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Dr. Jennifer B. Bernstein

(516) 362-1929

How to Write the Columbia University Supplement: “What You Value Most About Columbia”

One of the key elements of your Columbia supplement is your essay in response to this prompt: “Please tell us what you value most about Columbia and why.”

This Columbia supplemental essay is really important, so in this article, we’re digging deep into all aspects of it.

Read the whole article or click on one of the following links to jump ahead to any section that interests you:

Connections Between the “What You Value Most About Columbia” & “Fields of Study” Columbia Supplements

How Columbia’s “Why Us” Essay Differs From the Ones for Brown, Cornell, & the University of Pennsylvania

Questions to Get Started Describing the Things You Value About Columbia

Where to Find Answers to Your Questions About “Why Columbia”  

Sample Columbia Supplemental Essay & Dr. Bernstein’s Analysis (including myths about what you shouldn’t write about)

What Kind of Style and Tone Should You Use in Your Columbia Supplemental Essays?

Connections Between the “What You Value Most About Columbia” & “Fields of Study” Columbia Supplements 

I strongly recommend mapping out your ideas for the “what you value most about Columbia” essay in relation to your “field or fields of study” essay and your shorter list of “a few words or phrases that describe your ideal college community.”

If you’re applying to Columbia College, you also have to write a supplemental essay in response to this prompt:

“Please tell us what from your current and past experiences (either academic or personal) attracts you specifically to the field or fields of study that you noted in the Member Questions section. If you are currently undecided, please write about any field or fields in which you may have an interest at this time.”

If you’re applying to The Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science, you also have to write an essay in response to this prompt:

“Please tell us what from your current and past experiences (either academic or personal) attracts you specifically to the field or fields of study that you noted in the Member Questions section.”

Unlike schools such as Cornell and the University of Pennsylvania, Columbia separates its “why us” essay from its “tell us about your intellectual interests essay.” 

However, you should think about these Columbia supplements in relation to each other and usually also in relation to the “describe your ideal college community” list. These three elements of your Columbia supplement don’t need to fit together perfectly, but they do need to work together to give the admissions committee insight into your intellectual interests and why you are so drawn to Columbia.

Most of my students map out their ideas for their “field or fields of study” essay first and then tackle the “what you value most about Columbia” essay and the “ideal college community” list.

My philosophy when it comes to the college admissions process is to keep yourself as centered as possible so that your writing never conveys the sense that you’re trying to force yourself into the essay topics or that you’re trying to say what you think admissions officers want to hear. When you write from these other positions, your essays lose their vitality and authenticity.

Starting your Columbia supplemental essays by focusing on yourself–on your intellectual interests–will help you stay centered and give you clues for ways of responding to the “what you value most about Columbia” essay and “ideal college community” list.

How Columbia’s “Why Us” Essay Differs From the Ones for Brown, Cornell, & the University of Pennsylvania 

Columbia’s “why us” supplement is different from the ones you have to write for schools like Brown, Cornell, and the University of Pennsylvania.

Notice how these colleges are explicitly asking you to talk about how you are going to pursue your intellectual interests at their particular institution.

  • For one of your Brown supplements, you have to write “about an academic interest (or interests) that excites you, and how you might use the Open Curriculum to pursue it.”
  • For your Cornell supplement (if you’re applying to the College of Arts and Sciences), you have to write about “specifically why you wish” to pursue your academic interests “in our College.”
  • For one of your University of Pennsylvania supplements, you are asked to describe how you will explore your “intellectual and academic interests. . .at the University of Pennsylvania” and to do so in relation to “the specific undergraduate school you have selected.”

You aren’t asked to write about how and why you want to pursue your intellectual interests at Columbia.

Pay close attention to the word “value” in Columbia’s supplemental essay topic.

You have to show the admissions committee that you grasp something essential about the nature of a Columbia education.

Guess what?

Brown, Cornell, and the University of Pennsylvania would also be thrilled to read supplemental essays that demonstrate you get some essential aspect of their unique educational environments.

So you can adapt what I’m teaching you here to the essays you need to write for these schools.

Questions to Help You Describe “What You Value Most About Columbia”    

Here are some questions that have helped my students get to the juicy, exciting essence of what they value about Columbia.

This isn’t a school assignment where you have to answer all the questions. You just need to find the question that gets your thoughts flowing.

  • What does a Columbia education symbolize to you?
  • What does Columbia represent to you?
  • When you think about Columbia’s spirit, what comes to mind?
  • When you think of Columbia students, what comes to mind?
  • When you think about Columbia’s classes, programs, and research initiatives, what comes to mind?
  • What is it about the spirit of these classes, programs, and research initiatives that attracts you? What do they symbolize?

The one question that you must be able to answer is: Why are these things so important to you?

Where to Find Answers to Your Questions About “Why Columbia”

Are you serious about wanting to get accepted to Columbia?

Then do everything in your power to write an amazing essay about what you value about Columbia.

Obviously, no blog post is going to give you all the answers nor should it because you want your essay to be something that no one else could write.

You have the power to set aside some time to really dig deep into the nature of a Columbia education.

Head over to the Columbia website and start reading and taking notes.

Get creative!

Don’t just focus on what you encounter on Columbia’s admissions page.

  • Poke around in Columbia Magazine, which features amazing stories about Columbia students, alumni, and important things happening on campus. As you’re reading, think about what these stories convey about the essence of a Columbia education and what it is that you value about this essence in relation to your own interests.
  • Explore what’s happening inside the departments that focus on the subjects that fascinate you.

Remember that you’re not just writing a general treatise on “what you value most about Columbia.”

You’re in the process of crafting two main essays and responses to a series of shorter prompts that need to present admissions officers with a vivid, compelling, and coherent vision of YOU.

If you’ve mapped out your academic areas of interest essay, then you’ll want your discussion of “what you value most about Columbia” to somehow connect to it.

Sample Columbia Supplemental Essay & Dr. Bernstein’s Analysis

Background info on student:

One of my students who got accepted early decision to Columbia positioned herself for Neuroscience and Visual Arts. She conducted advanced scientific research experience in a local lab and was a distinguished artist who earned national recognition. As part of her supplementary material for her Columbia application, she submitted an abstract of her scientific research and a creative portfolio.

Dr. Bernstein’s commentary:

Do you binge watch the “Reading the Essay that Got Me Into _____” videos on YouTube?

I love how students are sharing their essays, but I’ve found that some students have a tendency to downplay their significant work and achievements in certain key areas.

I was listening to a “Reading My Stanford Supplements” video. The essays were really good, but I knew there had to be something else that got her into Stanford, so I poked around online and discovered she’s an extremely talented and well-known artist with significant recognition in other fields, too.

I bring up these points because while it can be super helpful to read or listen to the “Essays that Got Me Into Columbia” (or any other college), you also have to understand the larger context, which many students downplay (or don’t even mention).

No matter what anyone says, you aren’t getting into an Ivy League school just based on your amazing essays.

Nothing in your application is being read in isolation. Everything is in context.

That’s why I’m sharing with you the fact that my student had pronounced strengths, experience, and recognition in two key fields.

Academic Interests Columbia Supplemental Essay:

In her “field or fields of study” essay she wrote about her fascination with specificity and ambiguity in relation to neuroscience and art.

“What You Value Most About Columbia and Why” Supplemental Essay: 

In this supplemental essay, she described how what she valued most about Columbia is the way it will satisfy her “intellectual wanderlust” and love of “finding new connections and constantly experiencing surprising juxtapositions.” She then gave very specific examples of how Columbia nurtures these qualities and possibilities and did so in relation to her specific intellectual interests. She also branched out beyond neuroscience and art to discuss other things she longed to explore.

Dr. Bernstein’s Commentary:

Her academic interests and “what you value most about Columbia” essays worked well together. In the academic interests essay, she provided Columbia admissions officers with insight into the path she’d built up in relation to her interest in neuroscience and art. In the “value” essay, she helped them envision the path she will blaze for herself through her studies at Columbia.

Some students are super certain of exactly where they are heading in relation to their intellectual interests. This student knew she wanted to study neuroscience and art, but didn’t know how they were going to come together for her at Columbia or ultimately what she wanted to do with this work. That is fine! You do not have to force yourself into premature certainty. In fact, this student’s approach allowed her to showcase both her depth of experience and insight as well as her academic potential and vitality.

In her “value” essay, she connected her personal spirit of exploration to Columbia’s Core Curriculum, New York City, and specific professors who are doing interdisciplinary work that intrigues her.

This accepted student’s essay busts two myths associated with Columbia supplemental essays

Don’t fall victim to the myths about how you shouldn’t write about the Core Curriculum or New York City!

As Columbia points out, they look for:

“The student’s fit for the distinctive Columbia experience, which includes the Core Curriculum; a both traditionally collegiate and unmistakably urban campus life; and an Ivy League school where curious thinkers come to grow.”

There are certainly very cliche ways of writing about these essential facts about a Columbia education, but you can avoid these cliches by referring to specific aspects of the Core in relation to your interests.

This student focused on visual cues (something important in her own art and her independent psychological and neurological research) and how the Core will allow her to explore them from philosophical, artistic, and literary perspectives. She wrote very specifically about how what she might learn, read, and/or discuss in specific courses will enrich her perspectives on visual cues and expand her sense of wonder.

What Kind of Style and Tone Should You Use in Your Columbia Supplemental Essays?

The style and tone of my student’s Columbia supplemental essay was philosophical, poetic, and precise. It was serious, focused, and yet also expansive and full of wonder and curiosity. That is HER voice.

Many of the sample application essays you find online have a frothy tone.

There’s a very popular person online who posts many sample application essays. All of the essays this person has worked on have the same basic tone–very whippy, snappy, and frothy. That voice is fine to use if it’s your style.

The problem is that some students come to me saying they feel like their essays need to have this kind of super light tone.

Yes, you want to have an energetic voice. But you don’t have to have this kind of light tone.

For Ivy League schools like Columbia and other top-tier colleges, you can’t rely primarily on exuberance. You need more of what the University of Cambridge describes as “informed enthusiasm.” You can’t just be bubbly. You need to demonstrate intellectual depth and take yourself seriously as a thinker.

 

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