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What is a Leader?

As we emerge from the contentious 2016 presidential election cycle, the notion of leadership has been turned on its head and dragged through the dirt. We watched as the individuals who are charged to lead our nation, traded insults and acted imprudently. Audaciously, candidates and their ambassadors engaged in a race to see who could talk the loudest and capture each stunted news cycle or Twitter feed by spreading fear and discouragement throughout a preoccupied populace.

Likewise, when we look to high profile athletes, artists and other leaders of our time, we often find individuals embroiled in scandals, lies and abuse. It begs us to question: Do we mindlessly ordain positions of leadership without intentionality and substance but rather based on status, strength or symbolism?

In many ways leadership is a misnomer; it has become a throw-away term, and we easily default to a “leader of the pack” mentality where the alpha dog rules the day. It can elicit images of a drill sergeant marching his soldiers around or the captain of a ship barking out commands. But what is a leader really and how do we determine leadership potential? This is a dilemma that has stumped college admission officers and intimidated prospective applicants for ages.

What does it mean

to lead?

Ask three individuals about the significance of leadership and you are likely to receive as many different responses. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines leading as “a: to guide on a way especially by going in advance; b: to direct on a course or in a direction; c: to serve as a channel for.”

Indeed, a combination of these meanings encompasses true leadership. It often requires the initiative to take a risk and “go in advance,” being willing to serve as a pioneer and sacrifice comfort for the betterment of a group. Leading can also require a readiness to direct or make a difficult decision, owning the outcome for one’s self and the people one represents. The final and arguably most important facet of leading is the idea of “channeling” the hopes, aspirations and initiatives of those who one guides. A true leader serves as the vehicle through which a community or organization functions at its best.

At the Derryfield School, our working definition of leadership is “intentional and sustained engagement for the common good.” To lead without purpose is misguided, and dedicated leadership requires connection and involvement that goes much deeper than the surface. A thoughtful model of leadership is one where ego is left at the door and the central focus is on a greater objective that benefits the whole. We need leaders who provide inspiration, not perspiration – individuals that motivate others by encouragement rather than by instilling fear. We need paradigms of leadership that involve listening as paramount to success.

Lessons on leadership

While it may be easy to define a leader in principle, college applicants want to know how colleges view leadership. Who are these “leaders” that admission committees want to admit, and what qualities are they searching for? I asked colleagues in college admission to share their ideas on what it means to lead. Here is what they had to say:

“Someone who stops to ask the question: What is the right thing to do in this circumstance?” said Andy Strickler, dean of admission and financial aid at Connecticut College.

“Leadership is deep engagement in an area of interest – not necessarily an officer in an organization,” said Deb Shaver, director of admission at Smith College. “Rather than the president of the student government, I love the student who has been the chair of the dance clean up committee for a few years. Who wants that job? And yet, she consistently gets a few students who will stay late after the dance to clean up the detritus left by classmates. That, to me, is leadership. No accolades but lots of commitment and follow through.”

“A leader is someone who shoulders responsibility for larger group decisions. A leader is also someone who inspires others to act, holds forth broad ethical and inclusive principles and organizes the time and energy of all people to a purposeful and successful diverse community of living,” said Paul Thiboutot, vice president and dean of admission at Carleton College.

“Someone who inspires others and who brings differences together toward a common goal,” University of Vermont Executive Director of Admissons Beth Wiser said. “A leader is willing to take risks in the presence of adversity.”

“A leader is someone who influences others to make a difference. A leader can be loud and bright but a leader can also be quiet and soft – if he or she inspires, excites, and motivates others, I would call that leadership,” said Kelliann Dietel, admissions counselor at Lafayette College.

“Someone with highly developed emotional intelligence who is a mentor, a decision maker (through collaboration and consultation), and an ethical role model,” said Beverly Moore, associate dean at Kenyon College. “A leader is engaged in the discussion and is sensitive to the validity of ideas outside of their comfort zone.”

“A leader is someone willing to establish a collective following, however a great leader is one who takes in the advice of their peers to achieve a collective goal or initiative. A great leader listens and understands the need to persist when the going gets tough,” said Tim Neil, assistant director of admission at Sewanee, the University of the South.

Vice President for Undergraduate Enrollment at University of Notre Dame Don Bishop said, “A leader is someone who notices what is not being accomplished that should be worked on and improved . . . not for their own gain but for the benefit of the group or a special subgroup that has less resources and needs help. A leader also organizes others to assist her/him in this effort.”

“A leader is a great listener who can motivate others to be thoughtful and effective,” Syracuse University Director of Admission Peter Hagan said. “Too often we are stuck assessing leadership roles and have a harder time identifying leadership qualities.”

“A leader is someone who supports and encourages those around them; communicates big picture goals clearly and effectively; and continually builds relationships to advance the mission of the team. Someone who tempers action with wisdom and balances humility and confidence,” said Rick Clark, director of undergraduate admission at Georgia Tech.

Michael Sexton from Santa Clara University said, “A leaders is one who motivates and inspires others to a common vision.”

“A leader is someone who takes initiative to stand up for what they believe in, who is critically self-reflective, and who knows how/when to support the voices of others when others step up to lead,” said Erika Blauth, assistant director of admission at Colorado College.

There you have it. Easy right? These sentiments can be inspiring, and simultaneously overwhelming. While it is comforting to realize that colleges are looking beyond traditional position titles for demonstrated leadership, it does present a greater dilemma. How on earth does one begin to show these lofty qualities on a college application beyond the small box where a candidate can list “club president,” “lead in the musical” or “athletic captain?”

An experienced admission officer is like a miner, digging for evidence of leadership in many forms. It is incumbent upon them to look deeper and value different models and demonstrations of leading. Educators must refuse to accept a narrow concept of effective leadership. It is the applicant’s job to find creative ways to provide the evidence for which the admission office can dig. Students need to articulate for themselves the authentic story they want to tell and then communicate that message in their application.

When asked how they identify the qualities of a leader in an application, admission officers point to interviews, essays and teacher or counselor recommendations – each as a way that candidates can highlight unique stories of thoughtful leadership. Absent a title, ongoing involvement in an organization or activity with increasing engagement can show commitment and one’s growing role in their community. Application readers are looking for instances when students are willing to make a stand or take a risk. They are curious to see how students show care for, and positively impact, others’ lives. Even small signs of responsibility such as an applicant taking the reigns in the college search and not just following the crowd or their parents’ direction. Frequently it is the pursuits that students don’t do for a resume that carry the most weight, so don’t chase the position, live the qualities.

Leadership is about the common good, not divisiveness, isolation or touting one’s greatness at the expense of others. It is not about always being right or having the answers. It is about openness, listening, dedication, support, unification and intention. Compassionate leaders are those who can positively influence culture, and who can accept failure and admit imperfection. These are the young people that colleges seek as they scour the country for our next leaders. True leadership will be a collective effort, much greater than any one title or position.

By the Concord Monitor

The Magic Potion:  The 2 R’s—Research and Reading

What do colleges actually want?  Students, parents, advisors, and teachers alike ask themselves this question every year as they wade into the college admission process. colleges-want-research

The truth is:  colleges want students who are passionate about learning.  They don’t want students obsessed with being perfect.  They don’t want straight A’s for the sake of straight A’s.  Colleges want students who truly love to learn.  Students who will go out of their way
to find the answer to a question, just because they’re interested.  Students who volunteer to stay after class to help with an experiment because they wonder how it will turn out.  Students who happily wander through a bookstore or the library, hoping to find something new and interesting to learn.

When a college chooses to interview a student, one of the first questions they ask a student is “What are you reading?”.  Sure, a student can spout titles from the summer reading list, but any admission professional knows these lists like the back of their hand.  Scarlett Letter?  Fahrenheit 911?  Unbroken?  Catcher and the Rye?  The Things They Carried?  Colleges know all of these.  What else?  You’d be amazed by the confused looks students get on their faces when they realize their summer reading list books simply aren’t enough for top-tier schools.

Love of learning is not something a student can fake.  And it’s not something that develops overnight.  How can you foster a child’s love of learning and therefore improve his/her chances in the college admission process?

schoolboy with open book on white background. Isolated 3D image

  1. Promote reading for the sake of reading. More often than not, students are choosing their smart phones over leisure reading.  Students should be exploring new topics through reading. They should develop passions o
    utside of the summer reading list.   Students should aim to read at least 3-5 books for pleasure each year of high school.
  2. Innately, reading will develop a sense of curiosity and most often this curiosity then lends itself to research. Colleges are most interested in students who have an interest in or experience with research. This could be at the high school level (chemistry projects) or it could be at the college level (summer research with a professor).  Encourage children to ask questions.  This is where research begins.  From there, research follows a student’s relationship with his/her teachers.  If a student is interested in English, go meet with the teacher.  Perhaps he/she could use some help in reading more about the Bronte sisters.  Interested in anatomy?  Perhaps the anatomy teacher knows an area college professor for whom the student could work over the summer.

In sum, curiosity is key.  Students must foster a sense of curiosity early in their high school career so that this quality can serve them in college and even beyond.  Reading and research—this is the magic potion that creates a competitive college application.




11 Points of Advice from an Ivy-League Alumna Interviewer

ivy-league-applications-admissions-chard-class-2019-finalMany schools, including those in the Ivy League, no longer offer on-campus interviews.  Instead, they rally hoards of alums to meet and interview their applicants.  Shortly after you have submitted your application, you will be contacted, usually by email, by a local alum and asked to set up a meeting.  Having been one of those alums for the past few years, I’d like to offer some advice.

  1. Respond promptly. Don’t make the interviewer chase you down.  It’s embarrassing if you hear from your guidance counselor or parent that you haven’t responded to an email inquiry about an interview!  Remember that these alums are volunteers, not paid admissions officers, and they are busy people, just as you are.
  2. Use respectful and polite language, in your email communications as well as in person. Do not refer to the alum by first name!  Use “Ms.” or “Mr.” in your replies, unless he/she suggests otherwise. Even if the alum signs the email “Joe Smith,” reply to “Mr. Smith.” Do not use colloquial expressions in your emails.
  3. Be helpful when setting a meeting date. We know you are busy, but you may have to re-arrange your schedule to find a time that works for your interviewer.  If you make it difficult, you can be sure that the interviewer will say so in his report.
  4. The interviewer does not have access to your application, or any information about you except your address and name of your current school. You need to be able to give a brief summary of your academic and extracurricular interests, to create a picture of yourself for your interviewer.  But the interviewer’s job is not to rehash the bullets on your application; he hopes that you will convey the kind of person that you are.  Are you serious and super-focused?  Are you silly and creative?  Are you shy, or outgoing?  Don’t be afraid to express fears, as well as interests and passions.
  5. Ask lots of questions! Ask about the choice of major, the dorm life, the social life, what he liked and disliked, how much the school plays a part in his life now….. questions are good.
  6. Take this interview seriously, but remind yourself that it is not like a job interview. Remember, these are volunteers, not staff from Admissions Offices, and their reports are supplemental.  The Admissions Offices love to be able to say that “99% of our 30,000 applicants were interviewed by an alum!” The alum will offer a perspective in his report, based on your meeting, but the meat of the information that the admissions committee will consider is in your application.  The interview is an opportunity for you to get a feel for the kind of person who attended this school, and to ask lots of questions…. see #5.
  7. As I mentioned in #4, the interviewer will be looking for something to write about that may not be in your application. Think of ways to convey the “unique” you to your interviewer.  Bring a resume, if you’d like, or anything else that would be fun to share (within reason!).  Artwork, photos, or stories of your experiences in high school or over the summers are all great to share.   What was your favorite high school class?  Who is your best friend, and why?  What was biggest success/failure in high school?
  8. Do not feel the need to buy a new outfit! Meetings are usually in coffee shops, libraries, or maybe even at your school, so dress nicely and neatly, but you do not need to “dress up.”
  9. Usually, the interviewer will not send emails to you afterwards, unless he has offered to provide additional information. You probably won’t hear from him again, unless you are accepted by his school.  However …… you should WRITE A THANK-YOU EMAIL!!  In my years of interviewing, I have received only about 10 thank-yous from students.  Boy, does it make a difference.  You can ask more questions, if you have some, but please send a quick email thanking the interviewer for his time and for sharing his thoughts about his school.
  10. Please don’t hold it against the interviewer if you are not accepted. This is a numbers game, as you know, and the interviewers are often just as frustrated by that game as you are.  You should want to leave the interviewer with a good impression, no matter the outcome, so he will write a good report, and also, since you probably live nearby, for possible future encounters.
  11. One final piece of advice: don’t let your parents contact the alum interviewer.  Again, these are volunteers, who do not have time to handle parents’ questions.  If for any reason there is a problem, you can contact the Admissions Office directly.

NOTE: We recently worked with a  student who had an alumna interview and didn’t get into the university. Both she and the interviewer were disappointed.  The interviewer, impressed by the student’s credentials, decided to hire the student for a summer internship.  While not getting in to the university was a disappointment to the student, the internship proved to be invaluable in helping the student work toward her goals and learn about her field of interest.


Relax, be yourself, and be respectful.  Good luck!!

See College Solutions founder, Larry Dannenberg, on Fox 25 News.