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    Letters of Recommendation: How to Demonstrate Leadership

    3 Minutes Read

    Letters of recommendation are an essential part of your college application process. They contextualize your application from an outside perspective and show the degree to which you have earned the respect of the people around you, including the teachers and counselor you will actually ask to write on your behalf.

    A lot of people don't realize this, but when an admissions committee reviews a college application, beyond grades and test scores, they are really looking for evidence of your character and authenticity. In fact, The Common App specifically ask recommenders to assess sixteen separate, yet highly interrelated aspects of your character:


    The letter of recommendation could discuss your development in any one of these areas in more detail so you want to select letter writers that will be able to comment on most, if not all of these to a certain degree. For example, one of your teachers could write a glowing review of your initiative, but another would be better able to comment on the quality of your writing.

    Leadership is a key quality that is worth discussing in this context. Not all students think of themselves as a leader, but every student can demonstrate leadership—maybe just not in the way they might think.


    How to Demonstrate Leadership

    Many students believe they can only demonstrate leadership by acquiring titles and positions, such as Class President, Editor of the student newspaper, or Captain of a team.

    Earning a title is an example of obtaining “absolute power,” meaning others have granted you the power to make decisions for a group. Citing examples of absolute power can never hurt your chances for admission, but they don’t necessarily signal authenticity and that you’ll be a leader in college and beyond.

    The best way to demonstrate leadership is through "referent power," the power that comes to you by earning the respect of your peers. Many people who obtain absolute power also have referent power, but not always.

    Everyone can demonstrate leadership abilities by setting an example and showing that they'll never ask anyone else to do something they wouldn't be willing to do themselves. Some of the best leaders hold no titles at all—their peers refer to them because they've demonstrated that they have a keen intellect, empathy, compassion, and good judgment.

    To obtain great letters of recommendation from your teachers, you must first earn their respect by demonstrating your leadership abilities in the classroom. Two ways to do this are by conveying intellectual promise and taking an active role in group activities.

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    Using Intellectual Promise to Convey Leadership

    If you are engaged with the class material and generate productive class discussions by being prepared to both ask insightful questions and provide thoughtful responses to the questions of others, the rest of the students in your class will begin to look to you as a subject matter expert. When you are perceived this way, you’ll earn the respect of your classmates, as well as that of your teacher.

    In this type of leadership role, you have no direct authority over any of the people in your class. And yet, you have tremendous influence over them because of the respect that you’ve earned. Do not fear that being wrong once in a while will jeopardize this. Allowing others to see you genuinely think your way through a difficult concept will increase their respect. Do not underestimate the power of vulnerability.

    Your teacher will be more likely to call on you to lead class discussions, and your classmates will be more willing to refer to you with questions about the subject matter. When you ask for a letter of recommendation, your teachers will have clear evidence of your leadership in class and be able to provide multiple meaningful examples.

    Leading Group Activities

    Another opportunity to demonstrate your leadership abilities is in group activities. Sometimes a group leader is designated by the teacher. But often, the group selects a leader in the natural flow of the activity. The group leader may set the tone for the group and make critical decisions. However, the mark of a true leader is when that person helps every member of the group stay engaged.

    Often in group activities, there will be at least one student who is less engaged than the others. While you may be tempted to approach your teacher because your peer isn’t pulling their weight, a better leadership strategy is to speak to that person directly. Try to fully understand where he or she is coming from and if possible help them solve their problem.

    This can be challenging, but you'll demonstrate your empathy, plus willingness and ability to work well with others. Sometimes, students don't contribute to group activities because they are shy, anxious, or they don't have a firm grasp of the material.

    These are all challenges you can help them overcome. We all want to be recognized and appreciated by others, so when you take the time to really know that person, they will often become inspired to work hard for you. Your teacher will see a true leader helping others realize their potential.


    Evaluation of college applicants is a holistic process. Admissions officials are interested in a student’s entire character, not just their grades, test scores, and resume. Letters of recommendation are an opportunity to demonstrate that you are an individual of strong character whom people respect and turn to for answers.

    From a leadership perspective, letters of recommendation can show that you are not only capable of handling authority, but that you also have the humility and empathy necessary to work with others. Look to the teachers and mentors who know you best, but especially those who have witnessed at least some of your authentic leadership abilities.


    Princeton College Consulting is an educational consulting firm that helps students and families successfully navigate the holistic admission process. In addition to academic, extra-curricular, and college essay guidance, our team of counselors mentor students through the process of developing their character and earning powerful letters of recommendation. Contact us to learn more.

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