Columbia Essay Analysis

Essay 1: Considering your post-MBA and long term professional goals, why you are pursuing an MBA at this point in your career? Additionally, why is Columbia Business School a good fit for you? (Maximum 750 words)

Okay friends, as much as this seems like a straight up career goals essay, resist the temptation to copy/paste from elsewhere. Columbia is clearly hovering over the sweetspot for what they need from their applicants; they have been futzing with these questions every year. What does that mean? Clearly they’re not learning enough of what they NEED from their applicants. So they’re tweaking the questions until they nail it.

It’s significant because if they bother tweaking their phrasing ever so slightly, it means they’re looking for something very specific. Let’s dig in and find out what that is…

The anchor in this essay is simple. It’s all about WHY MBA NOW.

Let’s read between the lines here. Most folks change the course of their careers during and/or after business school. Everyone knows this. Why worry so much about goals, then, if they’re gonna change anyway? Sure, get a sense, but let’s focus on what’s compelling the applicant to get an MBA—what’s the MOMENTUM like? Regardless of what this kid SAYS his aspirations are, where is he likely to end up?


Imagine a kid came to you and said “I’d like $1,000.” You ask “why?” And he says “Because the Dolce & Gabbana suit I need is on sale for $1,000.”


Imagine a different kid came to you and said “I’d like $1,000.” You ask “why?” And he says “Because I need a suit, I want nothing but the best, and I’ve found that suits that last the longest and have the most physical appeal are made from a rare type of material, are all hand-stitched, and are all imported from Italy. They tend to cost around $1,000.”

Who do you give your money to?

I like Case 2 any day of the week. Why? With Case 1, what if that D&G suit went out of style? Or they ran out of stock? Or the sale ends? I’m not convinced my $1,000 will be put to good use.

With 2 however, it seems to be more of an investment. That kid has options. If x, then y. He has a plan. There is “potential” in that $1,000 beyond the stated object of desire. Even if that kid wanted the EXACT same suit, I still want to give him the grand because I trust that if something were to change, he has the TOOL SET to make GREAT USE of that money.

This is what we want to convey in this essay.

Forget the career goals—–forget the D&G suit—–make a case for why an MBA is gonna make your POTENTIAL go through the roof. Sure, connect it to your goals as they are now, but your POSTURING has to be that your potential today is limited… and that your potential after an MBA is limit-less.

This is the key to this essay, period.

Two-part essay. Figure roughly 450 words to part 1, and 300 to part 2. In 450 words, you’re gonna cover:

• short term goals

• long term goals

• prior work experience

• why you can’t advance as much as you’d like now (i.e., without an MBA)

• what you’ll be capable of doing once you HAVE an MBA

Sounds like a lot, right? Doesn’t have to be. Not if your FOCUS is on the “WHY MBA NOW” part. If you take it linearly, you’ll be screwed. This essay almost has to be a cry for help—“Dear world, see that building over there that’s on fire? I know how to save every single person inside. But I can’t because my LEG IS STUCK. Someone please help me get unstuck and then I’ll become the greatest hero mankind ever saw.” Same exact idea. “Guys, my potential is obscene. But at the moment, I’m stuck—because I don’t have an MBA. Here’s how an MBA will help me, and here’s why now is the perfect time. Once that happens, watch out world.”

One other point: It has to make perfect sense that you didn’t apply last year. Or that you shouldn’t wait to apply NEXT year. Your argument MUST address the issue that the iron is hot TODAY. But you can’t just state that; everyone will state that, of course. You have to prove it. How do you prove it? Do exactly that… tell us why last year would have been premature. What did you learn this past year (or these past few years) that brought your goals into focus? That taught you the stuff you DIDN’T know and need to know? Why will waiting for a year or two be a waste of time? Is it time-inefficient? Or is there another reason? Explain it to us.

For the Columbia and fit piece, don’t prattle on about general things that apply to others. A tailor-made suit doesn’t fit several people. It fits… YOU. Show us how the school fits YOU in the same way.

This is all about picking two or three (no more) traits of YOURS that somehow Columbia will BRING OUT, ENHANCE, IMPROVE, SPARK. If you don’t prove it, then the argument will be worthless. It’s easy to talk about why an Armani suit is the best. Doesn’t mean it’s gonna fit you when you try it on. Convince me the school is gonna fit YOU.

Essay 2Describe a life experience that has shaped you. The goal of this essay is to get a sense of who you are, rather than what you have achieved professionally. (Maximum 500 words)

So, this is like saying “The guy I’m gonna marry has to be handsome on the INSIDE!”

Well, yes, BUT… ALSO, he has to be good looking.

I mean, who are we kidding? If this essay gave us NO clues about your ability to be a successful business person… it would be a waste of everyone’s time. They’re just being indirect about it.

So, tell us about some amazingly personal thing that shaped you (and we’re gonna get into what that means), but be mindful of the fact that the net result has to be that we are eager to see what your career aspirations are, because we are somehow convinced you’re gonna be successful as hell. We just came to that conclusion in a slightly different way. So, do what they say, but keep that in mind.

Now, what is a life experience that SHAPES you? First of all, let’s agree that we’re talking about one experience here (that could have lasted a while), rather than several distinct experiences.

Think of it this way. If this experience HADN’T happened, would you have been different? If yes, we are golden. If you have MANY such moments to pull from, the one that made you “the most different” is the one to watch out for. Now, how would you have been different? This is important because it sets the stage for the way in which the life experience truly SHAPED you. Shaped means influenced, molded… changed.

It could be lame if you describe something IN GENERAL. Like… “my parents’ parenting style” or “my childhood” etc etc. Everyone has had “parents” of some kind mold them. Everyone has had a childhood. Not everyone has led troops into battle. Not everyone has talked a suicidal guy off a ledge.

Here’s another crucial component here: We have to CARE about the change. If you’re a trust fund kid who spent a summer with a bunch of rich kids and that experience “shaped you” into wanting to become a banker… guess what? We’re not particularly interested. The shaping has to have “taught” you something. Something you wouldn’t have gotten otherwise.

The more personal the essay, the more gripping it will be. You just need to do some homework after the fact (and by the way, don’t overthink this—write whatever comes to mind first, get it down on paper); make sure that the take home message must somehow relate back to why you’re gonna be a successful business person.

Essay 3
(Select and answer one of the below questions)

a)     The annual A. Lorne Weil Outrageous Business Plan Competition is a student initiative managed and run by the Columbia Entrepreneurs Organization (CEO). The competition encourages Columbia MBA students to explore creative entrepreneurial ideas that are sufficiently ambitious in scope and scale to be considered “outrageous.” Students explore these ideas while learning firsthand what goes into the development and presentation of a solid business proposal.

Develop your own “outrageous” business idea. In essay form, compose your “elevator pitch.” (Maximum 250 words)

Super cool. Outrageous doesn’t mean this is a contest for the wackiest idea imaginable. That would be the easiest game ever. It has to be unique, but… tenable. The real trick here is to be so convincing in your “elevator pitch” that by the end of it, we’re looking around to see if anyone else heard the idea, because maybe we’d like to steal it. The concept has to be innovative and great, but the “pitch” has to sound like solid gold.

And yet, it must qualify as outrageous. Show us you can not just think big, but think smart. Show us the need. Show us what happens when your plan comes to fruition. Make us salivate. Now spend some time proving that this is possible—give us a glimpse into HOW.

250 words… figure 50 or so for a snappy opener to get us leaning forward. Another 75 for the background. Set it up. Then 75 for the “pitch” – paint a picture of what’s actually gonna happen. Then give us some mechanics of how it’ll get executed in the remaining 50. Follow that roughly, and you’ll stay out of trouble.

b)    Columbia deeply values its vibrant student community, the building of which begins at orientation when admitted students are assigned to clusters of 65 to 70 fellow students who take most of the first-year core classes together. During the first weeks of school, each cluster selects a Cluster Chair. Further strengthening the student community are the nearly 100 active student organizations at Columbia Business School, ranging from cultural to professional to community service-oriented. Leadership positions within the cluster and/or clubs offer hands-on management and networking opportunities for students as they interact with fellow students, administrators, faculty members, alumni, and practitioners.

You are running for either Cluster Chair or a club leadership position of your choosing. Compose your campaign speech. (Maximum 250 words)

I mean, in 250 words… write a campaign speech? How cool is that. Let me say this as loudly as I can over a computer. BORING SPEECHES DON’T WIN. This is one of those moments where a guy who gives a KILLER speech but doesn’t have ANYTHING to back it up, will DECIMATE the guy who has alllllll the credentials, but put his audience to sleep when he made his speech. Sparkle. There are ways to do this. The first step is to consider your audience.

Who’s voting you in? Professors? Or fellow classmates. Makes a huge difference. You’re not talking to older, dowdy folks. It’s cool kids just like you. So, then, what are the components of a killer speech?

1)    Solid Experience – when in doubt, people will always lean on “well, he has experience…”

2)    Passion – a guy with great ideas and little experience will likely crush a guy who has a lot of experience, but doesn’t seem interested

3)    Relatability – if you seem foreign, alien, other… you’ll lose

Be funny. Be charming. Be sexy. Think about the person YOU’D vote for. It’s the guy or gal that has charisma. Who smirks a little when they speak. Who seems to care. Who captured your attention. This is a pitch. Sell it to us. It is not an essay. It is not your resume. It is a TV advertisment. You have 30 seconds to get us to pay attention, and want to buy your product. It’s that simple.

Did I just say simple? Ha, I meant the other thing.

c)     Founded nearly three decades ago, the Executives in Residence Program at Columbia Business School integrates senior executives into the life of the School. Current executives in residence include more than a dozen experts in areas ranging from media and investment banking to private equity and management. A hallmark of the program is one-on-one counseling sessions in which executives advise students about their prospective career choices.

Select one of the current executives in residence with whom you would like to meet during your time at Columbia. Explain your selection and tell us how you would best utilize your half hour one-on-one session. (Maximum 250 words)

This is kind of a twist on the “If you were hosting a dinner party, which three guests would you invite and why” type question. A few critical differences. One, they’re asking specifically about Columbia people; probably you’ve already seen the list. Two, this isn’t just a pow wow where you get to essentially “interview” someone cool like Barack Obama, or “be fascinated” by someone infamous like Machievelli, or enjoy the underappreciated wit of a Michael Keaton.

This is all about “fit.” And profiting from a half hour session. Part of the challenge here—almost—is demonstrating your ability to take an impossibly short period of time, and turn it into an experience that will ultimately improve you. There’s an art to it, and this is what they’re hoping to see some evidence of…

So, two parts:

1)    Showing the relevance, signifiance, logic of your selection. What’s your connection to your choice? Make it obvious. Show it to us. Don’t just tell us the name of the person and then tell us you guys share the same background. It has to go deeper than that. There has to be something about THIS person that hits some kind of bullseye for you. Identify it. 125 words.

2)    Thirty minutes… spent how? Don’t present a plan or an ambition that would take WEEKS to accomplish. You have thirty minutes. How will you get what you want within those thirty minutes? Maybe it’s one dynamite question. Maybe it’s pitching the most brilliant version of YOUR idea, in 5 minutes, and then asking a few targeted follow-ups… whatever it is, prove to us that you know what to do with an opportunity. We want to be able to know that when you step into “a room” (aka, “an opportunity”) you’re gonna make the most of it. If you can do that, it says something about your ability to be successful.

Now, if you don’t have a SERIOUS connection to one of the people on their list, why answer this question? It would be an absolute waste. Only if your connection is a no-brainer, should you select this one. There are plenty of great other choices, otherwise.

Optional Essay: Is there any further information that you wish to provide the Admissions Committee? Please use this space to provide an explanation of any areas of concern in your academic record or your personal history. (Maximum 500 words)

Reapplication Essay: How have you enhanced your candidacy since your previous application? Please detail your progress since you last applied, reiterate your post-MBA and long-term professional goals, and address why Columbia Business School is a good fit for you. (Maximum 750 words).