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Tackling the Leadership Question on Your MBA Application

Posted by Alice van Harten 2 MIN. READ

What makes you a strong leader? This can be a difficult question to answer. If you have a lot of leadership experience, your challenge is to tell your story in a compelling and authentic way. And if you don’t have a lot of leadership experience, your task is to be creative about how you answer the prompt, so that you can demonstrate to admissions committees the type of leader you’ll be.

In both cases it’s important not to exaggerate the truth. As soon as you inflate what your actual experience was, you call into question not only your response to the leadership question, but also the truthfulness of the rest of your application.
I encourage clients to share the details of their actual experiences instead of taking liberties with the facts. During the initial brainstorming process, clients typically come learn that they are strong leaders, or well on the way to becoming one. We then work together to package that story for the MBA application.

Strategy

When shaping a response to the leadership question, you should first think about all of the people you interact with at your job: your manager, colleagues, team members of other departments, office staff, and HR. Consider your role on this team, and what your contributions were.

If you truly had a leadership role, reflect upon your experiences—good and bad—in leading a team. Admissions committees want to see not just your successes, but also your resilience and ability to learn from mistakes. If you weren’t the leader, you can pull from examples of good leadership that you have encountered, and demonstrate how you embody those skills, perhaps by describing non-work-related leadership positions you have held.

For example, someone who has not yet been given many opportunities to lead in her current role can present—honestly and without exaggeration—what she has done on the job. She can then augment that experience with a detailed example of leading a group of volunteers on a service project or organizing a large-scale function at her university.

Questions to consider

When developing your response to the leadership question, it is important to provide as many specifics as possible—particularly in your earliest drafts. Here are some questions that can help you make your essay convincing and engaging. (You don’t necessarily need to answer all of them; they are just a starting point.)

• What did you do in your role to fix problems?
• How did you handle situations where you had to escalate the issue to management?
• How did you work with people who weren’t members of your team? How did you get what you needed, even from people who couldn’t care less about you?
• If everyone in the office was down, what did you do to perk people up?
• Did you ever informally mentor junior colleagues?
• What fears or problems did you overcome in order to lead successfully?

Honest leadership

The more specific you are about your own, authentic story, the more you will differentiate yourself from other applicants. The cachet of a job title is less important in this essay than your ability to describe the quality of your experiences and how they have made you the leader you are or hope to be.

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