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Columbia Business School Essay Analysis, 2019–2020

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One of the first top programs to release its essay questions for this season, Columbia Business School (CBS) is again hitting candidates with a mix of old and new prompts. Its goal statement from 2018 has been relabeled as a short-answer question but has changed in no other way, while its first essay prompt—also about applicants’ career aspirations—has likewise remained the same. The school’s second essay question has been tweaked slightly to concentrate less overtly on the value of CBS’s Manhattan location and more on the program in general, though we would argue that in the end, the new prompt is intended to elicit much of the same information as last year’s. As for the third essay, applicants may be glad to learn they do not need to discuss and reimagine a past team failure (who wants to dwell on a defeat, right?), but they will instead need to look inward and reveal their values. Read on for our more detailed analysis of the program’s 2019–2020 questions.

Be sure to join us on Monday, June 10 at 8 p.m. ET for a live “Writing Standout Columbia Business School Essays” webinar, where we will help prospective MBAs learn to ensure their essay will grab the attention of the CBS admissions officer, including examples! Register for free today!

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 limited space, this can hardly be considered a true essay, but you will 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 truly 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.

CBS does not explicitly ask how it will factor into the achievement of your professional goals, but if you feel that particular resources the school offers could or will be uniquely influential and advantageous to you as you advance along your path, we believe you have sufficient room and leeway to mention these. However, generic claims or empty pandering have no place at all in this rather compact essay. Any CBS resources you reference must be specific to your needs, and the cause-and-effect relationship between these resources and your anticipated success must be very clear. For example, an applicant might discuss the appeal and instrumentality of CBS’s Value Investing Program and 5x5x5 Student Portfolio Fund in their aspirations to one day break into the asset management world or later launch a hedge fund. We do not recommend going so far as to dedicate an entire paragraph to discussing school resources, but you might consider thoughtfully embedding a relevant reference or two into your submission to acknowledge the program’s role in achieving your stated career intentions. Or should we say dreams?

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

Previously, CBS’s second essay concerned the school’s New York City location and the benefits that conferred, but the admissions committee has 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. This is not the place to simply cheerlead for the school. 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: Who is a leader you admire, and why? (250 Words)

This essay prompt is the one that has changed the most since last year, and with it, the admissions committee has pivoted from what many would consider a “negative” topic (a team failure) to a much more positive one. We see multiple “asks” in this question, and addressing them all (within just 250 words!) will be key in crafting a strong essay response.

First, by asking you to identify someone you admire and explain why you find this person’s character appealing, the school is essentially asking you to communicate your values. The natural assumption is that the person you admire possesses characteristics that you would want to (or do) emulate, which offers a valuable perspective on your personality and priorities. Second, note that the question asks about a leader you admire, not just a person. We imagine that this is in part to reveal your understanding—or perhaps interpretation—of what a leader is. Leaders are not exclusively people in senior positions or responsible for large groups. Leadership is also not indicated strictly by title. So do not feel that you must select a person who would universally and obviously be considered a “leader.” While we do not recommend that you choose someone simply because they are a “good” person you like, keep in mind that you can include individuals who “lead” others in smaller, less conspicuous ways, such as a mentor, teacher, or community organizer. The committee wants to know that you are experienced and knowledgeable enough to recognize leadership qualities when you encounter them and that you view these qualities as positive—worthy of recognition and adoption. As with all application essays, sincerity is key, so give this choice the appropriate level of consideration and select someone who truly does resonate with you.

Be careful not to dedicate too much of your essay to discussing only the person you have chosen. You will of course need to convey enough about the individual to answer the basic question, but work to really infuse your essay with you. In other words, rather than going on at length (which this essay’s word limit does not allow, anyway) about your chosen leader in detail, use this information a backdrop of sorts and make sure that what stands out most starkly are the qualities that resonate with and inspire you and why these specific qualities matter so much to you.

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, on your way to this high level of preparation, we offer our free Interview Primers to spur you along! Download your free copy of the Columbia Business School Interview Primer today.