Columbia University Essay Example: Breakdown + Analysis
Columbia is an Ivy League school in NYC with a 6.1% acceptance rate. Like most other competitive schools, Columbia has supplemental prompts where students can demonstrate parts of their life that aren’t present in other portions of their application.
Cornell requires four short-answer list questions, and two short essays. Engineering applicants and Columbia College applicants have an additional essay, and Dual BA applicants also have another essay. These supplemental prompts offer you a chance to both showcase your unique personality, demonstrate your goals, and underscore your interest in the university. Many applicants to selective colleges like Columbia have stellar grades and test scores, so the essays can help you stand out from other candidates with the same stats.
In this post, we’ll break down a Columbia essay prompt, and explain what admissions officers are looking for. We’ll then go over an example essay from a real applicant, analyzing what they did well, and what could be improved.
Columbia University Essay Prompt
For applicants to Columbia College, please tell us what from your current and past experiences (either academic or personal) attracts you specifically to the field or fields of study that you noted in the Member Questions section. If you are currently undecided, please write about any field or fields in which you may have an interest at this time. (300 words or less)
You may have already seen this “Why This Major?” prompt, as it’s one of the most common supplemental essays. This particular prompt is designed to gauge your interest in your prospective major, and to a lesser extent, why Columbia is a great school to support your academic goals. Admissions officers are looking to see what drew you to your major, and are searching for a genuine propensity to the subject and authentic love of learning.
Reflect on the experiences that led you to choose your major, and maybe even include an anecdote or two in your essay. Did you decide to study Creative Writing because of your love for memoir writing, and its ability to connect people? You might share the story of the first time you were published, and how many people reached out to you to say they resonated with your writing. Or, maybe you want to major in Mathematics and Statistics because you see data as a powerful tool for storytelling. You could describe a time you used data to reveal educational disparities in your school district, which informed future policy to rectify these disparities.
When choosing reasoning behind your major, there are several “trip wires” that should be avoided at all costs. For example, future job salaries or family expectations might be valid reasons for pursuing your major, but it is best to omit these types of statements and focus more on what personally draws you to the subject.
Finally, you’ll want to describe how this major will help you achieve your professional goals. Do you want to become a data scientist in an NGO? Do you want to become a writer? If you’re able to cite specific Columbia resources that can help you reach these goals, that will also boost your essay. For instance, maybe there are internships or courses that speak specifically to the skills you want to develop.
Columbia University Sample Essay
The flickering LED lights began to form into a face of a man when I focused my eyes. The man spoke a ruthless serial killer of the decade who had been arrested in 2004, and my parents shivered at his reaccounting of the case. I curiously tuned in, wondering who he was to speak of such crimes with concrete composure and knowledge. Later, he introduced himself as a profiler named Pyo Chang Won, and I watched the rest of the program by myself without realizing that my parents had left the couch.
After watching the program, I recited the foreign word until it was no longer unfamiliar—”profiler”. I stayed up all-night searching the meaning; my eyes sparkled with the dim light of the monitor as I read the tales of Pyo Chang Won and his Sherlock-like stories. From predicting the future of criminals and knowing the precise vicinity of a killer on the loose, he had saved countless lives; living in communities riddled with crimes in my youth then and even now, I dreamed of working against crimes. However, the traditional path of a lawyer or a police officer only reinforced the three-step cycle of arrest, trial, and jail which continued with no fundamental changes for years; I wanted to work with the psyche of criminals beyond courts and wondered about the inner workings of the mind.
Such admiration and interest led me to invest my time in psychology. Combined with working with the likes of the Victim Witness Agency, I decided to pursue psychology as my major for my undergraduate education. Later on, I want to specialize my research and education on behavioral/forensic psychology and eventually branch out to my childhood dream of becoming a criminal profiler.
Breaking Down This Columbia Essay Example
“The flickering LED lights began to form into a face of a man when I focused my eyes.”
This essay starts off in medias res, with an anecdote that explains how the student got into this subject. The imagery of the flickering LED and the details about the specific show are prime examples of how to include descriptive content into your essay. Including these types of details will make your story more immersive and interesting to readers. This also establishes a small scene that shows, rather than tells, how the author became interested in criminology; this approach will be more memorable to admissions officers than a straightforward answer.
Next, let’s discuss how the student approached the overall topic of why they chose their prospective major. A common blunder many students make is making a general and redundant statement like “I want to pursue psychology because I’m interested in studying the brain.” In this essay, the student is able to identify a less common subcategory of their major that piques their interest. Instead of making a general statement about psychology, they make statements like:
“I wanted to work with the psyche of criminals beyond courts and wondered about the inner workings of the mind.”
This gives admissions officers a very clear idea of what they hope to gain from a major in psychology at Columbia. Like this applicant, you should consider which specific parts of your prospective major that appeal to you when choosing an essay topic. For instance, if you’re interested in math, don’t make a generic statement about crunching numbers. Do you like the cyclical yet analytical nature of writing proofs and checking them? Does math within nature, such as the golden ratio in different types of plants, captivate you? Whatever your interest is, dig deeper until you find a niche that really speaks to you. Conveying your passion for this rather than the subject as a whole will be much more specific and help you avoid making overly general statements.
“From predicting the future of criminals and knowing the precise vicinity of a killer on the loose, he had saved countless lives; living in communities riddled with crimes in my youth then and even now, I dreamed of working against crimes.”
With these lines, the author describes the specific aspects of criminology that appeal to them, and also establishes a personal connection about living in a crime-heavy community. This statement gives admissions officers a clearer picture of why their past experiences have led them to pursue this particular major.
For a “Why This Major” essay, it is also important to include how you have pursued the subject outside of school. For example, the author says:
“I stayed up all-night searching the meaning; my eyes sparkled with the dim light of the monitor as I read the tales of Pyo Chang Won and his Sherlock-like stories.”
The author relays specific steps they took to pursue this academic subject, and describes their research in a story-like manner. Words like “sparkled” and “tales” draw readers in and make them feel immersed in the narrative.
Additionally, the author mentions Pyo Chang Won as their original inspiration for this career path. If someone inspired you to choose a certain major or career path, this might be worth mentioning briefly. However, a common mistake students make is centering the essay on this other person, and their journey or accomplishments rather than the student’s own interaction with the subject. In this essay, the author mentions Pyo Chang Won but is careful to phrase their sentences in a way where they remain an active participant in their learning process.
In addition, you could also consider the career implications of your major to round out your reasoning. There are a myriad of majors and career paths that stem from a major, so think hard about a potential journey that appeals to you and makes sense given your interests and values. In this essay example, the student explains:
“the traditional path of a lawyer or a police officer only reinforced the three-step cycle of arrest, trial, and jail which continued with no fundamental changes for years”
Here, the author demonstrates that they don’t want a typical career like a police officer or lawyer because they don’t believe in perpetuating the prison-industrial complex. This explanation lends further credibility to their desire to explore the criminal psyche. Incorporating these thoughts in your response affords admissions officers insight into your thought process, and demonstrates that you have put time and effort into thinking about your prospective major.
One way this particular student might want to strengthen their essay is by mentioning any Columbia-specific opportunities relevant to the subject. While this is different from most “Why This Major” essays in that the school doesn’t explicitly ask you to recount school-specific offerings, subtly adding in how you plan to pursue your passion at the university can make your essay even stronger.
For example, the student could mention a course that interests them from Columbia’s Criminology minor or discuss starting a Criminal Minds club at the school where they can discuss their interest with like-minded peers. Adding a forward-focused statement towards the end of your essay can illustrate your interest in the school itself while also reiterating why your chosen subject is important to you.
If you’re still stuck on how to answer Columbia’s essay prompts, check out this thorough breakdown of how to write to each one!
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