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3 Tips to Develop Leadership Skills as a College Student

Developing strong leadership skills is an essential part of your success both in and out of the classroom. As you make your transition from college to career and beyond, it’s incredibly important you get comfortable taking leadership roles. For some, this may directly show in a role as a people manager. For others, leadership may show itself in more implicit ways - offering suggestions in a meeting, handling conflict among peers, or running a project task within a larger team. All of these are examples of leadership. But what does it mean to be a leader? And how can you become one?

The National Association of Colleges and Employers Job Outlook 2023 reports that among employers, strong teamwork ability is the number 2 most sought after skill for incoming early-talent hires. Leadership, by definition, is a teamwork-based skill. Here is our best tips to help you develop your leadership skills and become the successful leader you were meant to be. Let's dive in!

Tip #1: Take initiative

Taking initiative is an important leadership skill that can set you apart from others. It means being proactive and taking action without being told to do so. This could involve volunteering for projects, leading a study group, or starting a new club either at your university or on the job. When you take initiative, you show that you're not afraid to take on challenges and that you're willing to put in the work to make things happen.

To take initiative, you need to be confident in yourself and your abilities. Don't be afraid to take risks and put yourself out there. Your manager will take notice if you frequently volunteer for tasks, ask questions on how to improve your work, and you’re willing to go above and beyond. If you're not sure where to start, look for opportunities that align with your interests and skills. This might mean asking your manager or internship program director for additional opportunities to get in involved at the company. In school, try looking for student organizations or research opportunities in your areas of interest. For example, if you're passionate about sustainability, you could start a recycling program on campus or organize a fundraiser for a local environmental organization alongside a student organization at your university.

You can showcase your initiative by having these tasks and roles showcased front and center on your resume and in how you respond to interview questions. By strategically integrating relevant experiences and achievements into your resume and interview responses, you can showcase your problem-solving skills, leadership abilities, and commitment to driving positive change. When it comes to the hiring process (or promotions down the road) be sure to show your initiative with detailed answers and examples vs tell your initiative with simply a line on your resume Whether it's through quantifiable accomplishments or impactful stories, your proactive attitude will undoubtedly position you as a top candidate and greatly enhance your chances of landing your dream job.

Tip #2: Develop strong communication skills

Good communication is essential for any team. Being able to effectively convey your ideas and listen to the ideas of others is crucial for successful collaboration. As a leader, it’s no different. When you communicate well, you build trust, foster relationships, and inspire others to work towards a common goal.

One important aspect that can often be overlooked in good communication is active listening. Active listening means fully focusing on what the other person is saying, asking questions, and clarifying any misunderstandings. When you actively listen, you show that you respect the other person's perspective and are open to different ideas. With a solid understanding of what the other person is truly saying, you can respond and build consensus or quickly solve problems. Good communication flows in both directions!

You can build strong communication skills in several ways. One piece of advice I received when starting my professional journey was to watch and listen to a leader who showcases strong communication skills. If you have a manager, student organization leader, or professor who you admire, watch and take notes on how they communicate. Try to model their application of communication in your everyday life. You can go out and find some of the opportunities listed above to apply these learnings.

Before you know it, you’ll have taken notes from someone else, put them into practice and developed your own set of communication tools to apply on your own. Your unique communication style will lead others to want to work with you and potentially to emulate your style in their own communication skill development.

Tip #3: Build a habit of personal development

Part of being a leader is constantly evolving as challenges come and go. You will constantly be put in new, unknown situations. Treat these challenges as an opportunity to grow and you’ll be all the better for it. Self-growth and personal development comes from your ability to seek out new learning and the people you surround yourself with.

To take charge of your own personal development, select one personal development book (or an interesting topic and an insightful article) at a time and try diving in. If you are not a big non-fiction or self-help reader, that’s okay. You can try something and find what works for you. It could be a book (I suggest you start with Range by David Epstein), a magazine subscription (the Harvard Business Review is great resource and many of their articles land on the free website as well), a research website (I suggest the KelloggInsight from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwester), or even a podcast. Get your brain working on learning a new topic. Integrate occasional reflection before and after into your process and you’ll be adding new tools to your tool belt in no time.

The second driver for personal growth is your network. Your network can provide you with support, advice, and opportunities for growth as well as a guide for how to model your own development. To build a strong network, start by getting involved on campus. Join clubs, attend events, and meet new people. Don't be afraid to reach out to alumni or professionals in fields that interest you. LinkedIn is a great tool for connecting with people in your desired industry outside campus.

Investing in yourself and in the people around you is important in building a habit of self-development. By dedicating time, effort, and resources to your personal growth, you create a cycle of continuous development. When you commit to learning and expanding your skills, you not only enhance your own capabilities but also inspire and encourage those in your circle to do the same.

Develop your leadership skills as a path toward post-graduation success

Developing your leadership skills as a college student is an ongoing process that requires dedication and effort. Your journey toward being a leader, wherever you apply those skills, will not stop once you’ve mastered these tips. By taking advantage of opportunities to lead, seeking feedback, and continuously learning and growing, you can become a more effective and confident leader. Remember to be authentic, communicate effectively, and prioritize collaboration and teamwork. With these skills in your toolbox, you'll be well-equipped to tackle any challenge that comes your way and make a positive impact in your personal and professional life.

Best of luck - and don’t forget that participating in an Internship on Demand pre-internship is a great opportunity to learn and practice some key leadership skills. Check out active programs page to find your ideal opportunity:

Internship on Demand bridges the gap between college and career through hands-on work experience at today's most innovative companies. We design, build, and manage tailored pre-internships to reduce recruiting spend, cut training time, and improve intern conversion and employee retention.

Find and apply to our current pre-internship programs here →

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