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Columbia Business School Essay Analysis, 2016–2017

A famous quotation, though one of murky attribution, states, “If I had had more time, I would have written a shorter letter.” MBA essays used to be lengthy, but Columbia Business School (CBS) has helped lead the way in their gradually becoming shorter and shorter over the years. In fact, CBS was the first business school to incorporate a micro essay into its application. This year, CBS appears to be sticking with the “shorter may be better” theme, because the school has stipulated a minimum of 100 words for each of its essays in addition to setting a maximum, essentially telling candidates that they do not have to submit a long essay to get their point across. (That said, we suspect that no one—no matter how much time they may have to be that brief—will actually use the bare minimum.) However, in a twist, CBS has also increased the allowed word count for several of its essays: applicants have 33% more space for Essay 1 (750 words versus 500 last year) and twice as much for Essay 2 (500 words versus 250). Even the allowance for the school’s short-answer question has grown from 50 characters to—oddly—51, after having been reduced steadily over the past several years (from 200 to 100 to 75 to 50). These increases constitute a pretty significant change and one that will probably come as a relief to applicants, who quickly learn just how challenging trying to say everything they want to in a short essay can be. So, when you write your CBS essays, keep that famous quote in mind. Just because you have more room, you do not have to use it all—you just need to use the allotted space wisely. Focus on making every word count, rather than on trying to say “everything.”

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.”

Reveal true goals, not what you think CBS wants.

This directive—which may sound a bit as though Yoda wrote it—is a mere 49 characters (including spaces and punctuation) and could be seen as a tribute form of essay analysis. Although we stayed within the character count, 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 be sure to effectively convey your point within these strict limits. So, we want to emphasize the advice we gave in our example. Think about what you truly want to do with your career in the short term and state this directly. And do not misguidedly believe that admissions officers have a preference for specific professions or industries—they do not. The rest of your application must then provide evidence that your stated goal aligns with your existing skills and profound interests, especially after being augmented by an MBA education. This will show that your professed goal is achievable and lend credibility to your statement. If you can do this in 51 characters—and remember that we are talking about characters, not words—you will have answered this question quite well. Recognize also that because the first part of your answer is generally understood to be “I want to…,” you do not need to actually include those words.

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)

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. This is your opportunity to elaborate on your aspirations, demonstrating why they truly make sense for you and extending your projection beyond that question’s “immediate post-MBA” time frame. Start by giving some context for your goals, because a declarative statement alone can often seem naïve, detached, or capricious, especially if some might view your intentions as adventurous. Declaring, for example, “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 explain how and why this just might be an actual possibility once you have earned your MBA. (Do you have significant experience in the entertainment or sports industries already? Is your last name Steinbrenner?)

First, reveal that a crucial and legitimate connection exists between where you have been in your career and where you want to go, so that you do not appear to be merely expressing an unfounded “want.” For this essay, you have to provide more detail than you did in your 51-character short answer and show that you fully understand what someone in your target field or position does. Too many applicants write basic statements like “I want to join a start-up.” But what kind of start-up? Seed stage? Venture backed? In what position within the start-up? After all, a start-up is a business, not a specific job. Our point is that you must demonstrate that you have given your career path significant consideration and have educated yourself as to what your post-MBA career entails, why you are (or will be) properly equipped to perform your desired role(s) within it, and how it is the right fit for you personally. By showing that your long-term goals represent a well-founded yet aspirational progression from your short-term goals, you will communicate to the admissions committee that you have envisioned an ideal path for your career.

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 stated aspirations and then share which specific resources at CBS you believe will allow you to develop your skills and knowledge base to achieve them. You must convince 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.

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, they 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)

CBS provides a long, example laden prompt for its second essay, and we want to be sure that you are not distracted or misled by certain elements of it. Be assured that in answering this question, you do not need to specifically reference New York immersion seminars, master classes, or school-year internships. CBS is merely providing a bit of inspiration for you, but the admissions committee is ultimately interested in how you will define your relationship with the school’s resources and what New York City has to offer. The key is to 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 both Columbia and New York City’s abundant resources. However, you will need to go beyond offering a mere list of applicable resources. Instead, you must show that you understand how the resources you have identified align with your educational and/or professional needs and that you have an action plan for how you intend to integrate them into your MBA experience. So, for example, if you are interested in entrepreneurship, simply noting that you are aware of Manhattan’s burgeoning technology scene will not do much for you. You would need to explain how you expect to engage with that tech scene and why you believe doing so would be advantageous to you. The same goes for media, fashion, finance, and every other discipline, because New York offers something for them all. In the end, your job is not to inform CBS about the resources available on its campus or at its doorstep but to clearly convey how you will take advantage of the ones that matter to you personally.

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)

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—however brief—to provide 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” should not be understood as “shocked.” Do not think you need to totally revolutionize the admissions committee’s 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 offer a narrative that engages the reader in your actions and showcases how you conduct yourself.

You may feel that a natural part of this essay should tie directly to the CBS MBA program and explain how this aspect of your personality or life will allow you to contribute to the school or your cluster. However, you do not need to answer a question that was not asked. You therefore do not need to use any of your limited word count addressing this angle, though you may certainly do so if it is organic to your story.

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 Essays 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.



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