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Those List Questions and "Why Columbia:" How to Nail Columbia's Supplemental Essays (2020-2021)

Columbia is the only college we know that asks you not only to write supplemental essays, but also to make supplemental lists — four lists in total, in fact, in addition to two required supplements.

The good news is that all these requirements are chances to show off your intellectual curiosity, and to make your case that you belong on Columbia's prestigious New York campus. This guide will show you exactly how. (Note that Columbia's prompts have changed slightly since last year.)

I. Short Answers (2 required essays; 200-word limit each)

1. Columbia students take an active role in improving their community, whether in their residence hall, classes or throughout New York City. Their actions, small or large, work to positively impact the lives of others. Share one contribution that you have made to your family, school, friend group or another community that surrounds you. (200 words or fewer)

You have a few goals with this essay: (1) show you're a good person; (2) show you're the type of person who'll contribute a lot to Columbia's campus; and (3) show that you're capable of success in career and in life.

Brainstorm a bunch of ideas before you start writing. You want to be able to select the best story — not only one that can be interesting in 200 words — but also one that fits with the other aspects of your application. For example, if you've highlighted intellectual prowess that doesn't intersect much with real-world "good guy" bona fides, you might want to tell a simple heart-warming story here — show the heart that your application doesn't otherwise reveal. Whereas, if your application focuses heavily on volunteer work, take this opportunity to go beyond the heartwarming: show the tangible real-world impact that you've achieved.

Putting a number of potential stories on paper should help you to choose the one that best highlights your ability to succeed spectacularly at Columbia and beyond. (And don't forget to ask friends and family for feedback on this one - they may have insight into a great story that you've forgotten about.)


2. Why are you interested in attending Columbia University? (200 words or fewer)

The "Why Columbia?" essay. Simple, right? Not really.

Admissions readers don’t want a list of every single thing about Columbia that intrigues you. Instead, they want you to give them a cohesive view of what makes you tick, and why those traits will allow you to succeed spectacularly at Columbia. 

Step one: Choose the personal traits you'll focus on

  • Brainstorm the traits that make you stand out; then pick the 2-3 most important to focus on. This could 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 education.

Step two: Find the Columbia offerings that best match your traits

  • For each of 2-3 traits you pick, choose 2-3 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 - you want to be specific here.
  • As an example, let’s match the traits of a sample student with some real opportunities at Columbia. Say this student is (1) proud of their Cuban heritage, (2) passionate about social justice, and (3) loves working on their high school newspaper. Here are some Columbia resources that match those traits:
    • The Cuba Program at ILAS
    • Student Organization of Latinos
    • Casa Hispanica
    • Office of Multicultural affairs: lectures, film screenings, collaborations
    • Human Rights program and human rights major combines economic policy with cultural studies
    • Columbia Spectator

Step three: Connect the dots — how will your 2-3 traits work together to make you spectacularly successful on Columbia's campus. 

  • Take the example student above, her introductory sentence might be: “Columbia’s commitment to cultural diversity, both in its campus community and its Human Rights curriculum, will empower me to become a powerful 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 topic statement, 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 2-3 main traits and their connected resources in 2-3 short paragraphs that will tell Columbia admissions readers who you are, and why you belong. 


II. The List Questions (4 required essays; 150-word limit each)

These unusual short answers ask you to give a snapshot of your personality and interests by listing things that are important to you. 

  • List the titles of the required readings from academic courses that you enjoyed most during secondary/high school.
  • List the titles of the books, essays, poetry, short stories or plays you read outside of academic courses that you enjoyed most during secondary/high school.
  • List the titles of the print or digital publications, websites, journals, podcasts or other content with which you regularly engage.
  • List the movies, albums, shows, museums, lectures, events at your school or other entertainments that you enjoyed most during secondary/high school (in person or online).

All of these "list" questions come with the following instructions:

  • List each individual response using commas or semicolons; the items do not have to be numbered or in any specific order. No explanatory text or formatting is needed.

Sometimes students think that they'll get extra credit for writing an essay here, but it's better to follow instructions! We recommend that you stick to a "list" format, using the items you choose and the order you present them in to maximize impact. Here are a few tips:

  • Get organized! Organize your list into "spikes" of interest, grouping like with like to create a logical flow. For example, if you are fascinated by sports and statistics, you might start your "Publications" list with two or three of your favorite sports websites, then list a statistics-focused sports websites before moving into any academic or political statistics publications that you read.
  • Edit wisely! You don't have to include everything, so make sure that you aren't overwhelming your reader with the longest possible list.
  • Look beyond English! For the "Required Reading" list, many students only list books from their literature classes, but you might have read something inspirational in history, social sciences or STEM classes.
  • Get specific! For the "Movies and Events" list, you'll probably list a favorite movie or two that most people have seen nationwide, but don't neglect the interesting and unique things you do in your own hometown

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, there's a 200-word essay about your academic interests. Both Columbia College and SEAS applicants will need to write this essay, writing specifically based on which school you want to attend. 

  • Please tell us what from your current and past experiences (either academic or personal) attracts you specifically to the areas of study that you previously noted in the application. (200 words or fewer)

In essence, this is a "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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