October 25, 2018

Columbia University Short Answer Questions

Columbia University

Please answer the following short answer questions (300 words or fewer for each question):

1. Please tell us what you value most about Columbia and why.

The stuff you value about Columbia will be meaningless unless you show those things will somehow benefit you, and inspire you to do great things. You simply MUST make this connection for us:

Part I: I find XYZ aspects of Columbia University (in particular) appealing.

Part II: [This is key.] And this is why those things, when they mix with ME, will lead to greatness…

Think of it like a chemical reaction. Imagine you’re some kind of reactive substance about to be introduced to a bunch of different environments. Columbia is one of them. Why is THIS one the most explosive? Maybe the others foam and sizzle a bit, but when introduced to Columbia, you positively will explode (in a good way). Why? How? What is it about Columbia and NYC that will enable this?

Also, if your reasoning can apply equally well to NYU or another New York City school, it won’t fly. Or if your argument can apply equally well to another student, it won’t fly. It has to be specific on both counts.

As you’re structuring this, one very cool way to establish credibility is first to explain what it is (IN GENERAL) that helps you flourish. Give us evidence while you’re at it. Now, we must assume that many schools OTHER THAN COLUMBIA have some VERSION of these necessary ingredients, right? It can’t be that your future depends on Columbia, or else you’ll shrivel up and wither. Naw, you’re gonna be fine wherever you end up. You just have an opportunity to explain why Columbia’s VERSION of those ingredients is particularly exciting to you. Connect those Columbia traits to the stuff you established already. Do that a few times, and your 300 words will write themselves. So here’s an outline:

  1. Establish the circumstances under which you THRIVE… best, the most, etc. And prove it with an example or two. [125 words or so]
  2. Using two (maybe three) examples, identify SPECIFIC things UNIQUE to Columbia that map to traits you established in Part 1. Be ridiculously specific. [175 words or so]

2. 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.

A somewhat disappointing question from Columbia… we believe that it’s always a bit weird to ask someone entering college about their chosen major. It’s the equivalent of asking four-year-olds what they want to be when they grow up – there probably won’t be a meaningful correlation to what actually ends up happening. But consider it. The folks who wrote this question aren’t exactly dummies. They know what they’re doing. So why are they asking you to talk about your target field when they know it will probably change?

It’s all about the reasoning behind the reason here. “Ah, I like your approach. I like the way you think about your future. Wonderful, now go on and do whatever it is you end up doing, I trust you’re going to make cool choices and succeed.” That’s what it boils down to.

So, with that in mind, worry less about the “what” and pay more attention to the “why.” Justify your reasoning for pursuing a field (or fields). Make a nice clear argument. Explain where the passion comes from. Explain your attachment to the pursuit itself (less the specific outcome). Convince us that your plan is to succeed no matter what, even if your path ends up looking different, or even if your goal shifts a bit. Talk about your approach. Talk about process. Talk about the ASPECT of the field that energizes you. These are all “scalable” things. This is where the gold’s at.


3. 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.

Challenge yourself and try this out. In your “rough draft/ideation” stage, pen some thoughts about what you expect OTHERS will write. Do this two or three times. Almost smugly, quickly summarize the most predictable answer you can imagine here, that everyone under the sun will use. If it helps, label your scratch paper thusly:

Predictable Answer 1 – My interest in BLAH attracts me to Field X. (Boring.)

Predictable Answer 2 – My interest in BLAH attracts me to Field Y. (Boring.)

Predictable Answer 3 – My interest in BLAH attracts me to Field Z. (Boring.)

(Fill those “BLAHs” in, obviously.)

Now sit back, having gone through the motions of mindlessly capturing the most obvious responses here, and start YOUR version with the following phrase: “My attraction to Field X is actually an unusual story…” Or, “Most people don’t believe me when I tell them that my interest in this field comes from THIS.” Or, “The steps leading to my interest may make sense, but wait until you hear about my FUTURE PLANS…”

Where does it go from there? The more unusual, the more likely we are to BUY it.

This is important folks: Don’t make up an unusual origin story for your interests if you truly don’t have one. If your journey to Field X falls in line with what others are likely to write about, then you still have some strategies you can use. You may even call yourself out on it. “By all appearances, I must look like the quintessential {insert Nationality} kid with parents who are {insert parents’ engineering backgrounds}, who was encouraged to pursue the same field. Here’s the thing, I actually love it. Here’s the proof.” You can still make a convincing argument that way. But whatever you do, we need to buy it. In fact, imagine someone asking you this question out loud, you answer, and then they say in response: “I don’t believe you.”

What would your response be? It would go something like: “You don’t believe me? Well let me prove it to you. After I walk you through these three examples, you will be convinced.” (Go from there, see where it leads.)


You can also read through our team’s analysis of the rest of Columbia’s application essays.

Learn more and explore each step of Brown’s undergraduate application process here.

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