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The Expert Guide to the Columbia Supplement

Posted by Hayley Milliman | Sep 16, 2020 12:00:00 PM

College Essays



Only 6% of applicants are admitted to Columbia every year. Do you want to be one of them? If so, you'll need to write amazing Columbia essays as part of your application.

In this article, we'll outline the different types of essays you need to write for your Columbia Supplement and teach you how to write an essay that will help you stand out from the thousands of other applicants.


What Does the Columbia Supplement Include?

Like many major colleges and universities, Columbia University requires its applicants to submit essays as part of their application for admission.

The supplemental materials section of the Columbia application for admission consists of two sections: three Columbia-specific essay questions and four list answer questions.

The Columbia essay prompts offer you plenty of opportunities to show off your qualifications as an applicant and wow the admissions committee. The short answers are designed to showcase your personality and creativity.


Columbia Essays, Analyzed

In this section, we'll be looking at all three of the Columbia supplemental essays in depth.

Remember, every applicant must answer each of the prompts, so you don't get to choose which essay you would like to write. You'll need to answer each essay prompt well if you want to be admitted to Columbia. Additionally, you only have 200 words to answer each prompt, so you'll need to be efficient.

Let's take a look at each of the Columbia supplement questions and see how to write something meaningful for each.


Columbia Essay #1: The Community Contribution Question

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)

This question is essentially asking for your track record as an active, engaged citizen of the communities you're a part of. Admissions counselors want to know that you have experience contributing to your communities and positively impacting the lives of others. They want to see if you'll bring that community-oriented attitude to Columbia and make positive contributions to campus.

To answer this question well, it's important to briefly explain a contribution you've made, why you were motivated to make that contribution, why it mattered, and what you learned from it that equips you to make similar contributions as a student at Columbia. (Also note that the prompt only asks you to discuss one contribution, so choose the one that resonated most with you!)

In responding to this question, it's important to explain why your contribution mattered through storytelling. Columbia wants to hear about what's unique in the contribution you made. Even if you feel like your contribution is something that many high school students do, think about what made your experience stand out or different, and be sure to describe it from that perspective. Make the readers feel like they're there with you! And of course, don't forget to talk about how it impacted you as a person!




Columbia Essay #2: The Why Columbia Question

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

This is a version of the "Why This College?" essay that appears on many applications. This question probably seems easy to answer, but it will actually require some careful thought. What this question really wants to know is why Columbia is the only college for you and how you will fit into the culture of Columbia University.

Put another way: how is Columbia a good fit for you, with your academic experiences and interests, and how are you a good fit for Columbia, based on your understanding of the school's culture and identity?

This means your response needs to get right into the specifics. A good response might include specific aspects of Columbia's academic, extracurricular, or professional offerings that attract you, and how you see yourself fitting into those aspects of Columbia.

You can only do this well if you've done your research. You want to show admissions counselors that you've taken the time to learn about Columbia, its academics, and its culture. You should definitely mention specific courses you want to take, clubs you want to join, or professors you want to work with.

The kiss of death for an essay like this is being overly general. For instance, avoid making general statements about how Columbia is a prestigious, well-renowned school. Admissions already knows that attracts students! Your goal is to write a specific, unique response that showcases what you value about Columbia and why you're a perfect fit for the school.


Columbia Essay #3: The Fields of Study Question

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

Just like on the first two short answer questions, Columbia admissions wants to hear about a unique or insightful experience from your life. This question is not asking for you to regurgitate a list of AP courses you took or extracurriculars you participated in. It's asking about a pivotal experience that sparked your interest in the fields of study you put on your application.

To write an effective response to this question, consider choosing a specific experience or situation that tells the story of your background with the areas of study you noted in your application. If you can contextualize your interest in the field of study you put on your application by showing the narrative behind it, admissions counselors will likely find your application to be more memorable.

For example, let's say that you want to major in biology because your sister has sickle cell anemia. You've seen how her illness affects her, and you want to help develop new treatments that could make her life, and others' lives, better. That's exactly the type of personal story admissions counselors' want to hear!

Just avoid listing accomplishments and activities or describing a broad range of general experiences in response to this question. Make your response unique by focusing on your passion!


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Columbia List Questions Analyzed

The four list questions appear first on the Columbia-Specific Application Questions section. To answer these four questions, applicants are instructed to list each individual response using commas or semicolons, without any additional explanatory text.

The application also specifies that the List Question responses don't have to be numbered or included in any specific order (e.g. favorite to least favorite, most recent to least recent, etc.).


List Question #1: The Required Readings Question

List the titles of the required readings from academic courses that you enjoyed most during secondary/high school.

For this question, admissions counselors are interested in learning more about your critical engagement with required literature in high school. Listing the required readings that you enjoyed most will give admissions counselors a sense of what literary, cultural, and political themes and issues you find compelling.

Additionally, your responses to this question will give an idea of which subject areas you find most interesting, and what connections you see among subjects you've studied. For instance, if you list a work of historical nonfiction from an AP U.S. History class that covers the Reconstruction Era and the novel Beloved by Toni Morrison, admissions counselors will see that you are interested in the socioeconomic and racial tensions that characterized the post-Civil War period in America.

So, while you can't explain your choices in this List Question response, a good strategy for constructing your list might be to think about your academic interests or intended field of study as you apply to Columbia, then consider which required high school readings encouraged those academic interests.

It's important to be honest about the required readings that you most enjoyed in your response to this question, so don't get too focused on dreaming up connections between readings from different courses or something. Instead, choose the readings that were most meaningful to you in light of your current academic interests. Just focus on being honest and authentic in your answer!


List Question #2: The Leisure Readings Question

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.

This List Question is another that will give admissions counselors a better picture of how your academic life and personality intersect. Your list of books, essays, poetry, short stories, or plays that you enjoyed most in your leisure reading will show what topics and issues you're interested in beyond what you're reading in school. They'll also give a sense of your engagement as a literary and cultural citizen.

It's tempting to use this list to try to flex on the committee, but trust us: admissions counselors will know if you're making things up. (Trust us: no one is going to believe you're reading War and Peace for fun.)

While you want to be authentic in your response here, you need to remember that this question is still part of your college admissions packet. That means you need to make sure that you're choosing works that aren't deliberately offensive or inflammatory.

Our pro tip? Make a huge list of books you've enjoyed, then narrow the list down until you think you've chosen a good mix of works that represent your interests and personality.


List Question #3: The Media Content Question

List the titles of the print or digital publications, websites, journals, podcasts or other content with which you regularly engage.

This list question is asking you to show your commitment to being an engaged, global citizen. You'll do this by listing the media sources you regularly consult in order to stay informed about world, national, and local issues.

A good answer to this question is going to show that you're a media-literate person. This means that the sources you list should be considered credible and reliable, not biased and sensationalized. Your answer will be a window into how you evaluate sources of information and make decisions about what will make a valuable contribution to your knowledge and awareness of what's happening in the world.

Having said that, this question also gives you the chance to show some of your niche interests. Maybe there's a podcast about the political significance of rap music that you regularly listen to. Perhaps you religiously read The New York Times' Food Column. Or maybe you're an avid scuba diver, so you subscribe to the PADI (Professional Association of Diving Instructors) newsletter.

Think of this as a chance to show aspects of your personality that might not be revealed through other parts of your application, in addition to your media literacy skills.


List Question #4: The Art Enjoyment Question

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).

This is another question that's designed to give admissions counselors a sense of who you are and what you love. While there are no wrong answers to this list question, you'll want to take some time thinking about your response. You want it to showcase your personality while still leaving an impression!

To answer this question, you might decide to curate your list around a specific theme or medium to demonstrate one of your core intellectual interests. For instance, maybe you're fascinated by how superhero movies portray the American psyche, so you list your favorite superhero movies, a free public lecture on superhero comic books, a documentary about the creation of comics as a medium, and San Diego ComicCon. Thinking about shaping your list so that it gives a window into what you like to spend your time thinking about outside of school is a solid approach.

Your list can also give insight into why you're attracted to the areas of study you noted in your application. For instance, maybe you've indicated that you intend to major in psychology on your application, and you decide to list the YouTube show SciShow Psych as one of your favorite "entertainments" throughout high school.




How to Write a Great Columbia Essay: 3 Key Tips

Regardless of which Columbia essay prompt you're responding to, you should keep in mind the following tips for how to write a great Columbia essay.


#1: Use Your Own Voice

The point of a college essay is for the admissions committee to have the chance to get to know you beyond your test scores, grades, and honors. Your admissions essays are your opportunity to make yourself come alive for the essay readers and to present yourself as a fully fleshed out person.

You should, then, make sure that the person you're presenting in your college essays is yourself. Don't try to emulate what you think the committee wants to hear or try to act like someone you're not.

If you lie or exaggerate, your essay will come across as insincere, which will diminish its effectiveness. Stick to telling real stories about the person you really are, not who you think Columbia wants you to be.


#2: Avoid Cliches and Overused Phrases

When writing your Columbia essays, try to avoid using cliches or overused quotes or phrases.

These include quotations that have been quoted to death and phrases or idioms that are overused in daily life. The college admissions committee has probably seen numerous essays that state, "Be the change you want to see in the world." Strive for originality.

Similarly, avoid using cliches, which take away from the strength and sincerity of your work.

Columbia's admissions committee will see hundreds, if not thousands, of essays that talk about how much the applicant loves New York City. Saying that you want to study amongst the bright lights of the Big Apple is trite and overdone. If you are excited about going to school in New York City, make sure that you have a really specific reason that also ties to Columbia's opportunities.


#3: Check Your Work

It should almost go without saying, but you want to make sure your Columbia essays are the strongest example of your work possible. Before you turn in your Columbia application, make sure to edit and proofread your essays.

Your work should be free of spelling and grammar errors. Make sure to run your essays through a spelling and grammar check before you submit.

It's a good idea to have someone else read your Columbia essays, too. You can seek a second opinion on your work from a parent, teacher, or friend. Ask them whether your work represents you as a student and person. Have them check and make sure you haven't missed any small writing errors. Having a second opinion will help your work be the best it possibly can be.


Recap: Writing the Columbia Supplemental Essays

Your Columbia essays cover a lot of ground! You'll have the opportunity to share why you want to attend Columbia, as well as about your academic interests and potential pursuits. You'll also get to talk about Columbia's community and the art and literature that interests you.

Be honest and sincere in your Columbia essays. Make sure your essays are a great representation of who you are as a person, not just as a student or your resume.


What's Next?

Wondering how to excel on the "Why Columbia" essay? We break down this essay prompt and specific examples on our blog.

You might be wondering what kind of test scores you need to get into Columbia and other similar schools. We tell you what good scores are for Ivy League schools plus MIT, Stanford, and UChicago here.

Looking for a detailed guide on how to be one of the few students accepted to Ivy League level schools? Read PrepScholar co-founder Allen Cheng's reflections on his college application and tips for how you can get into Harvard and other Ivy League-level schools.


Want to write the perfect college application essay? Get professional help from PrepScholar.

Your dedicated PrepScholar Admissions counselor will craft your perfect college essay, from the ground up. We'll learn your background and interests, brainstorm essay topics, and walk you through the essay drafting process, step-by-step. At the end, you'll have a unique essay that you'll proudly submit to your top choice colleges.

Don't leave your college application to chance. Find out more about PrepScholar Admissions now:

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Hayley Milliman
About the Author

Hayley Milliman is a former teacher turned writer who blogs about education, history, and technology. When she was a teacher, Hayley's students regularly scored in the 99th percentile thanks to her passion for making topics digestible and accessible. In addition to her work for PrepScholar, Hayley is the author of Museum Hack's Guide to History's Fiercest Females.

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