How to Get Into Columbia: Strategies and Essay Examples

How hard is it to get into Columbia? Learn Columbia’s admissions requirements and find approaches to write superb Columbia supplemental essays to improve your chances of getting in

Introduction

For some Ivy League-bound teenagers, the average campus—think green quads with falling autumn leaves, surrounded by historic buildings—isn’t enough. They might want to belong to a thriving, vibrant city as much as a campus. If this sounds like your child, you might suggest they take a look at Columbia University in the City of New York.

An Ivy League education in America’s largest city is quite the unparalleled experience, as it provides students with the resources of studying at a world-class university and living in the cultural, financial, and media capital of the world.

We’ve put together a vital guide for you and your child about how to get into Columbia, including how to tackle Columbia’s application and essay questions.

At Columbia, your child might study the Western canon in the morning, head to work to research at a cancer laboratory in the afternoon, or intern at the United Nations or on Wall Street in the evenings or on weekends. They might collaborate with musicians and artists at The Juilliard School, conduct research on neurological disorders and the genomes that cause cancer, or explore a career in theater, film, or publishing with the Columbia Arts Experience (CAE) internship program.

Your child can also spend their summers conducting research or interning outside of New York City. Thanks to Columbia’s alumni network and the university’s funding opportunities, your child may pursue research on indigenous languages in rural Ecuador, travel to Senegal to work with an NGO in Agriculture, or intern with tech giants such as Facebook or Google in Silicon Valley.

Because of its reputation and location, your child’s largest obstacle will be getting into Columbia, closely followed by deciding how to pick the best opportunity for them! 

And what about after graduation? Alumni earn prestigious fellowships such as the Rhodes and Fulbright, win Pulitzer prizes for writing and journalism, enter the arts and media world in New York City, and become President of the United States. Your child would join an alumni network that includes CEOs, famous poets, Hollywood actors, Supreme Court Justices, Nobel winners, and world-class journalists.

Columbia University ranking

Columbia is routinely near the middle of Ivy League rankings:

  • Forbes: 14

  • Niche: 5

  • US News & World Report: 3

  • Wall Street Journal: 8

  • ARWU: 6

Where is Columbia?

Columbia is located in the Morningside Heights neighborhood of Manhattan, New York City. Just a few blocks away from the iconic Central Park and a twenty-minute subway ride away from Times Square, Columbia’s upper west side campus is minutes away from the heart of NYC. 

Population: ~8.6 million—a major metropolitan city that offers unparalleled access to some of the country’s most important arts, cultural, and financial institutions.

Setting

Urban. Morningside Heights—bustling yet safe—offers its own restaurants, cafes, bookstores, and shops. Just north lies Harlem, the heart of much of the city’s art world for many years, and just south are the Upper East and Upper West Sides of Manhattan, home to some of the world’s greatest museums, from the Guggenheim to the Met.

Bus and subway lines connect the campus to the rest of New York City’s boroughs.

Undergrad population

8,930

Grad and professional school population

24,101

Columbia acceptance rate

5.1% overall (Early decision: 14.57% | Regular decision: 4.3%)

(Suggested reading: Ivy League Acceptance Rates)

Cost of attendance per year (i.e., tuition, room, board, and fees)

$76,340

Average financial aid award

Over $52,000

Who gets into Columbia?

  • Over 95% of Columbia’s undergraduate class ranked in the top 10% of their high school class.

  • Average GPA: Columbia doesn’t publish its average admitted student GPA.

  • Test scores: Columbia publishes its average ACT and SAT scores

    • Columbia average ACT score: 34

      • 25th percentile: 33

      • 75th percentile: 35

    • Columbia average SAT score: 1520

      • 25th percentile: 1480

      • 75th percentile: 1560

  • International students: 16%

  • Asian Americans make up the largest percentage of Columbia’s student body—about 30%.

  • 30% of incoming freshmen intend to major in math and natural sciences, 24% in the arts and humanities, 23% in engineering, and 21% in the social sciences.

Columbia admission requirements

Like other Ivy League schools, Columbia is looking for students who are intellectually curious and ready to leave a mark on the diverse urban campus. Columbia wants to admit students who will not only succeed in their rigorous Core Curriculum but who will also thrive in Columbia’s distinct collegiate yet unquestionably urban campus.

Columbia seeks more than just excellent grades and test scores. Dedication to extracurricular activities, such as clubs, teams, or an individual project, can help demonstrate that your child will take advantage of Columbia and New York City’s unparalleled resources. 

Admissions officers expect that your child will have taken advantage of the opportunities that they were afforded. If your son’s school didn’t offer Calculus, for instance, Columbia will be delighted to see that they took AP Statistics and Calculus I at the local community college over the summer. If your daughter’s school offers a wide variety of AP’s, they will be looking for success in a rigorous course load throughout her Junior and Senior years.

Here’s the nitty gritty.

  • Columbia accepts the Common Application, which means your child will need the following to apply:

  • Common App Essay

  • ACT or SAT test scores, with or without writing.

  • Columbia superscores the ACT/SAT, so they will review your child’s highest test scores in each ACT and SAT section.

  • Columbia does not require the SAT subject tests

  • Optional: A-level, IB or AP test results

  • 2 teacher evaluations (engineering students must submit one letter from a math or science teacher)

  • 1 counselor letter of recommendation (from the school college or guidance counselor)

  • Coursework: Columbia doesn’t have a specific set of expectations for what you’ve studied in secondary school.

But the Columbia admissions website recommends the following course load for students applying to Columbia College: four years of English literature and composition, three to four years of math (at least through precalculus), three to four years of history and social studies, three to four years of foreign language (ancient or modern), and three to four years of laboratory science.

Columbia encourages aspiring scientists, physicians, and dentists to take as many courses in math and science as possible.

  • Applicants to the engineering school: Columbia recommends a rigorous program of math and science that includes four years of math (preferably through Calculus), one year of physics, one year of chemistry, four years of English, two to three years of foreign language, and three to four years of social studies and history.

  • Columbia encourages students to dive deeper into their interests. A student interested in writing should consider taking a creative writing or journalism elective in addition to four years of English, while a student dedicated to medicine might add an elective course in anatomy.

Applying to Columbia early action vs. regular decision

Your child can apply early to Columbia by November 1 and receive a decision of either accepted, deferred, or denied, by December 15.

Columbia follows the early decision (as opposed to early action) model, which is binding. This means that your child must commit to attending Columbia if accepted. If your child is deferred, they will enter into the regular decision pool and hear back by the end of March. They can be accepted, wait-listed or rejected then. If accepted, they are no longer in the early decision binding agreement. 

(Suggested reading: Early Action vs. Early Decision)

If your child applies early decision to Columbia, they are unable to apply to restrictive or single choice early action programs (e.g., Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Stanford). They can, however, apply to non-restrictive early action programs, such as MIT and Georgetown.

Your child can also apply regular decision, by January 1.

How do you know if your child should apply to Columbia early? 

Early decision might be the right choice for your child:

  • If Columbia is their top choice

  • If they are willing to commit to attending Columbia no matter what the financial aid package is

  • If there’s no other school they’d like to apply to via early decision or restrictive early action

  • If they are interested in applying to non-binding early action programs

  • If their test scores and grades are strong by the end of junior year 

Columbia, like many of its peers in the Ivy+ category, accepts a significant portion of its class early—around 45%. Students who apply early decision, however, tend to be highly prepared, which helps explain why the early decision acceptance rate is higher. Most of these students have thought deeply about why they are an excellent fit for Columbia and have the grades and test scores to prove that they will succeed there. 

Because Columbia’s early decision program is binding, they are looking for students who demonstrate a true passion for the university. If Columbia is truly your child’s top choice, it may be advantageous to apply early. 

2019-2020 Columbia supplemental essays (examples included)

(Note: While this section covers Columbia’s admissions essays specifically, we encourage you to view additional successful college essay examples.)

In addition to the Common App personal statement, Columbia requires numerous supplemental essays. The Columbia-Specific Application questions are a crucial way that your child can provide a window into their character, passions, and creativity. Most importantly, Columbia’s supplemental essays give your child the chance to show that they are a great fit for Columbia.

Columbia Supplemental Essay #1

In 150 words or fewer, please list a few words or phrases that describe your ideal college community. 

Here’s how José, a first-generation college student from Southern California, answered the prompt:

My ideal college community has representatives from all of the United States—from Anchorage to Miami—and from all over the rest of North America, South America, Asia, Europe, Australia, and Africa (and maybe one day, Antarctica). The individuals in my community practice Ralph Waldo Emerson’s theory of self-reliance: they remain true to themselves while still forming a unified community.

Every individual has unique traits and skills. They will teach me, critique me, and challenge me. They’ll laugh at my jokes and offer me a napkin after I spill coffee on my jeans (I am very clumsy!). My college community is a space where my classmates and I exchange ideas, debate philosophical and ethical dilemmas, and talk about what we're watching on Netflix. Through these experiences, my ideal college community will leave a positive mark on New York City and the world.

Here’s what José does well in responding this Columbia supplemental essay:

  • He demonstrates enthusiasm for diversity and diverse viewpoints.

Because Columbia students come from all across the country and world. Admissions committee members are looking for students who will succeed in a diverse environment. José essay shows this by not only pointing out that he is excited to meet people from all over the world but also by noting that he looks forward to the unique viewpoints a diverse class brings to Columbia.

  • He shows off his sense of humor.

By including a joke about students coming from Antarctica and imagining a scene in which he spills coffee all over his pants, José takes a step back from the seriousness of academic rigor and draws attention to the fact that he has a fun side, too. He strikes a nice balance of remaining humble without being too self-deprecating.

  • He connects his personal desires to an intellectual foundation.

Every liberal arts university, especially one like Columbia that emphasizes its school-wide education in the Western Canon, wants to admit students who not only love to read and think and study but who change the way they think and act and plan for the future based on those texts. This is exactly what José is doing when he refers to Emerson.

The admissions committee can imagine José reading Emerson in an American literature class for the first time and being so taken with the idea that the material itself becomes more important than whatever test or exam is coming up on it.

  • He indicates that he is serious about making a difference as an individual and a community.

Emerson also helps José demonstrate how unique individuals can come together to form a unified community. Most importantly, José sees his future classmates as teammates in making the world a better place, not as competition.

Columbia Supplemental Essay #2

For the four list questions that follow, we ask that you list each individual response using commas or semicolons; the items do not have to be numbered or in any specific order. No narrative or explanatory text is needed. It is not necessary to italicize or underline titles of books or other publications. Author names may be included, but are not required. You do not need to fill the entire space or use the maximum number of words; there is no minimum word count in this section, so please respond to the extent that you feel is appropriate.

Please list the following (150 words or fewer for each question):

a. the titles of the required readings from courses during the school year or summer that you enjoyed most in the past year;

b. the titles of books read for pleasure that you enjoyed most in the past year;

c. the titles of print or electronic publications you read regularly;

d. and the titles of the films, concerts, shows, exhibits, lectures and other entertainments you enjoyed most in the past year.

Like Harvard’s optional supplemental essay (view the prompt and an example in our guide on How to Get Into Harvard), this prompt asks students to share books, publications, performances, and exhibitions that reveal something unusual or interesting about the applicant’s personal.

Here’s how Janet, an ambitious Chinese-American student with a love for indie music and art, answered the prompts. 

One Hundred Years of Solitude; Walden; Emily Dickinson’s Complete Poems; Moll Flanders; “Theme for English B” by Langston Hughes

Patti Smith’s Just Kids; Andrew Sean Greer’s Less; Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad; Roxane Gay’s Hunger

The New York Times; The Atlantic; n+1; Vanity Fair; Cosmopolitan

Concerts: Frankie Cosmos; Lizzo; Kasey Musgraves. Movies: Hustlers; Burning; Little. Shows: Succession; Derry Girls. Exhibition: Andy Warhol—From A to B and Back Again. Lectures on Youtube: Designing Your Life (Bill Burnett and Dave Evans)

Here’s why Janet succeeds in answering this Columbia supplemental essay:

  • She includes a series of texts that represent a wide array of interests.

By including publications that range from fashion (Vanity Fair and Cosmopolitan) to highbrow intellectual (n+1) and novels that explore topics from eighteenth-century British prisons (Moll Flanders) to Latin American Magical Realism (100 Years of Solitudes), Janet demonstrates that she is intellectually curious and excited by a wide variety of topics.

  • She answers the questions succinctly.

As the prompt states, the Admissions readers are not looking for a narrative or an explanation. They simply want to know what you are reading, seeing, and consuming. Many students believe that they should use up all 150 words for each entry by including every book they have ever read or foreign movie they have ever seen. However, Admissions readers are looking to see that you have thought about your entries carefully. It’s hard to see what your tastes and interests are if you list one hundred books, for instance.

  • She reveals her “fun” side.

When Janet isn’t reading, she’s jamming out to Lizzo and Frankie Cosmos, laughing at the antics of Derry Girls, and reading about the latest in women’s fashion. Admissions committees are looking for students who enjoy their time in and out of the classroom, too.

Columbia Supplemental Essay #3

Please tell us what you value most about Columbia and why (300 words or fewer)

Here’s how Daeyeong, a Korean-American student from suburban Illinois, answers the prompt.

My father was exhausted after a long day of navigating the New York Subway: taking the Airtrain from JFK to the E to transfer to the 1. While my suburbanite father was nervous the entire time we were underground, I felt more and more energized as new people constantly entered and exited the subway. My father and I spent the day marveling at sites we had only seen on TV: The World Trade Center memorial, Central Park, and the Brooklyn Bridge. We both laughed when we realized we were staring at New Jersey, not Brooklyn. But nothing felt more compelling than when we exited the 116 Street stop and walked onto Columbia’s campus. I realized there was so much for me to learn and explore. New York wasn’t just the famous sites. 

I walked through the gates onto campus, immediately recognizing the iconic Alma Mater in front of Butler Library. I watched as other students eagerly walked to their destinations. “That’s a New Yorker’s pace,” I told my father, as we laughed about how slow people moved in my small suburban Illinois town. I imagined myself following the paths of these students next year: to the library to study, to Nous Espresso to discuss Plato’s Republic with friends from Masterpieces of Western Literature and Philosophy, or to Shake Shack to relax (who could turn down those fries?).

Next to all the fun, I saw graduate students handing out flyers about unions and undergraduates advertising a forum on diversifying humanities courses beyond the obvious Canon. I would be honored to join a community that stands up to higher authority in its many forms. The student body’s resilience and activism is one of the things I most look forward to contributing to at Columbia.

Here’s what Daeyeong does well in answering the prompt:

  • He turns his visit to New York City and Columbia into a story.

By describing the subway line one takes to get from JFK to Columbia’s campus and through including vivid descriptions of Columbia’s campus, Daeyeong turns his visit to Columbia into a narrative.

As a bonus, he shows off his voice by making fun of himself for thinking that New Jersey was Brooklyn and mentioning how delicious Shake Shake—which is located just a few blocks away from Columbia’s campus—is. The essay nicely moves from setting the scene of being in New York City and on Columbia’s campus to a memorable experience from his visit.

  • He demonstrates a familiarity with Columbia’s campus, curriculum, and current events.

By including specific references to the Core Curriculum (Masterpieces of Western Literature and Philosophy), the sites on Columbia’s campus (Alma Mater), and important campus debates (grad student unionization and an inclusive canon), Daeyeong reveals that he is so familiar with Columbia that he can already envision himself on campus.

  • He shows how he will fit into Columbia’s culture.

Daeyeong recognizes that being a student in Columbia requires a crucial balance of studying, having fun, and participating in the larger community. As a bonus, Daeyeong tells us that he is excited to adapt to New York’s rapid pace of life, which is an implicit requirement for Columbia undergraduates.

Columbia Supplemental Essays #4 and #5

(Note: you only need to respond to one of the following prompts)

Unlike Harvard, Princeton, Yale, MIT, and Stanford, Columbia requires students to choose between Columbia College and Columbia Engineering, otherwise known as The Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science, when they are applying.

Much like Brown, Cornell, and UPenn, Columbia students will apply to a specific division of the university, which means that they should have a strong sense of the type of major they might pursue. Check to see if your desired major is housed in Columbia College or at Columbia Engineering. This will determine which essay you need to write.

Columbia Supplemental Essay #4 (For applicants to Columbia College only)

If you are applying to Columbia College, tell us what from your current and past experiences (either academic or personal) attracts you specifically to the field or fields of study that you noted in the Member Questions section. If you are currently undecided, please write about any field or fields in which you may have an interest at this time. (300 words or fewer)

Here’s how Emilia, an undeclared rugby star from Atlanta, took on the prompt.

I come from a small, religious, suburban town and a pious Catholic family. My family attends church virtually every Sunday and sometimes on Wednesday. Religion is a central part of my town, family, and community. While I will never condemn anyone for a belief in God, I personally do not share the same views as my family and friends.

The piety I was raised in pushed me to question the world around me. Whenever I asked, "Why is the sky blue?", my mother would tell me, "Because God said so." If I asked, "Why are there so many stars in the sky?", my grandpa would kindly reply, "Because God put them there."

By the time I was fifteen, I was done with the "God" answer. While many people found a deep connection with God which inspired them to do great things, like the American reformers of the early 19th century, I only found doubt in God. That doubt made me fall in love with literature and art. I kept asking questions, thirsting for answers, and reading relentlessly until I had new knowledge.

My religious upbringing has encouraged me to study how others tackle questions of faith in literature, philosophy, and religious studies. I’m curious to learn more about how Emily Dickinson and Nietzsche came to terms with their own disbelief in God. I want to know why Buddhism and Hinduism had such a strong influence on nineteenth-century philosophers in Christian-dominated societies. While I no longer believe in God, I want to keep studying His importance. After all, even us atheists have to admire Jesus.

Here’s what Emilia does well in answering this Columbia supplemental essay:

  • She shows how her background has influenced her academic goals.

Emilia tells us that she is interested in literature, philosophy, and religious studies because of her Catholic background and her own attempts to come to terms with her disbelief in God. From this essay, the admissions readers see that Emilia will bring a unique perspective to campus.

  • She comes across as a curious, free thinker,

Despite growing up Catholic, Emilia has departed from her family’s belief in God after years of thinking critically about her relationship to religion. Importantly, Emilia does not mock religion but rather respects it so much that she aspires to study Christianity.

Because of this, Emilia appears open-minded to people with beliefs that do not match her own, a key quality that Admissions readers seek in applicants.

  • She provides a sense of what she will study at Columbia and why.

Although she does not declare a specific major, Emilia writes about the majors she will explore. She shows how her past experiences with religion have led her to an interest in philosophy, literature, and non-Chrstiain religions.

Columbia Supplemental Essay #5 (For applicants to The Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science only)

If you are applying to The Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science, please tell us what from your current and past experiences (either academic or personal) attracts you specifically to the field or fields of study that you noted in the Member Questions section.

Here’s how Benjamin, an applicant from Texas, approached this Columbia supplemental essay.

When I was five, a doctor inserted a pacemaker into my heart and told me that I was practically a cyborg. “You’re both human and machine now,” he said to me, “just like some of those action figures you play with at home.”

I no longer play with Power Rangers, but I still have a pacemaker, which helps control my abnormal heart rhythms. Sometimes, I’m weirded out that this device sends electrical pulses to my heart. I need the electric signals because my heart’s natural pacemaker moves way too slowly. As a kid, I always feared that the device would malfunction and that my heart wouldn’t know what to do. But new developments, such as the creation of a leadless pacemaker, have left me feeling reassured about the future of medical devices.

This is where I come in. My mom wants me to be a doctor because I’ve spent my entire childhood with pediatricians and cardiologists. But I want to join the industry that helps create the devices that these doctors use to save children. After becoming president of the robotics club and winning a state-wide competition by building a robot that can extinguish a small fire, I have a burning desire (pun intended) to build devices that better regulate the heart’s rhythm. I want to be on the forefront of pacemaker innovation so that children with irregular heartbeats can participate in sports and travel without fear of major cardiac issues.

Most importantly, I want to advocate for those who cannot advocate for themselves or who feel too embarrassed to share their stories, as I have done as a volunteer at the local children’s hospital. I want kids with pacemakers around the world to think, “I guess it isn’t so bad being part robot, after all.”

Here’s what Benjamin does well in answering this Columbia supplemental essay:

  • He shows how his medical history and extracurricular activities have informed his academic interests.

Drawing on his experience as a patient with a heart defect and on his robotics team accomplishments, Benjamin shows that his passion for biomedical devices is informed by both his personal history and extracurricular projects.

  • He clearly articulates what he proposes to major in.

Unlike Emilia, who approaches the Columbia College essay with a few possible majors, Benjamin has a clear major in mind that is housed in the school of engineering. It does not matter which approach you take, so long that you highlight a specific field (or fields) of interest.

  • He identifies potential goals for the future.

Whereas Emilia focuses more on the types of classes she will take at Columbia, Benjamin is more interested in what he will do after his Columbia education: work on improving pacemaker technology and become an advocate for children with heart defects. Benjamin shows how advancements in engineering and technology have a direct impact on people in need, making his passion for studying biomedical engineering even more compelling.

Final Thoughts

Because of Columbia’s academic prestige and access to New York City, getting into this Ivy League school is no simple task. Like other schools in the Ivy+ category, it’s a reach even for the students with the highest grades and test scores. By demonstrating a passion in a specific area of study and by showing how they would fit into Columbia’s campus culture by writing compelling supplemental essays, your child can greatly improve their odds of getting into Columbia.