Columbia MBA Essays for 2017 Admission
Apr, 22, 2016
Columbia Business School has, as they do every year, modified their MBA application essay set, but the changes are small. The application is not up yet, but the questions for 2017 entry (J-Term Class of 2018 and August for Class of 2019) are.
You can find testimonials from my clients admitted for Columbia August and January entry here. Since 2007, when I established my own consultancy, (I have been an MBA admissions consultant since 2001) I have been fortunate to work with 31 clients admitted to Columbia Business School.
Given Columbia’s overall rank as well as the unique nature of both January (J-Term) and Early Decision for August (ED), it has been very common for me to work with clients who apply only to that school. In this sense, the only school with the same level of sole applicant focus is INSEAD. Columbia certainly rewards those who make it their first or sole choice as both J-Term and ED seem to be significantly easier to get admitted to than RD. Columbia is also one of the most reapplicant friendly schools both in terms of the reapplication process for those who reapply within one year of their initial application and in terms of acceptance rates. For my post on re-application to Columbia, see here.
Before discussing the CBS essays for 2016-2017, I will discuss who J-Term (January Entry) is for and differences between Early Decision and Regular Decision for August Entry. For my analysis of recommendations for 2016 admission, please see here (Will alter this if the rec for 2017 changes). For my analysis of Columbia Business School application interviews, please see here.
The first thing to keep in mind about admission to both January Term and August Term (ED and RD) is that Columbia uses a rolling admissions system. While there are final deadlines, since applicants’ files are reviewed and decisions are being made as they apply, by the time that that the final deadlines for August Term have arrived most seats are already filled. Rolling admissions works just like buying assigned seats for an airplane, movie, concert, etc. When they are gone, they are gone. Columbia’s rolling admissions system is a differentiator from other top MBA programs because only Columbia uses this system. Rolling admissions is commonly used by EMBA programs.
Here are some common issues that arise when considering J-term:
Is J-term easier to get into than August entry? There is much speculation on this issue, but no admissions data. Still the lack of merit fellowships, an internship, and the nature of who the program is designed for, clearly indicate that it is going to attract fewer applicants, so my assumption is that it is surely easier. Happy to proven wrong if CBS admissions provides data showing otherwise. All I know for sure is that relatively late application to J-term has not prevented my clients from being admitted, whereas late application to RD is a real problem simply from a seat availability perspective. In one way, J-term is clearly easier: Unlike an August entry RD and (and to a lesser extent ED) applicant, someone applying to Columbia J-term can really be assumed to prefer Columbia over all alternatives. This can make interviews a bit easier in the sense that August entry Columbia alumni interviewers are notorious for being particularly aggressive at determining whether the interviewee’s first choice is really Columbia. Since J-term has no real US rival, this topic can be easily dispensed with in an interview.
Program Alternatives to J-term: There are no US alternatives to J-term worth mentioning if someone wants a January start. Kellogg and Cornell offer one year MBAs, but neither Kellogg or Cornell start their programs in January and both are accelerated programs in terms of the number of courses taken. Only J-term makes it possible to do two years of courses on such an expedited basis. In addition, the Kellogg program is extremely restrictive, since one has to have taken many core business courses to apply to it. Cornell is also restrictive (Graduate degree or specialized professional certification is required), while Columbia has no such prior education restrictions. I have had clients who apply to J-term and IMD and/or INSEAD as both have January entry. Still J-term is an incredibly different program in terms of length and content from either of these top non-US programs. LBS, which does not have a January start, would also be another alternative to CBS in the sense that it can be completed on an accelerated basis, but it has no January start.
Can an August entry applicant reapply to J-term? Yes! You could be rejected from ED or RD for August 2016 entry and reapply for January 2017 entry. If you entered in January 2017, you would graduate in the Class of 2018 with those who entered in August 2016. I have worked with a number of reapplicants who were admitted to J-term after being dinged from the August entry for that same graduating class. In that situation, the key issues for the reapplicant essay are explaining why J-term is now a better choice and you are a better candidate.
August Entry: ED Versus RD
Applying for Early Decision (ED) is ideal for anyone who considers Columbia to be their first choice and is ready by the application deadline. Columbia takes ED very seriously, so I suggest you do as well. CBS ED really is unique among top MBA programs and the decision to commit to it should not be taken lightly. Every year many applicants to Columbia Business School have to deeply consider whether to apply to the ED or RD round. First, keep the official statement from Columbia regarding ED in mind:
- Candidates have decided that Columbia is their first choice and must sign the following statement of commitment within their applications: I am committed to attending Columbia Business School and will withdraw all applications and decline all offers from other schools upon admission to Columbia Business School
- Applicants must submit a nonrefundable $6,000 tuition deposit within two weeks of admission.
In my experience, there are two types of applicants to ED. The first are people who really consider Columbia as their first choice and sometimes make or hope to make no other applications. For this type of applicant, choosing ED is easy. The second type of applicant likes Columbia, but it is not necessarily their first choice. This type of applicant applies to ED because it is perceived as easier to get admitted to than Regular Decision (RD). This type of applicant treats the $6000 deposit as an insurance policy in the event that they are not admitted to HBS, Stanford, and/or Wharton (I don’t know of any cases of applicants forfeiting $6000 to go to other top programs, but suppose someone has done it). If they do get into HBS, Stanford, or Wharton and break their commitment to Columbia, they lose $6000 and potentially make Columbia admissions mad. Can Columbia do anything aside from keeping the money? No. For those who have no problem breaking oaths and losing $6000, treating ED as possible insurance is a rational decision through clearly not an ethical one. As an admissions consultant, my sole concern is helping my clients reach their admissions objectives, so I don’t pass judgment one way or another on this ethical issue.
I do recommend the January Merit Fellowship deadline or earlier as optimal for applying to RD. While you can consider Merit deadline to be kind of a “Round Two Deadline,” I recommend you apply as soon as you are ready to do so. I would especially encourage those coming from groups with large numbers of applicants (American males from Wall Street and Indian males in particular), to make their applications to RD ASAP. That said, RD takes applications until April 15, 2015, so applications are still viable for some applicants until quite late in the admissions cycle. In general, applying late in RD is best for those with highly unusual backgrounds, stellar backgrounds, no need for merit scholarships and a love of gambling. In other words, if you are not exceptional, applying late in RD to Columbia is a very high-risk activity.
How to leverage RD to your advantage when applying to other MBA programs in the First Round. If you are applying in the first round, an ideal time to apply to Columbia is after you have completed all the applications that were due in September to mid-October. Assuming you are relatively freed up while you are waiting for your R1 invites, apply to Columbia. This means you will be considered early in RD and that is an advantage because there will be more seats available.
How to leverage RD to your advantage when applying to other MBA programs in the Second Round. Since most R2 applications are due in January, applying to Columbia in November or December will still give you a relative advantage over those applicants that apply right before the Merit Deadline. Again, the earlier, the better your chance for an available seat.
The Essay Questions and the Immediate Post-MBA Goals Statement
I have taken the essay questions from the website. If these change once the application is up, I will alter accordingly.
Immediate Post-MBA Goals Statement:
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.”
Remember this is 51 characters, not words! This would be about 6-10 words. The question itself, fortunately, includes the above examples to make it clear what Columbia is looking for here.
Given the length, you can’t possibly expect to explain what you want to do short-term. That is what Essay 1 is for. In fact, it is best to simply write this little statement after you have a good working version of Essay 1.
CBS is looking for a short, but a very clear statement of what you intend to do after your MBA. If you have difficulty explaining your immediate post-MBA plans in the space given, I think that is likely an indication that your plans are too complex, vague, or otherwise not well thought out. What you state here should be backed up by what you discuss in Essay 1 (or the reapplicant essay for reapplicants) and possibly in the other essays.
If you can be clever or catchy in formulating this response that is fine, but it is a completely secondary consideration to simply stating something that is very clear and that is completely consistent with what you write in Essay 1. Being clever is not critical here, being clear is.
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)
The only thing that has changed from last year is that the length is now flexible as it was previously 500 words. Since I have found it necessary to make this clear to clients: THIS ESSAY IS COMPLETELY FUTURE FOCUSED. That is why they say they “have a clear sense of your professional path to date.” This is actually one of the most basic types of MBA essays: What do you want in the future and how can the MBA program help you achieve THEM? I have capitalized THEM because the point is that Columbia is looking for both your immediate post-MBA goal and your longer term goals.
Be strategic and thoughtful about why you are wanting a Columbia MBA now: Given the importance of being able to state your post-MBA goal clearly in 51 characters or less as well as the need in Essay 1 to explain why you want a Columbia MBA, it is critical that you be strategic and thoughtful in presenting your post-MBA plans and your reasons for wanting a Columbia MBA.
If you are having problems clearly articulating your goals either in Essay 1 or in the 50 character statement, I think Gap, SWOT, and ROI analysis are great ways for understanding what your goals are, why you want a degree, and how you will use it.
The following image may not work for all browsers. If so, see here.
(A Google Docs version of this matrix can be found at https://docs.google.com/document/d/1WobczFFLHBzQRxUeuwBRNmGQ3q-RKP_94iGHuLlXXEs/edit?usp=sharing)
Next, analyze your present strengths and weaknesses for succeeding in your present career. In particular, some of your greatest strengths may have been demonstrated outside of work, so make sure you are accounting for them.
Strengths: What are you good at? Where do you add value? What are you praised for? What are you proud of?
Weakness: What are you bad at? What are you criticized for? What do you try to avoid due to your own limitations? What do you fear?
Next, analyze your situation in right now. What opportunities exist for your growth and success? What threats could limit your career growth?
Balance and integrate Goals and Why Columbia?
A good version of Essay 1 will balance and integrate goals with Columbia. That is to say, the objective is not merely to discuss your goals and then extensively or briefly discuss Columbia, but to put together an essay that integrates and balances the two. Your objective is to write an essay that shows Columbia why it is the best possible place for you to achieve your career goals. If your goals are not showing themselves to be particularly well supported by Columbia, you may need to either change your goals or decide to apply elsewhere.
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)
The major change from last year’s version of the question is that now has a flexible length, whereas it was previously 250 words. The day I visited Columbia Business School in 2013 was when they rolling out their new branding campaign, At the Very Center of Business (Thanks for the free breakfast. I could have taken a t-shirt too, but I make it a rule never to wear a university’s t-shirt unless I am a student or an alumnus, so for B-School purposes that means you will find me in an INSEAD shirt). After you watch the video, I suggest reading their detailed press release on At the Very Center of Business, which I will discuss below.
On one level, CBS is at the center because it is in NYC. I could make the same totally cynical comment I made last year about how the focus on NYC here is a way to avoid the fact that it is unclear when their new campus will be ready, but I would not do that. I just did again! Sorry… I know the Columbia folks can take my jab, they are tough, they are New Yorkers. Anyway, everyone knows you don’t go to Columbia Business School right now because of the state of the art building, you go because of the quality of the faculty and adjunct faculty, the school’s deep connections to Wall Street and all other major industries in the city and worldwide, the networking opportunities, the interning opportunities, the diversity of CBS students, and the city of NYC. Anyone who is considering Columbia and does not factor NYC into the equation would surely be missing a critical part of the school’s value proposition. I was recently talking with a potential client who did not quite get this value proposition because he was simply fixated on the classroom. While classroom technology plays a role in selecting a school, a full-time two-year MBA program at a top American school is simply not reducible to the building. I think this is especially true of Columbia. That said, at least in the class I visited in 2013, the professor was great, the students were friendly but highly engaged, and even though the whiteboard was old school and hard to see, I was impressed. Columbia really is at the center of NYC, but so is NYU Stern (And given Stern’s greater proximity to Wall Street, Soho, start-ups, etc, I think I would be careful about claiming to be at the center of NYC, but that is why they say the center of business).
Of course, Columbia wants to claim that it is at the worldwide center of business. Maybe, but it has no exclusivity in that regard, but don’t tell them that. I think the branding concept reflects this school’s need to assert its self-importance and to have applicants affirm this. Saying you are at the center is an incredibly narcissistic statement. ”I am at the center” is a statement of self-importance. It is pure arrogance. It reflects an underlying insecurity about one’s place in the universe, in other words, if someone tells you they are the center, assume they probably are not. At a minimum, assume they have a strong need to be loved. I have always maintained that Columbia needs to feel loved. This is especially true in the interview process. It is also true in the essays. Therefore, YOU MUST TAKE ADVANTAGE OF THE COLUMBIA BUSINESS SCHOOL’S SENSE OF INSECURITY, ITS DESIRE TO BE LOVED, BY AFFIRMING HOW ITS CENTRALITY WILL BENEFIT YOU!
Use the At the Very Center of Business branding campaign to help you brainstorm content for Essay 2:
- KNOWLEDGE: An Unrivaled Culture of Academic Excellence. Columbia Business School’s approach to thought leadership is constantly informed in real time by the global business environment. Groundbreaking research from the School’s faculty influences business practices in every sector while the transformative, 21st-century curriculum develops leaders who can create opportunity in any environment.
- ACCESS: Unmatched Exposure to the Pulse of Business, Both Inside and Outside the Classroom. As the top Ivy League business school immersed in New York City, Columbia Business School provides its students with direct access to countless businesses and business leaders, both inside and outside the classroom, allowing them to take lessons learned in class and see them applied directly in the real world.
- COMMUNITY: A Diverse, Engaged, and Entrepreneurial Community. High achievers are drawn to the School’s reputation and unique position at the global center of business, where a diverse, entrepreneurial-minded community of students, faculty members, staff, and alumni share an open exchange of ideas and perspectives. Combine this range of voices with an alumni network of more than 40,000 graduates and you have an expansive community that fosters creativity, invites entrepreneurial thinking, and opens doors to opportunity.
- IMPACT: An Immediate and Lasting Impact on the Business World. The thought leadership of the School’s faculty and staff, combined with the accomplishments of its distinguished alumni and position in the center of global business, means that the School’s efforts have an immediate and measurable impact on the forces shaping business each and every day.”
Which of these pillars will you take advantage of? Think about each of them to come up with 1-3 topics for this essay.
-What specific research activities at Columbia really excite you? How will you use this research?
Will CBS help you become a thought leader? How?
- See my suggestions for learning about Columbia in Essay 1 above.
-How will leverage the access you gain at CBS? In what ways? For what purpose?
-What do you hope to gain from the community?
-How will being at the center help you make an impact? What kind of impact do you want to have?
In Essay 1, you are explaining why you need an MBA from Columbia now and would surely be addressing particular aspects of the MBA program in your answer. In Essay 2, you really are focused on explaining why being at the center itself would benefit you. The reasons might relate to your professional goals, but may very well be highly personal or most likely a combination of the two. An effective answer here will provide the reader with greater insight into your personality, interests, and motivations. A bad answer might very consist of making a bunch of general comments about why Columbia and NYC would be great, but not giving the reader into any insight about you.
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 big change from last year is that the word pleasantly is in bold, so keep it surprising but pleasant! The CBS MATTERS video is very helpful to watch as it will help you understand the value in sharing an important part of yourself with your cluster. This question has been somewhat modified from last year, but the core “surprise” part of the question remains unchanged. I love “SURPRISE US” questions. Actually, one of the things I do in my initial consultations with a potential client is to ask this question because it helps me understand whether the person I am talking to has really had to present themselves in a positive and interesting way as a person (and not just for getting a job). Unlike Columbia, I don’t use it as a basis for selecting clients, but rather as a way to gauge an applicants’ self-awareness and ability to respond spontaneously to an unexpected question as this might be something my client will need to work on. To surprise someone in a positive way is to give them a new reason to be interested in you. This essay should do that!
The word, pleasantly, is really important. The topic(s) you write about should be positive aspects of who you are. This is an essay about how you will add value to your Cluster (If you have no idea what that is, see here).
Good answers here are really engaging and very unique
I actually like this question quite a bit because it is a great way for applicants to highlight some really unique aspect or aspects about themselves. The point is that it should be something that would not be obvious about you. The focus may be on something very specific that you did or something about your character. Whatever it is, it should not simply be pleasantly surprising, but also relevant in some way. It might be something that will add value to your Cluster. If it is highly personal, it should reveal a quality or aspect to you that is not merely interesting, but also something really worth knowing. A good answer here might involve an unusual hobby or experience but the possibilities are endless. Just keep it positive!
Bad answers to this question will likely to do the following:
-Focus on something that is relatively obvious from your resume
-Focus on something that does not really have any clear selling points about who you are
An optional fourth essay will allow you to discuss any issues that do not fall within the purview of the required essays
1. If they did not ask it, do they really need to know it?
2. Will the topic I want to discuss significantly improve my overall essay set?
3. Is the topic one that would not be covered from looking at other parts of my application?
4. Is the essay likely to be read as being a specific answer for Columbia and not an obvious essay for another school?
If you can answer “Yes!” to all four questions, it might be a good topic to write about.
Columbia Loves to Be Loved
One thing that is consistent about Columbia Business School is that they want to know that their school is your first choice. If you have an alumni interview you can be expected to be asked about that very directly. See here for my advice on Columbia interviews. Best of luck!