How to Ace the Columbia Leadership Essay

Columbia’s prompts are somewhat straightforward compared to other schools of its caliber, and the third essay is no exception. Here’s the prompt:

Who is a leader you admire, and why? (250 words)

The first challenge with a traditional prompt like this is avoiding a traditional answer. There are going to be a LOT of people doing the same thing here, and their essays won’t do anything to advance their application. We need to differentiate. There are the two overall approaches to that:

  1.  Pick someone the adcom won’t know, and you can get away with somewhat conventional reasons for “why.” Don’t be too conventional—you should still find COOL reasons to admire this person—but the adcom will be a little more forgiving if you introduced them to someone new. Alternatively….
  2. Pick a conventional, well-known leader… but for an unconventional reason.

If you pick someone no one’s heard of, that’s already interesting. Good! Now make a convincing argument that they’ve done something that warranted your admiring that person. By the way, this could be everyone from “my younger brother who created a successful startup.” to an obscure person in ancient history whose leadership skills resonate to this day. One caveat: Keep in mind that the adcom will be reading thousands of versions of this essay, and probably at least hundreds from people who share your exact politics, educational background, nationality, etc. If you have any doubts about whether your leader is actually “someone no one’s heard of,” we’ll want to write as if our leader falls into category 2….

If you pick someone EVERYONE’S heard of, you’d better find a reason that no one’s thought of yet. Because if you pick a WELL-KNOWN person for an OBVIOUS reason, you have zero chance of grabbing your reader’s attention. You may very well argue the living hell out of it, and it might be compelling and crisp and logical and “correct.” But it won’t MOVE the reader. And that’s the goal. To knock the adcom off balance.

So, what are surprising reasons for admiring someone?

Well, I like THIS gal but not because of X, Y or Z (the stuff everyone ELSE admires her for). Nah. My whole thing is THIS STRANGE, WEIRD, NEVER-PRAISED trait that is super cool, underrated, and super badass. Ex. “I admire Bill Gate’s sartorial choices, because (to me) it says something powerful about how he leads. Let me explain. . .”

Or, here’s a guy I admire: XXX. That guy, the guy who famously belly-flopped as a leader. First, I’ll say that yah, I’m with everyone else on ABC bad aspect of his performance. That’s the not the part that gets me. It’s THIS oft-overlooked piece… Ex. “I admire Neville Chamberlain’s innovations as postmaster general….”

Someone has a leadership skill you simply lack, but are in awe of. It takes courage to admit to this, and humility to say that you really wanna learn how to develop a leadership skill. But it also helps justify your application: You wanna be around people who have XYZ skill so you can drink it in. Alternatively, this could go “I’m good at XYZ, but he’s a MASTER, and I am in awe of people who excel at XYZ, because of THIS particular reason. Now, lemme explain what makes THIS guy ultra-next-level…

Organization here really depends on who you pick and why. Things can get crazy. You may start with a tasty anecdote that embodies everything you admire, and then walk us through your reasoning. It could start with what the world thinks, and then your analysis of where they get it wrong, and what you see instead. It could be a walk-through of what you value, and then a reveal of which person best represents that. Lots of structures here. The key here is to subject your final essay to the “does this surprise me” test. Is there any insight there that isn’t wholly predictable (and therefore dull)? Again, “correct, honest, and compelling” can all still be dull. The GOLD STAR version of an essay here has SOME element that contributes some new, interesting perspective. (Which will reveal something new and interesting about YOU.)

Don’t be discouraged if your initial few stabs don’t pass this test. Often times, our first (raw) instincts will fail this test. And that’s okay. That’s where you need to go into BEAST MODE at the review/rewriting stage and get super critical. If it happens on that first draft, great. If it happens at draft two, no problem. Just make sure you take the time to GET THERE.

Need more guidance? Check out our review of the other essays in the CBS application, or ask questions in the comments below.

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