Columbia University is a prestigious school, not just because of its low acceptance rate or high starting salary for graduates. It’s one of the oldest colleges in the US, and has had huge numbers of well-known graduates, including Founding Fathers, famous directors, and politicians.
Like any Ivy League, Columbia is a place for both education and networking, creating a solid foundation and social circle for your future career. But first, you have to know how to get into Columbia. And with a school and selective as Columbia, that’s going to be difficult—but not impossible.
Follow this guide to get your college application in shape for a Columbia acceptance!
What Should I Know About Columbia?
If you’re reading this, you probably already know that people want to go to Columbia because it’s a prestigious college with a long and important history. It’s an Ivy League school, granting it a reputation of academic excellence; with a degree for Columbia on your resume and the connections you make there, you’ll have an edge in the job market.
Columbia is also one of the most selective colleges in the United States. Only Harvard and Stanford have lower acceptance rates, so you’ll be competing for spots with some of the brightest minds in the country.
Columbia students tend to major in STEM programs like Engineering or Computer Sciences, with around eight percent more students choosing a STEM degree as their first choice than choosing Arts, Humanities, or Social Science. But Columbia is also the alma mater of many prominent artistic figures—Kerouac, Ginsberg, Katherine Bigelow, Langston Hughes, and Art Garfunkel, to name a few.
It’s ranked as the top college for English studies, second best for performing arts, and second for philosophy—despite enrolling slightly more STEM undergrads, Columbia is by no means exclusively a STEM-focused college. Its Arts and Social Sciences departments are highly regarded, and students shouldn’t feel like pursuing something other than a STEM field puts them at a disadvantage. Enrollment will be competitive no matter what, so if you want to go to Columbia, apply!
Don't let fear of rejection stop you from applying!
How Hard Is It to Get Into Columbia?
Columbia’s low acceptance rate is part of why it’s such a prestigious school. If it was easy to get in, it wouldn’t carry so much academic and social clout!
Reported rates vary from year to year, but you can be that the acceptance rate in a given year will be 6 percent or lower. For the class of 2022, Columbia reported an acceptance rate of 5.5 percent, so just about six students for every 100 applicants will receive a treasured acceptance letter.
Because Columbia considers applications holistically, every part of the application matters. Good standardized test scores and an excellent grade point average are essential, but don’t make the mistake of assuming your chance of acceptance is based entirely on those two factors.
What GPA and SAT/ACT Scores Do I Need to Get Into Columbia?
Columbia is an Ivy League, so you need an excellent GPA and SAT/ACT score. Positive study habits and test preparation are a must.
That said, don’t despair if your grades don’t quite match up with Columbia’s expectations. Again, they consider applications holistically; if you can explain your grades, demonstrate growth, and impress with extracurriculars, you still have a chance.
Think of admissions to Columbia as a race. Some people may have worked on theoretical racing so much that they have little experience in actually running. Other racers have lots of experience in running, but lack the finesse of runners who’ve been coached by professionals. Any of those runners could conceivably win, but those with a mixture of both experience and theoretical knowledge will have an advantage.
Essentially, don’t be afraid that poor grades in your sophomore year have ruined your chances forever. If you can prove that Columbia is truly the school for you, you still have a chance; you’ll just have some extra hurdles to jump!
What's the Average SAT Score for Columbia Students?
The average SAT score for Columbia students is between 1460 and 1550, making the college extremely competitive. Remember, this is an average—it’s not the only score you can have, as students who score about that will have a little extra boost, and students who score below that will have to demonstrate how well they’ll succeed elsewhere in the application.
This is why it’s important to get started on SAT prep early. If your first score misses the mark, you can always try again. Spending some time prepping for the SAT will help you get closer to your score goal, and therefore closer to holding that coveted acceptance letter in your hand.
If you want good scores, you'll have to study hard.
What's the Average ACT Score for Columbia Students?
Columbia is similarly selective with ACT scores. The average ACT score is 34, making Columbia University extremely competitive.
As with SAT scores, it’s important to get started on preparing early. Don’t wait until junior or senior year to start thinking about your scores if you plan to attend Columbia—you’re up against some of the brightest minds in the world, so you need to lock in a good score through lots of studying and practice.
Columbia reports their scores as between 33 and 35, so while you might have a little bit of wiggle room, a higher score is always better. Study like a perfect score is the only one that’ll get you in, but know that your test scores aren’t the only factor in your acceptance.
What's the Average GPA for Columbia Students?
Columbia's average GPA is a whopping 4.16. What this means is that you’ll need to be taking heavier weighted courses, typically AP or honors courses, to be competitive with other prospective Columbia students.
Again, it’s not impossible to get in if you don’t have a GPA above 4.0—it also depends on if your school weights GPAs—but reaching for as high of scores as possibly certainly won’t hurt your chances. Study hard in your first couple years of high school to ensure that you’re prepared for the advanced courses you’ll need to push your GPA to a Columbia-approved level.
Remember, your school may weight AP courses more, so a B in an AP course might mean more than an A in a standard course. Don’t despair if your grades aren’t perfect in AP courses, but do always strive for the best, and set yourself up for success. You simply can’t earn a 4.16 GPA if you’re not in AP courses, so plan to take them.
Though Columbia doesn’t offer average GPAs for its acceptance rates, it does state that over 90 percent of its accepted students were in the top 10 percent of their class. Don’t take that to mean that being in the top 10 percent is enough—remember, 90 percent of the students you’re competing with are also in that same demographic. You need to excel and stand out.
Because Columbia is holistic, everything counts. But one Ivy League college admissions officer has revealed a little secret—everything counts, but the most important thing to not do poorly on is your GPA. This is general advice for Ivy Leagues, not specifically Columbia, but don’t discount your GPA as a vital factor in getting accepted to Columbia.
Having a distinct skill—like doing VR while riding a bike—sets you apart from other applicants.
What Extracurriculars Should I Have to Get Into Columbia?
Your competition is not necessarily every single student who applies to Columbia. Your competition is every student like you—students who have your GPA, your SAT score, your diversity of extracurriculars. So find a way to stand out from the pack; what areas do you excel in? And if you don’t excel now, what can you do to target your application to be less of a Renaissance applicant and more of a specialist?
Consider the “spike” approach to applying to college. A variety of skills is great, but most applicants will also have good grades, test scores, and multiple extracurriculars. To stand out, you want something memorable—a spike in your well-roundedness. If you have an interest spike, an area where you particularly excel or that emphasizes your dedication to a certain field, you can tie much of your application to that spike and make your application more memorable.
The essay section may be stressful, but it's also your best opportunity to shine.
How to Answer Columbia's Essays
Writing a good answer to the “Why Columbia” essay is essential. The admissions office already knows Columbia is a good school, so use this space to explain why it’s the right school for you and how you’ll contribute to the community there. Again, this is a great place to return to your spike to tie things together.
Be sure to emphasize your own personal experience in your essay. Reading successful Columbia application essays is a great way to get a feel for what Columbia likes to see, and to better understand how personal details can change the entire feel of an essay.
How to Answer Columbia's Supplemental Writing Questions
Columbia’s further supplemental questions may seem unusual compared to other colleges; they ask about books you’ve read, concerts you’ve attended, and so on. Be honest, here—though your temptation might be to reach for the most sophisticated answers, this is an opportunity for the college to get to know you better.
If your favorite concert of the year was indeed the obscure bassoon recital you attended, by all means, list it. But don’t write in the prestigious documentary du jour if you have no interest in watching it. That said, Hop on Pop is not a grade-appropriate choice, so do try to choose things that represent your interests and your age level.
Should You Include Supplementary Material?
Certain majors accept supplementary materials, such as some scientific fields, artistic disciplines, or performance-based majors. Students with research experience, you can include an abstract to flesh out your application. Students in the arts can include a portfolio, but should be aware that there is an additional fee—this fee can be waived, but Coalition Application students will need to email the school directly for a fee waiver.
Good recommendation letters are a key part of how to get into Columbia.
What Recommendation Letters Should You Have?
Columbia requires three recommendation letters: one from a counselor, and two from teachers. Though Columbia does accept supplemental letters of recommendation, students should only do so if the source is academic and if the letter will add something new to your application. More isn't always better.
Teachers, coaches, and other mentor figures are great options for letters of recommendation. Be sure that you’re setting your teachers up to write you a great letter by asking early and providing them with any information they might need.
Take a look at letters that got students into Ivy League schools for the caliber of recommendations you should strive for. Take note of how these teachers write about personality as well as academics—select teachers who have the same knowledge of your personality and skills so they’re equipped to write about you with the same depth.
Before you take out loans, apply for financial aid!
What Should You Know About Applying for Financial Aid?
Columbia takes a need-blind approach to processing applications from US citizens, undocumented students, and eligible non-US citizens. International students are processed as need-aware, meaning there may be some consideration of financial need while processing the application.
Columbia meets 100 percent of student need and does so without loans. Students whose parents or guardians make under $60,000 annually are considered to have a $0 parental contribution, which will instead be made up with financial aid.
Columbia has a helpful tool for students to determine what documentation and forms they'll need based on when they're applying, their citizenship status, and what year they're applying for. Use this early to be sure that you can get all your paperwork done ahead of time!
Recap: How to Get Into Columbia University
Applying to Ivy League schools like Columbia University can be incredibly stressful. You know you're up against the best, and setting yourself apart can feel like an insurmountable task. But you can do it.
Start early. Think about what you want your application to look like before you start working on it, and take steps to prepare for the advanced courses, test scores, and extracurriculars you need. If you're already later in your academic career, change what you can now and start thinking about how you can address gaps in your personal statement.
Read a ton. Stay on top of changes to the application, new prompts, and what's most advisable for students like you. Assuming all your grades are in order and your test results are on track, start preparing for your essays. Of course, the prompts may not be available yet—consult past and current essays and start thinking about how you'll answer similar questions.
Create a spike. Remember, every other student applying to Columbia is also concerned about having great grades, AP courses, and test scores. If you're competing against the best of the best, you need to stand out. Instead of being well-rounded, develop a particular area of expertise, something that will set you apart from other students and really showcase what makes you unique.
Learn more about what makes Columbia one of the most selective colleges in the United States, and how it compares to other selective schools. If you're applying to multiple Ivy Leagues, it's a good idea to know your chances at each!
Columbia is one of the country's most selective schools. Even if you're only interested in Columbia, learning more about how to get into other selective schools, such as Harvard, can give you additional insight into how to polish up your application.
Knowing the essay requirements is just the beginning. More in-depth reading about the topics and how to answer them will give you an even stronger shot at impressing the admissions office.
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Melissa Brinks graduated from the University of Washington in 2014 with a Bachelor's in English with a creative writing emphasis. She has spent several years tutoring K-12 students in many subjects, including in SAT prep, to help them prepare for their college education.