In recent years, Columbia Business School has become the bellwether of the MBA admissions season—the first prestige school to release its application essays. But this year Columbia is also a trailblazer in a different sense. This year’s essays buck the recent admission trend toward the Incredible Shrinking Essay: Columbia gives you up to 750 words for essay 1 (vs. 500 words last year) and up to 500 words for essay 2 (vs. 250 last year). To be sure, you also have the option of submitting as few as 100 words each for all three essays, but I predict this option will be followed about as often as Harvard’s now-deceased option to submit no essay at all (very few applicants took HBS up on that).
Here then, are Columbia’s 2016-17 essays, with a few brief pointers:
Applicants must complete one short answer question and three essays.
Short Answer Question: What is your immediate post-MBA professional goal? (51 characters maximum)
Examples of possible responses:
“Work in business development for a media company.”
“Join a strategy consulting firm.”
“Launch a data-management start-up.”
No secret sauce here; if you can be more specific within the space constraints (it is possible), go ahead. But Columbia’s examples give you permission to be vague (you can be get more concrete in essay 1).
Essay 1 : Through your resume and recommendations, we have a clear sense of your professional path to date. What are your career goals going forward, and how will the Columbia MBA help you achieve them? (100-750 words)
Note that Columbia’s wording makes clear that a full-fledged ‘career progress’ section (‘your professional path to date’) is not welcome. However, this doesn’t mean you can’t provide some example/anecdote, either autobiographical or professional, that explains the origin or motivation behind your career goals—as long as you elaborate on (but don’t repeat) the immediate short-term goal you stated in the Short Answer Question. For example, you could state your Plan B short-term goal here (Columbia loves applicants who have a Plan B) then show how your Plan A and Plan B short-term goals will lead you to your long-term goals (where you can also provide a Plan A and B). For the final part of Columbia’s prompt—“how will the Columbia MBA help you achieve them”—remember that Columbia’s essay 2 will ask you to discuss all the ways in which its practical curriculum and New York location will advance your goals. So here in essay 1, restrict yourself to discussing all of the many other Columbia resources that are relevant to realizing your goals, from its theory courses to its student clubs or the Columbia network.
Essay 2 : Columbia Business School’s students participate in industry focused New York immersion seminars; in project based Master Classes; and in school year internships. Most importantly, our students are taught by a combination of distinguished research faculty and accomplished practitioners. How will you take advantage of being “at the very center of business”? (100-500 words)
This year, aside from allowing you to shorten your response to this prompt (I don’t recommend the short-and-sweet approach for such a critical essay), Columbia has tweaked its wording, dropping last year’s reference to “bridging theory and practice.” Take this as a cue that this essay should be all about the practical riches that Columbia and NYC give you access to. You must research and mention the immersion seminars, master classes, and practitioner faculty relevant to your goals, but you should also go further and talk in concrete terms about the internships (not just summer!) that could move you seamlessly toward your short-term goals. By all means, mention the names and comments of any Columbia students or alums who told you how they leveraged ‘the very center of business’ to realize their goals. This essay demands significant research, and not just via Columbia’s website.
Essay 3 : CBS Matters, a key element of the School’s culture, allows the people in your Cluster to learn more about you on a personal level. What will your Clustermates be pleasantly surprised to learn about you? (100-250 words)
The key words here, of course, are ‘pleasantly’ and ‘surprised.’ It would not surprise anyone to learn that an aspirant to Columbia’s Value Investing program has her own contrarian portfolio of Japanese small-cap stocks—so don’t go there. Your default response should be something personal, even quirky and revealing (think in terms of Duke’s 25 Random Things essay)—the kind of odd hobby or experience that will make the reader smile. But show your idea to someone—some revelations about oneself can be surprising and un-pleasant.
Optional Essay : An optional fourth essay will allow you to discuss any issues that do not fall within the purview of the required essays.
Note the open-ended wording here: “any issues,” not necessarily only extenuating circumstances. Columbia is generously giving you the opportunity to discuss a positive, value-adding aspect of your profile, not just do damage control. Be strategic here but also be careful—don’t share anything that doesn’t really improve Columbia’s understanding of your profile. Not even for a second should the Columbia reader feel that you are gilding the lily or wasting their precious time.