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Last updated May 10, 2023

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How to Write the Columbia Supplemental Essays

Key Takeaway

You'll be writing a lot for your Columbia supplement. You have two list questions and four short answers. As you write, remember: your personal statement and each of your supplementals should work together to form a cohesive but textured application narrative.

With the lowest acceptance rate of the entire Ivy League, Columbia is exceptionally hard to get into. Your essays are critical.

In this post, I’ll walk you through each of Columbia’s supplemental essay prompts and give you tips on how to answer them.

Let’s jump right in.

Columbia Supplemental Essay Questions

Columbia breaks their supplementals up into two parts: list questions and short answer questions. We’ll start with the list questions.

For both of the following list questions, you can literally list your answers. You don’t need to provide any supplemental text or information—just list your items and separate them with commas.

List question #1: 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. (75 words or fewer)

If you’re going to attend Columbia, you’re going to read lots of books. What you choose to spend your time reading says a lot about you. Don’t feel like you need to game this question and list all of the most profound books you can think of. Instead, be authentic. Just like you’re multi-faceted, your reading list can be, too. Feel free to include those more intellectual reads alongside the more artistic or enjoyable ones. The key is finding an authentic and representative balance.

List question #2: We’re interested in learning about some of the ways that you explore your interests. List some resources and outlets that you enjoy, including but not limited to websites, publications,  journals, podcasts, social media accounts, lectures, museums, movies, music, or other content with which you regularly engage. (125 words or fewer)

Same goes for your second list question. Here, Columbia wants to see not only what you enjoy but also how you stay informed. Again, your list should be balanced. You don’t need a list full of the top ten media outlets in the world, and you also don’t need a list filled with your favorite Instagram influencers. Find a balance that leans toward your serious side while also showing some of your personality.

Now on to the short answers. You’re required to answer all four of these, so buckle up.

Short answer question #1: A hallmark of the Columbia experience is being able to learn and thrive in an equitable and inclusive community with a wide range of perspectives. Tell us about an aspect of your own perspective, viewpoint or lived experience that is important to you, and describe how it has shaped the way you would learn from and contribute to Columbia's diverse and collaborative community. (200 words or fewer)

This prompt calls for a diversity essay. As you might know, diversity essays are one of the trickier supplemental essay genres to write. When we think about diversity, we tend to think about intersections of identity like race, gender, and class. If you feel compelled to write about that kind of topic, great. They can make for very impactful supplemental essays.

But if a topic doesn’t immediately come to mind, don’t feel compelled to squeeze yourself into an inauthentic box. There are all kinds of diversity out there, especially in the phrasing of this question. Since it asks you to describe “your own perspective, viewpoint or lived experience” in relation to Colubmia’s diversity, you have some flexibility in the topic you choose.

Whatever you write about, remember that this question is also about Columbia itself. Don’t forget to reflect on the very last question: how you would learn from and contribute to Columbia’s community.

Short answer question #2: Why are you interested in attending Columbia University? We encourage you to consider the aspect(s) that you find unique and compelling about Columbia. (200 words or fewer)

You’ll be writing a “why us” essay here. Overall, your goal in the essay is to write about Columbia in a way that shows enthusiasm, research, and an organic connection between your background and Columbia’s offerings. The key to writing a good one, then, is all in the research. You need specific, thoughtful, and logical details to draw on. Those details might come from Columbia’s website or departmental websites. You might also get information from an admissions representative, a conversation with a professor or current student, or a campus tour. The details you choose don’t just have to be academic, either. You can also look to Columbia’s school culture, extracurricular offerings, or institutional values.

Short answer question #3: 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)

This one is an academic interest essay. It’s your main opportunity to nerd out about your area of interest or go in-depth on the “why” behind your academic plans. But you’ve got to be specific. You can’t just say “I want to study biology because I want to be a doctor and help people.” That won’t cut it. Instead, try something like, “Over the past two years volunteering at my local hospital, I’ve learned…” And one last note: remember that you’re showing academic fit in this essay, so be sure to 1) write about an academic area that Columbia offers, and 2) touch on the academic values that underlie Columbia as an institution.

Short answer question #4: In Columbia’s admissions process, we value who you are as a unique individual, distinct from your goals and achievements. In the last words of this writing supplement, we would like you to reflect on a source of happiness. Help us get to know you further by describing the first thing that comes to mind when you consider what simply brings you joy. (35 words or fewer)

Similar to MIT’s supplemental prompt #1, this Columbia prompt asks you to describe something that gives you joy. I promise: it isn’t a trick. Admissions officers genuinely want to know you. In particular, this is the perfect opportunity to emphasize your values or passions. What brings you joy? Is it your family? Watching hummingbirds with your grandma? Going on nature walks? Looking up at the stars? Be authentic, but also consider what new information an admissions officer will learn about you from your answer.

And with that, your Columbia supplemental essays will be in the bag. If you want more college essay writing guidance, check out the Essay Academy, our comprehensive digital college essay course.

Happy writing!

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