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How to Respond to the 2023/2024 Columbia Supplemental Essay Prompts

By Ginny Howey

Ginny Howey is a former content writer at Scholarships360. Ginny graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in May 2022 with a degree in Media and Journalism (Advertising/PR focus) and minors in Entrepreneurship and Spanish. Ginny’s professional experience includes two summers as a writer intern at global creative consultancy BCG BrightHouse. More recently, Ginny worked as a content marketing intern for Durham-based software engineering bootcamp Momentum, where she gained SEO skills. She has also written freelance articles on emerging tech for A.I. startup Resultid.

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Edited by Maria Geiger

Maria Geiger is Director of Content at Scholarships360. She is a former online educational technology instructor and adjunct writing instructor. In addition to education reform, Maria’s interests include viewpoint diversity, blended/flipped learning, digital communication, and integrating media/web tools into the curriculum to better facilitate student engagement. Maria earned both a B.A. and an M.A. in English Literature from Monmouth University, an M. Ed. in Education from Monmouth University, and a Virtual Online Teaching Certificate (VOLT) from the University of Pennsylvania.

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Updated: October 26th, 2023
How to Respond to the 2023/2024 Columbia Supplemental Essay Prompts

Columbia University is one of the most superior schools in the country. As an Ivy League, it is also incredibly difficult to get into. Strong supplemental essay responses help you stand out among so many first-class applicants. Let’s go over each of the Columbia supplemental essays and help you cook up a great answer to each one:

The Columbia list question first

Columbia’s first few supplemental prompts ask for short list responses. In previous years, many students have attempted to write in complete sentences or elaborate on their choices. Columbia has spelled out exact requirements to combat these mistakes. Simply follow the guidelines, as they are not trying to trick you! Remember, this question has a 100 word limit!

  • Your response should be a list of items separated by commas or semicolons
  • No need to number items or put them in any specific order
  • It is not necessary to italicize or underline titles of books or other publications
  • No author names, subtitles or explanatory remarks are needed

Prompt #1

List a selection of texts, resources and outlets that have contributed to your intellectual development outside of academic courses, including but not limited to books, journals, websites, podcasts, essays, plays, presentations, videos, museums and other content that you enjoy. (100 words or fewer)

Avoid overthinking these questions and writing what you imagine admissions will find impressive. Be sincere in your answers. These titles should reveal what you like learning and what entertains you. If that’s listening to true crime podcasts in your free time and not reading War and Peace, that’s perfectly okay. You should aim to either showcase your versatility in topics that interest you or keep a common theme consistent. 

Questions to consider:

  • What is your “go to” TV show, book series, podcast, or website? 
  • Are you more of a be in the action person who enjoys perusing museums?
  • How about your local library? Do you find the world at your fingertips there, and what do you borrow?

Columbia short answer questions (#2 through #5)

Prompt #2

A hallmark of the Columbia experience is being able to learn and live in a community with a wide range of perspectives. How do you or would you learn from and contribute to diverse, collaborative communities? (150 words or fewer)

Columbia believes that interactions with diverse peers and faculty enrich students’ college experience. This prompt gets at how you engage with those who share different outlooks. A solid approach is to start with a story of a diverse community that you have collaborated with. Any group composed of people with differing identifiers, beliefs, socioeconomic statuses, etc. is fair game. 

For example, you could talk about a sports team you were a part of with players of varying backgrounds. Describe how you interacted with your teammates and what you learned. Did you gain greater empathy for your own family situation? Were your political views challenged? How did you manage conflicts that arose? Communicate your contributions and takeaways from this exposure. To tie things together, how will you apply these insights at Columbia? 

Questions to consider:

  • Have you had a particularly eye-opening volunteer experience? 
  • What is the benefit of working in groups with diverse viewpoints?
  • How might expressions of your cultural identity enhance Columbia communities? 

Prompt #3

In college/university, students are often challenged in ways that they could not predict or anticipate. It is important to us, therefore, to understand an applicant’s ability to navigate through adversity. Please describe a barrier or obstacle you have faced and discuss the personal qualities, skills or insights you have developed as a result. (150 words or fewer)

This question requires you to think about a challenging time in your life that formed you into a better person. Answering this question might be painful for some students as they reflect on past experiences, but honesty is important. This is another prompt that might require you to free-write and then cut back after you get your thoughts out (150 words is not a lot for this type of prompt!). Try and narrow down to one barrier or obstacle, and make a bullet point list of the insight and growth that came out of it. Don’t be afraid to share what you feel comfortable with, as it is part of what makes you who you are today. 

Questions to consider:

  • What was the most difficult period in your life?
  • Did you learn something that profoundly changed your viewpoint?
  • When reflecting, how have you grown from facing adversity?

Prompt #4

Why are you interested in attending Columbia University? We encourage you to consider the aspect(s) that you find unique and compelling about Columbia. (150 words or fewer)

Obviously, Columbia is a highly regarded university.  But why do you personally find it so appealing? What traits make it your ideal school above all others? To answer this prompt successfully, you need to thoroughly explore Columbia’s offerings. Dig into Columbia’s website, informational materials, and social media. 

Write a list of your priorities for your college experience, in terms of both intellectual and personal growth. Take note of Columbia programs that fulfill these.  Do the school’s values really speak to you? Are there esteemed professors you’d like to learn from? What about cutting-edge research that you hope to participate in? Narrow your list by focusing on aspects uniquely offered by Columbia. The more specific you can get with your examples, the better!

Questions to consider:

  • Does Columbia offer a niche major or minor that other schools lack? Or a special study abroad program?
  • What is distinctive about Columbia in comparison to other Ivies?
  • What about the Columbia student experience outside of the classroom attracts you?

Prompt #5

What attracts you to your preferred areas of study at Columbia College or Columbia Engineering? (150 words or fewer)

This is your chance to show what your engineering passion is and why Columbia is the place to see that passion become a reality. With a limit of 150 words for such a robust topic, you will need to be concise yet engaging. To start, do your research about the Colombia Engineering Program–what does it offer and why is it so revered? Then, free-write as though you have a hefty word count while thinking about your preferred area of study and how Columbia and you are meant to be!

Questions to consider:

  • Are you working on a project that you would like to continue on with at Columbia?
  • Are there specific classes or resources that excite you?
  • Is there a certain professor that you want to study under?

Also see: College essay primer: Show, don’t tell

Summing it all up

Although the Columbia supplemental essays may seem daunting, they are not so bad. The list questions are a low-pressure way of sharing more of your interests. The short answer essays are more about getting to know you. Planning out your answers beforehand ensures that your responses are clear and differentiated. With our tips, your essays are sure to shine! 

Additional resources for students completing Columbia supplemental essays

We know that supplemental essays are just one part of the college application process. Check out our other resources, such as how many colleges to apply to or how to find safety, reach, and match schools. Columbia University, as a private school, also comes with a hefty price tag. Our site also provides information on helping fund your education; for example, How to write a financial aid appeal letter and Navigating different types of student loans. Remember to apply for all the scholarships that you qualify for  while you are eligible! 

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