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It has become a truism in contemporary America that college students believe they are more prepared for the workplace than they actually are, according to their employers.  Whatever you might feel about vanishing on-the-job training and outrageous demands for entry-level work experience, the fact is that employers, and not students, decide where to set the bar.  Therefore, it is extremely important, both for getting your first job and for getting into graduate school, that you demonstrate a track record of the qualities employers want to see.  Here are a few big ones.

Problem Solving.  Most college courses expect you to listen to a limited range of problems and apply prescribed solutions to them.  The working environment, as students quickly find out, is an altogether different animal.  Tasks are open-ended, not self-contained.  Measurements of job performance are unscientific and qualitative — does your boss ‘feel’ like you did a good job?  When applying to graduate school, it is very important to use your essays, particularly those with a leadership or accomplishment angle, to demonstrate your ability to proactively find solutions to entrenched problems.  No one is going to be impressed by you doing precisely what was expected of you.  They will, however, be impressed by you seeing a problem, taking the initiative and solving it, despite whatever obstacles stood in your way.

Perseverance.  In college, if you’re not doing well in a class, you can appeal to a professor, leave a class and not bother with it, or find any number of other ways around the problem.  In the workforce, when you’re presented with a problem, walking away is not an option.  They expect solutions.  In your essays, be prepared to write candidly about mistakes you have made, failed approaches to solving a particular problem.  Then explain how you were able to adapt and ultimately overcome the difficulties you faced.

Comfort with people. 
Another thing conventional colleges do not train students in is how to most effectively collaborate with peers, bosses and employees — since the approach for each is different.  Some students are naturally thoughtful, inquisitve and courteous, but others, especially those with STEM backgrounds, may not be.  Between college and graduate school, it is expected that you will pick up on some of the basics of ‘getting along’ with others.  To be a strong leader, of course, you need to be able to motivate others in pursuit of a shared goal.  This is another vital aspect of any great leadership essay.

Of course, these are only a few of the many qualities employers and graduate schools look for in students, but they are some of the most important.  So start thinking about how you can adapt your leadership essays to highlight one or more of these qualities!

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