How to Write the Columbia University Essays 2020-2021

 

Located in the heart of New York City, Columbia University is one of the world’s leading institutions for research and commitment towards education. With its 265 years of history and ideal location, Columbia has had a major influence in history and continues to be at the forefront of innovation to this day. Offering both a rigorous curriculum as well as ample opportunities to explore one of the largest cities in the world, Columbia attracts thousands of top-performing students from all across the world.

 

However, with an ever-expanding reputation also comes the increased difficulty of gaining acceptance. For the class of 2024, Columbia admitted only 6.1% of its applicants, making it a highly selective institution. Yet, despite the competition, having a strong set of supplemental essays will be the first step in standing out in the admissions process. Want to know your chances at Columbia? Calculate your chances for free right now.

 

Want to learn what Columbia University will actually cost you based on your income? And how long your application to the school should take? Here’s what every student considering Columbia University needs to know.

Columbia University Application Essay Prompts

All Applicants—List Questions (150 words)

 

 

All Applicants—Essays (200 words)

 

Prompt 1: Columbia students take an active role in improving their community, whether in their residence hall, classes or throughout New York City. Their actions, small or large, work to positively impact the lives of others. Share one contribution that you have made to your family, school, friend group or another community that surrounds you.

 

Prompt 2: Why are you interested in attending Columbia University?

 

Columbia College and School of Engineering Applicants Only

 

For applicants to Columbia College/School of Engineering, please tell us what from your current and past experiences (either academic or personal) attracts you specifically to the areas of study that you previously noted in the application. (200 words)

 

Trinity College Dublin and Sciences Po Dual BA Applicants Only

 

Describe how your experiences, both personal and academic, have shaped your decision to pursue the Dual BA Program. Why is an international academic experience important to you as you consider the ways in which it may influence your future?

 

Successful essays should not only identify and describe specific elements of the Dual BA Program that meet your needs as a student, but should also explain why the academic courses you have chosen for your time at Trinity College Dublin/Sciences Po and Columbia University are compatible with your aspirations, academic or otherwise. (750-1000 words)

List Questions for All Applicants

Applicants are asked to respond to Columbia-specific questions to tell the Admissions Committee more about their academic, extracurricular and intellectual interests. We review the responses to these questions in order to get a full sense of each unique individual beyond the other parts of the application.

 

For the four list questions that follow, we ask that you list each individual response using commas or semicolons; the items do not have to be numbered or in any specific order. No explanatory text or formatting is needed.

Don’t worry! There’s no preset list of right and wrong answers. Columbia isn’t going to automatically reject you if you don’t include The Grapes of Wrath, or any other specific work, in your list. Instead, they’re curious about your intellectual development, the way you think, and how you’ve challenged yourself in your media consumption. So be honest about the stuff you’ve read and seen, while selecting your examples judiciously.

 

Here’s a helpful hint: think of each list as a “capsule wardrobe.” In a capsule wardrobe, each piece of clothing is distinct and cool on its own: you can have a graphic tee, a leather jacket, a white tank, and a few pairs of jeans. And while each has its own character, each also contributes to the cohesive whole – your style. Putting two items together into an outfit can bring out interesting elements and commonalities in both.

 

The same goes for the books or movies in a list. Each should be interesting on its own, but contribute to the overall picture of your intellectual style. A great list includes items that illuminate each other and communicate together – like matching a hat with your socks. Some more style tips:

 

1. List items that build on each other. Key word: synergy. In the same way that wearing two matching items together can say a lot about your fashion tastes, including two similar items in your list can communicate a sustained interest in a topic. For example, if I include both Macbeth and Throne of Blood in my list of films, I’m showing my readers: “Hey! I’m interested in exploring how the same story has been adapted by different cultures and artists!” Neither Macbeth nor Throne of Blood could demonstrate this on its own – but together, they become greater than the sum of their parts. Synergy! 

 

2. Show dimension. Beware! You can demonstrate sustained interest in a topic without indicating growth. For example, a litany of true-crime podcasts will start to lose its impact if they’re all too similar. Instead, pick works that indicate you’re interested in the multiple facets and intellectual levels of a subject. If I combine the true-crime podcasts Serial and Criminal Perspective with the journal Psychological Review and a blog on forensic psychology, I can paint myself as someone who’s not just out for thrills, but interested in learning more about the world. 

 

3. Don’t overdress. It’s tempting to include the most impressive, arduous books you’ve read in an attempt to show you are a Serious Person. But too many straight-laced tomes can make you look like you’re overdoing it – kind of like showing up to a coffee shop in a suit. Instead, balance your hefty items with some more easygoing ones. Euclid’s Elements of Geometry and Russell’s Principles of Mathematics are going to look a lot more palatable if you sprinkle some Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy in there. 

 

4. Don’t underdress. A pinch of fluff can add a little flavor and dimension to your lists. Nobody’s going to fault you, for instance, if you include It’s Always Sunny or The Da Vinci Code on your lists of favorite things. However, you should make a point not to include items that are too juvenile, and not to overload on items of questionable intellectual merit. 

 

5. Recognizable brands can be effective. Hitting on a few respected “pop culture” items makes it more likely that you and the person reading your application will have something in common. And, psychologically speaking, similarities on paper can often go a long way in non-personal interactions. Just make sure to pick an item that has both critical and popular merit, like Pink Floyd’s The Wall or Avatar: The Last Airbender. Something about which you and your potential interviewer could have an intellectual debate.

 

6. Dress for the job you want. Certain shoes can be impressive, but bad for dancing. Similarly, you should be careful not to confuse an “impressive” piece of media with a “relevant” piece. War and Peace, Don Quixote, A Brief History of Time, and Ulysses are definitely impressive books, and you may have loved them, but if you’re interested in studying marine biology, they might not all be relevant to your application. Include enough to show you’re diverse in your interests, but conserve the most space for items that speak to your academic and career interests. 

 

7. Moderation. You’ve probably caught on to this by now, but creating your lists is going to be a delicate game. You have to find the happy medium between intellectual and casual, specialized and well-rounded, fiction and nonfiction, differing types of media, and so on. Don’t throw together these lists last-minute just because they’re not full-blown essays. It’s a different format, but you should be just as careful.

 

8. Also… be honest? If you get an interview, you’ll probably be asked about some items on your lists. You don’t want to get caught off-guard by something that you yourself wrote. 

Part 1: The titles of the required readings from courses during the school year or summer that you enjoyed most during secondary/high school. (150 words)

This question is pretty straightforward, as should be your answer. Just think back to all the English classes you have taken and choose some of the titles that you genuinely enjoyed working through. If you are an international student, feel free to include titles that are not commonly found in an American high school curriculum. This may include readings that are in another language, but as long as you give the translated title, it will still be a good choice. We recommend a minimum of three books and a maximum of around ten.

Part 2: The titles of books read for pleasure that you enjoyed most during secondary/high school. (150 words)

This list will be a bit broader as you can showcase the kinds of books that you read outside of an academic setting. That means including titles in both the fiction and non-fiction categories. For example, you may include Fun Home by Alison Bechdel—an autobiography of the author as she discovers who she is and explores her relationship with her father in the process—or Sputnik Sweetheart by Haruki Murakami—a story about the circumstances surrounding one girl’s disappearance.

 

Whatever you list, the titles should not be ones that you have read in school, unless it’s a book that you have read before it was taught in a class you were in. Additionally, try to stick with things you have read in the past year as it will reflect your most updated level of reading. Like the previous part, including anywhere between three to ten books is a good amount.

 

Note on formatting: If you read these titles in a language other than English, feel free to make a small note in parentheses after each title noting this, for example, Les Misérables (read in French).

Part 3: List the titles of the print or digital publications, websites, journals, podcasts or other content with which you regularly engage. (150 words)

What sort of content do you regularly engage with? Publications spanning across all fields can be included, and some example of publications include (but aren’t limited to): The New York Times, Nature, The Economist, Time Magazine, National Geographic, etc. Your listings don’t have to be “super serious” either. You might include also things like a film blog or a podcast dedicated to embarrassing stories.

 

Something to be aware of is that there are a lot of “news” outlets floating around that don’t necessarily follow strict journalism integrity. A prominent example of a site like this which has recently come under fire is InfoWars by Alex Jones. If that is an outlet that you really do follow regularly, then it is up to your discretion as to whether or not you should include it. That being said, as a controversial site, you may want to elaborate with a sentence or two your reasoning for following the site. As an example, you may say that it is a source you read often so that you can see how much of an influence popular media sites can have on the everyday viewer.

Part 4: The titles of the films, concerts, shows, exhibits, lectures and other entertainments you enjoyed most during secondary/high school (in person or online). (150 words)

This category is in some ways the most casual, as it is the most general category. Really all that it is asking is that you list other forms of media that you spend your time on that are not reading related. Feel free to include whatever you are currently following, and aside from the entertainment options listed in the prompt, you can also consider including video games. As always, try to keep your list between three to ten titles.

Essay Prompts for All Applicants


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All Applicants—Prompt 1

 

Columbia students take an active role in improving their community, whether in their residence hall, classes, or throughout New York City. Their actions, small or large, work to positively impact the lives of others. Share one contribution that you have made to your family, school, friend group, or another community that surrounds you. (200 words)

For this prompt, you have 200 words, so your writing style should be vivid and concise. 

 

1. First, focus on your active agency. Notice how the prompt uses the word “active/action” twice? You should play into the immediacy and momentum of this theme, and deploy hard-edged verbs to emphasize your actions. Focus on a few key actions you performed: “I founded,” “I intervened,” “I apologized,” “I fundraised,” etc. Try to avoid passive voice, burdensome adverbs, and any other writing device that detracts from you as an active force in your world. 

 

2. Show personal development. Describe yourself before you took an active role in this community situation. What pushed you from passivity to action? Think of this essay as a mini-memoir that shows your progress. If you’ve always been involved in the cause you want to write about (ex. you’ve always volunteered with horses), you could try thinking about a pivotal moment your thinking changed, or when you took your activism to a new level. 

 

3. Conclude with a gesture towards your future in college. When they discuss Columbia in the first sentence, this isn’t an introduction or filler. It’s a hint that you should angle your essay towards your own future of activism, community involvement, or solving problems. You should state 

 

  • WHY the issue matters to you, and matters in the world
  • HOW you plan on continuing your line of action. This can be through your academic work, volunteerism, programs, or career goals. 

 

4. Remember to connect it to your application profile. Your action should be connected in some way to your academic interests and your desire to pursue higher education. Think closely about shared values that lay behind your service work and studies. For example, you might have nursed a wounded baby bird in your windowsill. If you’re applying with an eye towards literature, you might want to discuss how literature moves us to care about others. You could cite Virginia Woolf’s experience in “Death of the Moth,” in which she likewise “saw life, a pure bead” in a small, vulnerable creature. And you might discuss your interest in exploring human-nonhuman relationships when you study English in college. Just like that, you have a flowing nexus between an academic interest and a vivid moment of your personal life. 


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Your GPA and SAT don’t tell the full admissions story

 

Our chancing engine factors in extracurricular activities, demographic, and other holistic details. We’ll let you know what your chances are at your dream schools — and how to improve your chances!

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Your GPA and SAT don’t tell the full admissions story

 

Our chancing engine factors in extracurricular activities, demographic, and other holistic details. We’ll let you know what your chances are at your dream schools — and how to improve your chances!

Calculate your acceptance chances

All Applicants—Prompt 2

 

Why are you interested in attending Columbia University?(200 words or fewer)

This is a common question asked by a lot of schools. So common, in fact, that we’ve put together a whole guide on how to answer it. As you sit down to write this for Columbia, you should have opened Columbia’s website and any other materials you might have. 

 

Specificity is crucial here. Broad evocations of Columbia’s virtues – such as “Ivy League academics,” “shared classes with Barnard,” and location “in the heart of New York City” – aren’t going to cut it here. Instead, such loose phrases only signify that you did only superficial research. To set yourself apart, you need to clearly delineate your academic interests and values, as well as the exact resources and programs at Columbia that will help you thrive. Proper nouns, concrete goals, precise examples. Specificity. 

 

1. Provide a tangible connection to Columbia. 

 

This is composed of specific elements of the university that appeal to you, and you should set aside a lot of time to research this. Look on Columbia’s website, and really explore the links as they pertain to a major or specific laboratory. Hint: it may be worth it to subscribe to Columbia’s e-magazine, which contains updates about its educators’ most recent work. Many departments also put out their own e-newsletters, so be sure to sign up to those. 

 

Don’t do a moderate amount of research and decide it’s “good enough.” For example, it’s tempting to list a few things you like about a program based on its webpage. I could concoct a passage like: 

 

“As someone interested in studying Mideast politics as well as literature, Columbia’s Middle East, South Asian, and African Studies program sounds like a great place to blend my interests and study from renowned professors like [Insert Name].”

 

But this is only superficially thorough, and it’s definitely not the best. Instead of just name-dropping professors and programs, you should articulate your future with them like you’re fantasizing about your wedding, down to the beautiful details. A much more specific passage about Columbia’s MESAAS would sound like: 

 

“When reading about the upcoming Adab Colloquium, I was intrigued by how Columbia’s Middle East Institute recruits authorities from other universities, like [Name], to better immerse Columbia students in the diverse voices of Middle Eastern literary studies. The frequency of colloquia provided by the MEI shows that Columbia is dedicated to expanding Middle Eastern studies in the U.S., and that I would find ample guidance as a MESAAS student there.” 

 

It’s evident that the second statement required much more probing, revision, and familiarity. 

 

2. Describe your intangible connection as well. 

 

How is Columbia a place that aligns with your values, dreams, and goals? How do you vibe with it? For example, if I continued to write about MESAAS and MEI, I would state explicitly how it draws me in, and how it aligns with my philosophical and societal intentions. 

 

“Additionally, I’m impressed by how the MEI provides students the opportunity to volunteer with talks and activities at local high schools. As someone who grew up in a small town in Illinois, my grade school education about culture in the Middle East was misinformed and sometimes dangerous. I would love to study and volunteer in a department dedicated to combating misinformation and providing resources to underprivileged teachers.”

 

A clear path and clear philosophy will indicate to admissions readers that you’re likely to succeed at Columbia. 

 

3. Engage with faculty and students, if possible. 

 

This is a perfect place to talk about specific interactions, like sitting in on an awe-inspiring seminar during a campus visit, hearing a professor speak, or seeing how Columbia has prepared a friend for his career. 

 

However, always be sure to tie these experiences into your own goals and interests! For example, don’t just name-drop a certain Professor Smith. Instead, take the opportunity to find a personal connection to Smith’s research and how great Columbia is for supporting people like her. Your format should be

 

        Program/Individual/Major 🡪 Columbia’s Values 🡪 My values

 

If you want to learn more about a specific professor or their subject, don’t be afraid to politely email them or contact their department. Many love to talk about their work and their interests, or would love to put you in touch with current students. You might also want to look for online colloquia or talks, which are (fortunately? Unfortunately?) more widely available as schools accommodate the pandemic. This will better inform you about the school and give you a great edge for this prompt. And, more importantly, you’ll probably get great advice for your higher education journey. Note: the earlier you prepare for this, the better! 

Program Specific Essays

For Columbia College and Engineering Applicants:

For applicants to Columbia College/School of Engineering, please tell us what from your current and past experiences (either academic or personal) attracts you specifically to the areas of study that you previously noted in the application. (200 words)

This prompt is required for all applicants to Columbia College, the undergraduate liberal arts school at Columbia University. Before you begin, check out the majors and departments in the College. This prompt is also required for all applicants to the School of Engineering, and if that’s you, take a look at the departments offered as well.

 

Because this is also a fairly common prompt, known as the “Why this Major?” essay, we have a post going into more detail about it. But I’ll be hitting on all the major points below, along with some analyses of how Columbia is wording their prompt specifically, and how to assess this. 

 

1. Be brief. You have 200 words, so the same rules apply as for the earlier responses: use active voice and vivid storytelling to communicate your message with as little filler as possible. 

 

2. Hit the ground running. There’s no need to set up an elaborate preface, like: “I was in eighth grade, and it was a cloudy day in mid-March. I wasn’t very confident or skilled in computers.” Instead, try starting in medias, diving right in the thick of an emotional moment: “The screen glared blue. My program crashed. I buried my face in my arms and sobbed.” This is better for immediately grabbing your reader – a necessity in short essays like these. A great primer (or refresher!) on in medias res storytelling appears on this site

 

3. Load up on your knowledge and expertise. Just because you’re spinning an engaging narrative doesn’t mean you should neglect the “area of study” part of this prompt. It’s crucial to demonstrate to Columbia that you’re not just passionate about your interest – you’re a seasoned expert. This means being specific about a certain sub-topic, technique, operation, phenomenon, or term that you find fascinating. Don’t just say “programming encourages me to think in creative ways.” A better proof of this fact would be a time you used a specific programming technique to creatively solve a specific quandary. 

 

“Frustrated and desperate, I looked at all the data I still had to sort. Hadn’t Archimedes said that he could lift the whole world with a finger, if he just had the right lever? THINK, I told myself. And then I realized I had a lever. A processing array.” 

 

4. Note Columbia’s timeframe: “past,” “current”…. and probably “future.” Although they ask about your past and current experiences, you should definitely conclude with a trajectory towards future pursuits. Present yourself as someone with a firm philosophy of action moving forward, developed beliefs, and mature interests you want to explore. Anticipate future problems you’re eager to tackle – state them explicitly. You needn’t mention Columbia here, as you’ve discussed it enough, but Columbia should be the unspoken future setting here. Their applications team should read this essay and consider it a great foreshadowing of what you could accomplish at Columbia.  

For Dual BA Applicants:

Describe how your experiences, both personal and academic, have shaped your decision to pursue the Dual BA Program. Why is an international academic experience important to you as you consider the ways in which it may influence your future?

Successful essays should not only identify and describe specific elements of the Dual BA Program that meet your needs as a student, but should also explain why the academic courses you have chosen for your time at Trinity College Dublin/Sciences Po and Columbia University are compatible with your aspirations, academic or otherwise. (750-100 words)

This prompt is asked of students who are applying for Columbia’s prestigious dual degree programs, either with Trinity College in Dublin or Sciences Po (Paris Institute of Political Sciences) in various regions of France. The prompts for both programs are the same, with only the name of the partner university differing, so they can be approached in a similar way (scroll down for distinct tips for each). 

 

Note: this prompt is similar to the previous prompt discussed, which inquires after applicants’ interest in areas of study, so feel free to read through that previous section for additional insight and tips. 

 

It’s a marathon essay, not a sprint. Note that the length – 750 to 1000 words – allows you a lot of space. It’s better to fall on the longer end of this range than the shorter end, because Columbia wants you to delve into as much detail as you can, and feel less pressure to be pithy. The onus is a little less on vivid storytelling, and much more on thoughtful analysis and complex intellectual engagement. Demonstrate your proficiency by being thorough, considering multiple angles, and utilizing specific terms. You can be a bit more technical, logical, and sophisticated, especially since these programs have a broad, international focus. 

 

The same rules apply here as the rest of your Columbia essays: be specific, be active, and conduct a high degree of research. Studying abroad appeals to a lot of people – 10-16% of all undergraduates do it. Consequently, stating simply a “desire to explore other perspectives” or “passion for international cooperation in research” isn’t going to set you apart from the pack. You should concentrate your efforts in identifying key elements of your specific program and how they fit with your concrete goals and higher moral callings. You should hit on both the “tangible” and “intangible” items we mentioned earlier in the “Why Columbia?” prompt.

 

Brainstorm with a T-chart. Well, you don’t have to, but we recommend it. It will be a great way to sharpen your thoughts before writing, so that you can plunge into your essay with a much clearer idea of what you want to include. It could look something like this: 

 

Me My Target Program
  • My very specific academic interests
  • Classes and programs that have shaped my learning and interests
  • Seminars, mentorship programs, etc. that will help me pursue those interests
  • The academic focus of the dual degree program
  • How students in the program are held to high standards
  • My ideal research environment and community
  • The philosophy, models, and styles of research that attract me about the foreign university
  • Specific recent projects and research that have come out of this university
  • Don’t forget to give the Columbia portion of the dual degree program its due! Resources, institutes, and pathways at Columbia
  • Research and accomplishments of students in my target dual degree program, specifically: what proves the program’s effectiveness?
  • Specific research, skills, experience, and knowledge I want to explore in college
  • Available courses, student testimonials
  • Programs and pathways at the foreign university
  • Programs and pathways at Columbia
  • Larger issues in my field that I want to address moving forward
  • Perspectives and paradigms I want to strengthen
  • Social concerns
  • How I want to “make a difference”
  • Philosophy of the dual degree program and its student community
  • Opportunities for service and active participation in global communities
  • Post-college paths taken by past dual degree students

 

It’s a lot of work, but break it down and tackle it bit-by-bit. 

 

Tips for Dublin Applicants:

 

  1. TIME CRUNCH ALERT! Columbia is hosting several online information sessions about this program in August 2020. Check back to see if any more are added. These sessions would be a prime opportunity to have your questions answered. You can also use them to get in touch with current students and alumni. If you can procure an insight that benefits your essay, even better. Mentioning something you learned via an information session will also demonstrate your committed interest in the program. 

 

  1. Research your major at both Trinity and Columbia. The Dublin program allows for a wide variety of majors, so you should look at the webpages and publications of your target departments. Cite research projects or department mission statements that appeal to you. A super strong essay will identify a common thread between departments on both sides of the Atlantic. 

 

  1. Is there a cultural factor? For example, do both New York and Dublin have strong local theatre communities that would allow you to explore your love of Shakespeare outside your academic setting? This is the kind of goal-oriented specificity readers are looking for. It’s so much easier for them to admit a student who already has a strong blueprint going forward. If they can envision you already as a member of the program, then half your battle is already won. 

 

Tips for Sciences Po Applicants: 

 

  1. TIME CRUNCH ALERT! Columbia is hosting several online information sessions about this program in August 2020. Check back to see if any more are added. These sessions would be a prime opportunity to have your questions answered. You can also use them to get in touch with current students and alumni. If you can procure an insight that benefits your essay, even better. Mentioning something you learned via an information session will also demonstrate your committed interest in the program. 

 

  1. Pick a French campus program. Based on the geographic region of your political interests, you’ll have to select a certain Sciences Po campus. Be specific in your application: you could be studying Indonesian policy at the Havre campus in Normandy, or North African societies at the Riviera campus. Look at the sample programs on the Columbia webpage above. It’s also worth it to delve into the websites for each campus, and subscribe to e-news from each. That will give you the most recent updates about exciting research going on there. 

 

  1. Mention any language goals, such as taking classes in Arabic and French in addition to English. The Sciences Po program places a firm emphasis on international cooperation through learned languages. 

 

  1. Have a global focus. The Sciences Po program is aimed at forming the next generation of international leaders, so you should really lean into a goal or issue with a broad provenance. “Tax law” is broad, but not necessarily global or targeted. “Americans need to work with Mideast countries to streamline cross-border taxations, which will ease tensions and encourage economic development in struggling border communities” is better.

 

  1. Don’t forget your personal connections. Just because the Sciences Po program is so vast doesn’t mean you should neglect your own story in favor of large-scale discussions. Tie them both together by talking about what experiences led you to your path of study. If I was the student interested in tax law above, I might describe family struggles with complicated tax codes, or volunteer work with a local business. 

 

In Conclusion…

 

It’s true that Columbia requires quite a few supplements, and that can definitely be overwhelming. However, more supplements also means that you have more chances to show Columbia how amazing you are and all the unique things that would make you a great addition to their campus.

 

We hope that this guide has been helpful to get you started on your writing, but don’t be afraid to look for essays of applicants who have successfully been admitted to Columbia either. While you can’t and shouldn’t use their ideas directly, it will show you the kinds of profiles that really speak to the admissions officers. Best of luck from the CollegeVine team!

 

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