat to live in
an energetic city, if you dislike the job itself or the company culture, it is not the right
choice for you. Instead, focus on finding something that you love, regardless of location,
and you will always do your best work.

Leadership is Incredibly Transferable

While the functional training received in the military is not always transferable to the
private sector, the leadership skills are. When I started my military service, I learned how
to follow. As a freshman at West Point, I witnessed my first Platoon Sergeant earn
incredible respect by participating alongside the unit in every event, even when he had no
obligation to do so. In that same training cycle, another unit leader constantly did the
minimum required and lost credibility. When I was eventually given responsibility for
subordinates, I made sure I set the example through participation and devotion to duty.

In one of my first civilian jobs at Tesla Motors, learning by following again helped me
build the skills to lead that I would eventually use when I earned more responsibility
within the company. Whether you are leading a military unit into harms way or guiding
a team though the due diligence process for an investment, many of the same skills apply:
communicating and listening to others, leading by example, and treating all parties with
respect. These skills were essential in the military, and they are still incredibly important
in the private sector.

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A special thanks to Matthew Faw, Momchil Filev, Julia Yoo, and Walter Haas: You have
each been wonderful editors in this writing process and more importantly dear friends,
thanks for everything.

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The Leadership Essay

By Jennifer Bloom, Accepted editor

McKinsey Consulting published a fascinating interview with director Brad Bird. While
McKinseys focus was on the lessons one can learn from one of the worlds most
innovative companies, Brad Birds story was also a story of laudable leadership.

Many applicants find leadership the most difficult of the MBA qualities to demonstrate
in their applications. It is not just about managing a team; it is about generating
exceptional results from it. So the first thing I recommend to you all right now is to read
this interview. Through the examples that Mr. Bird shares, we can understand the
essentials of good leadership and recognize examples from our own experiences that
we can only hope!measure up to Birds standards.

Many of my clients are official team leaders, but when they share examples of their
leadership, I push them for more depth and greater detail to spotlight that leadership for
the admissions committees. For example, if Bird were writing his own leadership essay,
he might have just talked about the morale of the team and his dedication to improving it.
What made Birds leadership example truly memorable was the way he conducted that
discussion, and any MBA application essay on leadership that omitted such detail,
unfortunately might not have earned even a highlighting mark from the adcom reviewing

For example, Bird describes the moment he sat 30 Ratatouille developers down and told
them that the past years work was off the markthe computer and artistic work were
well done but would not connect audiences with the growth and development of the
movies main character. Bird says:

I stopped and thought for a second. I thought, these guys have been sent down
blind alleys for a couple of years. They want to know that Im not doing anything
lightly and that if Im going to make them do a bunch more work, its for a
reason. So I said, This movie is about a rat who wants to enter the human world.
We have to make that a visual choice for the character. If you have all of the rats
walking on two legs, theres no separation between him and the other rats. If we
have this separation as a visual device, we can see the character make his
transformation and choose to be on two legs, and he can become more or less
ratty, depending on his emotional state. That brings the audience into the
characters mind.

I spent six minutes saying all this and the guy was initially scowling. But
gradually the scowl went away, and he said, OK. Once I gave that answer,

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everyone felt, OK, were on this ship and were going toward a definite

That story immediately grabs the reader: It shows introspection, vision, and true
leadership. Bird obviously understands what it takes to motivate people to excel, and that
talent is a fundamental ingredient to innovation. His ability to translate motivation and
morale into action and results transform him into a truly exemplary leader.

The details in Birds thought process and the implementation of his ideas make his
Ratatouille experience a truly compelling story. Similar details comprise the best
application essays. They present that connection between thought, action, and impact that
demonstrates the applicant is worthy of a place in the top programs.

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The Many Faces of Leadership

I figured it all out.

Thats how I would paraphrase the essays many of my clientsMBA applicants and
otherswrite in response to the ubiquitous Describe a leadership experience question.
Now of course figuring it all out, my shorthand for I came up with a creative solution
to a tricky problem or I developed a killer spreadsheet model, the likes of which my
team had never seen before or similar achievements, is an important aspect of

But its just one aspect.

Skilled problem-solving, or thought leadership, as we called it at McKinsey &

Company, where I worked as a business strategy consultant, was the mark of, well, a
skilled problem-solver; but many of the most respected consultants at the firm, including
senior partners, were equally or even more talented at something we didnt have a formal
name for: people leadership.

By effectively shaping our thinking on client firms problems as well as motivating us to

work long hours to develop solutions to these problems and collaborate with our clients
on implementing them, these colleagues were exemplary leaders.

So dont forget to include strong elements of people leadership in your essays. Here are
several elements to keep in mind:

Rallying others around a vision. Did you convince your team or group to
follow a specific path/solution? How did you do it? Successful clients have
talked about handling dissenting opinions diplomatically or presenting their
teams detailed quantitative evidence for a recommendation. The more you
can show that you understood your audience and tailored the content and form
of your message to them, the better.

Harnessing others strengthsand expanding them. Did you provide team

members tasks they could handle comfortably based on their capabilities, as
well as opportunities to broaden their skills? For example, you may have
handed your quant jock teammate the most complicated operations analysis as
well as responsibility for leading a key client meeting. In this way you
leverage teammates strengths while helping them develop new ones.

Getting through tough times. Did you model for your team enviable cool in
pressure-cooker situations, maybe helping them keep the big-picture goal in
mind or lightening the mood with humor? Did you reward teammates with

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praise, pizza, or both for working long into the night? Did you pitch in on
others responsibilities as deadlines loomed? Helping your team handle stress
while managing your own is a cornerstone of strong leadership.

These are just some of the leadership traits you can show in your essay to make it more
compelling. And remember, you dont have to be in an official position of leadership to
demonstrate them. We all know peers who provide great leadership without any formal
authority. Make clear that youre one of them.

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Writing a Powerful Leadership/Achievement Essay

Essays that ask you to write about significant achievements fall under the category of
what are known as behavioral or experiential questions. The basic assumption behind
these questions is that past behavior is a great predictor of future behavior. They are all
varieties on the theme of Tell us about a time when you... These questions are meant to
take the measure of your managerial potential.

Achievement questions present fantastic opportunities for you to reveal the uber-value of
business schools: leadership. No question about it, great managers are leaders. To the
extent you can display leadership through your achievement or other behavioral-related
essays, you will want to do so.

Lets look at how one candidate effectively addressed this essay question from Stanford:
Tell us about a time when you made a lasting impact on your organization.

Notice how the writer avoids writing about leadership in general terms and focuses
instead on the specific aspects of his contributions and their impact:

The Change Agent

When I was invited to become the Vice President and General Manager at Third Way
Associates (TWA) two years ago, the company was in financial and administrative
disorder. Employee retention was poor, and TWA took too long to pay vendors because
of poor communication and accounting processes. Cash flow was managed based on
immediate needs rather than by the logic of budgets planned by project and city. Sloppy
expense reports that were turned in with no receipts were reimbursed to employees.

TWA founders Scott W ____ and Glenn L ____ had good intentions, but spent most of
their time selling sponsorships and getting new clients rather than directing and
managing the company. As we begin 2011, TWA is much healthier in every way. Under
my direction, vendors are paid in an average of 20 days from date of invoice, instead of
60 days or more. Our cash flow is better administered since I introduced very specific
detailed area budgets with over 125 budget lines per city. Because I can give the
company founders much better stability and macromanagement vision, the three of us are
able to look more to the future rather than simply put out fires.

Despite the difficult economy in 2010, we not only retained our same clients but also
signed several new client agreements for three years or more, including a two-year
contract with Puma worth $1.3 million. Ive brought fresh accounts and industries into
TWA, including ____ Airlines and Gatorade, among others. Combined, these accounts

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generated more than $500,000 in 2010 and we estimate close to $1 million dollars in

Since my arrival, we have a much wider and broader sales menu which has been crucial
to generate more revenue. Ive expanded our most popular sports events to 25 cities,
giving our clients new investment opportunities. These events range from recreational
soccer clinic tours to professional soccer games broadcast on TV.

I also expanded our field staff, and at present we have 25 strong and reliable managers
who report directly to me from each city. Despite the economy, 2010 was not a bad year
for TWA, and 2011 promises to be even better if we continue our current strategy and
continue to work as a team.

In every paragraph, this writer mentions concrete measures he took to introduce order to
a chaotic company that was trying to grow. From instituting budgets with line items, an
improved accounts payable system, and recruiting additional big-name accounts, the
writer proves how his efforts strengthened the organization.

As you choose among your own experiences as essay material, think about these
questions to help you frame answers of substance:

What was the obstacle, challenge, or problem that you solved in this
accomplishment? A tight client deadline? A complex merger
transaction? A new product launch amidst fierce competition?
What did you do to rise to the challenge you are writing about?
Motivate your team to work overtime? Sell senior management on the
deals long-term upside? Identify a marketing profile for your product
that no competitor can match?
What facts demonstrate that your intervention created a happy ending?
Did your team submit the project deliverables three days early despite
being 20% understaffed? Your client approved the $500 million
merger, the largest ever in its industry? Your new product has 20%
market share after only one year? What was the impact of your

Another tip: Look for opportunities to incorporate strong verbs that illustrate your
strengths in these areas. Good examples of leadership might incorporate several of the


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Establishing a goal or vision
Obtaining buy-in
Taking responsibility

The old adage, Show, dont tell, remains a classic bit of wisdom in the writing process.
Make that a guiding principle not only in your leadership/achievement essays, but
throughout your application.

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Admissions Uber-Value: Leadership

If youre interested in admissions history, I recommend you read The Chosen: The
Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton by Jerome
Karabel. This books 557 pages plus 100+ pages of footnotes tells the story of admissions
at these elite institutions since the beginning of the 20th century, when frankly they were
more like male finishing schools than rigorous academic institutions. Mark Twains line
Ive never let my school interfere with my education comes to mind.

Throughout, The Chosen presents a consistent theme: The Ivy League administrators
have known that their institutions are producing the leaders of tomorrow. They have
created classes reflecting their beliefs as to who would and should lead professions, the
country, and the world in the future. They knew and know they are creating a leadership

While societal views on diversity, inclusion, and exclusion have evolved over the last 100
years, the elite schools are elite because they produce leaders. To paraphrase Harvard
Business Schools philosophy, its easier to develop leaders than create them.
Consequently, if you want to attend a program dedicated to producing leaders, you need
to show leadership in your essays.

The need to demonstrate leadership in applications isnt really news, but it does present a
problem: If you show you are leaders and write and talk about leadership, you all sound
the same, and kind of boring. Furthermore that homogeneity butts up against another
major admissions value: diversity.

In contrast, if you write about different aspects of leadership, then suddenly your essays
will not sound like all other essays. You will choose different qualities to write about and
focus on those elements of your experience that reveal those qualities as opposed to the
overarching principle of leadership.

Here are a few qualities that you may want to highlight in your essays to show leadership
without blathering on like everyone else who just discusses leadership and not the
ingredients that create great leaders.

The importance of transparency and integrity.

Humility. The value of seeking help.

The ability to select a destination, or determine a goal, and inspire.

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A drive to simplify.

Desire to balance long-term and short-term interests.

Willingness to share strategy with your followers.

Good listening.

You probably cant discuss all of these attributes, but by portraying one or two in an
essay, you can reveal qualities valued by admissions committees, and you will distinguish
yourself. Help them see you as a mover and shaker whom they may just want as a
member of their class.

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Writing about your leadership skills and experiences is not an easy feat. It requires
introspection about the qualities you possess, the challenges you faced head-on, and the
people you inspired and moved to action. I hope that this guide has inspired and moved
you to take an active role in preparing and writing about leadership for your application

Accepteds expert staff is available to assist you in portraying your dynamic, compelling
leadership story. Please visit our catalog of services for more information about how we
can help you write your best.

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