What do colleges look for? Leadership, leadership, LEADERSHIP! At least that is the message that most TypeAcollege-bound students are receiving. This trend is highlighted in two recent articles published by The New York Times and The Huffington Post.  Both articles illuminate that most colleges seek students who exhibit qualities such as excellence, passion, and service above self, but often these strengths are overshadowed by the pressure toward “leadership.” In the traditional sense, leadership refers to titles, status, and the “Type-A” personality, which can be extremely discouraging for those students who can’t list “club president” or “team captain” on their resumes.

Being selected as a Senior Peer Leader is one of the most coveted positions at the high school I work at, and only about forty percent of applicants are accepted. My students typically offer two main reasons for why they want to be a Peer Leader: 1) A genuine desire to help mentor the freshmen, and 2) because it looks good for college. As part of the interview, one of the questions asked is: “What are the five most important qualities of a leader?” Without fail, most students rattle off answers surrounding ideals of control, power, and organization skills. They are not wrong based on the simplistic definition of “leadership” that has been represented for so long, but is that really what we are looking for? In a recent interview, one student offered a different response: “I think that being a good leader means making sure that everyone in the group feels comfortable.” How refreshing! This young man reached beyond the surface, understanding that any strong organization “needs leaders who are called to service rather than to status” (The New York Times).

As a college counselor, I’ll admit that there is an immediate sense of relief when a student holds certain titles or roles with status. I think, “oh good, there’s a hook.” But is it really? As The New York Times points out, so many students are vying for leadership positions to pad their resumes, often at the expense of true passion or interest.  When working with a student who is not an alpha or who doesn’t want to be on the front line, the pressure toward status and titles can make the counseling relationship feel inauthentic. It sends the message that I don’t see who they are, or even worse, that they are not “good” enough. This, of course, would be my last intention!

What this all says to me is that it’s time to reframe the conversation. As The New York Times points out, “the world needs more followers.” The idea of “followership” is gaining popularity as it focuses on the essential role of team players in addition to the traditional leader. The Huffington Post offers several testimonials on what college admissions counselors really look for within the values of leadership.  Those quoted talk about students who show a “deep engagement in an area of interest,” “someone who inspires others,” “someone who takes initiative to stand up for what they believe in,” or one who is a “great listener who can motivate others to be thoughtful and effective.” The qualities described here may be exhibited by a great many, regardless of whether or not there is a title after their name.

So here is the challenge – how do we as educators and parents help students exemplify these non-traditional forms of leadership? It starts by helping them recognize that it is often the genuine (and at times, seemingly small), gestures that demonstrate their unique strengths, rather than those done to pad the resume. Let’s continue the conversation!

Two great articles worth reading: