Analyzing the 2012 Columbia Business School Essays

Whenever a school releases new essays questions, it serves as a sort of referendum on the strategy of the prior year.  When a school moves far away from certain strategies, you realize that you don't have the DNA of the school completely wired.  When they move toward your strategies, you know you've been right on point.  Columbia's essay release fits in the latter camp, as every change from 2011 to 2012 seemed to be directly in line with the techniques we shared with our clients (much of which can be found in our How to Apply to Columbia guide).  

Let's move through the new essays as we explain why: 

Short Answer - What is your post-MBA professional goal? (Maximum 200 characters.)

We added the underline to "characters" for emphasis, because we can only imagine how many people will write 200-word responses to this question.  What Columbia wants you to do here is twofold: 1) give them a thesis for your candidacy, and 2) focus on your short-term goals.  These are two aspects of applying to Columbia that we have hammered for the past year.  Some schools favor a broad vision for your career ... Columbia wants to know what you plan to do when you graduate.  If you were a client of ours last year or even just had a consultation call, you will know that we have been espousing the viewpoint that Columbia cares most about professional potential - we've been saying it until we are blue in the face, really.  The fact that they have pulled this little exercise out of the series of essays and forced you to put it in lights underlines, highlights, and italicizes how important it is to have a short-term goal that "checks out." 

Essay 1 - Considering your post-MBA and long term professional goals, why are you* pursuing an MBA at this point in your career?  Additionally, why is Columbia Business School a good fit for you?  (Maximum of 750 words).

For Essay #1, this is basically the same as last year.  Just because you bumped out your thesis to the short answer field doesn't mean you are off the hook in defining your goals again here.  Indeed, you probably won't have properly defined your path in that short answer, so you really have to immediately pretend the SA doesn't exist.  Your Essay #1 will need to feature What, Why, How, When, and Where - the purists' career goals essay.  And, as with last year, we will be putting an emphasis on Columbia's unique desire to see an alternate career path presented, as well as really stress testing the 'how' or Proof Paragraph, to make sure that transferable skills are on display - that you leave know doubt at all that you can land that post-MBA job.  As in years past, Essay #1 will be the make-or-break Columbia essay. 

(*We took the liberty of fixing what appears to be a typo in the question prompt.)

Essay 2 - Describe a life experience that has shaped you.  The goal of this essay is to get a sense of who you are, rather than what you have achieved professionally.  (Maximum of 500 words.)

Essay #2 has been refined from last year, when a very vague prompt sent candidates scattering in a million direction.  Again, we feel validated in our approach, which was to stress one experience or interest and build a theme around it, rather than just rattle off your resume. Columbia has further zeroed us all in by asking for a "life experience," but the big takeaway here is that they want a story, not a list.  Furthermore, it should be fairly obvious, but this could from your personal life and not from work.

Essay - Choose from three options ("outrageous idea," "campaign speech," and "one-on-one session") (250 words). 

Essay #3 is a new wrinkle in that it gives three choices, much like HBS and GSB have provided options in recent years.  For us and our clients, the choice will usually be simple and will almost always be 3b.  Why?  Because we have been hammering "community building" already.  If you have read any of our thoughts on CBS over the years, you know that Columbia battles both a reality and a perception that it is a commuter school and - at times - a bit of a ghost town.  This means that each and every applicant needs to bring some community building skill to the table and they need to showcase it.  The inclusion of Essay 3b just makes it much easier to do so, rather than having to weave it into Essay 2.  

In all, it is great to see everything about the Columbia application bringing clarity to the experience.  The things we suspected are now up in lights.  This means that the application is even more straight forward, but it also means that there is less room for error as mistakes are likely to be punished even more severely than they were last year, when Columbia already loomed large as a program that had expectations for "good" essays and was fairly tough on those candidates who failed in that regard.  

If you are just starting out on your admissions journey, email us at to request a free consultation.  We are currently offering some great promotions for Round 1.  Additionally, you can download our free guides for applying to HBS and Columbia.