Business schools are grooming the world’s future business leaders, so they want to admit candidates who demonstrate leadership skills and team-building experience.  To elicit this information from candidates, business schools will typically address the issue in an essay question.  For example, following are this year’s leadership essay prompts from Tuck and Kellogg:

Tuck: Tell us about your most meaningful collaborative leadership experience and what role you played. What did you learn about your own individual strengths and weaknesses through this experience?

Kellogg: What have been your most significant leadership experiences? What challenges did you face, and what impact did you have? This is your opportunity to explain how you Think Bravely (personally and/or professionally).

To effectively convey your leadership skills in the essay, as well as the interview, follow these guidelines:

1. Avoid discussing solo projects. The admissions committee is not interested in hearing about purely individual project leadership, like the time that you revamped the accounting system, working by yourself in your cubicle for six months. The word “collaborative” in the Tuck prompt is a big clue here – they want to hear about your team skills. They want to learn about your experience leading people, not processes, and how you see yourself in relation to the group. If you really do work alone in a cubicle, and you haven’t had any leadership opportunities in an office setting, find examples in your extracurricular activities and volunteer work. Try to avoid discussing college anecdotes if possible.

2. Showcase your emotional intelligence. Describe what you were thinking throughout the project and how you considered everyone’s views, issues, strengths and weaknesses.  Please refrain from viciously critiquing your teammates, however tempted you may be – the committee is looking for evidence that you are great to work with and a positive influence.

3. Be honest about your weaknesses. Admissions officers are serious when they ask you to discuss both strengths and weaknesses. If you don’t provide a genuine, thoughtful account of your weaknesses, you may come across as arrogant and unable to reflect. Your essay will be most compelling if you can own your mistakes and explain how you would approach the situation differently in the future.

4. Acknowledge the fact that there’s room for improvement. Admissions officers don’t expect you to be perfect. You’re going back to school in part to learn more about leadership and to refine your team skills. In fact, it is a good idea to say that you hope to enhance your leadership skills in business school, briefly referencing the opportunities the school offers in this area.

5. Refrain from pontificating. Don’t waste valuable essay space describing your personal leadership philosophy or quoting other people’s thoughts. Providing a bit of context is fine, but you want to use this space to showcase your team proficiency, and to demonstrate your ability to be empathetic and reflective. It’s important to convince the committee that you are someone who others like and want to work with.

For more advice about crafting a powerful business school application, please read my other blog posts on the admissions process.