Ethical College Admissions: Leadership

Are admissions offices obsessed with leadership skills among applicants? Should they be? Jim Jump considers the issues.

May 15, 2017

Are the admissions offices at American colleges and universities obsessed with leadership? Is leadership valued over other traits and accomplishments? Does leadership give a student an admissions advantage?

Those questions came up in an e-mail I received last week from my high school student correspondent in Hanoi. The questions arose from two sources. 

The first was among several on the questionable practices of the college counseling centers in Vietnam. One was encouraging students to set up events to demonstrate leadership and pad their resumes. The other was encouraging students to pursue certain kinds of activities at the expense of others, for example political or social activism rather than artistic excellence, no matter what the student might prefer.

The second reason for the question was a 2014 Atlantic Monthly article that the student had read, “Why Are American Colleges Obsessed With ‘Leadership’?”

My initial response to the student was that I don’t think leadership is valued over other traits. American colleges and universities certainly talk a lot about “leadership,” and students certainly hear the message that they must be “leaders,” but does leadership outweigh academic accomplishment? Or is leadership part of a student’s “voice,” distinguishing only in close calls among students with similar superb academic records?

I’m rethinking, but not necessarily changing, my view on that question. I don’t think leadership has any special status as an admission “plus factor” (a term a writer for U.S. News & World Report once credited me with inventing), but clearly many of the nation’s best-known colleges see the education of leaders of society as central to their missions, so it is certainly among the qualities they seek in prospective students.

I think leadership is a euphemism in the same way that character once was. Both are real and desirable, but they also can serve as umbrella concepts for other qualities, qualities like passion (a close college counseling friend argues that no high school student has true passion), commitment, persistence, and selflessness. When colleges talk about leadership they are really talking about individuals who make a difference in their community. 

At the nation’s most selective colleges concern for leadership may be a different kind of euphemism. For them the admissions process often seems less about admitting students than recruiting future alumni whose success will reflect positively on their alma mater. That begs a larger question, whether the admissions process should reward past performance or future potential.  

Unfortunately, true leaders, like true scholars, are few and far between. 

Leadership and having a title or position are not necessarily the same thing.  If you are student council president, editor of the high school newspaper, or captain of the football team, you are one of 38,000 nationally, the approximate number of high schools in the United States.  Some of those holding those positions are effective and difference-makers, while others have accomplished their agenda as soon as they receive the position. 

Other students try to demonstrate leadership by starting clubs or activities. I have known of parents, similar to the college counseling centers in Vietnam, starting and being the driving forces for activities in order to benefit their children when they apply for admission.  I am skeptical of the value of any activity selected or leadership pursued primarily for college admission advantage.

Can colleges tell the difference between authentic leadership and leadership done to enhance an application? I would hope so. Are there ways to send a message that quality and authenticity of commitment are what’s important? An obvious way is to change the way students list activities on applications.  When applications provide lots of spaces for leadership or activities, students feel pressure to fill as many lines as possible.

Several years ago the Morehead-Cain Scholarship at the University of North Carolina, a highly prestigious full ride, concerned that the application was encouraging students who were resume builders, changed the application to ask applicants to list fewer activities but with more detail about them.

Does an emphasis on leadership in the admissions process reward certain kinds of students, and is it the kind we want to reward?  I worry that the current system, especially at highly-selective universities, rewards students who are resume enhancers or self-promoters at the expense of students who are servant-leaders, who work behind the scenes without fanfare.

But is that different from society at large? In a culture where style is worshiped over substance, where celebrity is valued more than accomplishment or character, what messages do young people receive? I have long contended that anyone who wants to run for President of the United States is not the person I want leading the country (that is not a commentary on anyone who currently holds office). But colleges and universities have a responsibility not to follow but to lead, and what they choose to value in the admissions process molds behavior.

That is the premise behind the “Turning the Tide” report produced last spring by Richard Weissbourd of the Harvard Graduate School of Education. That report focused on using the admissions process to change student mindsets about service and community engagement. Perhaps we need a similar project devoted to rethinking the messages we send about leadership.

Or perhaps we need to pay attention to Susan Cain, author of the best-selling book, Quiet. In that book she suggests that introverts possess a leadership skill-set that is largely unrecognized, even more unappreciated, and yet essential for society. Earlier this spring she wrote an op-ed for The New York Times with the title, “Not Leadership Material? Good. The World Needs Followers.”

She might be on to something. Will we see the day when college applications include space for students to list activities in which they were not leaders or essays asking students to reflect on a time when they were a follower?  I’m not holding my breath.



Jim Jump is the academic dean and director of college counseling at St. Christopher’s School in Richmond, Virginia. He has been at St. Christopher’s since 1990 and was previously an admissions officer, women’s basketball coach, and philosophy professor at the college level. Jim is a past president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling.


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