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Columbia Business School (CBS), you usurper! For as long as we could remember, Harvard Business School had kicked off the MBA application season with the release of its essay questions, but then, three years ago, CBS showed that it waits for no one, and again this year, the school has struck first by releasing its essay prompts before any other program. In some ways, releasing the application earlier and earlier each year makes sense. As soon as the questions and requirements are out, applicants begin working on their submissions, invest more time and effort into their essays, and maybe even commit to applying to a school that they otherwise may have only considered a choice, had the application been released later, alongside those of a number of other schools. When you have only one option at hand, and it is one you like, you proceed! We cannot say for sure why the CBS admissions committee takes this approach, but we certainly plan to ask Amanda Carlson, CBS’s assistant dean of admissions, the next time we get to interview her. We recently hosted an admissions officer Q&A featuring Ms. Carlson. You can read the summary of that session here. She is very passionate about MBA applicants lowering their guards and understanding that she is eager to learn about each and every candidate. We would also ask her about the school’s ever-shrinking short-answer question, whose character count has decreased from 200 three years ago, to 100 two years ago, to 75 last year, to just 50 this year. Clearly, CBS values succinctness in this particular case. Our analysis of all the school’s essay questions follows…
Short Answer Question: What is your immediate post-MBA professional goal? (50 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.”
Reveal true goals, not what you think CBS wants.
This directive—which may sound to you as though Yoda wrote it—is a mere 48 characters and could suffice as a tribute form of essay analysis. Yes, we stayed within the character count, but we do have more to say…
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 50 characters—and remember that we are talking about characters, not words—you will have answered this question quite well.
Columbia Business School 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? (Maximum 500 words)
Did you not just write about your career goals for CBS’s short-answer question? Well, yes, but clearly the admissions committee wants to know more. Here is your opportunity to elaborate on your aspirations and share why they truly make sense for you. We would suggest starting by giving some context to your goals, because a declarative statement alone can often seem naïve, detached, or whimsical, especially if some might consider your intentions adventurous. Declaring, “I plan to ultimately become president of the New York Yankees” may be an audacious and eye-catching way to start your essay, but it will not be an effective one if you do not subsequently provide context for how and why—once you have your MBA—this just might be possible. (Maybe you have significant experience in the entertainment or sports industries already? Maybe your last name is Steinbrenner?)
First, you must provide some brief context for your goals—revealing that a crucial and legitimate connection exists between where you have been and where you want to go, so that you are not merely expressing an unfounded “want”—and then you can reveal your goals. The key here is to go far beyond the 50 characters the school gave you for its short-answer question. For this essay, you have to go into more detail and show that you really understand what someone in your target field does. Too many applicants write statements like “I want to be a consultant at McKinsey or BCG” or “I want to join a start-up.” Using the start-up declaration as an example, what kind of start-up? Seed stage? Venture backed? What position within the start-up venture do you intend to fill? After all, a start-up is a business, not a specific job. Our point is that you must show that you have given your career path a lot of thought and truly understand what your immediate post-MBA role entails, why you are (or will be) properly equipped to perform it, and how it is the right fit for you personally. Then you can show that you have envisioned an ideal path for your career by sharing your long-term goals, which of course must represent a well-founded yet aspirational progression from your short-term goals.
In addition to clearly and logically presenting your goals, you need to demonstrate that you have dedicated just as much thought—or maybe even more—to why you want to study at CBS. Many applicants make the mistake of simply offering a litany of pandering clichés about the school, but because you are reading this essay analysis, you will not! Think carefully about what you need to learn to achieve your set goals and then write about which specific resources at CBS will allow you to develop your managerial skill set to achieve those goals. Do not just tell the school about its own strengths; show the admissions committee that you understand how CBS is the missing link between you and your career goals.
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.
Columbia Business School Essay 2: Columbia Business School’s location enables us to bridge theory and practice in multiple ways: through Master Classes, internships, the New York Immersion Seminars, and, most importantly, through a combination of distinguished research faculty and accomplished practitioners. How will you take advantage of being “at the very center of business”? (Maximum 250 words)
This question has vexed many an applicant, especially those who have never been to New York City or contemplated why being there might be advantageous in their careers. Maybe this is precisely why the CBS admissions committee asks this question—to ensure that you give some serious thought to this aspect of your potential MBA environment or perhaps to motivate you to come to New York and take charge. Whatever the reason, 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 proximity (beyond its campus) to numerous practical opportunities.
To effectively answer this question, many applicants will need to conduct some significant research about the city. If you are interested in entering the fashion world after you graduate, for example, New York has bountiful resources in this area that you could discuss. Simply saying that you want to attend New York Fashion Week would not be sufficient, however. You need to “own” this essay and show that you have a true depth of understanding not just of the resources available, but also of how they would factor into your CBS experience. You have only 250 words in which to convey all this, so make each one count in your efforts to reveal that depth!
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? (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.
The Next Step—Mastering Your CBS Interview: Many MBA candidates find admissions interviews stressful and intimidating, but mastering this important element of the application process is definitely possible—the key is informed preparation. And, on your way to this high level of preparation, we offer our free Interview Primers to spur you along! Download your free copy of the Columbia Business School Interview Primer today.