Columbia Business School Essay Analysis, 2014–2015

*Please note: You are viewing an essay analysis from the 2014-2015 admissions cycle. Click here to view our collection of essay analyses for the current admissions season. 

For the second year in a row, Columbia Business School (CBS) has kicked off the MBA application season. During an online event with mbaMission, Manhattan Prep and Poets & Quants, CBS’s director of admissions, Christina Shelby, told the audience that the school has added urgency in releasing its questions, because it has to meet the needs of its January-entry (known as J-Term) applicants, whose application deadlines come much sooner (October 8, 2014, versus April 15, 2015). Whatever its rationale for the “early” application release, CBS is basically staying the course with its essay questions, though it has again reduced the allowable character count in its “Twitter-like” goal statement; from 200 characters two years ago, it was cut to 100 last year and now stands at a mere 75. Our analysis follows…

Columbia Business SchoolShort Answer Question: What is your immediate post-MBA professional goal? (75 characters maximum)

Examples of possible responses:

“Work in business development for a media company.”

“Join a consulting firm specializing in renewable energy.”

“Work for an investment firm that focuses on real estate.”

Offer ambitious but realistic goals. Do not try to be anything you are not.

These two sentences are 75 characters long. You can see now just how brief you need to be with CBS’s short-answer question, yet you must still demonstrate that you can convey a point within such strict limits. So, we are sticking with the advice in our example. Do not misguidedly believe that admissions officers have a preference for specific professions or industries—they do not. Think about what you truly want to do with your career and state it directly. Then be sure that the rest of your application provides evidence that this goal connects to your existing skills and profound interests, making your professed goal achievable and lending credibility to your statement. If you can do this in 75 characters—and remember that we are talking about characters, not words—you will have answered this question quite well.

Essay 1: Given your individual background and goals, why are you pursuing a Columbia MBA at this time? (Maximum 500 words)

Because the CBS admissions committee is asking “why” you have chosen to pursue an MBA, you can justifiably delve into your professional career and explain how you identified your need for this particular advanced degree. However, take care not to overwhelm the admissions committee with an unnecessary level of detail about your career history. We cannot emphasize this strongly enough—the admissions committee does not want a recap of your entire resume—moreover, such detail would use up valuable word count. Approximately 100–150 words on your past should be enough to provide appropriate context.

You could perhaps offer an anecdote that reveals an academic or experiential void on your part, or explain that now is the right time for you because you have just completed a lengthy assignment and are ready to transition to the next phase of your career. A number of good reasons exist for wanting to earn your MBA now—just make sure that in your essay, the story of your progression is clear and you demonstrate the momentum and advancement that have brought you to this point. You will then need to explain how and why an MBA will serve as a bridge to the next level of your career. Notice that the school very specifically asks why you wish to earn a “Columbia MBA,” so you absolutely must incorporate into your essay elements of the CBS experience that are pertinent to your candidacy. Do not just list classes, but give a reasoned argument that explains how your goals, timing and CBS all intersect to make this the right time and the right experience for you.

Because personal statements are similar from one application to the next, we have produced the mbaMission Personal Statement Guide, which helps applicants write this style of essay for any school. We offer this guide to candidates free of charge. Please feel free to download your copy today.

For a thorough exploration of CBS’s academic program/merits, defining characteristics, crucial statistics, social life, academic environment and more, please check out the mbaMission Insider’s Guide to Columbia Business School. We also suggest that you visit the campus (a must if you live anywhere near New York) and use your network to connect with students to gain a firsthand understanding of the CBS experience.

Essay 2: Please view the video. How will you take advantage of being “at the very center of business”? (Maximum 250 words)

This question may seem challenging, but the key here is not to consider what New York City offers in general, but to instead focus on what you need from your educational experience and then address how this will be fulfilled or enhanced by the school’s location. We strongly encourage you to develop your core ideas before you watch the video the school has provided as context for this question. Watching the video first might lead you to deliver a canned or clichéd response rather than honestly contemplating your needs and New York City’s ability to respond to them.

If you find that your sincere reasons for wanting to study in New York City are ones that others can also claim—such as proximity to Wall Street—you will need to do your homework and take your research a step further. Offering proximity to Wall Street alone would constitute a clichéd response, but taking your essay to a more granular level and discussing how specific experiential opportunities speak directly to your niche interests will allow you to “own” those resources and really personalize this brief, 250-word essay.

Essay 3: What will the people in your Cluster be pleasantly surprised to learn about you? (Maximum 250 words)

Stop now and consider what the admissions officers will already know about you at this point from the other elements of your application they have reviewed thus far. They will probably have read your resume and thus gotten a sense of your career path to date. Your other essays should have provided an understanding of your goals and why you want to be at CBS and in New York City. The admissions committee may have had some brief glimpses into your personality through these avenues, but this essay is your overt opportunity—albeit brief—to give a sense of your true character.

The key words in this question are “pleasantly surprised.” Although you certainly want to offer something surprising, you obviously do not want that surprise to be unpleasant. “Surprise” does not need to be understood as “shocked.” Do not think you need to totally revolutionize their understanding of you in a mere 250 words (though if you can, that is fine).

Our point is that you should not worry if you have not climbed Mount Everest or launched a $50M venture capital–backed start-up. You are not expected to have spectacular achievement to share—CBS just wants to get to know you better by learning about an interesting aspect of your life. Whether you spent a month volunteering in Peru, helped put your sister through school or are passionate about flamenco dancing, these are all suitable stories, and one is not necessarily better than the other. What is important is that you show how what you do is manifest. You must offer a narrative that engages the reader in your actions and emphasizes how you conduct yourself.

We should note that you do not need to answer a question that was not asked. So in this case, you do not need to tie your response to CBS and explain how this aspect of your life will allow you to contribute to the school or your cluster. You may certainly do so if it is organic to your story, but do not in any way feel obligated to include a mention of CBS

Optional Essay: An optional fourth essay will allow you to discuss any issues that do not fall within the purview of the required essays.

However tempted you might be, this is not the place to paste in a strong essay from another school or to offer a few anecdotes that you were unable to use in any of your other essays. Instead, this is your opportunity, if needed, to address any lingering questions that an admissions officer may have about your candidacy, such as a poor grade or overall GPA, a low GMAT score, a gap in your work experience, etc. In our mbaMission Optional Statement Guide, we offer detailed advice on when and how to take advantage of the optional essay, with multiple examples, to help you mitigate any problem areas in your profile.


Be sure to join us on Thursday, June 19, for a free, live webinar: “Writing Standout Columbia Business School Application Essays,” where we will help you conceptualize your essay ideas and understand how to execute them, so that your experiences truly stand out! Register here!

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