8 Ways to Gain Leadership Experience in High School
- What Counts as Leadership Experience?
- Why do Colleges Care About Leadership?
- How Do Colleges Evaluate Extracurriculars?
- 10 Ways to Get Leadership Experience in High School
“Leadership” is one of those buzzwords that you see and hear a lot as you start thinking about college applications. But how do you get leadership experience? Is it as simple as running for office in student government? What if you aren’t interested in student government? What if you’re shy? What if you don’t know where to start?
Leadership experience is important, but luckily, it comes in all shapes and sizes. You don’t have to be outgoing, popular, or gifted to be a leader. There is something for everyone!
Read on for our leadership recommendations.
What Counts as Leadership Experience?
Leadership experience is any position of authority you hold—whether it be outward-facing or behind-the-scenes, formal or informal, in your personal life or academic life. It is any experience where you guide others, initiate change, or make a difference that otherwise would not have been made.
Formal leadership experiences include things like:
- Holding a student government position
- Being editor of the school newspaper
- Being captain of a sports team
Informal leadership experiences include things like:
- Hosting a community cleanup day with your close friends
- Mentoring a family friend who is in elementary school
- Being respected and looked up to at an after-school job
While the definition of leadership can be stretched and bent, if you take it too far, it can also break. As you identify leadership experiences, think about the following questions:
- Did I work with others and guide them in a productive direction?
- Would this project/initiative have looked different without my involvement?
- Was I influential?
Why do Colleges Care About Leadership?
Colleges are interested in accepting students that will make them look good in 20, 30, and even 50 years. They want their graduates to reflect well on their institution.
Because of this, they accept students based on their potential for success. Leadership is an indicator of success. It means that the people around you—friends, peers, teachers, and mentors—saw your skills and decided to put their confidence in you. This makes colleges more likely to do the same.
Additionally, the qualities that facilitate leadership experience in high school are qualities that colleges seek out: dependability, taking the initiative, efficiency, management, problem-solving, and teamwork.
How Do Colleges Evaluate Extracurriculars?
Universities accept students with strong extracurricular profiles. To conceptualize this, it is important that you understand the Four Tiers of Extracurricular Activities. Colleges and universities divide extracurriculars into four categories that allow them to quickly evaluate the quality and depth of each applicant’s extracurriculars.
- Tier 1 includes the most impactful activities. These are rare and demonstrate exceptional achievement and leadership, such as earning national recognition in athletics or winning a prestigious national competition.
- Tier 2 activities also show great achievement and leadership, but are more common than those of Tier 1. These activities include state-level recognition in athletics, winning a regional competition, or holding a leadership position in a well-known club.
- Tier 3 extracurriculars demonstrate your interests but don’t carry the same weight as those in the tiers above. For example, playing a varsity sport or holding a minor leadership position in a well-established club.
- Tier 4 is home to the least distinguished and influential activities, such as playing a sport or participating in a club.
Ideally, students should have one or two Tier 1-2 activities that show their leadership skills and work ethic, supplemented by a few Tier 3-4 activities. Remember that having more activities is not always better. Instead, have a smaller number of activities that you have dedicated extensive time and effort to.
As you choose your extracurriculars, think about what will show your leadership potential and work ethic to admissions officers. Put your extracurriculars into CollegeVine’s free chancing engine, which will help you categorize your extracurriculars into Tiers and will tell you how your profile stacks up against students who get admitted to your dream school.
10 Ways to Get Leadership Experience in High School
1. Join student government
One obvious way to gain leadership experience in high school is to join student government—also called student council, student union, associated student body, or student parliament. This choice is great for students who are outgoing, well-liked, and willing to put themselves out there.
Running for student government mimics running for real-life government. It can be very competitive and intense. Credentials, campaigning, and speeches are important.
With regard to credentials, having prior leadership experience is helpful. This might look like a few smaller roles in other clubs or rapport you have gained with your classmates over the years.
Campaigning involves building a strong team that will have a strategy to get you elected. This aspect of student government makes it particularly valuable for students interested in pursuing politics, diplomacy, or public affairs. Even if you don’t run for student government yourself, being on a campaign team is a unique experience that will help you improve your communication, negotiation, and teamwork skills.
One quick note: Unfortunately, at some schools, success in student government is related to popularity or socioeconomic status. For example, students who advertise with things like t-shirts, buttons, stickers, or candy, might have better chances at success at the polls. If this is the case at your school, you should read on to learn about more accessible leadership opportunities that may be better suited for you. We’ve got plenty!
2. Become a club officer
If student government doesn’t sound right for you, you can become an officer of a club specific to your interests. In most cases, clubs hold internal elections where general members run for positions like:
- Vice President
- Outreach Chair
- Head of Public Relations
- Philanthropy Lead
While you will still have to campaign for these positions, the pool of voters is smaller and competition might be less intense.
Taking on a leadership position within a club should be particularly appealing for students who are confident in their prospective career path. You can use this type of leadership experience to show admissions officers that you are already planning for your future.
For example, a student who is declaring English Literature as their major might run for President of the Literary Society. A student declaring Mechanical Engineering as their major might run for a leadership position in the Robotics Club. As you apply for colleges, you can use these experiences as evidence of your commitment to your field.
On the other hand, if you aren’t sure of your career path or are active in a club unrelated to your career path, still run for a leadership position, but be thoughtful about which position you run for.
For example, if you love Spanish and are interested in Communications, Public Relations, or Journalism, run for Head of Public Relations for the Spanish Club. If you love cooking and are interested in nonprofit work, run for Philanthropy Lead and use your position as an opportunity to partner with local shelters and kitchens to learn about the behind-the-scenes of NGOs. These experiences can make for great college essays that humanize you by showing your unique interests, while also showing the skills you’ve learned through those interests.
Keep in mind that leadership positions in some clubs go by different names. For example, being an editor for your school newspaper, a lead witness for your school’s mock trial team, or a project lead for your school’s maker’s club are all leadership roles. As you apply to colleges, you will have the opportunity to identify these as leadership experiences and explain your role in your organizations.
3. Show leadership by action
Leadership by action is one of our most unique ways to gain leadership experience. Students get back what they put into this form of leadership experience.
Leadership by action involves improving upon an already-existing extracurricular activity at your school. The best way to do this is to suggest a major addition or improvement to a club and then ask permission to oversee its development.
Some examples include:
- Planning a field trip to an important site for a history club
- Building an onboarding program for a community service club
- Finding a lower-priced supplier for a gardening club
- Creating a community outreach initiative for an environmental club
- Setting up a curated online research library for a debate club
- Planning a cultural heritage night for a cultural club
Your initiative could ultimately turn into a formal leadership role within the organization, but even if it doesn’t, you can list it in the Activities section of your Common Application or write a compelling essay about your ability to take the initiative and seek out opportunities for growth.
Leadership by action is great for creative students who don’t like traditional roles or structures. If you choose to gain your leadership experience in this way, you must be able to self-motivate and hold yourself accountable.
Leadership by action can also be a way to make the most of losing a formal election within a club. Read more about leadership in action to improve your extracurriculars.
4. Become a tutor/mentor
While most of the opportunities on this list involve leading people your own age, you should also consider giving back to those younger than you. One way to do this is through tutoring and mentoring.
Tutoring/mentoring can be done formally or informally. Formally, most high schools facilitate programs where high school students run after-school programs at their local elementary and middle schools. Over time, you might take on a larger role within these programs, scheduling other tutors and securing locations.
Informally, you can slowly take on a larger role within the life of a family friend, sibling, or a friend of a sibling. For example, if you are very involved with computer science and coding and see that your little brother’s best friend shows a similar interest, you might start to introduce them to higher-level concepts over time.
5. Start a club or publication
If your school doesn’t have a club you are interested in, take the opportunity to start it. As a founder of the club, you will naturally take on a leadership position. That said, starting your own club will take lots of time and energy, so make sure you are committed to the effort before you get started.
Keep in mind that, even if your school already has clubs related to your interest, you can start a club that is committed to a specific aspect of your interest.
For example, your school might have an Engineering Club, but they might not have a Racing Car Club. Your school might have a Women’s Studies Club, but they might not have a Sexual Wellness Club. Find your nuanced focus and do something different from the clubs that already exist.
We have plenty of guidance for you on how to start a club in high school. Major steps in the process include finding a faculty adviser, planning a budget, publicizing your club, and delegating duties and responsibilities.
6. Become captain of a sports team
The path to this leadership experience is rather self-explanatory. If you have shown promise in a particular sport, put in the work to become team captain.
While becoming team captain is, at least partially, talent-related (whether the captain is selected by the other players or the coach), it is important to note that the best player on a team is not always selected as captain. Specifically, the best player may lose out on the opportunity to be captain if they cause conflict within the team, struggle with speaking and motivating others, or have a bad attitude towards authority.
If you hope to become captain of your sports team, make sure to:
- Be well-respected and well-liked by your team
- Demonstrate strong public speaking skills
- Show a growth mindset
- Be on time to team events and practices
- Show respect towards higher-ups and authority figures
- Not get involved in drama or conflict
- Engage with your other team members and the community at large
- Not show off or be cocky
7. Volunteer, start an outreach campaign, or organize a fundraiser/community drive
Volunteering is a great way for students who aren’t as outgoing or vocal to gain leadership experience. That’s because rising the ranks of volunteering is a more informal process that doesn’t involve making posters, giving speeches, or running for a position.
Some opportunities you could get involved with include:
- Starting a publication to promote environmental awareness within your community
- Organizing a food, toy, or clothes drive
- Organizing park cleanups, beach cleanups, or environmental protection initiatives
- Creating a kids club to introduce concepts of social equity at an early age
- Building a community fridge, community garden, or community library
- Fundraising for an organization you care about
The specific roles and responsibilities you take on within your volunteer position will be less public-facing than holding office for a specific club. In fact, volunteering responsibilities often end up being administrative or logistical.
For example, if you choose to start a publication, you will show leadership by posting advertisements looking for writers, building your publication’s website, and curating content. If you choose to create a kids club, you will show leadership by working with local businesses to find a weekly meeting space, emailing school administrators to increase attendance, and scheduling your various presenters.
Over time, your volunteer initiative will likely grow in size and popularity. What you do with this growth is important. For example, you could expand your initiative to different schools across your state or branch into different fields (social activism, environmentalism, racial equity).
As you apply to schools, admissions officers will see your ability to seize an opportunity and will be impressed.
8. Get a job
Admissions officers love mature students who show high potential for career success. There is no better way to impress admissions officers than to hold a consistent job in high school!
Common jobs for high schoolers include:
- Food service
- Camp counselor
- Prep chef
Even more than having a job, you must take on leadership responsibilities within your job. For example, if you work as a prep chef, you might impress the head chef by creating a new station organization that increases efficiency in the kitchen. If you work as a barista and stay committed to your job over the years, you might eventually be given some supervising manager shifts.
It is these kinds of experiences that will ultimately make for a great humanizing essay during college admissions! Additionally, holding a consistent job in high school will help you accrue savings that will be valuable when financing your college experience.