Essay Analysis
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June 1, 2022

Columbia MBA Essay Analysis, Deferred Enrollment Essays 1 And 2

CBS Deferred Enrollment MBA Essays 1 And 2

Applicants respond to the two essay questions listed below if they ARE applying to the Deferred Enrollment program:

Why are you interested in obtaining a Columbia MBA in the future? (300 words)

This essay is essentially a condensed version of the first two essays non-deferred MBA candidates must answer (essays 1 and 2, the ones about career goals and fit). You can see our extended take on those ideas in the relevant sections here, but with only 300 words, we’ll have to prioritize. There are three key points to cover:

  • Why are you interested in an MBA? Hint: the answer is your career goals. You’re not at CBS to party, make friends, learn skills (though you will do all those things)—you’re going to prepare for a specific career vision. Show the adcom that your goals are compelling, rooted in your experience, and plausible given your career to date. The adcom should leave this section excited by what you will do in the future—not just the title you will hold or the company you will work at, but also what you plan to do in that role to advance your target industry. They’re looking for revolutionaries, not functionaries.
  • Why “in the future”? The adcom is excited about the vision you’ve laid out, but they’re wondering… why can’t you go and achieve those career goals RIGHT NOW? What’s stopping you? Identify the skill, knowledge or experience gaps that you need to address before you can embark on the path you’ve laid out, and show how you will use the deferral period to address them. The job that you will have between graduation and starting the MBA program could be very impressive, but that doesn’t matter if it’s not also advancing you toward your goals. Prove that it is.
  • Why at Columbia? You’ve identified your goals, the gaps you need to fill before realizing them, and how the deferral period will help. Now, wrap up by showing how the Columbia program is the best fit for someone with your goals. As we discuss at greater length in our analysis of non-deferral essay 2, the key idea here is to identify professors or specific programs.

Three roughly equal length paragraphs addressing the points we’ve laid out above is one of many ways to address this essay. All successful responses, however, will address each part of the prompt: Why you need an MBA, at Columbia, after a deferral period.


Who is a leader you admire, and why? (300 words)

Another classic prompt! Here are two quick rules of thumb:

  • 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….
  • 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 a 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.

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June 1, 2022

CBS MBA Essays 2 And 3

Applicants respond to the two essay questions listed below if they are NOT applying to the Deferred Enrollment program:

We believe Columbia Business School is a special place. CBS proudly fosters a collaborative learning environment through curricular experiences like our clusters and learning teams, co-curricular initiatives like the Phillips Pathway for Inclusive Leadership, which aims to equip students with the skills and strategies necessary to lead in an inclusive and ethical manner, and career mentorship opportunities like our Executives-in-Residence program.

Why do you feel Columbia Business School is a good fit for you academically, culturally, and professionally? (300 words)

Ooof, this is a long, clunky prompt. When you boil it down, however, the last line is the only operative instruction. This is a basic MBA fit essay. All the stuff above that is basically just the adcom shouting “Please do some research on our program before answering this!”

Let’s start off our writing process with a fun hypothetical: pretend you get into ALL M7 schools. Extrapolate your future lifetime success/happiness as a graduate of each school. Let’s say each one gets a total score out of 100. They all score high, great, but Columbia’s number is somehow slightly BEYOND the rest. Why? What is it about Columbia that makes the “Columbia alumnus” version of you better than the other six hypothetical versions? What makes “Columbia you” more successful  (however you define that)? Explain what it is you’re aiming for, and then why CBS somehow leads to that best version.

With this in mind, let’s drill down a bit further. What are some dimensions along which CBS may perform better than another?

  • Location, location, location. There’s a reason this prompt asked specifically about NYC last year… it’s definitely one of CBS’s distinguishing features. But just being in the city is not enough. Maybe New York beats Boston, but would you pick NYU over HBS because NY > Boston? No, you probably wouldn’t. What really matters is the career opportunities within the city that Columbia (and only Columbia) can make available to you. In what ways are those opportunities inherently different from other top schools? What resources and programs does Columbia offer to open those doors? Is there something that happens at CBS that is game-changingly different than any other program?
  • Campus vibe. This has to be personal to you: “I do better in X environment. So, yah, I’d rather perform at Carnegie Hall in front of 10,000 than in a room with 25 people.” Explain WHY you prefer a certain type of campus experience, then show how CBS has that type of experience with specific examples.
  • Industry specializations. Does Columbia offer unique expertise in your field? The school certainly has a reputation for strength in finance, media, real estate, and other stereotypical NYC industries, but reputation doesn’t really matter here. What you’re looking for is PEOPLE—professors or alumni who worked or are working in your target firms. Keep it at the person-to-person level… “professor XYZ would be a good mentor because she did X, Y and Z, and I want to do ABC similar thing…”

The key is to develop your argument with respect to some IDEAL you have that’s already set—probably your goals. That way your reasoning maps to something. It’s meaningless to say “I feel like this fits me,” without any more context. The “fit” has to matter somehow, it has to improve your ability to succeed. Otherwise, why should you or the adcom care?

To organization. This is a two-three paragraph essay. The very first thing you need to establish in order for this to pack a punch is. . . what YOU need in order to flourish. If you explain the fit first, it has nowhere to go. First, explain what you need from ANY program. From “the best theoretical program ever.” Explain what you need, and why that stuff will make you stronger and better, and more able to succeed at your goals, and in life. Do that quickly, and in a straightforward manner. 75-100 words max.

Now, walk us through (essentially) a series of “aha, Columbia has an incredible (or the best) version of THIS thing I just talked about.” And again! Here’s an example of ANOTHER thing CBS has. And again! Do this two or three (or more, if you can) times. Spend most of your time here explaining the match, and revealing your understanding of what that CBS element is and how it connects to you. 150-200 words.

Hopefully, you have room for a final thought, a sentence’s worth, that serves to imply that you’ve done your homework, and that there are other programs that can hit some or all of the needs you just walked us through. BUT, that CBS either hits MORE and is, therefore, the best fit. Or the hits are simply BETTER and it’s, therefore, a better fit. That comparative sense will serve you well.


Tell us about your favorite book, movie, or song and why it resonates with you. (250 words)

Is the adcom slyly seeking media recommendations here? Are they looking for you to make a convincing case for XYZ book/movie/song? If you succeed in convincing them to pick up XYZ piece of media, will you get an admit? No, no and no!

This essay is not about the piece of media you choose. There may be some benefit to choosing something somewhat mature (i.e., not Barney and Friends) or unique (i.e., not Harry Potter), but a successful essay can be written about pretty much anything.  The media does not matter, it’s the second part of the question (“why it resonates”) that will determine whether or not this essay succeeds. One way to approach this is to think about a moment in your life that led to your application. Was there an experience or event that made you think “I really need an MBA”? Or maybe something like “I really want to do XYZ, and I need an MBA in order to do that”? Did that experience involve a piece of media, or lead you to consume a piece of media?

For example, maybe you became inspired to start a sustainable fishing social enterprise after reading a book about dolphins. Or maybe, after a death in the family due to medical malpractice, you began searching for a way you could improve health tech, and were lost and confused until you read XYZ book by ABC author who inspired your current goals.

Another way of writing this would be to use this opportunity to showcase your non-business interests and personality. What personality quirks will make you a fun, valuable member of the MBA class? Why would the adcom want to have you sitting next to them in that first-year leadership seminar? A piece of media can be an opportunity to showcase something interesting about the way you think about the world or yourself.

In both cases, the essay works best when the piece of media is used as a lens or framing for something you have done. We don’t want to end at “in book ABC, the author argues XYZ, and I agree with that.” “I did XYZ because I read this book,” or “watching this movie made me better understand XYZ thing that I had done,” will be more successful formulae.

June 1, 2022

CBS MBA Short Answer Essay

What is your immediate post-MBA professional goal? (50 characters)

Examples of possible responses:

  • “Work in business development for a media company.”
  • “Join a strategy consulting firm.”
  • “Launch a data-management start-up.”

That’s right, folks. 50 characters. This question used to be 200 characters. Then it was 100. A few years ago it was 75.

CBS is not fooling around – they want you to get to the point. And fast. 50 characters isn’t dinner, a stroll around the park, a lovely nightcap against a backdrop of smooth jazz, into “who knows.” It’s more… the 1-hour motel model. Lay it on ’em.

Perhaps the most liberating way to approach this is to see this NOT as an opportunity to impress, but rather to inform. All they want is a RUDDER to help frame the rest of your essays. That’s all. It’s the equivalent of “state your name and occupation” – a measure taken just so everyone has their bearings.

Ergo, don’t overthink it.

The prize here is clarity, not intrigue. Don’t feel the pressure to wow. And don’t waste precious air-time writing stuff like “My immediate post-MBA professional goal is to…” because that would have been half your response. 1-hour motel, folks. Getterdone. Résumé-like brevity, but… good-résumé-like CLARITY.

Once you lock your strategic application positioning in general, and develop a clear, precise brand for what makes you the strongest possible applicant… just say it as clearly and leanly as you can. In going from longer character allowances in the past to the current limit of 50, CBS is sending a message, which is that anything that gets in the way of their understanding of what your immediate goal is, is simply unwelcome.

Got it? Noice. Onward…

June 1, 2022

CBS MBA Essay 1

Through your resume and recommendation, we have a clear sense of your professional path to date. What are your career goals over the next three to five years and what is your long-term dream job? (500 words)

CBS has been asking this one for a long time. It’s mostly a standard goals essay, with a few subtle tweaks.

First of all, they’ve made a point to steer you away from rehashing your résumé here. “Because we can read, and have your résumé and recommendations in front of us… We have a clear sense of your professional path to date. So please don’t waste our time by repeating that stuff here, because you’ll be revealing just how much you don’t get that simple concept…” That’s kind of what the folks at Columbia Business School are really saying there. Now, there IS a reason to slip in some of your achievements, but only to the extent that doing so further CLARIFIES your goals and/or CONVINCES the reader that you have a shot at succeeding AT achieving those goals (we’ll come back to that).

Okay, so how to crush Essay #1 for CBS? Well, this may require some re-wiring of your brain, so strap in.

You want to the readers to be utterly impressed, okay, we’ll grant you that. But HOW you go about impressing them is where it gets tricky. Your instinct might be to impress through pitching the coolest-SOUNDING job/plan. In other words, you may want to tantalize these folks with a killer tech idea; or something revolutionary; or something so creative and unique, it stops them in their tracks. Nope. Don’t try to impress through the plan. Instead, impress through the INEVITABILITY OF that plan. If your background (and therefore your skill set, prior achievements, general career arc, etc.) maps perfectly to the plan you’ve laid out for the next 3-5 years, you’re going to be thought of as “bankable.”

Think about it… business schools don’t just allow for your career goals to shift, they fully expect them to. That’s often the whole point of business school: to prime “future successes” to be as mighty as possible. What they want are SURE THINGS.

This should be a game-changer as you approach your essays. You’re no longer selling “the buyer” on the quality of the plan itself, but rather, on your ability to pull that plan off, because your background and your skill set, and your interests, and your future aspirations, and your dedication to success are all in perfect alignment.

To put a fine point on it, the reader of the perfect CBS Essay #1 won’t say, “Wow, what an impressive 3-5 year plan. I hope this kid succeeds!” The perfect essay elicits THIS response: “Wow, this kid is gonna pull that plan off. Or any other plan they commit to. Let’s go get them before someone else does.” See the difference?

Now as far as the long-term dream job is concerned, don’t just talk about what that job is. Attack it from the angle of what changes (in the world, in others, etc.) as a result of your succeeding IN that dream job. Let’s say your dream job is to be the future CEO of a brand new game-changing telecom company. Don’t just tell us what that company does, and what you imagine your role to be as CEO of that disrupting change agent. Pitch us the DISRUPTION. Sell us on “the thing you dream will happen WHEN YOU’RE SUCCEEDING.” If we buy into THAT, then we’re gonna want to help you get to that long-term dream job…

As far as balance/structure goes, this will get you out of trouble for a decent first draft (as always, remember that no two applicant essays need look alike–this is just a general suggestion if you’re stumbling out of the cages):

  • Sell us quickly on either a TEASER version of your long-term vision, or the OPPORTUNITY you’re hoping to pop, or a PROBLEM that needs fixing. (50-75 words)
  • Now, quickly catch us up to speed on what you’re up to now, and how you’re hoping to push things forward in the next 3-5 years. (Important to forget business school, for a second – pretend an MBA didn’t exist for the purposes of this particular paragraph; just give us the 3-5 year plan.) But, don’t just give us the step-by-step plan. Convince us that your skill set will allow you to transition from wherever you are right now to step 1 of that plan, and then to step 2, and then step 3, etc. This is the crux of it. Remember, it’s not the plan. It’s the inevitability of your SUCCEEDING at it, that counts. (2 paragraphs, 150 words apiece)
  • Finally, expand the canvas to include your long term dream job, selling us on “the result of your succeeding AT your dream job.” Sell us on your passion for this thing. Sell on your confidence for why you’ll succeed. (100 words or so)
  • Somewhere along the way, wherever it makes sense, it won’t hurt to layer in the area or areas where you need some fortification (from, say, a top-notch business school), in order to really achieve your goals, fully. (2 sentences, max)

More important than nailing the structure on a first draft, is getting the foundation correct. So focus on making a convincing argument that:

  1. You have assessed your strengths and weaknesses with considerable thought and insight, and
  2. You have thought through your goals very carefully and have a clear sense of risk, what’s realistic/not realistic, have a back-up plan if things don’t work out exactly as you’d like, etc.

As long as you nail those two things, the rest (the rewriting process where it all starts to tighten up and get sexy) will fall into place easily.

June 24, 2021

CBS MBA Optional Essay

If you wish to provide further information or additional context around your application to the Admissions Committee, please upload a brief explanation of any areas of concern in your academic record or personal history. This does not need to be a formal essay. You may submit bullet points. (Maximum 500 Words)

Read our team’s complete take on the idea of the optional essay, including a brief (recent) history of b-schools’ relationship with it, and how our recommendations have evolved over the years, right here.

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