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May 30, 2020

Columbia MBA Essays for 2021 Admission

Columbia Business School has, as they do every year, modified their MBA application essay set for 2021 admission to the January term Class of 2022 and the regular August term Class of 2023.Given Columbia's overall rank as well as the unique nature of both January (J-Term) and Early Decision for August (ED), it has been very common for me to work with clients who apply only to that school. In this sense, the only school with a similar level of sole school focus is INSEAD.  Columbia certainly rewards those who make it their first or sole choice as both J-Term and ED seem to be significantly easier to get admitted to than  Regular  Decision (RD).  Columbia is also one of the most reapplicant friendly schools both in terms of the reapplication process for those who reapply within one year of their initial application and in terms of acceptance rates. For my post on re-application to Columbia, see here. For my analysis of recommendations , please see here. For my analysis of Columbia Business School application interviews, please see here.
You can find testimonials from my clients admitted for Columbia Business School here.  Since 2007, when I established my own consultancy, (I have been an MBA admissions consultant since 2001) I have been fortunate to work with 56 clients admitted to Columbia Business School.

The Unique Admissions Process at Columbia Business School
Before discussing the essays, I have provided a discussion on the application process itself. If you already understand it, you can skip ahead to the essay section.
The admissions process at Columbia Business is so unique, that Before discussing the essays for 2021 entry, I will discuss who J-Term (January Entry) is for and differences between Early Decision and Regular Decision for August Entry.

Rolling Admission
The first thing to keep in mind about admission to both J-Term and August Term (ED and RD) is that Columbia uses a rolling admissions system unlike the fixed deadline system used by most other schools.  While there are final deadlines, since applicants' files are reviewed and decisions are being made as they apply (hence the rolling nature of the process), by the time that that the final deadlines for August Term have arrived most seats are already filled.  Rolling admissions works just like buying assigned seats for an airplane, movie, concert, etc.  When they are gone, they are gone. Columbia's rolling admissions system is a differentiator from other top US MBA programs because only Columbia uses this system. Rolling admissions is commonly used by EMBA programs worldwide.

The Accelerated MBA, J-Term, can be a great program for those who don't need an internship.  J-term is not for career changers, it is those looking to enhance their position within their present career trajectory and/or entrepreneurs. The program is designed for those students who do not want or need an internship and don't require merit fellowships. 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. You need to make the case in Essay 1 (Goals essay) and/or the Optional Essay that you meet the special criteria for this program and that an internship is not something critical for you. For those who don't need a summer internship, this is really a great program. Internships for J-Term? Based on what former clients tell me, it is common for J-Termers to do part-time internships in NYC while studying.  Actually, this is often true for those attending August as well.   These are not the same as summer internships but such part-time internships can surely serve the same function.

Here are some common issues that arise when considering J-term:

Is J-term easier to get into than August entry?  I have always thought so.  The lack of merit fellowships, an internship, and the nature of who the program is designed for, clearly indicate that it is going to attract fewer applicants, so my assumption is that it is surely easier.  Happy to proven wrong if CBS admissions provides data showing otherwise.  All I know for sure is that relatively late application to J-term has not prevented my clients from being admitted. With the exception of 2020 entry due to Coronavirus, late application to RD is a real problem simply from a seat availability perspective. In one way, J-term is clearly easier: Unlike an August entry RD and (and to a lesser extent ED) applicant, someone applying to Columbia J-term can really be assumed to prefer Columbia over all alternatives. This can make interviews a bit easier in the sense that August entry Columbia alumni interviewers are notorious for being particularly aggressive at determining whether the interviewee's first choice is really Columbia. Since J-term has no real US rival, this topic can be easily dispensed with in an interview.

Program Alternatives to J-term:   There are no US alternatives to J-term worth mentioning if someone wants a January 2021 start. Cornell, Cornell Tech, Kellogg and NYU Stern (Tech and Fashion & Luxury) offer one year MBAs, but none start their programs in January, Cornell Tech and NYU are specialized degrees, and both Cornell and Kellogg are accelerated programs in terms of the number of courses taken. Only J-term makes it possible to do two years of courses on such an expedited basis. In addition, the Kellogg program is extremely restrictive, since one has to have taken many core business courses to apply to it. Cornell is also restrictive (Graduate degree or specialized professional certification is required), while Columbia has no such prior education restrictions.  There are a number of European programs with a January starts but really only INSEAD could be said to be at a similar rank, at least as perceived by my clients.  I have had clients who apply to J-term and  INSEAD  and, less often, IMD, as both have January entry. Still J-term is an incredibly different program in terms of length and content from either of these top non-US programs. LBS, which does not have a January start, would also be another alternative to CBS in the sense that it can be completed on an accelerated basis, but it has no January start. There are many other programs in the Europe that can be completed in around 16 months or less.

Can an August entry applicant reapply to J-term? Yes! You could be rejected from ED or RD for 2020 entry and reapply for J-term 2021 entry. If you entered in J-term 2021, you would graduate in the Class of 2022 with those who entered in ED/RD 2020. I have worked with  a number of reapplicants who were admitted to J-term after being dinged from the August entry for the same graduating class. In that situation, the key issues for the reapplicant essay are explaining why J-term is now a better choice and you are a better candidate.

 ED Versus RD
Applying for Early Decision (ED) is ideal for anyone who considers Columbia to be their first choice and is ready by the application deadline. Columbia takes ED very seriously, so I suggest you do as well. CBS ED really is unique among top MBA programs and the decision to commit to it should not be taken lightly. Every year many applicants to Columbia Business School have to deeply consider whether to apply to the ED or RD round. First, keep the official statement from Columbia regarding ED in mind:
  • Candidates have decided that Columbia is their first choice and must sign the following statement of commitment within their applications: I am committed to attending Columbia Business School and will withdraw all applications and decline all offers from other schools upon admission to Columbia Business School.
  • Applicants must submit a nonrefundable $6,000 tuition deposit within two weeks of admission.

In my experience, there are two types of applicants for ED. The first are people who really consider Columbia as their first choice and sometimes make or hope to make no other applications. For this type of applicant, choosing ED is easy. The second type of applicant likes Columbia, but it is not necessarily their first choice. This type of applicant applies to ED because it is perceived as easier to get admitted to than to Regular Decision (RD). This type of applicant treats the $6000 deposit as an insurance policy in the event that they are not admitted to HBS, Stanford, and/or Wharton (I don't know of any cases of applicants forfeiting $6000 to go to other top programs, but I suppose someone has done it). If they do get into HBS, Stanford, or Wharton and break their commitment to Columbia, they lose $6000. Can Columbia do anything aside from keeping the money? No. For those who have no problem breaking oaths and losing $6000, treating ED as possible insurance is a rational decision through clearly not an ethical one. As an admissions consultant, my sole concern is helping my clients reach their admissions objectives, so I don't pass judgment one way or another on this issue.

I do recommend applying before the January Merit Fellowship deadline for RD.  While you can consider the Merit deadline to be kind of a "Round Two Deadline," I recommend you apply as soon as you are ready to do so. I would especially encourage those coming from groups with large numbers of applicants (Especially Asian American and White American males in finance and Indian males), to make their applications to RD early. That said, RD takes applications until April (For 2020, it was extended to June 1), so applications are still viable for some applicants until quite late in the admissions cycle. In general, applying late in RD is best for those with highly unusual backgrounds, stellar backgrounds, no need for merit scholarships (For example, those sponsored by their companies) and/or a love of gambling.  In other words, if you are not exceptional, applying late in RD to Columbia is a very high-risk activity (less so for those who applied in the Covid round this year, but this is probably a one-time thing).

How to leverage RD to your advantage when applying to other MBA programs in the First Round.  If you are applying in the first round, an ideal time to apply to Columbia is after you have completed all the applications that were due in September.  Assuming you are relatively freed up while you are waiting for your R1 invites, apply to Columbia. This means you will be considered early in RD and that is an advantage because there will be more seats available.

How to leverage RD to your advantage when applying to other MBA programs in the Second Round.  Since most R2 applications are due in January, applying to Columbia in November or December will still give you a relative advantage over those applicants that apply right before the Merit Deadline.  Again, the earlier, the better your chance for an available seat.

The Essay Questions and the Immediate Post-MBA Goals Statement
I was emailed the essay questions for 2021 entry on May 29th prior to their launch on the website.  So, as of May 30, 2020 , I have not taken the essay questions from the website.  If these essays change once the application is up, I will alter accordingly. The only question that changed from 2020 admission was Essay 3.

Immediate Post-MBA Goals Statement
What is your immediate post-MBA professional goal? (50 characters maximum)
Examples of possible responses:
“Work in business development for a media company.”
“Join a strategy consulting firm.”
“Launch a data-management start-up.”

Remember this is 50 characters, not words! This would be about 5-10 words. The question itself, fortunately, includes the above examples to make it clear what Columbia is looking for here. Given the length, you can't possibly expect to explain what you want to do short-term.  That is what Essay 1 is for. In fact, it is best to simply write this little statement after you have a good working version of Essay 1.  CBS is looking for a short, but a very clear statement of what you intend to do after your MBA. If you have difficulty explaining your immediate post-MBA plans in the space given, I think that is likely an indication that your plans are too complex, vague, or otherwise not well thought out. What you state here should be backed up by what you discuss in Essay 1 and 2 (or the reapplicant essay for reapplicants).
If you can be clever or catchy in formulating this response that is fine, but it is a completely secondary consideration to simply stating something that is very clear and that is completely consistent with what you write in Essay 1 and 2. Being clever is not critical here, being clear is.
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)

Since I have found it necessary to make this clear to clients:  THIS ESSAY IS COMPLETELY FUTURE FOCUSED. That is why they say they "have a clear sense of your professional path to date."  This is actually one of the most basic types of MBA essays: What do you want in the future and how can the MBA program help you achieve THEM?  I have capitalized THEM because the point is that Columbia is looking for both your immediate post-MBA goal and your longer term goals.  Any statements you make about your past experience should be analytical rather than descriptive and for the sole purpose of explaining what you want to do in the future and why. If they wanted a detailed past history, they would not have worded the question the way they do.

Be strategic and thoughtful about why you are wanting a Columbia MBA now:  Given the importance of being able to state your post-MBA goal clearly in 50 characters or less as well as the need in Essay 2 to explain why you want a Columbia MBA, it is critical that you be strategic and thoughtful in presenting your post-MBA plans in Essay 1.
If you are having problems clearly articulating your goals either in Essay 1 or in the 50 character statement,  I think GapSWOT, and ROI analysis are great ways for understanding what your goals are, why you want a degree, and how you will use it.

The following image may not work for all browsers. If so, see here.

(A Google Docs version of this matrix can be found at https://docs.google.com/document/d/1WobczFFLHBzQRxUeuwBRNmGQ3q-RKP_94iGHuLlXXEs/edit?usp=sharing)
Step 1. Begin by analyzing your "Present Career." What roles and responsibilities have you had in clubs, part-time jobs, internships, volunteer activities, etc.? What was/is your functional role(s)? What was/are your responsibilities?
Next, analyze your present strengths and weaknesses for succeeding in your present career. In particular, some of your greatest strengths may have been demonstrated outside of work, so make sure you are accounting for them.
Strengths: What are you good at? Where do you add value? What are you praised for? What are you proud of?
Weakness: What are you bad at? What are you criticized for? What do you try to avoid due to your own limitations? What do you fear?
Next, analyze your situation in right now. What opportunities exist for your growth and success? What threats could limit your career growth?

Step 2. Now, do the same thing in Step 1 for your "Post-MBA" future after you have earned your graduate degree. If you cannot complete this step you need to do more research and need to think more about it. I frequently help clients with this issue through a process of brainstorming.

Step 3. If you could complete step 2, then you should see the "Gap" between your present and your future. What skills, knowledge, and other resources do you need to close the gap between your present and future responsibilities, strengths, and opportunities?  THIS IS WILL HELP YOU ANSWER ESSSAY 2

Step 4. After completing Step 3, you now need to determine how an MBA will add value to you. It is possible that an increased salary as a result of job change will be sufficient "ROI" for the degree to justify itself, but you should show how a degree will allow you to reach your career goals. How will the degree enhance your skills and opportunities and help you overcome your weaknesses and external threats? If you can complete Step 4, then you should be ready to explain what your goals are, why you want a degree, and the relationship between your past and future career, as well as your strengths and weaknesses.

The above table will also help you answer such common interview questions as: Where do you want to work after you finish your degree? Why do you want an MBA? What are you strengths? What are your weaknesses? What are your goals?

Be informed about your goals. Columbia Admissions needs to believe you know what you are talking about. If you are changing careers, no one expects you to be an expert, but you should come across as having a clear plan based on real research into your future. If you are planning on staying in your present industry, you should be well informed not only about the companies you have worked for but about the industry as a whole. If you are not already doing so, read industry related publications and network.

Those applicants who are changing fields should most certainly read industry related publications in their intended field. Additionally, I suggest conducting informational interviews with at least one peer level and one senior level person in that field. Conduct a peer level interview to get a good idea of what it would be like to actually work in that industry. Conduct a senior level interview to get the perspective of someone who can see the big picture and all the little details as well. Don't know anyone in your intended field? Network! One great way to start is through LinkedIn. Another is by making use of your undergraduate alumni network and/or career center. No matter whether you are changing fields or not, learn what is hot now and try to figure out what will be hot by the time you graduate. Now, of course, this is just a plan and chances are that what is hot in your industry or field now may very well be cold in the future.
The point is to come across to Columbia Adcom as someone who is not only well informed but has CUTTING-EDGE knowledge. Look at ideas@work,  and  Chazen Global Insights. Some other great general sources for learning what is hot: Harvard Working KnowledgeHarvard Business ReviewUniversity of Chicago GSB's Working PapersThe University of Chicago's Capital IdeasStanford Social Innovation ReviewKnowledge @ Wharton, and MIT Sloan Management Review. You may also want to do a search on iTunes for podcasts: My favorites are Entrepreneurial Thought Leaders (from the Stanford School of Engineering, but totally relevant) Net Impact, Chicago GSB Podcast Series, and Harvard Business IdeaCast. INSEAD, IMD, LBS, and Wharton also have podcasts. Other sources: Read magazines, websites, and books that relate to your intended field.

If at the end of the above process you feel as though you are uncertain about whether you need an MBA, please see Do You Really Need an MBA?
Essay 2:
Why do you feel Columbia Business School is a good fit for you? (250 words)

Keep in mind that this question is focused on why Columbia Business School is the right MBA program for you. That is to say what does its curriculum, community, and network offer you that will help you reach the professional objectives you have mentioned in Essay 1?   For a more general discussion about the whole issue of academic fit, see here.
Balance and integrate Goals and Why Columbia?
A good version of Essay 2 will connect goals with Columbia. If you use the table above, Step 3 relates directly to the content of this essay. That is to say, the objective is not merely to explain why  Columbia fits you, but why it aligns with the goals discussed in Essay 1.  Your objective is to write an essay that shows Columbia why it is the best possible place for you to achieve your career goals. If your goals are not showing themselves to be particularly well supported by Columbia, you may need to either change your goals or decide to apply elsewhere.

Beyond  Goals
Beyond direct goals reasons for why Columbia is right for you, consider what aspects of its curriculum or community support your personal and professional interests. This might be a club or activity that you want to engage in. For more about CBS clubs, see here.
The resources available at CBS and Columbia University are vast, so figure out specifically what you want from the school as you will need to discuss that. The program is flexible, so identify your needs from Columbia as specifically as possible. After all, you want to show them you love and need them For learning about what is hot at Columbia, I suggest taking a look at their  Ideas and Insights Homepage.  You will likely want to write about taking a Master Class. I also recommend learning about the Cluster system as it core part of the CBS experience.  Japanese applicants should most certainly visit https://www.jbacolumbia.com/.  All applicants should attend online chats and reach out to alumni and current students if they have not done so.  Since visiting will most likely not really be an option for 2020-2021, the school will be expecting all applicants to engage online.  Do it!
Explaining your learning needs: 
An example of circular (tautological) reasoning:  "I want to take Capital Markets & Investments because I am interested in learning about capital market investing."
This kind of circular reasoning is so common. Usually it takes place within a paragraph consisting of many such sentences. They actually convey nothing about the applicant.  They are just abstract needs and will have limited impact on your reader.  The admissions reader wants to learn about you, not about their own program.
An example of an explanation for why:  "While I have been exposed to finance through my work at MegaBank of Joy, I presently lack the kind of comprehensive understanding of capital market investing that I will need to succeed as an investment analyst and I know I can gain at Columbia."  A more complete explanation would include additional details about the kind of issues that the applicant is interested in learning about and/or specific ways the applicant intended to apply what he or she would learn at Columbia.  By focusing on very specific learning needs and explaining those needs in relationship to one's goals and/or past experience, the admissions reader will be learning about you.

While in recent years, the school emphasized its New York City location in Essay 2, it no longer does. You need only discuss that if it is especially useful for making the best possible argument for why CBS fits you. In general, such arguments are often dumb cliches and since they are not what the question is focused, don't waste words on the topic.

 Essay #3:
Tell us about your favorite book, movie or song and why it resonates with you. (250 words)
This old gem of an MBA essay question is one that been around for a good long time.  UC Berkeley Haas was using a song-only version of this one for quite a while. You can find some great songs in my 2016 analysis of that essay set. I recall it from the beginning of my now almost 19 years as an MBA admissions consultant.   CBS seems to change this essay topic every year.  The last one was on  a leader who the applicant admires and why, but this year's question is more open-ended. Generally when a school asks a more open-ended and can literally be connected to any theme.
I have Four Rules for answering this question:
While this question certainly requires writing about something else, whatever book, movie, or song you discuss and why you discuss them is a reflection on you.  Bad answers to this question take the form of extended summary/analysis of the book/movie/song  that fail to focus on the WHY THIS RESONATES WITH YOU part of the question.  The point is to show that connection. Focus on your own values and/or experience to make this an effective answer.
The book, movie, or song need not be famous to be interesting. In fact, mention the obviously famous and frequently mentioned,  is BORING AND CLICHE.  This is less an issue with songs and movies because there is no inherently obvious answer, though I would tend to Stay away from the films Wall Street and The Big Short if you are a finance person because that is too boring and obvious.  The key point is that whoever you select, you make it clear why this resonates with you. For songs/books/movies that are not English, there is no real difference between them and those that are.  The point is all about your interpretation.For example, your song selection does not need to have lyrics and does not need to have lyrics in English. Even if the song has lyrics, my suggestion would be only briefly explain the meaning of those lyrics because  you should really using most of your word count to explain why the song resonates with you.

I think the advantage of a song without lyrics, say a jazz instrumental or a classical composition (Western, Indian, Chinese, Japanese, whatever), is that it allows for easily focusing on what the song means to you. For example, I might use a song by India's master violinist L. Subramaniam to discuss how the way the music resonates with me from a spiritual dimension. I might discuss 2-3 qualities about myself that are reflected in his music.


Clearly with compositional works, you have great freedom to attach any meaning you want it to it.
The why aspect of this question is the most critical part of the question. Anytime you are given a question where you are asked to give something  meaning, the first thing to do is think about what you want to express through the song. For example, if your objective was demonstrate your commitment to peace and social justice, you might pick Bob Dylan’s Blowin' In The Wind:
How many roads most a man walk down
Before you call him a man?
How many seas must a white dove sail
Before she sleeps in the sand?
Yes, how many times must the cannon balls fly
Before they're forever banned?
The answer my friend is blowin' in the wind
The answer is blowin' in the wind.
Yes, how many years can a mountain exist
Before it's washed to the sea?
Yes, how many years can some people exist
Before they're allowed to be free?
Yes, how many times can a man turn his head
Pretending he just doesn't see?
The answer my friend is blowin' in the wind
The answer is blowin' in the wind.
Yes, how many times must a man look up
Before he can see the sky?
Yes, how many ears must one man have
Before he can hear people cry?
Yes, how many deaths will it take till he knows
That too many people have died?
The answer my friend is blowin' in the wind
The answer is blowin' in the wind.


In this case, you might explain when Dylan’s first caught your attention. What it means to you and how it relates to actions you have taken in your own life.  This is just one possible way of answering this question.

The very nature of this question is that it could be answered in so many ways.  The point is to focus on something about yourself that you really want Columbia admissions to know about you.  Don't discuss something already covered in the other essays. They want to learn about some aspect of you as a person. I think most professionally related topics will not work here. What aspect of yourself will really help Columbia understand you as person?  Help them learn what sets you apart as an individual through this essay.

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)
As with other school's optional questions, do not put an obvious essay for another school here. If you read the above, it should be clear enough that this is the place to explain anything negative or potentially negative in your background. If you have no explanation for something negative, don't bother writing about it. For example, if your GPA is 2.9 and you have no good explanation for why it is 2.9, don't bother writing something that looks like a lame excuse. This is more likely to hurt than help you. In the same vein, don't waste the committee's time telling them that your GMAT is a much better indicator than your GPA (the opposite is also true). They have heard it before and they will look at both scores and can draw their own conclusions without you stating the obvious. That said, if you have a good explanation for a bad GPA, you should most certainly write about it.In addition to GMAT/GRE, TOEFL, and GPA problems, other possible topics include issues related to recommendations, serious gaps in your resume, concerns related to a near total lack of extracurricular activities, and major issues in your personal/professional life that you really think the admissions office needs to know about.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.

Columbia Loves to Be Loved
One thing that is consistent about Columbia Business School is that they want to know that their school is your first choice. If you have an alumni interview you can be expected to be asked about that very directly. See here for my advice on Columbia interviews. Best of luck for gaining admission to the Columbia Business School Class of 2023!
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