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How to Write a Standout "Why Columbia" Essay (and All the Other Supplements) for 2019-2020

Columbia College at Columbia University is one of the most prestigious schools in America, and one of the most competitive. While its other supplements will help readers get a sense of who you are, the 300-word Why Columbia essay lets you make your case for joining its selective class.

(Note: The prompts have changed — check out our updated advice for 2020-2021.)

Let’s look at the prompt: “What do you value most about Columbia?” Simple, right?

Not really.

By including that sneaky “most,” admissions readers are telling you that they don’t want a list of every single thing about Columbia College that intrigues you. But what if you are excited about a number of Columbia’s offerings?

That’s where your Core Message comes in. Follow this guide to come up with a unique, and compelling 1-2 sentence answer to the prompt that will let you get away with mentioning a ton of Columbia University’s resources, while satisfying admissions readers who want to know what you most value.

Step one: Building Your Profile

  • Think about what makes you stand out and pick three major things to focus on. For example, these can include: your academic or intellectual passions; your main extracurricular interests; your identity, however you define it; or who you see yourself becoming with a Columbia University education.

Step two: Connecting Your Profile to Columbia

  • For each of three main traits you picked out, choose 1-2 Columbia-specific resources. Do a deep dive on Columbia’s website to find the classes, opportunities, faculty, and clubs that complement your interests.
    • For each resource, ask yourself: “Is this true of most Ivy League schools?” If the answer is yes, keep searching!


  • As an example, let’s match up the traits of a sample student with some real opportunities at Columbia:
    • Proud of Cuban heritage
      • The Cuba Program at ILAS
      • Student Organization of Latinos
      • Casa Hispanica
    • Passionate about social justice
      • Office of Multicultural affairs: lectures, film screenings, collaborations
      • Human Rights program and human rights major combines economic policy with cultural studies
    • Loves working on the newspaper
      • Columbia Spectator


Step three: Your Core Message.

  • Let’s take the student from the example above. Her Core Message could look something like: “Columbia’s commitment to cultural diversity, both in its campus community and its Human Rights curriculum, will empower me to become an informed and vocal advocate for social justice.”
  • Why this works: The student explains that Columbia’s commitment to cultural diversity most appeals to her, but she packs this sentence with other details that she can elaborate on throughout her response.


Once you’ve defined your Core Message, you’ll want to include it right at the beginning of your essay, either as your first sentence, or after a couple of sentences of introduction. Then your path for the rest of the Why Columbia essay is clear: cover your three main traits and their connected resources in 2-3 paragraphs that will tell Columbia admissions readers who you are, and why you belong in the class of 2019!


Short Answers

In addition to the common app personal statement, the activities list, and the Why Columbia Essay, there are five additional Columbia supplemental essays. These short answers ask you to give readers a snapshot of your personality and interests by listing things that are important to you. They all have word limits of 150. Let's take a look!

  • List a few words or phrases that describe your ideal college community.
  • List the titles of the required readings from courses during the school year or summer that you enjoyed most in the past year.
  • List the titles of the books you read for pleasure that you enjoyed most in the past year.
  • List the titles of the print, electronic publications and websites you read regularly.
  • List the titles of the films, concerts, shows, exhibits, lectures and other entertainments you enjoyed most in the past year.

We recommend that you stick to a "list" format for these answers, but that doesn't mean you can't include a few words of context if the word limit allows. For example, in the "books read for pleasure" list, you might write something like:

  • The Just City, by Jo Walton: a speculative fiction novel about Plato's Republic that fed my philosophical obsessions with questions about free will.
    • This list entry gives context for the book to a reader who might not be familiar with the title, while connecting it to one of your interests.
    • You can use any format you like here, just make sure it's consistent between entries. (For example, you shouldn't switch between sentence fragments and full sentences.)

The Columbia ideal college community short answer requires some special consideration. Again, stick to the list format here (we recommend separating entires with commas, periods or semicolons), but feel free to mix things up, combining single words with short phrases and quotes. For example: "Coffee on the quad; per aspera ad astra; STEM + Art = STEAM; collaboration; exploding the canon"

To generate a strong first draft, try a free write.

  • Set a timer for ten minutes.
  • Envision your ideal college community, then type without letting your fingers stop moving for the entire ten minutes.
  • Do a word count, then cut ten percent of the words (I.E., if you wrote 250 words, cut 25). Then repeat until you are down to 150 words.

Remember that all of these short answers work together to create a picture of who you are. Dig deep, take them seriously, and you'll be able to show Columbia admissions readers an honest version of your best self.


School-Specific Essays

Finally, you'll have to write a 300-word essay about your academic interests. Both Columbia College and SEAS applicants will need to write this essay, but the prompt differs slightly based on which school you want to attend. Let's take a look at the prompts!

  • If you are applying to Columbia College, 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.
  • If you are applying 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.

In essence, these are both "Why Major" essay. For more information on how to write this important essay type, check out our "Why This Major" guide.


Click here for our guide to the Common App essay

Prompt’s Essay Specialists reviewed 13,000 admissions essays in 2018, helping thousands of students submit their applications with confidence.

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