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Be sure to read my Key Posts on the admissions process. Topics include essay analysis, resumes, recommendations, rankings, and more.

May 20, 2008

Columbia Business School January Term 2009 Essays

Before analyzing Columbia Business School’s Accelerated January Term Essays for 2009, which are greatly changed from the September 2008 questions (see my earlier post), I would like to point out that the DEAN IS GONE FROM THE QUESTIONS! NO MORE OVERLAP! Well Dean R. Glenn Hubbard is still the Dean of the Columbia Business School, references to him and his ideas no longer are part of questions 2 and 3. As my clients found, writing Columbia for September 2008 admission was particularly hard because of possible overlap between questions. Columbia has now provided a much better balanced set of questions.

PLEASE NOTE: These are the questions for January 2009 admission. Click here for September 2009 admission. As Columbia's website was unclear on this issue, I emailed admissions and quickly received the following very clear and helpful reply:
"The essays from January 2009 and Fall 2009 will not necessarily be the same. The application for Fall 2009 will be available in July. You must complete the application for the period you wish to be considered. Please note Essay #1 and #5 do not change between applications."

I will post an analysis of the September 2009 term essay questions once they become available. You can find my post on who should apply for Early Decision here.

I have taken the January 2009 questions from the online application:

1. What are your short-term and long-term post-MBA goals? How will Columbia Business School help you achieve these goals? (Recommended 750 word limit) :

Over the years, Columbia has been very consistent in the way they ask this question. At first glance, it does seem pretty routine, but if you have looked at other schools' essays, you will likely notice that something is missing from it. Compare it to NYU Stern or Chicago GSB or Wharton and you will see that there is no reference to the past. While one must certainly address one's past when answering this question, there should be no extended analysis of your career progress to date and you need not emphasize how your past experience will contribute to your future goals. Instead focus this on showing how Columbia will help you achieve your goals. Specifically explain why the January Term program is right for you. According to the Columbia website:

The Accelerated MBA is ideal for you if

  • you are an entrepreneur;
  • you want to join your family business;
  • you plan to return to your current employer;
  • you are sponsored by your company;
  • you want to remain in the same industry;
  • you have built a strong professional network in the industry of your choice.

The program is designed for those students who do not want or need an internship. The principal advantage of the 16-month program is its accelerated format, which allows members of the smaller January class to network quickly and effectively and return to the workplace sooner.

Obviously you need to make the case that you meet the special criteria for this program and that an internship is not something critical for you.

The resources available at CBS and Columbia University are vast, so figure out specifically what you want from the school. The program is flexible, so identify your needs from Columbia as specifically as possible. Also keep in mind that CBS recently changed its core curriculum.

Making a clear case why your goals are best achieved at CBS should be at the core of the essay. To make sure that they can see that, be very specific about what you need to learn at CBS to achieve your goals. I suggest reviewing some of the full course descriptions that you can find on their website. If you are having problems clearly articulating your goals, read this. After all, you want to show them you love and need them (See my earlier post on Columbia for why it needs to be loved)! If your goals are hot, that will making this essay even better. For learning about what is hot at Columbia, I suggest taking a look at their blog: Public Offering. You may also want to write about taking a Master Class, so see the next question. Japanese applicants should most certainly visit http://columbiamba.jimdo.com/index.php.

2. Master Classes are the epitome of bridging the gap between theory and practice at Columbia Business School. View link below. Please provide an example from your own life in which practical experience taught you more than theory alone. (Recommended 500 word limit)

Before doing anything, watch the Master Class video. If, at the end of the video, you are not highly motivated by what you have seen, don't apply to Columbia and reconsider whether you really want an MBA. From my perspective, the video does an excellent job of selling Columbia, of differentiating it from other top schools (see the HBS Case Study video for an interesting contrast), and of informing the viewer about exactly what practice is. The message is clear: Columbia will teach you how to do business, go elsewhere (HBS for case studies and Chicago GSB for lectures, perhaps) if you primarily want to learn business theory.

At first glance, some might find this essay question difficult, but actually it is rather simple:
1. Pick an experience in your own life where you learned more from practice than theory.
2. State what the theory was.
3. Show how practice was a better teacher.
4. Describe what you learned.
5. Describe the outcome. This is not stated, but the proof of practice is in the result.
6. Keep in mind that you need not talk about the video or the Master Classes when answering this question. It is, of course, worth mentioning the Master Classes in Essay 1. You can view the Master Class Course Descriptions on the Columbia website.

Given that essay three is about team failure, I suggest you select an accomplishment for essay two and most likely not a team story. It might be personal or professional. Obviously it should only be academic if the point is to show how you had to go beyond theory. Many applicants will probably write on a professional accomplishment story where they had to think and act outside of the box. This quite a reasonable choice. Some applicants might write on something personal and it is possible for this to work, but if that is the case, be very confident that what you learned and what the story reveals about you are both very significant.

3. Please provide an example of a team failure of which you've been a part. If given a second chance, what would you do differently? (Recommended 500 word limit)

This question combines two common topics, failure and teams.

I think the reason that Business Schools ask about failure is because they want to see that you have the ability to learn from errors and/or problems. Some readers will find reviewing my earlier post on failure questions helpful.

Clearly teams play an important role both in most professionals lives and most certainly at most Business Schools. For admissions, assessing your potential as a team leader and a team player is an important way for them to determine whether you will fit in their program and have the kind of predisposition to succeed professionally afterwards. It is quite a change for Columbia to be asking about teamwork ability per se, but as you look at Columbia's curriculum you will see that teamwork plays an important part in the classroom.

I think it is important that we read what is written here very closely as it will help you see that there are multiple correct ways to answer this question.

First, keep in mind that you may not necessarily have been the cause of the failure because it just simply says you are a part of a team that failed. Therefore the team will be one where you are the team leader or a team member.

Second, given that they are asking specifically about a team failure, your failure should be one where the team itself was at fault. This might seem like an obvious point, but many weak answers to this question will focus on a failure and then focus on the team as at best a secondary consideration. Make sure that your essay is one where the team aspect of the story is strong.

Third, the team could be a failure in one of two ways. One option is that the team could simply have failed to complete its external objectives due to a problem or problems relating to the composition, actions, and/or dynamics of the team. For example, a team fails to create a new business model due to the fact that the team leader cannot effectively manage the diverse perspectives of her team members. Another is that the team could have succeeded at its external objectives, but you might perceive it as failure due to a problem with the team. For instance, you successfully led a team to complete a project, but by the end of the project, the team members complain that you did not effectively share project responsibilities. In either case, the basic structure for this essay would most likely be:

1. Clearly state what kind of team you were on.
2. Clearly state your role on the team.
3. Explain how the team failed.
4. Explain what you learned from the failure.
5. Explain what you would do differently if you were in the same situation.

Fourth, when you think about what you learned and what you would do differently think deeply about it because you will be revealing the depth of your thinking (perhaps your EQ) about teams. Assume that the reason Columbia is asking this question is because they are looking for more students who will be effective team leaders and team players.

4. Describe for us your greatest passion in life. (Recommended 250 word limit)

Passion is about emotion, it is about motivation. It is not necessarily rational and hence is in contrast to the very rational questions that make up the rest of the CBS application. In past years, I have seen successful essays on this topic on a variety of subjects, but the only common thing was that no one wrote about work. For those who write about work in Questions 2 and 3, Question 4 is the main place in the essay set to write at length about something other than work. Whether it is your committed involvement in an organization, an issue that you care deeply about, or a hobby/interest that you have long been engaged, provide Columbia with some further insight into who you are as a person through this essay. If you have chosen to discuss a non-professional topic in Question 2, I think it is possible to write about a professional topic here, but be really certain that you are focused on passion. Whatever it is that you do write about, passion, has to be there.

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

As with other school's optional questions, do not put an obvious essay for another school here. If you have negative issues of concern, see my post on the Chicago optional question. You can certainly write on something positive here if you think its omission will be negative for you, but before you do, ask yourself these questions:
1. If they did not ask it, do they really need to know it?
2. Will the topic I want to discuss significantly improve my overall essay set?
3. Is the topic one that would not be covered from looking at other parts of my application?
4. Is the essay likely to be read as being a specific answer for Columbia and not an obvious essay for another school?

If you can answer "Yes!" to all four questions, it might be a good topic to write about, but my suggestion is to keep it brief so as to be consistent with the length for the other essays, ideally around 100-500 words.

Questions? Write comments or contact me directly at adammarkus@gmail.com. Please see my FAQ regarding the types of questions I will respond to.

-Adam Markus
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