The Ultimate Guide to Applying to Columbia

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


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Calculate your acceptance chances

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

When most people think of Columbia University, they think of two things: the Ivy League and New York City. Columbia was founded in 1754 and is situated between Manhattan’s Upper West Side and West Harlem. By virtue of its location, Columbia offers perhaps the highest concentration of opportunities and entertainment of any major American university.


Columbia’s reputation precedes it, and the glamor of NYC is hard to beat. As a result, it has one of the lowest acceptance rates among American colleges, including most Ivy League schools. We at CollegeVine understand that applying to a place like Columbia can be an intimidating process, but the rewards if you get in are more than worth it. Read on for a comprehensive guide that will help you make sense of Columbia’s application 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.


Introducing Columbia


Columbia University is located in the Morningside Heights neighborhood of Manhattan and NYC’s metro system runs through the main campus, making the Big Apple easily accessible to students. It is one of the eight member schools that make up the Ivy League and currently enjoys a #3 ranking on the U.S. News and World Report Best Colleges List.


Columbia is comprised of twenty different degree-granting programs, which together enroll roughly 33,000 students. Applicants to Columbia’s undergraduate programs can apply either to Columbia’s undergraduate liberal arts college, “Columbia College,” or the Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science, “Columbia Engineering.” Overall, Columbia College enrolls approximately 4,500 students while Columbia Engineering enrolls 1,500.


The Core serves to unite Columbia’s diverse campus into a cohesive intellectual community through a shared education in the Western intellectual tradition (though its Western-centric approach is slowly changing. Columbia College students must complete the Core Curriculum, which places a heavy emphasis on reading and analysis of classical literature. Columbia Engineering students are only required to take half of the humanities Core, but must also take a technical Core not required for students of the College. Students interested in both schools may apply for the Combined Plan in their junior or senior years, wherein they can receive a BA in the liberal arts as well as a BS in an engineering discipline in five to six years of study.


Students who have been out of the education system (except for mandatory military service) for more than year, as well as those who wish to attend part-time, are encouraged to apply for the School of General Studies, which offers the same courses with the same faculty and the same majors available to other undergraduates at Columbia, though with fewer need-based aid and on-campus housing opportunities. Morningside Heights is also home to Barnard College, a liberal arts college for women in partnership with Columbia University. For those with a more adventurous side, Columbia also offers a Dual BA Program with Sciences Po in France.


Overall, Columbia offers over 80 different areas of study that students can major and concentrate in and roughly 50 different foreign languages that students can study. The most popular majors are in engineering, the social sciences, and the biological and biomedical sciences. Additionally, students can pursue pre-professional tracks in the law, medicine, and health professions. Exceptionally talented juniors can apply for Columbia’s accelerated or joint degree programs with Columbia Law School, the School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA), Sciences Po, and the Juilliard School.


Outside of the classroom, students can get involved with over 500 clubs and organizations on campus. Columbia’s students have a history of activism in politics and its location in NYC draws a higher proportion of international students than any other Ivy League school. It is also the most racially diverse Ivy, with over 60% of its students identifying as students of color. The diversity in the student body and Core Curriculum, combined with the exciting opportunities of NYC, make for a vibrant and intellectually stimulating scholastic community.


Columbia Admissions Statistics


Competition for both undergraduate divisions is fierce; Columbia is universally renowned as one of the world’s top academic institutions and it benefits from the spectacle that only NYC can bring. The Class of 2023 had an acceptance rate of 5.23%. The middle 50% of admitted students scored between 1480 and 1560 on the SAT and 33-25 on the ACT. While Columbia does not publish admissions statistics on incoming students’ GPAs, one would expect the average to be high compared to most institutions.


The transfer application process at Columbia is roughly as competitive as the regular admissions process, with a transfer acceptance rate of about 6%. Students must have a minimum 3.5 GPA before applying to either the College or Engineering school.


It is important to remember that Columbia’s admissions process is holistic, which means they consider more than just a student’s GPA and test scores. While academic record is a factor, the admissions committee also considers things like extracurricular involvement and personal background, such as socioeconomic, racial, and religious diversity. Thus, even if you don’t have the test scores listed here or an exceptionally high GPA but feel you did the best with the circumstances you were given, it could still be worthwhile to apply.


Paying for Columbia

For the 2019-2020 school year, tuition at Columbia costs $61,850. When fees, room and board, books, and travel are added in, the total cost of attendance can reach upwards of $79,814.


The admissions process at Columbia is need-blind for domestic and transfer applicants (the process is not need-blind for international students). 50% of students receive need-based financial aid, with the average financial aid package amounting to $55,691 per year. Because Columbia uses a need-based system, you will be required to submit information on your family’s income and assets through the FAFSA and CSS Profile. Columbia, like the rest of the Ivy League, does not offer merit scholarships.


Columbia promises to meet 100% of domestic and international first-year applicants’ demonstrated financial need. Thus, students are not required to take out any loans as part of their financial aid packages, though they may be required to work. Transfer students are exempt from this promise; Columbia’s financial aid budget is limited for transfer applicants.


For those who do meet the requirements for need-based aid, families with total incomes of less than $60,000 per year are not expected to contribute to the cost of attendance. The median income of recipients of Columbia grants, which constitute the bulk of their financial aid, is $97,020. Families making between $60,000 and $100,000 per year are offered a reduced parent contribution, however those making over $100,000 may also qualify for need-based aid.


Columbia offers a Net Price Calculator for students to determine how much it might cost them to attend. However, this tool only provides an estimate, and does not provide a guarantee the student will receive the aid calculated.


For Early Decision applicants, students must submit an initial financial aid application through the CSS Profile and the current year’s Federal Tax Returns for both parents and students; these are due November 15th, roughly two weeks after the main application is due on November 1st. Students can track the status of their financial aid application starting November 25th. Those who are accepted Early Decision will receive an estimate of their financial aid award with their acceptance letter. When the tax information for the following year becomes available, students are required to submit that along with the FAFSA.


For Regular Decision applicants, students must submit the CSS Profile, Federal Tax Returns for the following year, and the FAFSA by March 1st. They can begin tracking their application starting February 25th. Upon acceptance, applicants will also receive their financial aid award.


The Columbia Application

Columbia accepts applications through either the Common Application, known as the Common App, or the Coalition Application. The admissions committee gives no preference to either application, though the Common App is the more popular of the two among applicants.


The questions are the same on both applications. You can choose to apply either Regular Decision or Early Decision, which is binding absent exceptional change in circumstance.


For Early Decision candidates, all application materials must be submitted to the admissions committee by November 1st and all standardized testing must be taken by the November test date (be sure to alert the testing company to send your scores directly to Columbia).


For Regular Decision candidates, all application materials must be submitted by January 1st and all standardized testing must be completed by the January test date. (Again, if you are taking the test late, make sure to list Columbia as one of the schools to which the agency should send the results.)


Common Application


To apply to Columbia College through the Common App, you must first fill out a list of general questions ‘common’ to all applicants. (For more information about the Common App, check out CollegeVine’s User’s Guide to the Common App, as well as our blog posts on how to fill out the other sections of the application, including educationactivitieshonorscitizenship, and family questions.)


Columbia’s supplementary application consists of a series of six short-answer questions, with the word limits ranging from 150 to 300 words. The supplement is required and touches on a range of topics; it is thus worth spending a great deal of time on.


The beginning portion of Columbia’s supplement on the Common App for the 2019-2020 application season is shown in the screenshot below. The prompts themselves are listed just below the screenshot.


List a few words or phrases that describe your ideal college community. (150 words or less)


List the titles of the required readings from courses during the school year or summer that you enjoyed most in the past year. (150 words or less)


List the titles of the books you read for pleasure that you enjoyed most in the past year. (150 words or less)


List the titles of the print, electronic publications and websites you read regularly. (150 words or less)


List the titles of the films, concerts, shows, exhibits, lectures and other entertainments you enjoyed most in the past year. (150 words or less)


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


Read more about these prompts and how to answer them.


(Author’s note: these last two questions are context-specific. You should only see one appear on your supplement page, depending on which undergraduate division you chose to apply to.)


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)


For applicants to The Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science, 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. (300 words or less)

Columbia offers two optional essays for students interested in the arts or who have research experience with a faculty member or mentor in an academic discipline. For more on whether you should submit this or other supplementary material to Columbia, see their website.


Professional Arts Resume

If you are submitting a professional resume for Architecture, Creative Writing or Film Studies, please upload it here. Please review our instructions on supplementary materials and note that submission is not required.


Research Abstract

If you have completed research with a faculty member or mentor in an academic discipline such as science, engineering or other academic interests (e.g., humanities, social sciences or languages), upload your abstract here. Please note that research abstracts are typically one page in length and encompass a brief synopsis of your work. Kindly review our instructions on supplementary materials and note that submission is not required.


While tackling each of these questions may seem daunting, together they constitute one of the most important parts of your application and can help you stand out from the many other applicants, particularly if you have below average grades and/or test scores. Thankfully, CollegeVine has produced a detailed breakdown of Columbia’s supplement to help you present the best side of yourself to the admissions committee. Visit our guide on “How to Write the Columbia University Application Essays 2019-2020.”


For a walkthrough of how to go through the process of submitting your application, see our User’s Guide to the Common App. You must review and submit your Common App before you can submit your supplement. The admissions committee will not receive your other required documentation, such as your School Report and recommendations, until you have completed both the Common App and the required supplementary essays.


The Columbia Interview Process

Columbia offers some applicants the opportunity to interview with an alumnus/a. If you live in the U.S. and are selected for an interview, an alum in your area will contact you. Once you agree on a time, you will typically meet at a coffee shop or similar public space. While you may feel pressed to recite your resume, remember that this is an opportunity to showcase a side of you the admissions committee will not get to see in your written application.


Applicants from China will typically interview using the InitialView software, which will not bring you face-to-face with an alum. InitialView interviews are due by December 1st for Early Decision applicants and February 1st for Regular Decision applicants.


For more on what to expect from your interviews, check out CollegeVine’s blog posts on how to prepare for your interviewwhat to do (and not do) in your interview, and how much interviews matter in the admissions process. It is important to remember that the number of interviewers is limited and thus not every candidate who is admitted to Columbia will have received an invitation to interview. You will not be penalized if you were not invited to interview. However, if you are invited, you should certainly take advantage of the opportunity.


Other Columbia Application Requirements

In addition to your Common App or Coalition App and your Columbia supplement, Columbia requires you to submit the following:

  • Application fee of $85, or a fee waiver request, completed by you
  • School Report completed by your counselor (or other school official)
  • Counselor Recommendation and school profile completed by your counselor
  • Mid-Year Report completed by your counselor
  • Two Teacher Recommendations, at least one of which must come from a math or science teacher if you are applying to Columbia Engineering
  • Official score reports requested by you and sent directly to Columbia College for the SAT or the ACT
  • Any additional test score reports (for AP tests and so on) requested by you and sent directly to Columbia College
  • English proficiency examination score (if applicable)

Please remember to be honest in every aspect of your application; if you lie, your application may be rescinded. Usually, a college will offer an otherwise attractive student the opportunity to explain themselves if they have a disciplinary history. That opportunity is not afforded to those who attempt to mislead the admissions committee.

If you ever need to correct or update your application for any reason, do not resubmit your application. Instead, you may fax or mail the materials directly to the admissions office.


Hearing Back from Columbia

Early Decision

If you have applied through Columbia’s Early Decision program, you should receive your admissions decision by December 15th. At this point, you may be accepted, rejected, or deferred to the Regular Decision applicant pool.


If you are accepted via the Early Decision program, congratulations! Remember, this is a binding program; you are obligated to attend Columbia and withdraw your other applications. In rare instances, after meeting with the Financial Aid Office, a student who can no longer afford to attend can be released from the program.


If your application is rejected during the Early Decision round, you will not be able to reapply during the Regular Decision cycle and will not be entering Columbia’s freshman class the following year. However, you may be able to apply as a transfer student at a later point.


Regular Decision/Deferral


If your application is deferred during the Early Decision round, your application will be reconsidered alongside Regular Decision applications. This gives you an opportunity to update your application with any new qualifications or awards that might help you to stand out.


If you have applied through Columbia’s Regular Decision cycle, or your Early Decision application was deferred, you should hear back about your decision by April 1st. Ivy League schools typically release their decisions on the same day, known as Ivy Day.


On Ivy Day, you will either be accepted, rejected, or waitlisted. We’ll discuss what to do in the event your application is waitlisted or deferred below.


If you are admitted, congratulations! You will have until May 1st to decide if Columbia is the right college for you (be sure to leave enough wiggle room to submit your deposit on time and secure your place in the entering class). This will give you an opportunity to compare financial aid offers and think about the pros and cons of other schools.


Deferrals and Waitlist


If you are deferred from Columbia during the Early Decision cycle, please do keep in mind that deferral does not mean rejection. Your application will simply be reconsidered alongside those in the Regular Decision cycle. You may wish to update the admissions committee with any new information or consider retaking standardized tests in order to achieve a higher score.


If you are waitlisted, your chances of being accepted are much lower. While Columbia does not release statistics on the number of students accepted off the waitlist each year, you can expect that the number will be quite low. You may wish to submit additional information to the school, but at this point, you should also start considering other options. If you are accepted off the waitlist, it will be past the May 1st deadline.


To learn more about Columbia University and whether it is right for you, you can explore their website, schedule a campus tour and information session, or, if visiting isn’t an option, take the admissions office’s virtual tour. While Columbia and NYC may seem intimidating to you, especially if you don’t come from an elite prep school system or big city, it is important to remember that there are plenty of students on campus just like you. If you feel like Columbia is the best place to pursue your educational and career goals, we wish you the best of luck!


If you’re interested in attending Columbia University, CollegeVine is here to help. Check out our comprehensive guide on how to tackle the Columbia supplementary essays, as well as our posts comparing Columbia to schools in and out of the Ivy League.


Curious about your chances of acceptance to Columbia? Our free chancing engine takes into account your GPA, test scores, extracurriculars, and other data to predict your odds of acceptance at over 500 colleges across the U.S. We’ll also let you know how you stack up against other applicants and how you can improve your profile. Sign up for your free CollegeVine account today to get started!

Yusef Al-Jarani
Senior Blogger at
Short bio
Yusef is a Gates Cambridge and Harry S. Truman Scholar. He received his BA from the University of Chicago in Political Science with Honors, after which he spent a year in the UK studying for his MPhil in Development Studies at the University of Cambridge. He is currently pursuing his JD at Yale Law School.