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How to Write the Columbia University Supplemental Essays 2017-2018

Columbia University is one of the world’s leading research institutions and one of the best universities in the country. Originally founded as King’s College in 1754, today Columbia attracts top-performing students from all around the globe with its combination of a world-class academic program and its location in the social and cultural hub of New York City.


With such a great academic experience comes high interest, limited space, and an increasingly difficult path to an acceptance letter. For its class of 2021, Columbia admitted a mere 5.8% of its applicants. As a result, competitive applicants will need to write extremely compelling essays in order to stand out in the admissions process.


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

When applying to Columbia, you will submit either the Common App or the Coalition Application, each of which includes a general 650-word essay. For more advice on how to craft a stellar response to the 2017-2018 Common App and Coalition essay prompts, see CollegeVine’s guides on the Common App Essays and the Coalition Essays.


In addition to the general essays from the Common App and Coalition Applications, Columbia has four “essay” questions that they want you to answer for their school in particular.


These essays can be broken into two groups:


  • The first group of essays is unique to Columbia. Rather than asking for “essays,” they ask you for lists: lists of qualities you look for in a college community, of books you’ve read, of periodicals you peruse. As you’ll see, there is room for a little bit of creativity, even in this seemingly banal activity.
  • The second group is the more straightforward of the two: These questions will ask you why you want to attend Columbia University in particular (as opposed to some other fancy Ivy League School) and what you’ve done to prepare yourself for your given field of study. In the latter part of this article, we will discuss how you can craft a compelling and original answer to these relatively straightforward questions.


Luckily for you, CollegeVine is here to help. In order to give you the best shot possible for the class of 2022, we’ll be offering you plenty of practical suggestions for how to navigate this year’s supplemental essays. We’ll also be adding a few suggestions on how you might try something a little bit more adventurous in your writing to stand out from the crowd.

Prompt # 1

In 150 words or fewer, please list a few words or phrases that describe your ideal college community.

This prompt is asking you for a list — no snappy introductions or grandiose concluding statements. But keep in mind that even when you are writing a list, you are still telling a story. The items you put at the beginning and the end of the list matter, and there is room for humor and dramatic effect.


Let’s handle the formatting first. You can organize your list by using periods to separate different words and phrases. A bare-bones response to this question might start out something like this:

Exciting. Something unexpected. Being in awe of my peers and constantly learning from them. Studying with the top researchers in the field of biology. Doing interdisciplinary work that addresses real-world issues. Always being exposed to new ideas. Inspiring and uplifting. […]

You get the idea. But, as you read this sample response, you may get the sense that it is extremely broad (sort of like Columbia’s mission statement). Large institutions have to use vague statements of general purpose because they need to represent a huge body of interests without stirring up controversy. But you are just one person, peculiar in your own interests and passions. And Columbia wants to see that person. Once you get past the mission statements written by committees of administrators and into the classes, the books, the late-night poetry readings, the frantic scribbling at the end of a linear algebra midterm… then Columbia becomes an interesting and lively place.  


The key to writing a compelling answer to this question is to recognize that you are not just describing your ideal college community but also yourself and how you hope to interact with that community. Maybe you want a community that “welcomes a small-town entomologist into the big city,” or maybe you want a community “full of hands with paper cuts from thumbing through The Critique of Pure Reason.” Your answer to this question can be part personal essay and part aspirational statement about what you want your college to look like.


First, it helps to have an expansive sense of what the word “community” might mean. It can refer to your friends, your professors, your classmates, but also your TAs, the people who clean and serve food on the campus, the musicians who play on New York Subway. Maybe you want a college campus that is “loud with the sound of the city,” but where the libraries “are quiet with the frantic intensity of thought.”


As you write, try to avoid vague buzzwords like “innovation,” and hackneyed phrases like “cultivates leadership,” and “values sustainability.” These words may sound fancy, but if they already appear in the promotional materials for every college and university that you are applying to, then chances are your admissions officers are already tired of hearing them.


Instead of a college community that “values sustainability,” maybe you want a college community that is “doing everything it can to fight global warming.” Instead of a college community that “cultivates leadership,” maybe you want a college community that “asks me to listen, intently and respectfully to those with which I disagree, even if they don’t believe in climate change.” Don’t be afraid to offer a list that speaks to your own values, where each item contributes to a narrative about you that is bigger than the sum of its parts.


Finally, if you really want to go out on a limb, you might recognize that a list can also be a poem. Maybe you want a community “that reaches beyond the ivory tower, that turns around to speak truth to power.” That rhyme is a little clammy. You can probably do better, and we encourage you to try.

Prompt #2

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 narrative or explanatory task is needed. It is not necessary to italicize or underline titles of books or other publications. Author names may be included, but are not required. You do not need to fill the entire space or use the maximum number of words; there is no minimum word count in this section, so please respond to the extent that you feel is appropriate.

You might suspect that this part of the application has some kind of hidden trap. If you do not list a certain work or publication, does that rule you out? Is there anything they are looking for specifically? The answer to both of these questions is no. For this segment, honesty is key. The admissions committees are looking to understand who you are through your interests.


It is true that Columbia is looking for some degree of sophistication. But don’t let this discourage you: Not everyone reads Aristotle for fun! Moreover, even if you spend some time reading Archie Comics, you can have an intricate reading of those too! The sophistication of your chosen reading material does not necessarily reflect the sophistication of your reading practice. As a general rule, you should make sure that your reading list reflects a high school reading level, even if it has a few more eclectic, “fun” titles thrown into the mix.  


Across these lists, you also have the opportunity to show you are intellectually curious and interested in subjects beyond your chosen area of study. Because Columbia offers its students a liberal arts education, neuroscience majors may find themselves in a discussion about Gertrude Stein (they might even learn that the poet of “A rose is a rose is a rose” was herself quite dedicated to the modern study of physiology and cognition). If you are applying as a STEM major, you might include some of your favorite novels, whether it be the early nineteenth-century study of manners in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice or the eco-utopian science fiction of Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy.


On the other hand, if you are applying as an English major, you might demonstrate your interests in the narratives that live outside of literary texts by including some of your favorite works on science, politics, and economics. After all, Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century begins with an analysis of “property” in Jane Austen, and Naomi Klein’s analysis of the politics of climate change in This Changes Everything quotes Robinson’s novels.


In all of these lists, the most important thing is to remain true to yourself; don’t make things up for the purposes of sounding fancy. A world where everyone has read the same few “important” books would be a very boring world indeed.

Part 1: The titles of the required readings from courses during the school year or summer that you enjoyed most in the past year (maximum 150 words)

No special tricks here. These works should be directly from your literature class’s syllabus: just list the titles of your favorite required works from the year. Unless they are relatively unknown, there is no need to include the author’s name. If you are an international student, use this opportunity to showcase titles that might not normally appear in an American high school curriculum. Make sure to use the translated titles into English. We recommend a minimum of three or four works and a maximum of about ten works.

Part 2: The titles of books read for pleasure that you enjoyed most in the past year (maximum of 150 words)

Remember that these can be both fiction and non-fiction; ideally, your list will offer a mixture of both. The fiction works should not be from your school courses, even if you did not list them on the first part of this supplement. As with the previous question, you should give a minimum of four texts and a maximum of ten. The point here is not to give an exhaustive list of your reading, but rather to give the admissions officers a sense of your interests.


In terms of works that would be inappropriate to list, remember that these are books you’ve read within the last year. Maybe you feel like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was an important novel to your childhood and shaped you as an individual, but unfortunately, Columbia is only looking for more recent reads. But, if you reread an important text every year, feel free to include it. After all, U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Roberts reportedly rereads Samuel Johnson’s “The Vanity of Human Wishes” every year.


Feel free to include texts from any genre, even comic books. Some graphic novels, like Emil Ferris’ My Favorite Thing is Monsters are modern classics that tackle tough issues, like racial tensions in Chicago, the beauty of Fuseli’s The Nightmare, and the long history of Nazi Germany. The most important thing to remember is that these are books you have discovered, read, and enjoyed within at most the past year. They should reflect who you are at the moment!


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

Part 3: The titles of print or electronic publications you read regularly (maximum of 150 words)

There is no need to make a distinction between “print” and “electronic,” as most publications are currently available online. Unlike other sections where it is useful to have a mix of answers, hunting down different publications that are solely online or solely print is completely unnecessary.


Examples of appropriate publications can include but should not be limited to: The New York Times, The Economist, Astronomy Magazine, International Journal of Psychology, American Anthropologist, etc. Don’t forget that scientific, economic, and social sciences journals count as publications! At the same time, it’s perfectly fine some on your list are not that “sophisticated.” Even sites like Buzzfeed, which by some are not considered extremely serious news sources, can add value to your application if you feel their content is representative of your interests.


One final note: These days, there are a lot of “news” outlets that do not conform to the traditional standards of journalistic integrity. Alex Jones’s InfoWars comes to mind as a prominent example. If you visit and read from sites like this, it is, of course, up to your discretion whether or not you include them on your list. One argument for including a site like InfoWars might be that you read it, not for “information,” but rather to study the media that millions of Americans read and watch every day, for better or worse.


If you are interested in journalism or media criticism, you might write a very compelling response to the fourth essay prompt below that asks you to talk about your intended field of study. You might start that essay by saying: “You might have been surprised to see The Daily Stormer listed alongside the New York Times in the list of publications that I regularly read above. I included that site because I have long followed the work of the Southern Poverty Law Center, and I am interested in studying how white supremacist ideas spread in our modern media ecology.” (Indeed, the Columbia Journalism school just so happens to be doing a lot of work on exactly this issue.)

Part 4: The titles of films, concerts, shows, exhibits, lectures and other entertainments you enjoyed most in the past year (maximum of 150 words)

This category is the most general, meant as an opportunity to showcase what you do when you are not reading. This can include anything from big music concerts to theatre performances to museum exhibits. You can even list video games (there is a rapidly growing world of philosophically and emotionally sophisticated games, like That Dragon, Cancer, that are worthy of study alongside any other work of literature).


You can also use this category to display your interest in international issues. Maybe you attended an exhibition on the art of climate change in Beijing or were captivated by Gianfranco Rosi’s Fire at Sea. Maybe you are a regular reader of the trendsetting African literary blog Brittlepaper.


But what if you haven’t done lots of fancy travel? What if you don’t live in a big city with lots of fancy museums? Even small local events are worth listing here if you got something out of them. There is no reason why you should be shy about including a local theater production, a community dance competition, or an exhibit from a local artist. Showing that you are aware of the various forms of art and life that flourish outside the circuit of Guggenheim Fellowships and Booker Prizes can add an important dimension to your application.

Prompt #3


Please tell us what you value most about Columbia, and why. (300 words or fewer)

In this essay, the admissions officers want to know why you want to attend Columbia in particular. Not just because it is a big fancy school with brand recognition, but because you are attracted to the specific courses Columbia offers, the ways it trains its students, and social and cultural institutions that surround it in New York City. Columbia wants to know that you have taken some time to research what they have to offer. Before you can write a compelling answer to this question, you will need to dig deep on their website.


For this essay, generic kiss-up praise for Columbia’s “high-quality academic curriculum, outstanding professors, and talented students” is not going to cut it. Anyone can write that. You should also try to reach beyond patinas to the things that Columbia touts in its promotional materials.


Everyone who is applying to this school knows that Columbia is “famous” for being located in New York city, for having all of its students take a “Core” curriculum, and for emphasizing academics over athletics. The admissions officers’ eyes probably glaze over a little bit every time they hear a student parroting back to them a line like this: “I am excited to take Contemporary Civilization and join into the tradition of students who have, since 1919, assembled to discuss important works of moral and political thought from Plato to the present.”


A good response to this prompt starts with the recognition that it is not just asking you to tell what is “valuable” about Columbia itself. They are asking you to talk about how the values and commitments that make you a distinctive and interesting person are related to the dazzling array of opportunities that Columbia has to offer. You want to share something that is specific about yourself and pair it with something equally distinctive about the university.


Maybe members of your community have recently been deported, and you are especially interested in the work that Columbia’s School of Journalism has done reporting on that issue. Maybe your interest in mathematics and computer science led you to start reading up on automata theory, and you are excited to attend the Math department’s Samuel Eilenberg Lecturesa series named for a former Columbia professor who made great contributions to that field.


As you do your web search to try and find out how your interests intersect with Columbia, the more specific you get, the better. Columbia is a massive institution, and there is a lot happening there — much of which your admissions officers might not even know about! If you can teach them something about their own institution, then you are more likely to capture their attention.


Another thing that makes Columbia distinctive is not just the work that happens within its walls, but also its location in New York City. Maybe you are excited to take an Art History class where you can go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and see “The Death of Socrates” in person while reading The Phaedo. Maybe you are interested in the socioeconomic issues associated with gentrification, and want to study first hand the classic case of Brooklyn. As you write this essay you should not be afraid to talk about how your interest in Columbia lies in how that institution is related to the urban environment that surrounds it.

Prompt #4

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. 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 fewer)

Note: This final question differs slightly between applicants to Columbia College or to the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. For applicants to SEAS, there is no option to apply as undecided, so the second sentence is omitted from this prompt.


The admissions committee is interested in knowing what you find fascinating about your field and what you have done to broaden that interest. They are trying to weed out people who are applying for a given major just because it sounds fancy. But, more than that, they also want to see what makes you tick, how your passion for learning carries you beyond your high school classes, and what keeps you up at night in a fever pitch of wonder and excitement. You want to find the best, and most concise, way to showcase your passion. 300 words are a lot fewer than you would think!


At CollegeVine, we have broken down the “Why Major?” essay into two main questions:


  1. Why do you want to study this subject?
  2. Why are you qualified to study this subject?


Your essay should seek to address both of these questions with as high a degree of specificity as possible. Because this essay is so short, it is difficult to address a general field. You cannot fully explain your love of a subject with a mere 300 words. “I love astronomy” is not sufficient. Instead, you could write more specifically about your interest in exoplanets and astrobiology. Include a personal story about stargazing as a child that sparked your love of the field and mention scientific research completed in high school that further cultivated your interest in the stars.


It’s also possible that you are still figuring out what you want to study. No intellectually curious seventeen-year-old is ever certain about the topics and disciplines that will drive their future studies.


One way to communicate your interest and your desire to continue exploring a given topic is to talk about a recent conversation you had with someone who is already immersed in a field that you are curious about. An essay might begin: “Ever since my high school teacher combined potassium permanganate and glycerol and set his lab coat on fire, I’ve been fascinated with the chemical property of flammability. In order to learn more, I reached out to John McJohnson, a graduate student studying autoignition temperatures at the University of California, Davis. What most excited me about our conversation was…”


Of course, in order to write this essay, you need to actually have a conversation with someone who is working in that field. If you live in a town that has a research university, and if you are considering majoring in chemistry, you can actually go to the chemistry department’s university website, find a professor or graduate student whose work looks interesting to you, and send them an email asking to meet for coffee.


This may seem intimidating, but we can assure you that there are lots of researchers who might be willing to take 30 minutes out of their day to talk with a young person about their work. You might not get a response (most of these people are very busy), but the sooner you get used to reaching out to potential future colleagues and making connections, the better off you’ll be.


No matter what approach you take to this question, you’ll want to be sure to avoid cramming in too much jargon in an effort to communicate your technical mastery. You only have 300 words, and the point of this essay is not to dazzle your reader but rather to show what practical steps you’ve taken to explore and develop your intellectual interests. 


However, you choose to write your essays, dare to be a little creative. Don’t just describe the university that the Columbia admissions officers already know. Ideally, they will see their campus a little bit differently after having read what you imagine it might be to you. As Columbia’s website says, they are looking for students who “will take greatest advantage of the unique Columbia experience and will offer something meaningful in return to the community.”

The advice we’ve offered in this article is only a sampling of what we try to do with our clients at CollegeVine.


Finally, check the CollegeVine list of all 2017-2018 essay prompts for colleges and universities.


Want help with your college essays to improve your admissions chances? Sign up for your free CollegeVine account and get access to our essay guides and courses. You can also get your essay peer-reviewed and improve your own writing skills by reviewing other students’ essays. 

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