Leadership Experience For Graduate Business Degrees

Demonstrating leadership potential is crucial to many grad programs

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If you're planning to apply to a graduate-level business program, you're going to need to be able to demonstrate that you've got leadership experience, or at a minimum, leadership potential. Many business schools, especially schools with top MBA programs, are focused on churning out leaders, so they look for MBA candidates who fit that mold. Leadership prowess is also important if you want to get a job in the business world after graduation. Read on to learn how to put your leadership skills in the best possible light.

What Is Leadership Experience?

Leadership experience is a general term used to describe your exposure to leading other people in various settings. If you've ever supervised others as part of your job, you have leadership experience. Leadership can occur outside of work as well. Maybe you helped to organize a food drive or another community-based project, or perhaps you've served as the captain of a sports team or academic group? These are examples of valuable leadership experience and are worth mentioning in an interview.

It's important to note that management and leadership are two different things. You don't have to be a manager to be a leader. You may have led other people on a work project or a team-based endeavor, even if you weren't technically in charge.

The flip side of that coin is that some managers are very poor leaders. If you've ever had to report to a manager who lacked leadership skills, a helpful exercise is to think of actionable ways you might have improved the situation because, at some point, you may be faced with a hypothetical question—in class or even on a job interview—describing a similar scenario and asked how you would have handled things differently. Teachers and employers use such questions as a measure of your problem-solving skills since they're are an essential component of being an effective leader.

Leadership Experience and Business School Applications

You already know that leadership is a quality most business schools are looking for in potential students, but nowhere is this truer than if you're applying to an Executive Master of Business Administration (EMBA) program. Unlike standard MBA programs, whose students are mostly full-time, EMBA programs are typically filled with mid-career professionals and executives. 

The opportunity to highlight your leadership experience can come up in several ways during the business school application process, so how do you demonstrate you're the kind of leader who's ready for the challenges of business school? Here are a few examples that can help you shine.

  • Resumé: Many graduate programs ask you to submit a resumé with your application, and it's a great place to highlight your leadership skills and experience—but don't simply list your experiences. Detail the concrete ways in which your leadership made a difference. Did sales go up? Did employee retention rise? Did your leadership improve the general work environment, streamline workflow, increase brand recognition, and so forth? (Be sure to include things such as dollar amounts, percentage rises, and any other measurable data to support your claims.)
  • Essay: Many business schools require candidates to write an application essay as part of the admissions process. In some cases, you'll be given an essay prompt related to leadership experience. Even if you're allowed to choose your own essay topic, discussing your experience is a good way to show that you have leadership potential and the ability to bring something to class that may benefit your peers. Again, don't just supply a list of your accomplishments, cite concrete detailed examples.
  • Interview: Not every business school requires candidates to take part in an admissions interview, but some do. If you're asked to participate in an interview, you should expect at least one question will be about your leadership experience or leadership potential. Be prepared. Think about your responses in advance. You might want to try your answers out on parent, peer, or friend in a mock interview to make sure you're on the mark.

10 Leadership Experience Questions to Ask Yourself

Before you begin detailing your leadership experience to others, you need to make sure you're giving the best examples. These 10 self-assessment questions will get you started. Just be sure to give examples that specifically describe the ways in which you accomplished these goals.

  1. How have I motivated others?
  2. Have I ever improved the performance of others?
  3. Have I been able to make use of other people's talents and skills?
  4. How have I addressed or helped other people to address their mistakes?
  5. Have I ever marshaled resources to overcome a problem I discovered?
  6. In what way have I built on an organization's success?
  7. Have I ever helped a team to articulate a vision?
  8. How have I helped other people adapt to a new situation?
  9. What methods have I used to boost morale within an organization?
  10. How have I helped others overcome challenges in their personal or professional life?

Remember, leadership experience isn't always necessarily about what you've done—it's about what you've helped other people do.