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How to Answer the Columbia Supplemental Essay Prompts 2019-2020

OCT 20, 2019 • 18 min read

Founded in 1754 as King’s College, Columbia University in the City of New York is one of the top institutions in the country and the world. Nine Supreme Court Justices attended Columbia, as well as 45 Olympians and five Founding Fathers of the United States. If you aspire to be a Columbia Lion, you’re in good company! Since the university admitted only 5.5% of first-year applicants in 2018, give yourself the best possible shot at a Columbia education by spending a little extra time polishing your supplementary essays.

Columbia asks applicants to write three kinds of supplemental essays. The first is the unique list format, which requires you to respond to five questions with lists of less than 150 words. The second question calls for reflection upon what you value most about Columbia, and the final prompt concerns your proposed field of study. Compared to some other supplementary essay prompts, Columbia’s might seem surprisingly straightforward. This impression can be deceiving, though: there’s still plenty of room for you to be creative within the limits of these concrete prompts. As you work through these essays, remember that institutions like Columbia expect to receive applications from far more qualified students than they could reasonably admit. It’s very difficult to impress these schools through the sheer quality of your academic record – you need to find other ways to distinguish yourself. One way to do this is through the careful construction of thoughtful, insightful responses to Columbia’s supplementary essay questions. Let’s think a bit about how to approach each of these kinds of essays.

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Lists: Before sitting down to respond to a list prompt, it’s a good idea to brainstorm about different ways to format your responses. Your list can consist of single words, phrases, or both. As many students of art and writing can probably verify, sometimes the most restrictive prompts produce the most interesting results. Columbia is pushing its applicants to show insight and personality by applying unusually limiting parameters to these ‘essays.’ You might experiment with different forms as you go to determine which format offers you the most communicative resources.

Question 1: List a few words or phrases that describe your ideal college community. (150 words or less)

If you’re applying to Columbia, admissions officers will take for granted that a rigorous intellectual environment is important to you. Don’t make the mistake of reiterating clichés that could apply to any high-caliber institution. What makes Columbia special? Thanks to its location in New York City, Columbia offers unparalleled access to cultural resources from Broadway plays to high fashion to vintage shops to authentic street food. As its official name attests, Columbia perceives New York as an extended campus. This is different from what many people picture when they imagine the all-American college experience: although Columbia boasts a traditional campus in the neighborhood of Morningside Heights, it’s far from the quaint college towns of Princeton or Cambridge. What about this particular kind of college community appeals to you?

In addition to being specific about what Columbia offers, make sure you let your background and personality shine through. This goes for each essay, of course! You can achieve this effect by being honest about your particular interests, experiences, and dreams. Maybe you’re looking for a group of friends interested in retracing the haunts of the Beat generation as you read together for the Columbia Core. Perhaps you’re intrigued by ham radio and know that Columbia claims the earliest amateur college club in the nation. Since you’re working in a list format, eliminate filler words and use language that communicates a vivid picture of how you imagine yourself fitting into the Columbia community.

Question 2: 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)

This prompt lets you off the hook a little, since you should only mention things you read for actual coursework. The range of possible answers is already determined for you! Think of this list as an opportunity to do two things. First, this prompt allows you to show admissions officers how your experiences to date have prepared you for the rigors of a Columbia education. Second, you should use this list to express your unique intellectual fingerprint. For once, you don’t have to justify the connections between these different interests! Let your curiosity lead the way.

Question 3: List the titles of the books you read for pleasure that you enjoyed most in the past year. (150 words or less)

For this list, resist the urge to pad or fabricate. Think honestly about what you’ve read in the past year, and take some time to reflect on how that reading made you feel. What does it mean to read for pleasure? Pure enjoyment is pleasurable, but so is working through a difficult text that helps you better understand one of your interests. Maybe you take pleasure in augmenting your understanding of organic chemistry, or maybe you’re obsessed with sports statistics and follow nonfiction releases with keen attention. Columbia is looking for students who pursue their interests independently, whatever those interests might be. We don’t all love Kant with a passion, and that’s more than okay! Once again, take the opportunity to create a genuine sketch of your intellectual diet as you create this list.

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Question 4: List the titles of the print, electronic publications and websites you read regularly. (150 words or less)

Don’t worry about generating equal proportions of print and electronic publications in this response – that’s not the point here. Instead, focus on building a picture of the kind of information you consume on a regular basis. This list can act as an elaboration on the one before it: while it can take weeks or even months to finish reading a book for fun, it’s possible to fill in the gaps with articles, short stories, and journalism every day. As always, respond to this question in a truthful way. If you don’t already read The New York Times, don’t add it to the list; if you read every article on Teen Vogue, it might be worth including. Columbia is a huge university, and there’s more than enough room for a diversity of interests and perspectives among the student body. If your response seems like someone else’s idea of a Columbian’s reading habits, you haven’t succeeded. Maybe show this list to a parent or friend to make sure it seems like an accurate representation of both your serious and your more recreational interests.

Question 5: List the titles of the films, concerts, shows, exhibits, lectures and other entertainments you enjoyed most in the past year. (150 words or less)

Since Columbia is located in New York City, off-campus cultural experiences are an integral part of the university’s approach to education. Students receive free admission to over 30 NYC-area museums with a Columbia ID, and it’s easy to enter lotteries for free or reduced-price tickets to musicals, ballets, symphony concerts, and operas. While this is certainly an exciting prospect, it can also seem intimidating! You don’t need to have traveled to the city to partake in these kinds of highbrow events to have something interesting to share in this list. Do you love to watch stand-up comedy on Netflix? Write about that. Maybe you’ve watched old movies with your parents since you were a kid. Have you ever been to a gallery featuring the work of local artists? Are you involved in an indie board game club? Look around you to find out what kinds of experiences are already available to you. How do you maximize the resources of your current environment?

Key points: Experiment with format. Be honest. Try to create a sense of what it’s like to be inside your head.

Question 6: Please tell us what you value most about Columbia and why. (300 words or less)

Everyone knows that Columbia is an Ivy League university offering a world-class education in a global city. There’s no need to repeat this in your essay. Admissions officers are very familiar with Columbia, both from their own experience and through the thousands of supplemental essays which repeat the same talking points year after year. Can you show them something fresh about their community? To accomplish this, you need to craft an essay that communicates how you’ll bring your individuality to campus in 2019.

You may have heard about the Columbia Core Curriculum, which has connected thousands of alumni since its inception in 1919. While it’s fine to write about the Core, make sure to push yourself beyond a generic statement of appreciation for the liberal arts. You might want to do some research into the nuts and bolts of the curriculum so you can write about specific connections between your interests and the Core syllabi.

It’s also worth noting that this prompt is phrased in terms of value. In addition to giving you a chance to articulate why Columbia interests you, this essay presents an opportunity to express what matters to you in an educational context (and in life in general). Maybe you’re attracted to the history of activism in the Columbia community – the university celebrated the 50th anniversary of the 1968 student protests in 2018. Or you might have noticed that the school’s fall break is scheduled to give students the day off on election day. Columbia values student engagement in the outside world, and structures its requirements to facilitate this kind of involvement. What do you value? You could think of this response as a kind of manifesto, a declaration of your particular values and interests. If Columbia happens to be a perfect fit for them, the admissions committee will have to take note! In general, think of your response as a blend of the factual (which should reflect your knowledge about Columbia) and the values-based (which allows you to showcase your character and unique perspective). Try not to sacrifice one for the other: otherwise, you’ll run the risk of answering the ‘what’ of the question, and failing to address the ‘why.’ There are a limited number of facts about the university, but an unlimited number of reasons for valuing them. It’s in the value – the ‘why’ – that your unique perspective can make an impression.

Key points: Blend a discussion of facts and values so that you can communicate an honest, individualized perspective on why you want to attend Columbia.

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School of Engineering and Applied Science 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 College 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)

These two questions are identical, except for the fact that applicants to the School of Engineering and Applied Science cannot apply under an undecided major. Since the prompts mention “current and past experiences (either academic or personal)” which attract you “specifically” to the area of study you provided elsewhere in the application, it’s a good idea to think of some true stories that encapsulate your current academic interests. Of course, Columbia admissions officers know that applicants can’t be expected to have planned out their entire academic lives; this question is less about showing off your knowledge in a certain area, and more about giving an account of your personal curiosity. Like the first longer essay question, this prompt calls you to go beyond the ‘what’ of your interests to engage with ‘why’ you care about the things that inspire you.

One way to approach this is through story. Maybe a mishap from your first lab experience made you fall in love with the dynamic nature of scientific inquiry. Or an important relationship might have introduced you to an area of inquiry you would never have explored otherwise. Use your writing skills – along with the specific detail afforded by discussing a real experience – to show your readers how you feel when you’re fired up intellectually.

Something to note: you might be tempted to write about wanting to ‘change the world’ through medical research or social policy, for instance. Changing the world is a perfectly worthy goal, but make sure you’re being specific about what attracts you to your field of choice. Try to avoid buzzwords or clichés, focusing instead on your lived experience and the conclusions that can be drawn from it. Be humble, because it’s the little things that will make your college experience truly transformative. As much as Columbia admissions officers might be keeping an eye out for the university’s next Nobel Prize winner, they’re also looking for students who will support each other intellectually through chats over breakfast and everyday conversation.

Columbia wants to enroll students who will help each other grow as thinkers. Improve your chances of admission by expressing the kinds of insights you’ll offer the Columbia community.

Key points: Use a true story to motivate and explain your intellectual interests. Don’t be afraid to write about something small or seemingly mundane – big achievements start with the little things.

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