Donald Trump was only 14 years old when John F. Kennedy gave his inaugural address. Long before the advent of Twitter, Kennedy understood the importance of inspiring others with a short and memorable phrase: “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” What did the young Donald make of such a memorable line that defined a generation?
What does the phrase mean to you? Given the chance, what would you say to demonstrate your leadership credentials, or to show what you can do for your country?
You don’t need to wait tobe sworn in to high office to think about either of those questions. Applying to business school is a perfect opportunity to reflect on both.
From Harvard to Haas, the MBA admissions office wants to better understand your leadership potential – how you have led a team project, mentored others, created positive impact, gone beyond yourself.
And whether you are thinking about your contribution to Team Fuqua, National Week at INSEAD, or collaboration at Kellogg, your business school application is a perfect opportunity to show what you hope to offer your MBA community, its alumni network and the world.
Capturing your leadership potential or community spirit requires more than firing off a Tweet. Consider Abraham Lincoln, who thought so carefully about speaking in terms of ‘we’ rather than ‘I’. The same is true for your MBA essays – they require meaningful self-reflection and introspection about who you are, what matters to you, and what you want to achieve.
You don’t need the oratory of Kennedy or the prose of Lincoln to secure your place at business school, but the best applicants do take the time to think about their leadership potential and guiding values before starting to write. To help you on your personal journey, we asked our experts at Fortuna Admissions – former senior admissions staff at top tier institutes from Wharton and Harvard Business School to INSEAD and LBS. Consider these top tips on how to capture and convey your leadership potential in the MBA application:
Identify Stories of Specific Scenarios
Schools take the perspective that past performance is the best predictor of future potential. So you need to refer to some clear, concrete examples of leadership. What kinds of stories best convey your leadership style and potential? Here are some questions as a starting point:
- A project you initiated (from action to outcome)
- When you identified an opportunity (from action to result)
- A time you made an impact
- The most challenging team project you led, and how you ensured its success
With some examples in mind, begin to sketch your stories from the big picture to detail, but make sure you can set the scene and get to the point quickly. You should be able to convey what you did, why you did it, the impact on others, and the final outcome. Think about recent, positive situations and make sure your stories have a beginning, middle and end.
Demonstrate Your Experience
If you have had explicit leadership experience at work, say, in team management – so much the better. But not all pre-MBA positions offer supervision roles (for example, those of you working in finance may be in advisory positions where people management isn’t required). Offer examples outside of work where you’ve demonstrated leadership skills—from sports or community involvement to volunteer positions. It’s a great opportunity to showcase another part of your background and experience. So if you’ve been active on a rugby team or local board, this is a way to highlight that interest as well as your leadership qualities. For example:
- How have you been someone’s mentor?
- How do you describe your mentorship style?
- When have you garnered resources for an initiative you believed in?
- How did you influence a decision or steward a process that made a big impact?
- Where have you stepped up to ensure the success of a group or outcome?
If you are planning ahead and will be applying to business school later this year or in a future admissions season, it’s never too early to begin building your leadership profile. Think about how you might invite leadership opportunities at work, for example, by taking the initiative on a project that is over and above your regular scope of work. If appropriate, don’t hesitate to let your supervisors know that you’re considering business school and are looking for opportunities to build stand-out experience into your resume. It means you’ll be top of mind when they are seeking team members to take on additional responsibilities.
Consider your capacity to take on extracurriculars, such as coaching a sports team or leading a fundraising effort. Your personal interests can speak to leadership qualities that extend beyond managing people or teams within the office.
Map Your Core Skills
When thinking about how to present your leadership experience in your application, it can be useful to break down leadership into elemental skills. Reflect on these six elements:
- Strategic thinking – in what ways are you action-oriented, focusing on results while keeping your eyes on a bigger vision beyond your team and company?
- Results focused – do you have the ability to be effective, efficient, and evolutionary in terms of both process and product?
- Team leadership – from management to mentoring, how do you foster collaboration and inspire action?
- Partnership building – in what ways to you seek synergies that amplify impact, from within your own team to relationship building across teams and sectors?
- Communication – can you present complexity in a clear and compelling way, and are you skilled at adapting your message to specific audiences and motivating others?
- Development – have you gone beyond your own personal and professional development to grow and retain talent? Are you skilled at identifying and harnessing the strengths of others?
You should ideally have some examples that showcase different aspects of leadership for each of the elements above.
What Can Others Say About You?
It’s important to be your own best advocate, but what do others say about you? Prime the pump with your recommenders to back up your best stories and lift up your leadership qualities and skills. Your recommenders should reinforce your claims about your leadership skills and style. For instance, if you cite an example of when you demonstrated leadership on a particular project, it gives you greater credibility if your recommender also refers to this example and discusses the attributes you demonstrated.
Memorable leaders face times of uncertainty and challenge as an opportunity to unify, galvanize and implement a powerful vision for the future. As Donald Trump takes the oath of office on inauguration day, citizens and spectators will be scrutinizing the message as well as the man. Any candidate, business or political, needs to make a persuasive case for his or her leadership potential. How will you make yours?
Author Matt Symonds, Director at MBA admissions coaching firm Fortuna Admissions, author of “Getting the MBA Admissions Edge”, founder of Kaplan Test Prep in Europe and QS World MBA Tour
Fortuna Admissions is composed of former Directors and Associate Directors of Admissions at many of the world’s best business schools, including Wharton, INSEAD, Harvard Business School, London Business School, Chicago Booth, NYU Stern, IE Business School, Northwestern Kellogg, Duke and Johnson Cornell.