Columbia Business School Essay Analysis: Part II

By Kyle Watkins (last updated: July 6, 2014)

We pick up where we left off last week, analyzing the essays for the 2014 Columbia Business School application. Part I of this post is available here.

Essay #2

Please watch this video. How will you take advantage of being “at the very center of business”? (250 words)

There are two easy ways to botch this question, so let’s tackle each in turn.

1. Don’t just talk about New York City.

Last October, Columbia Business School unveiled a new branding campaign and tagline: “At the Very Center of Business.” This essay question is a not so subtle attempt to see how closely applicants were paying attention.

As Columbia notes, the campaign is supported by four pillars:

1. KNOWLEDGE: An Unrivaled Culture of Academic Excellence.
2. ACCESS: Unmatched Exposure to the Pulse of Business, Both Inside and Outside the Classroom.
3. COMMUNITY: A Diverse, Engaged, and Entrepreneurial Community.
4. IMPACT: An Immediate and Lasting Impact on the Business World.

So, yes, this essay is in part about being in New York City. It’s probably not possible to write this essay without talking about New York. But it should be clear that just talking about New York is not sufficient.

Being “At the Center of Business” – at least in Columbia Business School’s eyes – is about more than that. Which is also why the admissions committee change this essay prompt from last year’s question, which was focused solely on New York: “Columbia Business School is located in the heart of the world’s business capital – Manhattan. How do you anticipate that New York City will impact your experience at Columbia?“

It’s important, then, to not only talk about why you want to go to school in New York City but also other reasons why you want to go to Columbia that align with the four pillars of the school’s new branding campaign.

2. Don’t repeat content you wrote about in essay one.

This question, ultimately, is asking applicants why they want to go to Columbia; but as noted earlier, essay one implicitly asks this of applicants, too. So, it’s important to understand how to use the two questions effectively without repeating content.

A well-written essay one will only briefly touch on “Why Columbia?” in its answer. When it does, the content should clearly align with your background and goals, and the content will likely be more professionally focused than personally focused.

Essay two should go into much more detail, and in particular it should be much more personal. You should take care to reveal interesting hobbies and passions about yourself (e.g. New York has a great food scene, and you like to cook), as well as business interests (e.g. access to the biggest concentration of financial, fashion, or media companies, etc.).

Essay two also provides a much better opportunity to talk about the academic environment (what they referred to as “the center of knowledge”) at Columbia. Talk about the professors and classes that excite you, and how what you will learn supports your professional goals (e.g. you need to advance your understanding of finance and accounting in order to launch the startup you’ve always dreamed of founding).

You can write about how Columbia is integrated in the city (and give examples…), how it’s been a thought leader in the field that is important to you (and give examples…), or how the diversity of its faculty and student body will expose you to new a better perspectives (and give examples…).

In only 250 words, you won’t be able to hit on all these topics, and you really shouldn’t try to. If you find yourself writing about more than two or three of the pillars (and remember: New York City almost certainly has to be part of those), then you probably aren’t going deep enough and aren’t getting personal enough. It’s just as important in this essay to share interesting things about yourself as it is to demonstrate that you’ve done your research on and are committed to attending Columbia Business School. If you’ve written any of the reasons I wrote here totally wholesale without putting a unique spin on it – one that only you could claim – then you’re probably coming up seriously short on this essay.

Essay #3

What will the people in your Cluster be pleasantly surprised to learn about you? (250 words)

The admissions committee made a few deliberate choices when they worded this question, and each is important if you are going to answer it well.

First, they chose to center it around “people in your Cluster.” They didn’t ask what they, the admission committee, would be pleasantly surprised to learn; nor did they ask what your professors or future classmates would be surprised to learn. Given this choice, you need to demonstrate that you understand and appreciate the value of the cluster system in the Columbia Business School pedagogy. Your answer needs to prove that you will add value to your cluster in a unique and interesting way. It also needs to be relevant to the business school education. Relevance can be pretty broad here, but you need to do better than talking about how you’re double jointed in your knees and elbows…

Second, the admissions committee chose to use the word “pleasantly.” They are looking for a quality, characteristic, passion, hobby, experience, etc. that will delight the people in your Cluster; they aren’t looking for a trying story of tragedy. There are scenarios where unpleasant situations yielded pleasant surprises, but be careful walking that line, and make sure you focus on the latter.

Third, the admissions committee chose to use the word “surprised.” This is probably obvious to many applicants when they read the question, and yet many will still fail to write about something that meets this challenge. You should be providing the admissions committee with new information about yourself – not information that has already been written about in your resume or in your application. The surprise you choose to write about probably won’t be on your LinkedIn profile or in your bio. It should be something personal, fun, and different. It’s a chance to, well, surprise the admissions committee by showing them a different side to who you are.

It’s worth acknowledging that answering this question well is difficult. Brainstorming the right topic is hard and exhausting, but it is well worth investing the time to do so. Have conversations with your friends, coworkers, and peers, and ask them their thoughts. Write down several ideas, wait a few days, and write down some more. Let them sit over night, and think about them again, and then pick the one that feels most genuine to who you are as a candidate and a person.

Optional Essay

Is there any further information that you wish to provide the Admissions Committee? Please use this space to provide an explanation of any areas of concern in your academic record or your personal history. (Maximum 500 words)

This question is no different than for most other schools. It’s a chance to talk about any gaps or flags in your background.

The easiest mistake to make here is to highlight a weakness in your application without really mitigating it. Applicant do this all the time when they talk about their low GMAT or GPA and come up with some trite excuse. If you don’t have a genuine explanation, one that the admissions committee doesn’t hear from dozens of applicants every year, then just skip this question, or use it for something more interesting.

Remember, you’re not admitted to business school by avoiding weaknesses. There are plenty of applicants that apply with 4.0 GPAs and 800 GMATs every year that don’t get in. The reason is because they fail to focus their applications on what makes them unique. They fail to be interesting. You’ll be admitted to business school based on your interesting and unusual strengths and passions, so that’s where you should focus your applications and essays. Don’t divert attention from those positive qualities by wasting this essay on trite excuses for your negative ones.

We’ll be writing more about the Columbia Business School admissions process as the year progresses, but in the meantime, feel free to reach out for a free consultation if you have any questions about your own application.

Leave a Reply