Columbia Business School Essay Analysis, 2020–2021

Columbia Business SchoolOnce again, Columbia Business School (CBS) is offering applicants a combination of old and new essay questions. Its short-answer goal statement remains unchanged, as has its first essay prompt—which is also about candidates’ career aspirations. Likewise, the school’s second essay question still asks applicants to discuss why they want an MBA from CBS in particular. For the third essay, though, candidates no longer have to frame their values within the context of an admired leader but are instead tasked with revealing key elements of their personalities and lives through the selection of a cherished book, movie, or song. Our more detailed analysis of the program’s 2020–2021 questions follows.

Short Answer Question: What is your immediate post-MBA professional goal? (Maximum 50 Characters)

CBS applicants accustomed to Twitter’s 280-character allowance may find CBS’s 50-character limit here more than a little challenging—especially considering that it includes spaces! To get a sense of how brief your opportunity really is, note that the school’s prompt is itself exactly 50 characters. With such a limit, this can hardly be considered a true essay, but you will of course need to approach it with the same level of thought and focus you give all your other written responses for CBS. During a Q&A mbaMission conducted with several top admissions officers, Assistant Dean of Admissions Amanda Carlson commented,

That 50 characters really helps people to just break it down very simply for themselves and simply for us . . . . Pursuing business education, it’s a huge investment in time, in money, in effort, in energy, and I think this 50-character exercise is as much for the candidate as it is for our team, and we want to know that people are serious, they’re focused, and they’re ready for this kind of adventure.

So, this prompt is a no-nonsense request for information that is all about getting to the point and telling the admissions committee what it needs to know—that you have a clear and achievable goal. In the past, the school has provided a few sample responses, including “Work in business development for a media company” and “Join a strategy consulting firm,” illustrating that conveying the requested information in such a tight space is definitely doable and that you do not need to worry too much about grammatical issues (in other words, you do not need to start your statement with “I want to” or something similar). We like to offer the statement “Reveal true goals, not what you think CBS wants” as both our own example of keeping things concise and our advice on how to approach and fulfill this request. 

Think about what you really want to do with your career in the short term and state this aspiration directly. Keep in mind that the rest of your application will need to provide evidence that your stated goal aligns with your existing skills and profound interests, especially once they have been 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 50 characters (not words!), you will have done what you need to answer the school’s question quite well.

Essay #1: Through your resume and recommendations, we have a clear sense of your professional path to date. What are your career goals over the next 3-5 years and what, in your imagination, would be your long-term dream job? (500 words)

CBS starts this essay question by more or less telling you not to recap your career to date, so we strongly recommend that you do so (and briefly, at that) only if context is absolutely needed for your stated goals to be understood and/or believable—perhaps if you are making a fairly remarkable career change. Pay particular attention to the phrases “dream job” and “in your imagination” with respect to the long-term portion of the question. The school is prompting you to be creative and perhaps even to challenge or push yourself to think big. CBS wants individuals who do not just follow prescribed paths according to someone else’s blueprint but who are aspirational and more inclined to forge their own way. This is not to suggest that if you have a more traditional plan in mind that you are in trouble or at risk of losing the admissions committee’s attention, but you may need to take a little extra time to consider your ambitions from the perspective of “what if?” and delve more deeply into what you hope to achieve to find the more personal and inspiring elements of your goals. Showing creativity and individualism here can only be helpful.

Although this is not a request for a textbook personal statement essay, your response will certainly involve some elements of the topics covered in such a submission, such as short- and long-term goals. The mbaMission Personal Statement Guide offers advice on brainstorming and crafting such essays along with multiple illustrative examples and so may be helpful in preparing your CBS response to this prompt. You can download your free copy here.

Essay #2:  Why do you feel that Columbia Business School is a good fit for you? (250 Words)

A few seasons ago, CBS’s second essay concerned the school’s New York City location and the benefits that conferred, but the admissions committee later widened the scope of the prompt to encompass everything the program offers, both on campus and elsewhere. To effectively answer this question, you will need to conduct some significant research on CBS, from its resources and community to its extracurriculars and, yes, location. You must create and present a plan of action, showing direct connections between CBS’s offerings and your interests, personality, and needs. Also, for Essay #1, CBS does not ask how it will factor into the achievement of your professional goals, but this topic seems more than fitting here—though you should take care not to discuss only career-related resources and opportunities.

Note that generic claims and empty pandering have no place at all in this rather compact essay. Any elements of CBS that you reference must be specific to your interests, character, and needs, and the connections between them must be very clear. Be authentic about what draws you to CBS in particular, and create a narrative explaining how you will grow through the opportunities available there and benefit from the overall experience. 

The “why our school?” topic is a common element of a typical personal statement, so we (again) encourage you to download a free copy of the mbaMission Personal Statement Guide, which helps applicants write this style of essay for any school. It explains ways of approaching this subject effectively and offers several sample essays as guides. Click here to access your complimentary copy.

And for a thorough exploration of CBS’s academic program, unique offerings, social life, and other key characteristics, the mbaMission Insider’s Guide to Columbia Business School is also available for free.

Essay #3: Tell us about your favorite book, movie or song and why it resonates with you. (250 Words) 

Last year, CBS’s third essay prompt—which asked candidates about a leader they admired—could have been summarized as “Tell us about yourself by telling us about someone else.” Candidates could easily (and perhaps did) spend more time talking about the esteemed individual than about themselves, not exactly giving the admissions committee the kind of input it was hoping for. With this new prompt, which will undoubtedly make applicants’ essay responses much more personal, individual, and creative, the focus is now entirely on you.

Let us first make one thing very clear—the admissions committee is not using this essay to judge your taste in books, films, or music! If you like ’90s grunge, and your admissions reader enjoys Broadway standards, or if you love Marvel movies, and your admissions reader is a fan of black-and-white classics, this is completely irrelevant. Like all other business school essay questions, this one has no “right” answer, so do not worry that the book, film, or song (which we will now refer to as a “piece,” so we do not need to keep repeating all three options) you choose will somehow automatically eliminate you for consideration by the admissions committee. 

Do not choose something simply because you believe it is cool or on trend, and take care not to select a piece that represents who you would like to be (or would like the admissions committee to think you are). The piece you discuss does not even need to be readily recognizable. What is important, above all else, is that whatever you select is truly meaningful to and representative of you. It should somehow express or highlight a key element of your life, your personality, or your values. Why is what you have chosen so meaningful to you? To what part of your life or character does it relate? 

For example, the piece could have a sentimental connection with an important relationship in your life; perhaps you watched a certain movie repeatedly with a beloved family member, and that shared experience has made your relationship more profound. Or maybe a book helped change your perspective on something in a significant way or opened up a career path you had not previously considered. Or possibly a special song has helped calm (or energize) you before an important event or activity. Because the school allots merely 250 words for this essay, do not dedicate too many words to discussing the selected piece and instead simply introduce what it is, explain in a concise and straightforward manner why it is important to you, and then share experiences from your life that illustrate how that significance has manifested.  

Optional Essay: Is there any further information that you wish to provide the Admissions Committee? If so, use this space to provide an explanation of any areas of concern in your academic record or your personal history. This does not need to be a formal essay. You may submit bullet points. (Maximum 500 Words)

This optional essay question starts out sounding like an open invitation to discuss almost anything you feel like sharing with the admissions committee, but the second line dials things in and puts the spotlight on addressing problem areas specifically. The additional directive about bullet points seems to be a not-too-veiled implication that the school wants you to focus on imparting key information rather than offering a detailed and long-winded explanation of the issue in question. Without a doubt, this is not an opportunity to share another cool story or otherwise try to impress or pander to the admissions committee. If you do not truly need to explain an issue or potentially confusing element of your candidacy (a poor grade or overall GPA, a low GMAT score, a gap in your work experience, etc.), we do not recommend that you submit an option essay; if you do have issues to clarify, keep things concise. 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 to help you achieve this high level of preparation, we offer our free Interview Guides. Download your free copy of the Columbia Business School Interview Guide today.

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2020–2021 MBA Essay Analysis

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