What Leadership Looks Like

Leadership is an important aspect to the UC Berkeley culture. It’s in our DNA; after all, this is the home of the Free Speech Movement.

Berkeley students show initiative and leadership in many ways: founding clubs, contributing to the community, seeking scholarships, finding help with academics. They ask questions. They persist. They make this campus their own.

Demonstrated leadership is a characteristic Admissions looks for when reading applications. There are many other aspects of the application that are important (for more details about our selection process, see How Berkeley Selects Students), of course: academic achievement, performance on standardized tests, and other personal qualities of the applicant but leadership is a key aspect of being a Berkeley student and an important way to contribute to the campus. Yet, leadership is not a section listed within the application, nor is there a specific way we ask for you to list or explain leadership.

So, how do readers look for leadership within your application?

Leadership comes in many flavors. Here is a list of some of the many ways we define and view leadership within your application. The important thing to remember is that, when you list academics, activities, awards, employment; when you include Additional Comments; or when you answer your Personal Insight questions, consider how you may have demonstrated an aspect of leadership, initiative, tenacity, or persistence. Be sure to include those points in your answers.

Leadership in the home

Many applicants spend time taking care of their siblings, parents, or children. This can be viewed as a form of leadership. Maybe you are a high school student who watches your younger brother and sister after school, before your parents get home from work. Maybe you are a transfer applicant who cares for an elderly parent or grandparent. Maybe you work outside of school to help support your family. These are all ways in which you can show persistence and leadership, depending on your circumstances.

Leadership in school

Berkeley students are more than their test scores. We view grades and test scores in a holistic way; that is, we view them in the context of the applicant’s academic and personal circumstances and the overall strength of the Berkeley applicant pool.

Sometimes, applicants have circumstances that lead to a drop in grades: death or illness of a close family member; personal illness or injury; a major setback in the family’s housing or financial situation. Sometimes applicants are challenged in certain academic subjects.

It’s important for us to know about these situations, and, most critically, about how you dealt with the challenges. Hiring a tutor, dropping an activity to be able to keep up with coursework, repeating a class in the summer, seeking counseling — all of these are ways you might demonstrate leadership, maturity, and initiative.

We realize our applicants are competitive and do not always care to share failures or less-than-stellar achievements. Some applicants may find sharing personal details, especially about illness, as needing “special help,” or perhaps even as a cultural taboo.

Keep in mind that this information remains confidential. Also, when you provide this kind of context, you give us the opportunity to evaluate your application within the merits of your particular circumstances. Remember, too, that we do not look for reasons to “take away” or “deduct” from an application; we are looking for ways to build a case for selection.

Leadership in activities

Leadership doesn’t always mean you are the captain of the football team or class president (although those are great examples!). Think about your role in various aspects of your life: activities, hobbies, passions, employment, or volunteering. In what ways did you show leadership? Most importantly, how do these achievements figure into your academic and college goals? Did you lead a study group? Were you the first person in your family, school, or community to earn a certain achievement? Did you get promoted to head cashier at your after-school job? Did you start a book club (which relates to your desire to major in English), teach yourself to cook (which gave you an interest in nutrition), or figure out how to repair the family computer (which coincides with your goal to study computer science)? How you answer can show us your particular leadership qualities.

Be sure to show us persistence, too. This means we want to see that you participated in an activity (or activities) for a certain amount of time. List on your application that you played clarinet in the school band each year in high school, or that you led your child’s Girl Scout troop for several years. Persistence is a way you can demonstrate leadership.

Where in the application can you record these kinds of leadership details?

  1. Be specific when you list your achievements. Be complete in your coursework reporting. Give short descriptions when you list activities to explain an activity and your role and/or achievements.
  2. Personal Insight questions. Follow the instructions for the Personal Insight questions; be thoughtful about your answers. Tell us about your unique situation and how you can contribute to the UC Berkeley community.
  3. Additional Comments boxes. There are two Additional Comments boxes, one under “Academics” and one at the end of the Personal Insight questions section. Use these to answer anything that you have not already shared in other parts of the application.

Always consider how you can share your qualities of leadership, tenacity, persistence, or initiative — the hallmarks of a UC Berkeley student.


UC Berkeley Admissions application readers share their insight on how an applicant can demonstrate leadership, both inside and outside of the classroom.