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Answering the Columbia University Essay Questions

Zaragoza Guerra

Written by Zaragoza Guerraon October 22nd, 2019

Prior to joining College Coach, I spent part of my career as director of admissions for the Boston Conservatory, where I oversaw overall recruitment and auditions for students interested in music, theater, and dance. I spent most of my admissions career, however, as an admissions officer for two institutes of technology. As an associate director of admissions at MIT, I directed overall recruitment and yield activities as well as international, transfer, and special student admissions. I also served as an assistant director of admissions for Caltech, where I handled specialized student recruitment and reviewed domestic and international student files.
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Whether you’re enamored of Columbia University because of its Core Curriculum, its student activism, or its location in New York City, there’s no shortage of opportunities to tell its admissions office how good a fit you feel you are for the school—its application has ample space for intellectually curious students to declare their match. Freshman applicants are expected to answer seven of eight prompts as part of their application. If that seems like a lot, take heart. Columbia’s prompts are much more manageable when categorized into three response types: a set of five 150-word lists, one 300-word “Why Columbia” response, and one 300-word “Why this field of study” response. Let’s break them down for you.
  • The lists. Columbia gives prospective freshmen several opportunities to describe the things that give them intellectual joy, particularly when it comes to books, films, publications, websites, and entertainment. Be honest here: They’re asking you to list the things you’ve enjoyed most, not the things Columbia enjoys. So if you didn’t really like Moby Dick, don’t list it—they won’t be offended. If most books you’ve read happen to be science related, it’s okay to show that scientific bent here; intellectuals come in all shapes and sizes. If you’ve got an interest in film noir, let your list reflect that. Modern art? Go for it! You’ll want to be mindful that your lists reflect your true interests. And that goes for the list describing your ideal college community, too. If a core curriculum is what you’re after, personalize the hunt: “I want a school that would encourage my quest to grapple with questions posed not only by Dante’s Inferno but by Darwin’s Origin of Species, too!”
  • “Why Columbia” Like many other schools, Columbia wants to know why you love them. Specifically: “Please tell us what you value most about Columbia and why.” There are three important words within that prompt you must consider before answering: “you,” “Columbia,” and “why.” Before rattling off a list of Columbia’s greatest hits, think about your own particular goals and ambitions. Can they be manifested in any of Columbia’s offerings? If so, connect the dots between your experiences and goals, and the specific experiences at Columbia that will allow you to fulfill those goals. Don’t simply provide Columbia a list of things they already know about themselves. Instead paint them a self-portrait with Columbia as your backdrop—show them how you imagine living your dreams and ambitions there. For example: Columbia might have a great queer alliance, yes, but why is the queer alliance important to your past or present self? And how do you imagine expressing your queer-activist self at Columbia in the future?
  • “Why this field of study” If you’ve already successfully written your “Why Columbia” response, this next prompt should be easy, as it’s not too dissimilar. You have two choices here, though. You’ll either write a response for Columbia College or the Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science. Much like you will have done in your “Why Columbia” response, connect the dots between your past and present self to your future course of study. And in case you’re wondering, there’s nothing wrong with bringing in a little Columbia specificity to this response. They’re asking you to write about the “field of study that you noted in the Member questions section.” Implicitly speaking, the “field of study that you noted” happens to reside at Columbia


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