The Atlantic

Why Are American Colleges Obsessed With 'Leadership'?

What's wrong with being a follower? Or a lone wolf?
Source: USA Today Sports / Reuters

Earlier this month, more than 700,000 students submitted the Common Application for college admissions. They sent along academic transcripts and SAT scores, along with attestations of athletic or artistic success and—largely uniform—bodies of evidence speaking to more nebulously-defined characteristics: qualities like—to quote the Harvard admissions website—“maturity, character, leadership, self-confidence, warmth of personality, sense of humor, energy, concern for others and grace under pressure.”

Why are American colleges so interested in leadership? On the Harvard admissions website quoted above, leadership is listed third: just after two more self-evident qualities. So too the Yale website, which quotes former Yale president Kingman Brewster's assessment 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 [or she] ends up doing.” Our goals remain the same today” before going on to stress that “We are looking for students we can help to become the leaders of their generation in whatever they wish to pursue.”

The language of Princeton is : “We look for qualities that will help [students] become leaders in their fields and in their communities.” (So too Princeton's admissions website, which lists leadership prominently in its section on extracurriculars: “We look for students who make a difference in their schools and communities, so tell us about your leadership activities, interests, special skills and other extracurricular involvements.”) In his study Jacques Steinberg describes how the admissions officers at Wesleyan scored the “personal” section of an applicant's portfolio: “A 9 [out of 9] at Wesleyan...someone 'sure to “have significant impact on campus in leadership roles”; a 7 or 6 would be assigned to someone who was “likely to be a leader in some areas, contributor to many.”

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