5 Tips to Show Leadership Potential in the MBA Application

January 14, 2022 | by Matt Symonds

Are you applying to an elite business school this fall? If so, the most important thing you can start doing now is to cultivate your leadership potential.

From Harvard to Haas, the MBA admissions office wants to better understand your leadership potential – how you have led a team project, mentored others, created positive impact, gone beyond yourself. These kinds of experiences create a compelling picture of your leadership potential, as business schools champion the logic that past behavior is the best predictor of future performance. You’ll need to show them what you hope to offer your MBA community, its alumni network of global leaders, and the world.

5 Tips for Positioning Your Leadership Potential to Business Schools

1. Identify stories of specific scenarios.

Schools take the perspective that past performance is the best predictor of future potential. You will need to refer to some clear, concrete examples of leadership in your MBA application. What kinds of stories best convey your leadership style and potential? Here are some questions as a starting point:

  • A project you initiated (from action to outcome)
  • When you identified an opportunity (from action to result)
  • A time you made an impact
  • The most challenging team project you led, and how you ensured its success

With some examples in mind, begin to sketch your stories from the big picture to detail, but make sure you can set the scene and get to the point quickly. You should be able to convey what you did, why you did it, the impact on others, and the final outcome. Think about recent, positive situations and make sure your stories have a beginning, middle, and end.

2. Demonstrate your experience. 

If you have had explicit leadership experience at work, say, in team management – so much the better. But not all pre-MBA positions offer supervision roles (for example, those of you working in finance may be in advisory positions where people management isn’t required). Offer examples outside of work where you’ve demonstrated leadership acumen – from athletics or community involvement to volunteer positions. It’s a great opportunity to showcase another part of your background and experience. If you’ve been active on a sports team or local board, this is a way to highlight that interest as well as your leadership qualities. For example:

  • How have you been someone’s mentor?
  • How do you describe your mentorship style?
  • When have you garnered resources for an initiative you believed in?
  • How did you influence a decision or steward a process that made a big impact?
  • Where have you stepped up to ensure the success of a group or outcome?

Think about how you might invite leadership opportunities at work, for example, by taking the initiative on a project that is over and above your regular scope of work. If appropriate, don’t hesitate to let your supervisors know that you’re considering business school and are looking for opportunities to build stand-out experience into your resume. It means you’ll be top of mind when they are seeking team members to take on additional responsibilities.

3. Map your core skills.

When thinking about how to present your leadership experience in your application, it can be useful to break down leadership into elemental skills. Reflect on these six elements:

  • Strategic thinking – in what ways are you action-oriented, focusing on results while keeping your eyes on a bigger vision beyond your team and company?
  • Results focused – are you able to be effective, efficient, and evolutionary in terms of both process and product?
  • Team leadership – from management to mentoring, how do you foster collaboration and inspire action?
  • Partnership building – in what ways to you seek synergies that amplify impact, from within your own team to relationship building across teams and sectors?
  • Communication – can you present complexity in a clear and compelling way, and are you skilled at adapting your message to specific audiences and motivating others?
  • Development – have you gone beyond your own personal and professional development to grow and retain talent? Are you skilled at identifying and harnessing the strengths of others?

You should ideally have some examples that showcase different aspects of leadership for each of the elements above.

4. Invest in meaningful extracurriculars.

Your personal interests can speak to leadership qualities that extend beyond managing people or teams within the office. To echo a skillfully made point in Caroline’s recent article on how to maximize your MBA application process now, “how you articulate your extracurricular involvement contributes to your overall story. Ideally, well-positioned extracurriculars will clarify and reinforce your passions, involvement in the community, and commitment to pursuits outside of work.” This is not about tallying one-off experiences like volunteering at a soup kitchen on Thanksgiving or donating money to a nonprofit once a year. It’s about cultivating a solid track record of commitment to the causes, projects, issues, or affiliations you care deeply about. So if your resume is light on extracurriculars, now is the time to invest.

So what does that look like? Growing your leadership skills begins with finding and pursuing things you enjoy. Fortuna’s Judith Silverman Hodara, former head of Wharton Admissions, offers this example: “A recent client started a campus literary journal to give voice to underrepresented students after seeing the lack of diversity among existing university publications. The project – which she hatched as an undergrad – connected to what she ended up pursuing academically, and it’s something she continued online after graduation.”

This is an excellent example of leadership potential – incubating a new idea, bringing people together, and addressing a gap in her community that created a lasting impact. It’s also something she’s been dedicated to over time, evidencing the candidate’s passion and commitment.

5. What can others say about you? 

It’s important to be your own best advocate, but what do others say about you? Prime the pump with your recommenders to back up your best stories and lift up your leadership qualities and skills. Your MBA letters of recommendation should reinforce your claims about your leadership skills and style. For instance, if you cite an example of when you demonstrated leadership on a particular project, it gives you greater credibility if your recommender also refers to this example and discusses the attributes you demonstrated.

Yes, you need analytical acumen and creative instincts. But the MBA is about so much more. “Really, business school should be called leadership school,” says Judith. “The most important qualities for catalyzing meaningful change across the industries that shape our everyday lives have to do with inspiring innovation, galvanizing support, motivating others, and collaborating in service of a greater – often audacious – goal.”

Business school isn’t just about creating decision-makers – it’s about creating leaders and global citizens.


Fortuna Admissions Co-Founder and Director Matt Symonds is Business education industry expert and columnist for Forbes, The Economist, BusinessWeek, the BBC, among other publications. For more free advice and a personal, candid assessment of your chances, you can sign up now for a free consultation.

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