Breaking Down Changes to Columbia’s Essays for 2014/2015
As always, Columbia is the first top MBA program out of the gate with its new essay questions (for 2014-15). This is no surprise, as CBS has both a January intake and an Early Decision deadline, so they quite simply need to get their essays out earlier than other schools. This year, the new essays bring about very little by way of change, which suggests Columbia was pretty happy with the length and overall coverage of what they asked last year. That said, there are a few subtle changes that actually speak volumes and we are going to break those down below, as well as add some larger thoughts about the essay set. Let's get into it.
Short Answer Question:
The character limit has dropped on this one (from 100 characters to 75), but we believe the functionality remains the same. For more on this tricky little Short Answer, download our How to Apply to Columbia guide, where we dispense the same advise to the public that we give our clients on this issue.
As you can read in our Guide or really anywhere else we write about goals and Columbia, this is where you have to nail the What, Why, and How of your goals. You need those elements to have a successful goals essay. Don't waste words going into elaborate descriptions of your future practice group at McKinsey or in detailing all the steps from your short-term goals to your long-term goals - make sure to hit on what you want to do (short-term and long), why you want to do it (what motivates you and inspires you to want to spend your entire life doing your long-term goal), and how you are going to accomplish it (the transferable skills that will allow you to get the job you state in your short-term goals).
Of course, I'm already breaking from the design of the blog post, which is to highlight the changes to this year's essays - everything above is exactly the same as last year and really every year, everywhere. Just as a basketball hoop is made out of a backboard, rim, and net, so too are career goals made out of What, Why, and How. It's just elemental. As for the change though, all we have is the addition of "and goals" to the question. Clearly, the request for "individual backgrounds" to be on display was heeded to some degree by applicants last year, but it seems that an articulation of the goals themselves may have been missed, thus the addition. It seems crazy to me that someone could address what was clearly a goals essay without discussing the goals, but this is indeed what appears to have happened. Obviously, our clients did not do that - they hammered the What/Why/How of it - but Columbia seems to have invited that problem by not using the exact word in the question. This has been rectified, but I still expect the most goals essays will be total failures this year, just as they are most years. No other part of the process is more consistent - there is an exact way to do a goals essay and most people don't do it that way.
Here is a question where we can sit back and feel some satisfaction for being right on point ... as well as some regret in knowing that we've lost a bit of an advantage this year. If there was one thing we kept hammering with our clients last year (on initial calls, in our proprietary Columbia Strategy Memo, on essay evaluations, during edits, etc.), it was that they had to translate last year's Essay 2 in a way that was less "Why New York" and more "Why Columbia." Last year's question went like this: Columbia Business School is located in the heart of the world's business capital - Manhattan. How do you anticipate that New York City will impact your experience at Columbia? (Maximum 250 words)
Note that it's the same word count and sort of the same idea - Manhattan is home to everything, including Columbia, so how is that going to impact your experience - but it was phrased in a way that surely trapped people. We told our clients over and over last year that their peers would wind up waxing poetic about how great New York is - and that staying on Why Columbia would allow them a massive advantage. Sure enough, this seems to have happened, as the school was forced to write the question in a more obvious way.
Once the dust settles, what do we have here? Same as last year: the Why Columbia part of the typical Career Goals progression. The focus just happens to be on shaping that response around Columbia's built-in geographic advantage. So things like the famed Speaker Series might play a more a central role than something on the esoteric side of the spectrum. The other thing to recognize about this question is that it's just long enough to allow for not only "how being at the very center of business is going to be great for me" but also "this same dynamic allows me to make an impact." If you are going to be at the very center of business - and you are someone with the talent, skill, and personality to make an impact - wouldn't this be the place to do it? To pass on the chance to advertise your own impact-making ability is likely a mistake. Therefore, just as last year, it pays to think of this question as being one central idea with two splintering responses.
Here we have a question that survived completely intact from last year, which is not a huge surprise as it was a great question. Since there is no new aspect to break down, nor do we want to give away all of our insight for free (out of respect for our clients), let me just say why I like it:
First, it is a "fork" question, meaning you can go in multiple directions with your answer, depending on who you are. If you are a non-traditional applicant without an obviously star-studded resume, it might be wise to bolster a key MBA theme like leadership in this space. Conversely, if you are a star, it's going to be far better to offer up something fun or quirky rather than doubling down on how awesome you are, such that you build a complete picture of yourself. How to tackle the question depends entirely on the rest of your app and it's surely a place to get quality guidance. I can honestly say that this question was different for each one of my clients last year.
Second, I like the language used - "pleasantly surprised" - because it gives us tremendous insight into what a good answer will feature. Surprise requires that it be something that is not already in the app. "People in your Cluster" is a proxy for the reader. Don't take it too literally, but instead think "what will the reader be surprised to learn at this point?" The "pleasantly" part is also instructive because that means it needs to go beyond trivia. Telling someone you auditioned for American Idol is all well and good, but how is that a "pleasant" surprise - it's not, it's just a surprise. If you auditioned for American Idol once and it gave you a cool idea for a singing competition that you want to bring to Columbia, well, now you are on the right track. To rephrase: if you state something obvious or you state something purely selfish with no intent to benefit others, you are leaving a ton on the table and you might just come across as an unlikable person. So while this question seems fun and innocuous, it's actually pretty loaded and can be a tripwire if you are not being smart and thoughtful about it.
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