How to Write the Columbia University Supplemental Essays 2019-2020
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 2023, Columbia admitted only 5.3% 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.
Columbia University Application Essay Prompts
Columbia has four supplemental “essay” questions they want applicants to answer. These essays can be broken down into two groups:
Group 1: The first group of essays are specific to Columbia. Instead of requiring you to write a traditional college “essays,” Columbia instructs you to provide lists, such as what you look for in an ideal college community, what you’ve read over the past year, and more.
Group 2: These questions will get to the heart of why exactly you want to attend Columbia University, how you have prepared for your intended course of study.
Luckily, the experts at CollegeVine are here to help you navigate the Columbia essays so that you have the best chance possible for admissions. Keep reading for our suggestions on writing the Columbia essays so that you stand out to adcoms.
The first thing you should notice about this prompt is the limited number of words you are given to answer. As such, you should keep your answer sweet and simple. There is no need to open with a flowery but vague introduction, as that will only serve to use up the space that you could actually be using to talk about Columbia. That being said, even lists can be written in a way that allow for some personality.
To answer this question, listing out words and phrases that would encapsulate your ideal community and separating the terms with periods would definitely be a valid method. Content-wise, make sure that as you are compiling this list, you go in-depth into what kind of person you are as well. Even though this essay is not asking about you directly, your personal passions and life experiences shape what kind of college you would like.
For example, stating that you are looking for a top university in an urban setting with opportunities to work with top finance companies is a good start, but that information can be found with any cursory glance at Columbia’s website—as well as dozens of other schools’ websites. To show that you would really fit into Columbia’s community as a contributing member, you might try to say something along the lines of wanting a community that welcomes a history buff who also wants to learn more about the intricate workings of the solar system. The key is to be honest with what would really make you excited to go to a school. After all, you are being asked to list qualities in your ideal school.
Also keep in mind that the word “community” can be as large or as small as you make it. Your professors, friends, and whoever else you come into direct contact with on a daily basis are an obvious choice, but don’t forget about the food vendors just outside the gates of campus, the multi-talented subway performers just a stone’s throw away, or the friendly residents of Morningside Heights.
The possible ways of writing this essay are truly endless, which is what makes this essay really fun as there is the potential to get really creative with the terms that you choose. That being said, the one thing you should be careful of doing is using terms that sounds very good, but are actually very vague in nature and sounds more like it belongs in a campus advertisement. Writing things like a university that values academic debate and challenges the status quo not only applies to most universities, but doesn’t reveal much about who you are either.
At first, you may think that this prompt is a trap and that Columbia is expecting you to include specific works. However, we assure you that that is not the case. Honesty should be a general policy for all of your essays, but with this type of question that is even more the case. Remember that you are not just sending in your supplemental essays. The college sees what classes you are taking, as well as the kinds of extracurriculars you are involved in. As a result, the admissions counselor already has some sort of idea of what kind of interests you have, so being as truthful as possible in your list will only serve to strengthen your whole application.
That being said, make sure that the books and publications you do list are reflective of a high school level of reading, and if you want to throw in a few series for nostalgia, have a good balance between the more unique titles and your other titles. As an institution which highly values interdisciplinary studies and the idea of a universal foundation of knowledge, don’t be afraid to list books that span a wide variety of fields. That will only show that you are intellectually curious and would enjoy the Core Curriculum that all Columbia students go through.
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.
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).
Since most publications are available both in print and online, there is no great need to try and find examples for both of these requirements. 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. A list of three to ten schools should be sufficient.
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.
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.
This essay can really be thought of as a more detailed version of the first prompt. Now, instead of creating your “ideal” campus, you want to explain why Columbia is that ideal. The admissions team wants to know why Columbia in particular attracts you out of all the other fantastic institutions in the country, so doing your research is key.
Try to avoid looking at the admissions page for your information, as the admissions page is designed to give you a brief overview of the programs of study and other offerings but not deep information. Instead, take your time and really go through each of the pages on the main university website. Try to find things that genuinely make you excited about the school, as that excitement will carry over into your writing if it is genuine.
Please note that the prompt is asking what you value most about Columbia, so base your answer around your own interests. What the admissions team or another student values about the university could be completely different from your own reasons.
In general, mentions about Columbia’s location, its famed Core curriculum, and spirit of activism are very commonly mentioned. This is not to say that you can’t include one or all of those points in your essay (if those things really matter to you), but it may not be the best idea to center your essay on any one of those three topics.
A good idea would be to start from either an academic interest of yours or an extracurricular interest and then try to see if Columbia has programs that would satisfy your passions. From there, expand your search to include things like what sports and clubs you may want to try out as well as what you hope to gain from the city environment.
Be as specific as you can, and wherever possible, try to make connections between Columbia programs and your own interests instead of just praising the institution. For example, if journalism and social justice is something you are really passionate about, then you may want to focus on the recent work done by Columbia’s School of Journalism in reporting on the issue of deportation in the US.
Program Specific Essays
In this question, the committee is interested in knowing what fascinates you and what steps you have taken to learn more about that specific field. This is a question designed to really gauge your intellectual curiosity, and to see if you will be a student who will take advantage of the stellar academic programs the college offers.
If you have a specific major in mind when answering this question, be prepared to answer the following questions:
1) Why do you want to study this subject?
2) Why are you qualified to study this subject?
3) What would you potentially want to use this major for?
Your essay should answer all three questions in some capacity — be as specific as you can. While having general interests is fine, in this essay you really want to show that you are serious about the field that you have indicated and that you understand at least some of the intricacies that go into that major.
If you are currently undecided, don’t fret! Even most college students are still exploring their options and don’t know exactly which major they should choose. In this case, you should still list some general interests you have, and instead of focusing on describing why you are qualified to study said subjects or what you want to do with it later, focus more on the fact that you are intellectually curious and show what you have done to further that specific academic interest.
In many ways, this prompt is very similar to the prompt in Part 1. The only difference is that since you are applying specifically to an engineering school, your academic interests should fall within the STEM fields, and more specifically within an area of engineering.
Still, the same three questions apply:
1) Why do you want to study this field of engineering?
2) Why are you qualified to be in this field?
3) What would you potentially want to use your training for?
Try to highlight more of your problem-solving skills, and draw connections to how certain instances in your life make you a better engineer. As always, try to inject a personal narrative to your essay. For example, if you are really intrigued by computers, you may share a story of how you took apart an old desktop to see how the pieces fit together or maybe how your interest in coding took flight after you decided to create your own website.
Unlike all the other Columbia supplements up to this point, this essay has the greatest word count. The increased space also means the possibility to go more in depth into the reasons applying to such a specific program. Let’s break down this prompt into its individual questions:
1) Why do you want an international academic experience?
2) Why is a two-year focus on the social sciences important to you and the kind of future you want?
To answer the first question, try to avoid general statements about how experiencing different cultures can make you a worldlier person or that it allows you to start traveling at a young age. You need to be specific about what an education internationally can offer you that you wouldn’t be able to find at just Columbia.
While we usually recommend that people stay away from name dropping professors in most essays, this program is specific enough where mentioning the work of the professors at the partner school would be a good way to explain your interest. One thing you may want to mention is how living in the country that you are learning about offers a more robust experience. You will probably have greater and easier access to a lot of first-hand source material, added with the bonus of interacting with the greatest academics in your field of choice.
Beyond that, talk about the kinds of hands-on work opportunities you will have in a foreign country. Just be sure to explain in detail how the work experience fits into your goal for a future career.
As for the second question, once again you can answer in the same way you would respond to a “Why Major” essay. While it may be daunting to tackle the entire question at once, break it further into three smaller prompts:
1) Why do you want to study social sciences?
2) Why are you qualified to study this field?
3) What would you potentially want to use your training for?
Start by brainstorming a list of answers that immediately come to mind when reading these questions. Then, see if there is a common thread that connects what you have written down. While you are answering the last prompt, it is also a good idea to include mentions of how the Sciences Po curriculum and other offerings will aid you in your endeavors.
This prompt already starts by giving you two possible paths—a personal or academic failure—to follow. The broadness of these two options gives you a lot of freedom in choosing the topic of your essay, so anything that you can justify as a “problem” will be a valid topic to write about.
Regardless of whether you end up choosing an intellectual research challenge or a personal ethical dilemma, make sure that you are choosing a problem that genuinely concerns you and is also one that you have really thought through. To answer this prompt fully you will not only need to walk the reader through the way that you solved the issue, but also why it matters in the first place. You can do this by either recalling how your interest in the subject at hand originated (if you are describing a research question, for example) or why the potential consequences are bad (if you are writing on an ethical dilemma).
One thing to keep in mind if you are writing on a more academic-focused issue is that you stay away from jargon that would slow down the pace of the essay and cause more confusion for the readers. Try to simplify the academic issue down to the level where any reader will be able to understand, since the problem itself is not the main focus of the essay. More so, you are describing how you found an answer to some obstacle.
It’s always safer to spend more time describing the process of how you came to solve the problem, and the specific steps you took. Each step of the way, try also to highlight your thought process and show your process for working through similar issues that may come up in the future.
Unlike all the other Columbia supplements up to this point, this essay has the greatest word count. With the increased space also means the possibility to go more in depth into the reasons applying to such a specific program.
To answer the question of how an international academic experience can enhance your education, try to avoid general statements about how experiencing different cultures can make you a worldlier person or that it allows you to start travelling at a young age.
You need to be specific about what an education internationally can offer you that you wouldn’t be able to find at just Columbia. While we usually recommend that people stay away from name dropping professors in other essays, this program is specific enough where mentioning the work of the professors at Trinity College would be a good way to explain your interest.
One thing you may want to mention is how living in Ireland can offer you a more robust experience. You will probably have greater and easier access to a lot of first-hand source material, added with the bonus of interacting with the greatest academics in your field of choice.
Beyond that, talk about the kinds of hands-on work opportunities you will have in Ireland, possibly mentioning how the proximity of the European countries will offer you greater opportunities to find internships in your chosen field. Just be sure to explain in detail how the work experience fits into your goal for a future career.
Additionally, you should take this essay to be another iteration of the “Why Major” essay. To sufficiently explain why you are interested in studying the majors offered in this program, be sure to answer the following three questions:
4) Why do you want to study this major?
5) Why are you qualified to study this field?
6) What would you potentially want to use your training for?
Start by brainstorming a list of answers that immediately come to mind when reading these questions. Then, see if there is a common thread that connects what you have written down. While you are answering the last prompt, it is also a good idea to include mentions of how the Trinity College curriculum and other offerings will aid you in your endeavors.
Similar to the advice given in part 4, the essay you write for this prompt should explore a problem that genuinely concerns you and is also one that you have really thought through. To answer this prompt fully you will not only need to walk the reader through the way that you solved the issue, but also why it matters in the first place. You can do this by either recalling how your interest in the subject at hand originated (if you are describing a research question, for example) or why the potential consequences are bad (if you are writing on an ethical dilemma).
Since the focus of this program is based heavily around English and European history, you may want to consider discussing an obstacle that relates to either of these two fields. Give yourself ample space to discuss what the issue is, or in other words, setting up the background. Then, aside from explaining how you tackled the issue, it’s also important to discuss the implications of your problem in a larger context, whether that’s your local community, country, or even the whole world.
As a nontraditional student, a very valuable part of your application is simply your experience! Returning to school is a very big decision and you probably wouldn’t be applying in the first place unless you have already thought long and hard about the benefits that doing so would provide. Therefore, this essay is simply a place for you to put those thoughts on paper.
Though the prompt asks a series of questions, you should still try to weave the answers to each of those questions into a larger narrative that shows the admissions committee more about who you are as a person. Since this essay allows up to 2000 words, one way you can break down the components would be to spend the first 1000 words discussing your background and answering the questions of:
1) Why do you consider yourself a nontraditional student?
2) What is your educational history?
3) What is your work experience?
4) What is your present situation?
The next 500 words or so should be spend answering questions that are more specific to your future goals and what kind of support you would need from an institution that would help you get there. Then, use the remaining space to tie in that list of support to programs and resources that Columbia offers. This way, not only have you provided a good background on who you are as a person, but you’ve also explained what you are looking for in a college and why Columbia fits that ideal.
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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