Darden strives to identify and cultivate leaders who follow their purpose. At this stage, how would you describe your evolving leadership style and please provide an example.
So it’s already December and we haven’t managed to update our UVA Darden SnarkStrategies Guide for the Class of 2021 application. Thus, in an effort to face reality and admit that that full update may not happen this season, we’re going to attempt to provide some value to those of you interested in applying to Darden by posting about this Darden question today.
Even though there have been many changes at Darden this year compared to how they’ve run admissions in the past, including a new Early Action option that they had not had before, the actual content that they’re asking for from you as an applicant to their full-time program is almost all the same as it’s been for many years running. (Because of that, last year’s Darden guide actually would still likely be valuable, because it covers a lot of the same questions that are asked in the app this year too.)
The main new item in their app this year is this question about leadership. Let’s break it down, shall we?
First, we’ll notice the phrase “evolving leadership style.” That’s simply a nod to the fact that you’re applying business school ostensibly to learn about leadership, which automatically presumes that you don’t yet know everything. The adcom is recognizing that with this phrasing, and that means two things:
1. You don’t have to have the most top-notch 4-Star General type story of leadership in this essay; the adcom knows you’re still early in your career and learning about such things.
2. They’ll still expect you to be able to talk about leadership in the context of what you hope to gain out of the Darden MBA. That may not need to come out in this essay but hopefully you’ll be prepared to at least offer something on the topic in an interview later on.
In other words, they don’t expect you to be a fully-formed leader already with a totally established and self-understood leadership style today. But they do need you to do some reflection to figure out what you’ve done in the past that can illustrate your strengths in this area.
Nope, not easy! Even very experienced leaders might have trouble articulating the ways that they lead.
To start to unpack this, the first point to make is a recognition of the differences between management and leadership. We’ll direct you to this post that discusses an actual draft of a Kellogg essay with some salient points on these differences.
Next, when you think through your possible topics to use for this essay, examine them to make sure that they’re going to let you show leadership.
If you have multiple ideas or several possible topics to choose from, then give preference to stories that are a) more recent, ideally within the last 18 months; and b) involve other people — in fact, this may be a mandatory requirement in this case.
After all, this question is asking for “leadership style” and how can you have a style of leadership if there’s no one being led? Frequently we see stories that are supposed to be in response to some prompt about “leadership” yet they’re missing any mention of any other person at all. That’s a head-scratcher.
On the recency point, the one exception where it might work to use a more dated story is if you were in a prominent leadership role on a team during college, such as rugby or softball or soccer (football). Or maybe tennis, though in that case the “team lead” is kind of a different dynamic than it is for a team sport situation. But regardless, if and only if you have a high-impact story from a long time ago that clearly illustrates what you know to be your leadership style today then sure, it possibly could work here. But if you go that far back for the core story, you need to tell it quickly, and you’ll also need to layer in something else that’s much more current, even if it’s not to the same level of detail.
So the structure would be to first open with some characterization or qualification of what you think your leadership style is; then go into a full paragraph giving a story of you in action, as that type of leader. If you’re using a long-ago story as the core of the essay, then giving some sense of why you’ve chosen to go that far back, in terms of how that leadership style developed, where you learned it, how you consciously acquired those skills, would be necessary.
Otherwise, stick to a story from the not-so-long-ago time, and then provide a takeaway message for how that experience taught you something about how you lead. Did it turn a lightbulb on for you about something critical to leadership? You can even use the “lessons learned” technique here as a way to offer greater insight for your reader.
That type of comment can actually make the essay come across more authentically. So often, we see people present their content in an essay like this where they announce in definitive terms, “My leadership style is X” but they never explain how they discovered this for themselves, or where they learned it, or how the understanding came about. Most people in the world don’t have their leadership style pre-identified, and ready to serve up on a plate. Yet when they’re asked to write about such topic in an essay, they present it in terms that sound rather silly. Just make sure that the way you talk about yourself and your style in this essay doesn’t make the reader think that you’re going to pull up in your Rolls and ask for some Grey Poupon out the window. Tone will really matter a lot in how you make your case in this essay.
So to recap the approach we recommend in figuring out how to answer this question:
1. Brainstorm all the examples where you brought impact to another group of people in some context, preferably recently, where results were quantified and/or the outcomes can be described easily, where it was your efforts that created those positives
2. Spend time reflecting on each one of them, to see if you can articulate what you did specifically that demonstrates leadership, and from those actions, what it says about the style, or methods, or techniques or approach that you used.
3. When you’ve identified the example that best captures the way you made the impact happen (remember, involving these other people who you were leading at the time), then distill it further into a one sentence statement that encapsulates the essence of this style. Use that to introduce the story, in answer to the question.
4. Then go into the detailed example of what you did, laying things out in chronological order, with a focus on your actions and your interactions with others, in a way that will prove that this style is how you operate.
Do you need to tie this to Darden? No, not at all. They haven’t asked you to, and it’s a super short essay without any room for extras, and anyway, Darden doesn’t really want to see that type of material in the app. They expect you to be conversant in all of hose reasons when it
comes time for the interview.
Leadership is one of those slippery concepts. There’s not one definition; it can mean many things. This is both liberating and totally frustrating all at the same time. Do some brainstorming on what it means to you. Think about the people you’ve observed in your life who demonstrate positive qualities of leadership, and see if you can articulate why you admire and respect them. How do they operate? What do they do differently? Or, you can think about examples of people who don’t have this skill, who you’ve observed make mistakes, and reflect on what they did wrong, then think of an example of how you behaved the opposite and were able to be successful as a result.
Your example can be from any domain, professional or extracurricular, though we have a slight preference for professional stories for this one (though it’s not a rule). It should however be more recent unless you have a compelling reason to go further back in your life. Most important will be for the reader to easily see: WHO were you leading, how did they respond to your leadership, where is the PROOF of what you are characterizing to be your style and how can you show that it was the reason for the success or effectiveness you achieved in this case.
Not a terribly easy topic, but not an impossible one either. Poke around in the snarchives for our other discussions of leadership, and achievement, and also of course the “show, don’t tell” category. All of these should help you with insights into what goes into this type of essay and how to make it work most effectively.
If you have questions, lay ’em on us! If you want your essay reviewed, then the Single Shot Express is available, or you can go for the full Essay Decimator if you want the other collection of answers critiqued alongside it as well.
More tips on the Darden School Info page too!
And good luck with Darden — one of our favorite schools!