Columbia University, located in Manhattan, New York City, is one of the most competitive universities in the United States, with an acceptance rate of only 3.73% in the 2021-2022 admissions cycle. Columbia’s acceptance rate has declined significantly over the past decade, so if you dream of attending, differentiating your Columbia supplemental essays from the crowd is that much more important.
There are six Columbia supplemental essays, also known as the Columbia-specific essays. The first two questions ask for lists of media you consume, and the second set of four questions are short essays that illustrate your interest in Columbia and how you would fit into Columbia both as a student and a community member. In this blog post, you’ll learn how to write the Columbia University supplemental essays, understand the underlying question the admissions officers are asking, and distinguish yourself from other applicants.
Columbia’s 2023-2024 Prompts
- List a selection of texts, resources and outlets that have contributed to your intellectual development outside of academic courses, including but not limited to books, journals, websites, podcasts, essays, plays, presentations, videos, museums and other content that you enjoy. (100 words or fewer)
- A hallmark of the Columbia experience is being able to learn and thrive in an equitable and inclusive community with a wide range of perspectives. Tell us about an aspect of your own perspective, viewpoint or lived experience that is important to you, and describe how it has shaped the way you would learn from and contribute to Columbia’s diverse and collaborative community. (150 words or fewer)
- In college/university, students are often challenged in ways that they could not predict or anticipate. It is important to us, therefore, to understand an applicant’s ability to navigate through adversity. Please describe a barrier or obstacle you have faced and discuss the personal qualities, skills or insights you have developed as a result. (150 words or fewer)
Why Columbia? Question
- Why are you interested in attending Columbia University? We encourage you to consider the aspect(s) that you find unique and compelling about Columbia. (150 words or fewer)
- What attracts you to your preferred areas of study at Columbia College or Columbia Engineering? (150 words or fewer)
Columbia’s Background Questions
List a selection of texts, resources and outlets that have contributed to your intellectual development outside of academic courses, including but not limited to books, journals, websites, podcasts, essays, plays, presentations, videos, museums and other content that you enjoy. (100 words or fewer)
This prompt asks you to list your media—what you read, watched, listened to, or generally enjoyed consuming in high school or secondary school, but not for your high school or secondary school. Even if The Great Gatsby changed your life, if you read it in AP English Lit, it’s not the right answer to this question. On the other hand, if you read a poem no one’s ever heard of, but you read it on your own time and enjoyed it, don’t hesitate to include it in your list.
Additionally, if you read a lot of books in high school that aren’t generally considered “literature,” but you enjoyed them, you also definitely shouldn’t hesitate to write them down. The most important thing is authenticity, which will serve to differentiate you. It’s unlikely that any other applicant is going to write down exactly the same titles as you, because you should be able to fit 10+ titles within the 100-word maximum. Remember, you don’t need to list authors, subtitles, or any explanatory details.
Don’t be afraid to list something that is popular, unpopular, or “not serious.” Admissions officers want to know that you have a strong personality. If you love listening to music, you might want to start your list with your favorite musical artists, composers, soundtracks, or songs, but remember to offer a couple of other types of media before you run out of words. Or if you can express your personality by naming your favorite comedian’s podcast, the romantic comedy you re-watch every year, or the social media account of a celebrity llama, then go for it.
If the admissions officer decides to look up the media you referenced and gets a laugh out of it, then you’re probably on the right track to planting a more memorable seed in their mind. Nevertheless, if there are also “serious”/academic lectures, Ted Talks, educational YouTube videos, or museums you really enjoy, be sure to include at least a few of them in your list.
That said, there are some “don’t”s in answering this prompt. Including the name of a social media account you love but which is not publicly accessible won’t allow the admissions officer to look it up. For instance, nsfw-type material is a no-go (R-rated movies are generally fine, but X-rated movies are probably not appropriate).
Finally, in terms of websites, it’s not advisable to list websites you must use for school, or websites that have many distinct purposes, because it is already implied that you use these websites. For instance, listing the government website of your town doesn’t clearly express that you’re heavily involved in polling efforts for local elections; listing Wikipedia doesn’t necessarily communicate that you are a registered admin on the site. Linking the community portal on Wikipedia, though, or a page explaining how to register to vote, might more specifically communicate your involvement in those endeavors.
The underlying question behind these list questions is, Who are you outside of the classroom, and what media shapes you? These questions are not the time to indicate your academic interests, but instead the perfect occasion to display your unique personality, your cultural influences, and your authentic media consumption.
A hallmark of the Columbia experience is being able to learn and thrive in an equitable and inclusive community with a wide range of perspectives. Tell us about an aspect of your own perspective, viewpoint or lived experience that is important to you, and describe how it has shaped the way you would learn from and contribute to Columbia’s diverse and collaborative community. (150 words or fewer)
This background question asked by the Columbia University admissions officers give you the chance to express who you are as a person. In this 150-word essay, you can dive into a (not necessarily marginalized) identity you hold (for example, your religion, cultural background, or LGBTQ+ identity), or a formative experience you have undergone (for example, taking care of a family member, participating in sports, or overcoming a health issue). The underlying question this essay prompt asks is, How has your unique identity shaped the way you move through the world, and how will it continue to shape your life?
By posing this short-answer essay, the admissions officers indicate that they are curious to know who you have been within your community(ies) throughout your life, and how you will participate in the community of Columbia University undergraduates. As a result, it is important for you to describe your past participation in a community through actions you have taken.
For instance, if you identify as Muslim, how does your Muslim identity manifest (or not manifest) in your choices, personality, or relationship with others? If you are a boy in a family of all women, how has that experience influenced your perspective on women and society? Reflecting on questions like these may help you consider how you may evolve as a Columbia University student.
In college/university, students are often challenged in ways that they could not predict or anticipate. It is important to us, therefore, to understand an applicant’s ability to navigate through adversity. Please describe a barrier or obstacle you have faced and discuss the personal qualities, skills or insights you have developed as a result. (150 words or fewer)
This background question asks you to describe your experience with overcoming hardship. Through this Columbia supplemental essay, you have the opportunity to highlight a challenge you have faced in your life and describe how you responded to it. The underlying question here is, How do you respond to adversity?
Many students answer a similar question to this one in their Common App personal statement. If you are one of those students, you should consider selecting a different obstacle to discuss in this essay. Not only would discussing the same obstacle create redundancy within your application, but this essay question only permits answers of 150 words or fewer, and the personal statement permits 650 words: it is difficult for a 650-word answer to be effectively condensed down to 150 words without losing crucial details.
When selecting the challenge you would like to describe in this essay, make sure it is contained enough for you to describe its origins and your response in only 150 words. The prompt doesn’t ask for the greatest barrier you have faced, just “a” barrier you have faced. While you should still select a significant challenge, you also don’t write what feels like a rushed, incomplete, and/or oversimplified essay.
Remember, you can also choose to discuss a specific aspect of a barrier you have faced. For instance, if your family is socioeconomically disadvantaged, that is a huge topic that you could probably discuss for pages. Instead, you could focus on a particular, exciting high school opportunity that you had to turn down due to finances; a specific side job you had to get to support your family while in high school; or the way you emotionally supported your family members during a specific time of financial hardship. By keeping your answer specific, you avoid oversimplification or generalization and ensure your answer is specific to your experiences.
Why Columbia? Questions
Why are you interested in attending Columbia University? We encourage you to consider the aspect(s) that you find unique and compelling about Columbia. (150 words or fewer)
The first Why Columbia? question asks Why Columbia? Although this question may seem straightforward, it is both one of the most common and one of the most commonly misunderstood by applicants. Unlike the rest of the college application, the Why Columbia? essays should not tell the reader about yourself (at least not directly), nor read like a Columbia University advertisement. Instead, this question expects you to research, refine, and relate to Columbia and its current student body.
Research what classes, programs, professors, extracurriculars, and other aspects of Columbia most interest you. Then, refine this list to include only what is unique to Columbia (you might think Columbia’s English department is amazing, but many other universities have English departments. What about Columbia’s is different from the English departments elsewhere?). Lastly, relate to your own unique interests what you’ve listed.
For instance, don’t sing the praises of the Columbia Ballet Collaborative unless you want to do ballet! Moreover, don’t assume that the reader knows exactly how you relate to a given aspect of Columbia unless you’ve explicitly stated the relation earlier in the application. If you haven’t mentioned anywhere in your application that what you want to do with your physics degree is to work at NASA, then your reader won’t necessarily know why you so badly want to take a class with Professor Massamino.
What attracts you to your preferred areas of study at Columbia College or Columbia Engineering? (150 words or fewer)
The second Why Columbia? question is one of the tougher questions among Columbia’s supplemental essays, because it asks you to explain why you are interested in the academic fields that you wish to pursue. Many students feel like they have to explain some grand story about how a doctor saved their best friend’s life and now they want to be a doctor, or they looked at the stars every night as a child before dreaming about astrophysics. The truth is, for many students, they chose a subject because they had a talent for it, or because the job opportunities are numerous. As a result, these students need to engage in some introspection before writing this essay.
If you do have a grand story about the origins of your love of 16th-century French history, then that’s amazing, and you should write about it in as much detail as your 150 words permit! If that doesn’t sound relatable to you, though, there are still plenty of ways to express the answer to this essay’s underlying question: Why are you passionate about your prospective major(s)?
One way to help you get started on this essay is to think back to the origins of your academic interests. After all, a variety of financially reliable fields exist, and you likely have a talent for more than one academic subject. How did you end up choosing this one (at least for now), and what motivated this decision?
Note that the question also mentions your preferred areas of study at Columbia specifically. Make sure that your response to this question is tailored to Columbia’s offerings. You can start the essay by specifying which major(s) at Columbia are of interest to you and end by name-dropping majors, courses, or even professors if you have words remaining.
Another question to consider, especially if you can’t remember how you got into your subject of interest, is how you feel when you are doing activities or assignments related to this subject. Are you always engaged during Spanish class? Do you feel a jolt of excitement when you find out you get to do a chemistry lab? Does reading a book for English class feel more like leisure than work?
Addressing your emotional state can be a great way to “prove” that you are interested in your subject(s) of choice. That said, be sure to use specific language when talking about your emotions, involving rhetorical devices if you can, versus just writing that math makes you happy.
If you need help polishing up your Columbia supplemental essays, check out our College Essay Review service. You can receive detailed feedback from Ivy League consultants in as little as 24 hours.