There is one competency that virtually every graduate school admissions team is looking for: Leadership.

Application requirements rank ‘leadership’ among the essential skills for almost all competitive programs, and admissions interviews and essay questions ask applicants to demonstrate the competency.

Just as business schools are looking for leaders, so are the hiring managers who recruit business grads. In fact, in the 2016 Bloomberg Job Skills Report, leadership came in the “sweet spot” -- among the rare 'most desired, least common' skills.

The problem is that virtually all applicants claim to have excellent ‘leadership’ qualities. In fact, Hartford found 78 percent of millennials consider themselves to be leaders, despite the majority of them not having any leadership experience at all.

And why wouldn’t they claim to be leaders?  Every school asks for an example of leadership, so, naturally, applicants who want to get in look for ways they can differentiate their version of leadership. Being a ‘leader’ is a sought-after title, and sought after status in society.

As a school seeking leaders, how do you identify authentic leadership potential in your applicants?

Before we answer that question, let’s lay the groundwork and get on the same page about what exactly leadership potential is.

What is Leadership Potential

It’s important to consider that ‘leadership’ is not a single quality, rather, a set of traits that blend together. When checking off a box for ‘leadership’ in an applicant’s file, you’re checking off a combination of intelligence and capability, drive and vision, and emotional intelligence.

Emotional intelligence is perhaps the most difficult to assess, especially when reading an essay or cover letter. However, when we stop to think of the great leaders we’ve met, it’s frequently their profound emotional intelligence (components such as self-awareness, self-regulation, and empathy) that has made them such strong, guiding forces.

Leadership, like many other 'soft skills', is best evaluated using a competency-based assessment because of its complex nature. To develop and define a competency, your school needs to first conduct research and analysis into which soft-skills (or competencies) your most successful previous applicants have possessed.

Illustrations of people with faces
So, rather than starting by asking “what is leadership,” it’s better to ask “what is leadership at my school?” Look at your rockstar students and most successful alumni. Take the time to really think about the characteristics that made them stand out and be successful:

  • What strengths did they have?
  • What were they like when interacting with others?
  • How did they handle setbacks?

This exercise will result in a list of competencies that should be good indicators of potential for success in applicants to your program.

How to Assess Leadership at Your School

Step 1: Define your Competencies

Once you compile your list of competencies, focus on each one and formulate a description of it. Take care to consider the context needed for your unique program and what differentiates your graduates from those of other schools.

The way in which someone possesses the competency of 'leadership' may be very different for success in a business program vs. success in a forestry program.

What are the values and culture of your faculty? Your alumni? Your program? Your school? The more detail you use when defining your competencies, the easier it will be to gauge the degree to which your applicants possess them. Here is an example of a potential description for leadership:

“An individual who knows when to lead and when to follow. Able to understand how different people are motivated and use this knowledge to help inspire others to achieve goals. Confident and able to captivate an audience with their presence.”

 Illustration of symbols representing personality traits in a cloud above someone's head

Step 2: Craft your Questions

Next, you’ll need to craft questions that give your applicants an opportunity to showcase their aptitude for the given competency as you’ve described it. The goal is to ask questions that will target one or more aspects of the description above, such as:

  1. Tell me about an experience in which you were working as part of a dysfunctional team. How did you contribute to the resolution of issues and what was the outcome?
  2. Tell me about a time when you were assigned a role on a team that you did not want? How did this make you feel and what was the outcome?
  3. Tell me about a time when you helped another person achieve their goal. How did you motivate this person and what was the outcome?

Note that none of these questions directly use the term ‘leadership’. You should never reveal the competency you’re trying to assess to your applicants, as specifying a need for the applicant to qualify ‘leadership’ is more likely to trigger a staged response.

When gauging authentic leadership it's important to take the time to make your questions unique and fresh from other interview questions. The best answers are candid recollections of relevant experiences and not rehearsed responses they may be prepared for, like the inevitable “how would you define leadership” question.


Step 3: Develop an Evaluation Rubric

Finally, make sure to prepare a detailed evaluation rubric for your competency-based assessment. While there are many benefits to using an evaluation rubric, the most important is that it will allow your reviewers to gauge the degree to which an applicant posses the given competency using rigidly defined criteria.

See an example rubric for leadership as defined above:

A sample Leadership Rubric with poor to exceptional ratings

Without a rubric, you open up your review process to significant subjectivity and biases. When integrating competency-based assessments into your admissions process, it’s critical for your review process to be fair and defensible. If an applicant is not accepted to your program, could you hand them a rubric and explain exactly where they would need to improve to be accepted in your program? When you reach that level of transparency, you’ll be able to come to a fair consensus with your team.

Want more like this? Sign up for the Master of Graduate School Admissions.