How to Write a "Why Columbia" Essay: 7 Tips & 5 Examples

How to answer "Why Columbia?"
June 14, 2024
10 min read
Expert Reviewed


Reviewed by:

Mary Banks

Former Admissions Committee Member, Columbia University

Reviewed: 6/14/24

Why are you interested in attending Columbia University? This question can help guide you through Columbia’s “why us” essay. Read on to learn more and show Columbia why you’re the perfect candidate! 

You’ve got your sights set on the elite Columbia University. You’ve probably dreamed about its stone buildings and sprawling campus, and you know you want to earn a higher education in the heart of New York. You’ve put in the hard work to meet the application requirements. The only thing standing in your way is tackling the admission essays

Columbia University wants to get to know you and what you can offer to the campus community. But they also want to know why you want to attend Columbia. There are several top colleges to choose from, and they want to know why Columbia called out to you. 

Trying to pinpoint an exact reason can be difficult, especially if you’re unsure of the “why.” Lucky for you, there’s not a right or wrong answer because every student is different. Read on to learn how to ace the “Why Columbia” essay and maximize your chances of getting accepted!

Purpose of the “Why Columbia” Essay

It seems that nearly every university wants to know why you chose them over other schools. Columbia is no different. The admissions team wants to know your rationale for applying. Your job is to describe why Columbia is the perfect school for you. 

Darryl Tiggle, a former Senior Associate Director of Admissions at Tufts University, provides insight on why colleges ask for “why us?” essays in our college essay webinar

"You want to find out what place is a good fit for you. That's exactly what the colleges are doing. Academically, they don't even have to think about whether or not they're going to get academic quality. It's baked into the process. The fit thing they can only ascertain from non-numerical stuff, and your essay is one of the best things that give them that info."

Columbia is one of the top schools in the country. The school provides a rigorous education that a select few get to experience. Columbia wants to accept students who will add to the school’s culture. 

Your desire to attend Columbia can stem from many things: maybe you’re carrying on your family’s legacy or pursuing a pathway unique to Columbia. Just ensure you show that you genuinely care about the school. The admissions team uses this essay to find the most interested applicants, so approach this task with the utmost care.

“Why Columbia” Essay Prompt

You can find a direct link to the “Why Columbia” essay prompt on their website.  As the title suggests, the admissions team wants to know why you want to attend Columbia. 

Before you sit down to write this essay, think about Columbia’s significance to you. Out of all of the colleges you could choose, why Columbia?  To some, the answer is quite simple, while others might struggle to articulate their rationale.

The word limit might intimidate you: at a measly 150 words, you have little space to express your interest. Columbia receives thousands of applications annually, so it makes sense to impose such a restrictive word limit. 

What to Include

It’s best to write about all things specific to Columbia. Some directions you can take your essay include:

  • Any unique majors or course offerings that interest you
  • Referencing specific faculty members/professors you’d love to work with or learn from 
  • Research projects/areas you’d want to participate in, referencing any past Columbia projects or its research centers
  • Columbia-specific extracurriculars or clubs you’d love to join
  • Internships, entrepreneurial opportunities, and any other Columbia offerings that pique your interest and how you would excel given these opportunities

Check to see if there are any unique majors that interest you. You could also mention any professors or research that relates to your passions. Look into any extracurriculars they offer that are unlike any other university. 

Think about the programs the university offers or the professors who teach at Columbia. Admissions want to know that you genuinely care about the school and that you will contribute to the culture they have built. They want students who see attending Columbia as a life-changing experience. Columbia wants to mold you, and in turn, they want you to leave your mark.

One of the best ways to demonstrate your fit with Columbia’s values is to look at their mission statement! Admissions counselor Darryl gives this advice: 

"The one thing I tell my students to do, and every college has this, is to go to the about page on every college's website and find the mission statement. Don't restate the mission statement to them, but see what the mission statement says it's trying to do: provide more access to students, elevate women in the sciences, make an impact in the community outside of campus. Find out what their mission statement is because they love it, they paid a lot of money for it, and that's where they're going to put all of their energy and effort when you're a student."

Columbia also offers plenty of internship and entrepreneurial opportunities, so if there are any that pique your interest, make sure to talk about them and why you would excel in those opportunities. 

You could also talk about what you will offer Columbia or how your unique perspective and experiences could add to Columbia’s incoming class and campus. Whatever you choose to write about, make it personal. You don’t want to give a generic answer that seems disingenuous. 

Don’t include topics that aren’t specific to a Columbia experience. Writing about your desire to visit New York and live in the city won’t effectively answer the prompt. You also shouldn’t generalize about wanting to attend an Ivy League school.

Though admission to a prestigious school provides clout, you can achieve this by attending any other Ivy League. Remember, your goal is to convince the admissions committee that Columbia is your dream school! 

Columbia Essay Examples

It can help to look at successful “Why Columbia” essay examples. They provide a peek into what the admissions team expects of you and can help you improve your own essay to stand out. Check out these examples of “Why Columbia” essays with an analysis and breakdown of each! 

Sample Essay #1

“Computer science is at the core of my academic passions and my life ambitions. What I value in life is being around brilliant technologists. At Columbia, I have worked with and befriended the most driven and gifted programmers I’ve ever met. In January, I formed a team with three Columbia freshmen for MIT’s annual strategy-game-playing artificial intelligence competition. Ben, Ryan, Koh and I spent the month reviewing matches, debating approaches and tweaking our models. More than once we coded through the night. Their caliber was clear in the subtle insights that their multi-disciplinary backgrounds gave them and they gave me something to aspire to.

I have many interests that lie outside of my intended major but that I want to continue to pursue, and Columbia provides an environment for those diverse passions. Recently, while at a Columbia math club meeting with Ben, I ran into a political science major, Mathieu. He was elated to point out the insights that a love of math granted him in his courses and his conviction encouraged me to explore the peculiar intersection of the two fields.

I love teachers who love to teach. At Columbia, I’ve seen faculty who have a love for what they do and who care about students. While touring, I sat in on a quantum mechanics lecture. Professor Norman Christ strode into the room at eight on-the-dot and jumped into a discussion of WKB complex value approximation. For three straight hours, he guided us through the intricate world of QM without any notes. His enthusiasm brightened that drizzling Monday morning. That I could follow the lecture at all is a testament to his lucid explanations and extraordinary knowledge. When I came to him with questions afterward, he helped me truly understand a topic that initially felt years out of reach.”

Why This “Why Columbia” Essay Worked 

The student starts by listing their desired major and how Columbia provides the perfect education. But the student doesn’t stop there; they go on to add how they’ve made an impact and how they could provide for Columbia as well. 

Notice how the student lists their topic within the first sentence of each paragraph and then immediately follows up with how Columbia connects to those topics. 

This “Why Columbia” essay sample refers to a professor and what the writer enjoyed about their lecture. This shows the admissions team that this student truly enjoys being there and cares about the university’s educational opportunities. 

Keep this example in mind as you construct your own essay. Remember to find ways to connect everything back to Columbia so you can effectively show why Columbia is important to you. 

What Could Be Improved In This Example

This essay could have benefitted from the use of a stronger hook. The first sentence of your essay should draw the reader in and make them eager to keep reading. Consider some creative ways that you could introduce the topic of your essay in the first sentence or even the first few words. 

Sample Essay #2

“I tend to view the brain in the same way one would do any other muscle, and the fact that I choose to do so explains how I’ve recently gone about challenging myself intellectually. Simply put, I take my brain to the gym; I analyze its power through its capability to ‘lift’ (fully comprehend) intellectual weights of varying mass, and attempt to broaden the reach of its abilities by repeatedly pushing it just past its limits until it's capable of handling the load of even heavier weights. And, if the brain can be treated like a muscle, then it's only logical to view attending university as the process undertaken to make said muscle as strong as possible.

The desire I feel to brain-train with maximum intensity in higher education has led me to apply to Columbia – the academic equivalent of an Olympic-level gymnasium. How exactly I plan on using the resources such a ‘gym’ would offer is something I’ve spent months pondering: courses such as “Gender and Applied Economics” taught by Professor Lena Edlund, for instance, would expand my limits of intellectual agility, as would the diversity of NYC’s melting pot mentality, which closely parallels my own upbringing and education.”

Why This “Why Columbia” Essay Worked 

This student starts their essay by using a unique and creative metaphor as an engaging hook. Their desire to learn and grow academically is evident in their words, which provides the admissions committee with a window into the student’s passion. 

Kayla Kirk, an admissions official at Brown University, talks about how to incorporate storytelling in your essay

“Another thing to keep in mind is to use vivid description and imagery. You don't want it to read like poetry or be too flowery in your language in the end, but you do want to show off your writing skills. And if this starts to read a little bit more like a short story at times, that's okay. That's a good way to get them invested in your essay."

The student also includes specific details about a course and a professor that they look forward to learning from and concludes their essay with a mention of how their background aligns with Columbia’s school culture in NYC. 

What Could Be Improved In This Example

This student could have expanded a bit more on their passions and the topics or concepts that interest them. Their “brain-training” metaphor is an engaging one, but they could have been a bit more specific about what they train their brain with. While they do make mention of a specific course, they could have gone into deeper detail. 

Sample Essay #3

“Watching Spider-Man fighting bad guys in New York made me want to do the same. I can be a superhero through my work as an architect by designing spaces that improve communities and the well-being of others. Opportunities to research the connection between systemic issues and architecture compels me to Columbia.

I am drawn to Professor Galán's lecture "Architecture and Migration in New York" with his focus on politics, nationalism, and colonialism corresponding to architecture. Growing up with grandparents who lived through British occupation, I developed an appreciation for how design affects relationships and communities. 

In particular, I was most proud of my resilient grandparents who fought to keep their traditional [ETHNICITY] homes against colonialism. Realizing architecture has a transformative power and historical significance, I aim to incorporate a thoughtful approach to my design philosophy. I would also join Columbia's Urban Experience to expand my perspectives by learning about the community of New York and experiencing how Columbia creates initiatives for students to improve the surrounding neighborhoods. 

Although I can not climb walls or shoot webs, Columbia offers endless opportunities for me to grow and make a positive impact - like everyone's friendly neighborhood Spider-Man!”

Why This “Why Columbia” Essay Worked 

This essay effectively utilizes the classic “full-circle” structure, both beginning and ending with a reference to Spider-Man, which works as a great hook. The author then jumps right into discussing many of Columbia’s offerings that intrigue and excite them. This student has done their research! 

The student also weaves details about their own passions, interests, and personal background throughout the essay. This helps the admissions committee get to know the student on a more personal level and makes this essay more memorable. 

This student follows Dr. Nick’s advice, as given in our Why This College webinar

"Instead of saying, 'I want to join the student newspaper,' name the student newspaper. 'I want to do community service,' name the community service clubs. What do you want to do? How do you want to get yourself into that community? Not just the campus itself but also the city it's in. That's what makes it that much better." 

What Could Be Improved In This Example

The student could have woven the “Spiderman” superhero metaphor throughout the essay a bit better. Although the “full-circle” approach works well, the body of the essay isn’t strongly related to it. Consider how all parts of your essay will work together as one cohesive whole. 

Sample Essay #4

“It wasn’t until I arrived at [NAME OF TRAIN STATION] on a cold November morning for my first ‘shift’ with [NAME OF ORGANIZATION] that I truly grasped the significance and breadth of economics’ human impact. 

For context, [NAME OF ORGANIZATION] is a non-profit organization whose volunteers take to [CITY] streets and distribute essential supplies to the city's homeless population – or, as we called it, ‘giving a shift.’ I don’t recall exactly how many ‘shifts’ I gave with [NAME OF ORGANIZATION], but the 7-month period I spent working with the organization proved to have a profound impact on my life, character, and perspective. 

What stuck with me most from the experience was coming to admire the sheer grit and unwavering perseverance of those I met during my ‘shifts’; never before had I experienced such fulfilling and uplifting interactions with complete strangers, whose gleaming personalities and senses of humor contrasted starkly with the dire nature of their socioeconomic situations. 

It’s from these selfsame interactions that my inspiration to study economics grew; more specifically, by my pragmatic application of knowledge regarding policy studies and poverty economics that I aspire to gain through higher education, I hope to ‘give an even bigger shift’ for the world of tomorrow.”

Why This “Why Columbia” Essay Worked 

This essay paints a meaningful picture of how this student’s interest in economics first started. The writer here is actually responding to a prompt about why they are interested in their intended program, not about Columbia specifically, which demonstrates that they’ve read and understood the prompt. 

The writer describes their experience working for this organization, reflects on how it impacted them, and then moves into how it has affected their desire to learn about economics. Very well done!

What Could Be Improved In This Example 

This essay could have benefitted from some more information on what they specifically wanted to learn regarding economics. For a “Why This School” essay, you’ll likely want to include more specific details about the classes, professors, etc. that you’re interested in. 

Sample Essay #5

“As the sun emerges from behind the mountains, my grandfather and I remain fixated on the onigiri atop the dining table. We aren’t engrossed in the onigiri, per se, but rather their wrappers–the canvas where we sketch gadget designs.

Grandpa inspires me to follow his footsteps by designing contraptions to benefit humanity. We both place a large emphasis on the importance of transportation to the environment’s well-being. His patent for a [PRODUCT] was the biggest project I’ve contributed to. Consequently, I aspire to work with Dr. Francis M. Vanek, whose research interests involve the environmental impact of transportation systems. I imagine working together on a shared passion, alternative energy-powered cars (and maybe even convincing my family to buy them in the process).

Cornell’s engineering program places a significant emphasis on building a conscious future. Understanding the intricacies of societies and the demands of global warming is a key component of becoming an environmental engineer. Professor Zinda’s Environmental Sociology course educates students to engineer solutions with an astute understanding of the communities involved, not just knowledge of principles. When reflecting on two communities I’ve experienced intimately–[COUNTRY] and [STATE]–I understand the nuanced scenarios brought upon by different environmental concerns. I always seek to be sensitive and aware in my approach to projects.

My grandfather’s humanitarian mindset defines my own engineering process. Learning from Cornell faculty with aligned ideologies would be a dream come true. At Cornell, I believe I can carry on my grandfather’s legacy with a holistic engineering viewpoint.”

Why This “Why Columbia” Essay Worked 

Although this essay is actually written for Cornell, not Columbia, there are still lessons to be learned here. First of all, the essay begins with a vivid scene demonstrating where the student got their engineering passion from--showing, not telling. The student then talks about their aspirations, mentioning specific professors and courses. 

This essay also effectively utilizes the “full-circle” approach by beginning and ending with a mention of their grandfather. This is a really powerful way to frame an essay because of the emotional weight that relationships carry. 

What Could Be Improved In This Example

While the opening scene is vivid, the phrase “as the sun comes up” could be seen as cliche by some admissions committees. Be sure to stay away from cliches in your own writing and think of creative, original ways to express your ideas!

For more essay examples, take a look at our database down below!

Essay Writing Tips

Knowing where to start can be the most challenging part of writing a “Why This College?” essay. These tips can make the process a little easier and ensure that you write a worthwhile essay.

Tip #1: Determine Your Why

Ruminate on why you want to apply to Columbia. It could be a specific major, a professor you’re interested in learning from, or extracurriculars that the school has to offer. You want to articulate what Columbia means to you so the admissions team understands why it’s your top pick. 

Tip #2: Do Your Research

Don’t tackle this essay without first researching the university. Consider your passions and how they align with Columbia’s majors. If you want to pursue a unique major that is only offered by Columbia, browse its list of majors. Each listing provides a detailed account of the major, which can aid you in your essay. 

For example, if you’re interested in pursuing creative writing, you can see what the program offers and determine how that benefits you. If you’re interested in learning from a specific professor, ensure you research that professor and explain why you want to work with them. 

Kayla Kirk offers guidance on how to research well for your essay. 

“Don't be afraid to show you've done the research. In fact, they need to know you've done the research. Look up their course catalog within a department that you might be interested in, drop the name of that class, drop the name of a professor who you saw on the website. If you really want to go to this school, take that time, look at some of the professors who are working in a field that you're interested in, and you might find projects that they've worked on or articles they've published or research that they're working on.” 

Tip #3: Be Concise

Remember that you only get 150 words to explain why you want to attend Columbia. Start your essay with a hook and then jump right into the body. Choose your words carefully and ensure your writing flows cohesively. If you’re prone to wordiness, editing for concision is critical.

Tip #4: Be Passionate

Use the “Why Us?” Columbia essay as an opportunity to show how much this school means to you. Explain why Columbia matters more than any other university. Talk about your dreams and how Columbia would help you achieve them. Choose a topic that you’re passionate about, and show them why they should pick you over another student.

Tip #5: Explain What You Have to Offer

Don’t just talk about what Columbia has to offer. Talk about how you plan to leave a mark on Columbia during your time there. Whether it’s an entrepreneurial pursuit or the desire to create a club that Columbia doesn’t offer, the admissions team is interested in what you can do to improve the university. 

How would your acceptance help make the school better? End your essay with what you plan to contribute. 

Tip #6: Proofread

This is not an essay you want to type in a flurry of keystrokes and send off without a second glance. Take your time and ensure you haven’t misspelled any words or made grammar mistakes. The admissions team will be less than impressed with your work if it’s riddled with errors. 

Tip #7: Don’t Be Afraid to Ask Someone Else to Read It

It always helps to have a second pair of eyes look over anything you write. To you, it will seem easy to understand because you know exactly what you’re trying to say. But to an outsider, it could seem confusing. Someone else’s opinion can determine whether your essay is truly cohesive. 

Seeking the help of a friend, parent, or even a counselor can improve your essay. Professional counselors know what top universities are looking for in their students and have read numerous “Why Columbia” essays that worked. 

Quad Education’s expert counselors can help you craft an incredible essay. Ankita, a student who worked with us, was able to fine-tune her essays and get accepted to Columbia! 

Common Mistakes to Avoid

Many students find it easy to fall into these traps when writing their application essays. Make sure not to make these essay-writing mistakes in your “Why Columbia” essay! 

Writing What You Think They Want to Hear

The most important element of your essay is authenticity. Don’t make up situations or write about cliche topics in order to try and win points with the admissions committee. What they really want is to get to know who you are. 

So, write about your real-life experiences, passions, interests, and motivations. This will come across far better than any kind of fabricated story, as your true personality will shine through your words. Admissions expert, Darryl Tiggle, emphasizes the importance of always being authentic: 

"Whenever given the opportunity, don't try to think, 'What do they want to hear?' Think, 'What can you say best?' Lean into authenticity, not being unique. You want to find the essays that are going to tell your own unique story."

Rehashing Your Application

The purpose of your college essay is to reveal new information about yourself to the admissions committee in your own voice. There’s no point in re-stating any of the information you already provided on your application, such as your GPA or test scores. 

Your essay is also not a place for you to list your extracurriculars or work experience. You can talk about them, but instead, you should discuss what you learned from a certain experience in relation to why you want to attend Columbia. Make sure you’re answering the prompt. 

Being Too Vague or Generic 

This essay should be tailored specifically to Columbia and what you think you can both gain from and contribute to the school. It may seem tempting to write a generic essay that can apply to many different colleges, but that would convey a lack of passion or genuine interest in Columbia. 

Instead, be specific about the programs, faculty, and school culture that you want to experience. Talk about your reasons for wanting to attend Columbia in particular. 

“Why Columbia” Essay FAQs

If you still have questions about how to navigate the “Why Columbia University” essay, read on to learn more!

1. When Should I Start Writing the “Why Columbia” Essay?

Make sure you give yourself plenty of time to write a worthy essay. Start as soon as possible. Do your research and gather your thoughts. Making an outline before you begin writing can help you figure out what you want to say in a cohesive way.

2. What Is the Columbia Essay Word Limit?

The admissions team wants you to write your answer in 200 words or less. As you can see from the essay example, this doesn’t provide much wiggle room. Keep your writing as concise as possible. 

3. How Personal Should My Essay Be?

This is your chance to show the admissions team who you are, what matters to you, and how Columbia fits in. Be direct, but don’t be afraid to let your personality shine through. You’re competing with thousands of students, so you want to stand out from the rest. Let the admissions team see your passion through your essay.

4. How Many Essays Do You Have to Write for Columbia? 

You must respond to three list questions and write three supplemental essays to apply to Columbia University. 

5. How Do I Write a Good “Why Columbia” Essay? 

A good Columbia admissions essay answers these questions: why are you interested in attending Columbia University? What makes Columbia stand apart from other schools? How do you hope to contribute to the campus? Remember to reference particular details about the school. 

6. Can I Write This Essay If I Haven’t Chosen a Major?

It’s always best to know what major you want to pursue before applying to college, but Columbia offers so many interesting degrees that it can be difficult to pick just one. If you’re unsure of your major, you can always talk about your goals and how Columbia can help you achieve them. 

If you’re stuck between two majors, talk about why you’re interested in the two and see if there’s a way you can combine them. Talk about professors or clubs you’re interested in. Discuss what you can do for Columbia as well. 

7. How Do I Know When My Columbia Essay Is Done?

The best way to determine if your essay is ready for submission is to allow other people to read it first, such as an admissions consultant. It is always best to have a second pair of eyes to look over the essay. There’s always a chance that you could have missed something crucial.

Nail the “Why Columbia” Essay, Unlock Your Future

The “Why Columbia” essay stands as a determining factor for aspiring students. It helps the admissions team to get to know you and see how you’ll fit in at Columbia. 

Determining why you chose this school can be difficult, but we hope this guide makes the writing process a little easier. Don’t be afraid to show your enthusiasm. Columbia wants to accept students who truly care about their education and who want to make a difference in the world as well as within Columbia itself. 

Remember to talk about what Columbia can do for you and what you can do to contribute. Incorporate your passions and goals into your response for a stellar essay! 

Access 190+ sample college essays here

Access 190+ sample college essays here


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