college leader

Can All Ivy League Students Be Leaders?

Why do the admissions offices of Ivy League and other elite institutions seem so fixated on leadership as a required personality trait of their applicants? There are more than a few participants in the college admissions field who feel that the exaltation of leadership aptitude is unfair to many well-qualified applicants.

The leadership chase has also clouded the very meaning of the term. Are you a leader because you’re in charge of something or because you excel at something? Unfortunately, the former definition seems to be operative in the way that admissions offices view leadership.

Examples abound in the admissions literature of Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford and many other top-tier schools.  The Yale website quotes their former President Kingman Brewster’s observation that, “We have to make the hunchy judgment as to whether or not with Yale’s help the candidate is likely to be a leader in whatever he ends up doing.” Princeton’s Dean Janet Rapeleye is quoted in The New York Times as saying, “We look for qualities that will help students become leaders in their fields and in their communities.”

Apparently, there’s something that’s considered fundamentally American about a leadership paradigm in which, “Students should be admitted to college on the basis of their potential for future leadership and active citizenship,” in the words of Robert Sternberg, author of College Admissions for the 21st Century. The underlying assumption is that those who are worthy of admission to top-tier colleges are not just those who possess excellent academic records and impressive non-academic accomplishments, but are also those who will be most inclined to take initiative and be innovators; those have the highest potential to manage and dominate others…Type A’s. Can you imagine a campus populated only by Type A’s?

You’d think that somebody in the administration of these schools would be familiar with the expression, “All chiefs and no braves”. This type of scenario doesn’t play out well on a campus or in the real world beyond. For example, imagine what a dysfunctional Army we’d have if no one were willing to be a follower.  Corporate management would prove far more challenging, as would college administration itself. Every cooperative multi-person human endeavor would break down. We’d live in a world of solos and anarchy.

Beyond that, consider that the Arts & Sciences, which are the core of an Ivy League education, teach a wide range of subjects, but leadership is not among them. Leadership, especially in corporate management, is certainly relevant to the field of business administration, but this is peripheral to liberal arts education at the undergraduate level of Ivy League schools. So, again, whence the glorification of leadership?

Fortunately for society there is such as thing as a natural-born follower. Followers are people who are just as intelligent, educated, and accomplished as leaders; they simply have different personality types or goals. However, the premium placed on leadership at colleges can leave this type of applicant out in the cold. Usually, if an elite college requires a quality in successful applicants, the best approach is to determine how to satisfy that requirement and then do it. But leadership qualities are tough to fake, making leadership experience difficult to obtain if it goes against the grain of a student’s personality.  Susan Cain, who writes on college topics for the New York Times, wrote in a recent article that, “Whatever the colleges’ intentions, the pressure to lead now defines and constricts our children’s adolescence”.

There are many influential people who recommend that the administrations of elite schools scale back their obsession with leadership. In time, these voices will be heard. Until then, the only realistic way to deal with such a requirement is to comply with it. Followers who aspire to attend the best schools need to create a record of leadership during high school. This is no small accomplishment for an introverted person no matter how brilliant they are, but failure to do so risks rejection.

As a highly experienced college admissions consulting firm, IvySelect is intimately familiar with the admissions policies and practices of elite colleges, including the unique nuances of each school. Given the thorough understanding of your personality that we gain early in each engagement, IvySelect will advise you during high school on ways to achieve a record of leadership within the scope of your personality, interests, and abilities, or how to best present leadership attributes if you engage us later in the process. It may turn out that you are, in fact, suited for leadership and enjoy being in charge, But if this is not the case, then you’ll be free to go with your natural inclinations to be a follower after you’ve matriculated at a top-tier institution.