Think you can get into a top-10 school? Take our chance-me calculator... if you dare. 🔥


Last updated March 22, 2024

Every piece we write is researched and vetted by a former admissions officer. Read about our mission to pull back the admissions curtain.

How to Get into Columbia University

Key Takeaway

When Columbia admissions officers read your application, they're not just looking at your grades, test scores, and course load. They're also looking for intellectual curiosity, engagement, and voice. Those are the factors that help you stand out.

Just in case you haven’t heard: Columbia’s acceptance rate is 3.89%. That’s the lowest admit rate of the entire Ivy League. It’s even lower than MIT and Stanford.

Surprising? Yes. Impossible? Well, no.

But for 96.11% of applicants, it may as well be nil.

In this post, I guide you through developing an application strategy that will get you closer to that 3.89%.

Let’s dive in.

How to Apply to Columbia

You can find Columbia on Common App, Coalition, and QuestBridge. You don’t have to pick a specific program to apply to, but you will need to choose between Columbia College and Columbia Engineering.

In your application, Columbia will request that you submit all kinds of information:

  • Background and demographic information
  • Extracurricular activities section
  • Personal statement
  • Columbia supplement
  • High school transcript
  • School Report
  • Counselor recommendation
  • Two teacher recommendations
  • Standardized test scores

You can also submit supplemental materials like a portfolio or research abstract, and you may have the opportunity to do an interview if one is available.

Columbia Application Options

You’ve got two choices when it comes to applying to Columbia. You can either apply Early Decision—a binding agreement that obligates you to attend Columbia if you are admitted—or Regular Decision, which has no binding commitment.

Sadly, you can’t apply early unless you’re willing to ED, so you’ll probably be applying Regular Decision.

Columbia Application Deadlines

Early Decision: November 1

Regular Decision: January 1

How hard is it to get into Columbia?

When it comes to getting into college, Columbia is about as hard as it gets. With a 3.89% acceptance rate, it doesn’t get much more difficult.

When acceptance rates dip below 10%, and again below 5%, you really have no way of knowing whether what you have will stand out. You can prepare and prepare, but your application is subject to the whims of the highly-selective admissions process.

So you have to control what you can—your grades, essays, activities, and overall application narrative. And to do all that, you need a sound application strategy.

To start forming that strategy, we’ll need to dive a little deeper into what Columbia looks for in applicants.

What does Columbia look for in applicants?

Our Columbia Common Data Set post already breaks down Columbia’s application evaluation criteria in detail. But when we’re talking about things like “personal character” and “talent and ability,” what we actually mean can get a bit obscure.

One person’s character or talent can look drastically different from another’s. Or what you think makes you special may not exactly map on to what a university is looking for. Let’s dive a little deeper into what Columbia looks for in applicants.

Columbia maps student values across a few key areas: academic preparation, curiosity, engagement, voice, and knowledge of Columbia.

Let’s start with academics. Of course, if you’re applying to Columbia, you’d better be academically prepared. Strong extracurriculars, essays, and recommendations just can’t compensate for an inadequate academic background. That’s the harsh reality of life at 3.89%.

But successful Columbia students aren’t simply the best students at their schools—you also have to have a certain “it” factor that draws admissions officers into your personal story. And what’s one of the main ways you can do that? Yep, intellectual curiosity.

Taking notes in a lecture, doing rote memorization, filling out a scantron—all of these actions are marks of a good student, but Columbia is looking for thought leaders. They want students who ask questions and answer them, students who are willing to solve hard problems and find ways to help the world around them. If you’re that student, you need to show them.

That’s where engagement and voice come in. Sitting in a classroom is one thing, but actively seeking opportunities to connect is another. Columbia, like all top-tier schools, wants students who will contribute to the community around them. So if you want to get into Columbia, you have to show 1) that you have your own voice and perspective, and 2) you already have a history of using your voice to engage with the voices of those around you.

Finally, Columbia wants students who want to be there. And the only way to show that you want to be there is to know everything you can about what Columbia has to offer. More than that, you also have to make clear connections between those offerings and what you bring to the table—that’s a little thing we like to call “school fit.”

Columbia GPA requirement

Because of Columbia’s holistic and contextual approach to application review, you don’t need to worry about GPA cutoffs. Your application won’t be automatically rejected because you don’t have a perfect GPA.

That said, you should be realistic about your chances of being admitted if your GPA leaves something to be desired. As we showed in our Columbia Common Data Set post, 95.7% of enrolled first-year students were in the top tenth of their high school graduating class, and 100% were in the top half.

If that doesn’t sound like you, then you should adjust your expectations accordingly. (Sorry—I know that’s harsh, but that’s the reality of highly rejective admissions!)

Columbia SAT Scores

Like GPA, there aren’t any formal SAT or ACT requirements or cutoffs at Columbia.

But there is a measure that will help you gauge where your standardized test scores should be if you want to be a competitive applicant. It’s called the “middle 50%,” which is the score range in which the middle 50% of enrolled first-year students scored.

So, Columbia’s middle 50% look like this:

SAT Composite: 1490-1560

ACT Composte: 34-35

If you scored a 1490 on your SAT, you’d be right at the bottom of the middle 50%. If you scored a 1400, then you’d be below the middle 50%. See how that works?

As of right now, Columbia has extended its test-optional policy. When it comes to deciding whether to submit your scores, the middle 50% is crucial. We have a whole post on test-optional strategy, but here’s the gist: if your score is within the middle 50%—especially if you’re on the higher end of it—then you should be okay to submit your score.

Does Columbia superscore?

Columbia superscores. “Superscore” means that they’ll take your highest scores in each section, regardless of which test date you earned them on. So if you get your best reading score in May and your best math score in October, all that matters will be the higher scores.

Superscoring can be a life-saver when it comes to standing out with your standardized tests because you’re not facing as much pressure to get it perfect every time. Thank you, Columbia!

What high school course work do I need to get into Columbia?

Columbia pretty clearly lays out what coursework you’ll be expected to have taken in high school. But the specific courses depend on whether you’re applying to Columbia College or Columbia Engineering.

In both cases, you aren’t required to have taken these courses. But if you want to be a competitive applicant, you should try to get as close as possible.

Let’s take a look at Columbia College first:

  • English: 4 years
  • Math: 4 years
  • History/social studies: 3-4 years
  • Lab science: 3-4 years
  • Foreign language: 3-4 years

And now for Columbia Engineering:

  • Math: 4 years, through calculus
  • Lab science: 4 years (including one year each of chemistry and physics)
  • English: 4 years
  • History/social studies: 3-4 years
  • Foreign language: 2-3 years

Remember that Columbia admissions officers will evaluate your transcript in the context of your school, so don’t sweat it if you can’t match these guidelines perfectly. Aim to align with the ones that are most important to you.

What extracurriculars do I need to get into Columbia?

If you’ve ever watched a “How I got into Columbia” vlog or browsed r/ApplyingToCollege, you might feel like you need to have made an uber-successful app or raised thousands of dollars for a non-profit if you want to get into college.

I’m here to ease some of that stress, so worry not. Those kinds of achievements can help your application, but they’re not the only way for you to get into a school like Columbia.

Sure, you’re definitely going to need some impressive extracurriculars to brave the 3.89%. But you don’t need to cure a disease or make a fake company. You need to choose activities that resonate with you and your values, and you need to demonstrate how you’ve shaped the world around you through your activities.

The best way to ensure that your extracurriculars stand out is to write about them in a way that tells a compelling story. Columbia admissions officers want to know the “why” behind how you spend your time, so write about them in a way that highlights Columbia’s values, too—those values of academics, curiosity, engagement, voice, and connection to Columbia.

Final Takeaways + Columbia Supplemental Essay

And with that, prospective Columbian, you’re off to the races. Read through this guide as many times as you need until you have a sound application strategy in place for your Columbia application.

Next, it’s time to begin your Columbia supplemental essays. We have a whole other guide for that, too. Hop on over to the Columbia Supplemental Essay guide to get started.



Liked that? Try this next.