Columbia Business School Essay Analysis, 2017-2018

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columbia-business-school-essay-analysis-2017-2018-mbamissionHow can you write essays that grab the attention of MBA admissions committees? With this thorough analysis, our friends at mbaMission help you conceptualize your essay ideas and understand how to execute, so that your experiences truly stand out.


For years, Columbia Business School (CBS) has been at the front of the pack of MBA programs that have been gradually shortening their application essays and requiring candidates to be direct and concise in their submissions. It was even the first school to incorporate a micro essay into its application. Last season, CBS gave applicants a bit more wiggle room with the essays, increasing the word count for each by a pretty significant margin (up to 100% in one case), but it has tightened the reins back down for this year’s applicants. Still, with a goal statement, three required essays, and an optional essay, you should have plenty of opportunities to convey a well-rounded impression of yourself for the admissions committee. Read on for our Columbia Business School essay analysis for the program’s 2017–2018 prompts…

Goal: What is your immediate post-MBA professional goal? (50 characters)

Including spaces, CBS’s career goal question is exactly 50 characters itself, showing candidates just how much (or how little, in this case) space they have to work with and just how succinct they are therefore expected to be with their response. At just 50 characters, this can hardly be considered a true essay, but you will need to approach this with the same level of thought and focus as any of your other written responses for the school. The prompt is clearly a no-nonsense request for information, with no room allowed for exposition, flowery words, background, or pandering. This is all about getting to the point and telling the admissions committee what it wants to know.

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 Columbia Business School 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. Columbia Business School 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.

Columbia Business School does not explicitly ask how its MBA program will factor into the achievement of your 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 his or her 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: The full-time MBA experience includes academics, recruiting and networking. What are your personal priorities and how do you anticipate allocating your time at Columbia Business School? (250 words)

Start your brainstorming for this essay by first considering your priorities within the three areas CBS specifically notes—academics, recruiting, and networking—but do not feel compelled to limit yourself to them if you have other ideas or plans. The school wants well-rounded students who will not “silo” themselves into just one area and who anticipate using multiple aspects of the MBA program to their and others’ advantage. If you care only about the academic aspect of business school and do not envision yourself participating in any club activities or availing yourself of events or resources outside the classroom, you might not be the kind of candidate top-tier schools such as CBS are seeking. Earning your MBA involves more than completing business classes, and the admissions committee strives to construct a diverse class of engaged and experienced people who can learn both together and from one another. This requires that everyone participate and contribute, and not just in class.

With your response to this essay prompt, show Columbia Business School where and how you expect to be active in its community and program, whether that is via a certain club, event, course, or other avenue. Explain what drives you toward these areas and activities and what you imagine your involvement will look like. If you can frame your vision in a way that reveals a benefit for those around you as well, this is even better. For example, will you commit a large portion of your time to your job search because landing a highly coveted role at an elite Wall Street firm is your main impetus for getting your MBA? And if so, will you offer to run mock interviews with your fellow students who share this dream? Perhaps you are interested in joining the CBS Follies group to fulfill your artistic and dramatic side and balance your quant-heavy course work, and your many years in the theater will help you coach classmates who are new to the stage so that they can fully benefit from and enjoy the experience as well.

Keep in mind that the specific activities and areas you choose are not what is important here. CBS is not choosing people based on whether they expect to populate certain clubs or organize student conferences, so the admissions committee will neither ding nor reward you for choosing one option over another. What is important is that you show you have a true understanding of what CBS offers and a plan of attack for your experience within the program. After reading your essay, an admissions officer should feel that you really “get” CBS and can clearly envision yourself there. The school knows that an applicant who has dedicated the time and effort necessary to develop advanced knowledge of the program is one who will have a successful experience. In giving you a place in the class, the admissions committee is essentially betting that you will thrive more at CBS than thousands of other candidates would, so show that you are a low-risk, high-reward potential admit.

EMBA Essay #2: Columbia Business School’s Executive MBA will challenge you by offering a rigorous academic experience, global exposure through the international seminar, and the opportunity to immediately apply what you learn to your career. How will you approach balancing the demands of the program with your professional and personal life while you are in school? (250 words)

This question basically exists because CBS wants to be sure you truly intend to finish the program. We cannot claim to have specific numbers on this phenomenon, but we know that EMBA students sometimes get overwhelmed by the demands of balancing work, studies, and personal/family life. As a result, a number of them ultimately drop out of the program each year, including some who are asked to leave the program by their employers, who also did not understand the time demands involved. With this prompt, CBS is essentially asking, “Are you sure you know what you are getting into?”

To help assuage the admissions committee’s fears on this point, you might take a somewhat procedural approach in your response, explaining that you anticipate dedicating certain hours on certain days, with your manager’s approval, to study and complete your course work for the program. You might address how you have engaged supportive stakeholders—such as partners, children, and friends—in discussions about your commitment to help clarify and calibrate expectations. Having read your response, the admissions reader should feel comfortable that you have a clear plan in mind, that this is not a whimsical choice but a well-informed decision that oozes commitment. Columbia Business School wants to know that you will see the program through to the end, and to communicate this effectively, you must demonstrate that you have the process and support mechanisms in place to not only finish it but thrive within it.

Essay #3: Please select and answer one of the following essay questions: (250 words)

CBS has replaced its “What will your Clustermates be pleasantly surprised to learn about you?” query from last season with this new set of prompt choices, both of which are still invitations to share aspects of your personality but are notably broader in scope. Whichever one you ultimately select, focus on giving the school insight into what makes you tick as an individual, beyond your professional skill-set and goals.

a: Please tell us what you feel most passionate about in life.

Although we acknowledge that you might actually be “most passionate” about your career, this is not your best choice for a topic here, especially given that two of the other essays have already allowed you to discuss your professional life. Clearly, if you are applying to and ready to complete a leading MBA program—challenges not for the faint of heart—you are a driven individual with more enthusiasm and ambition career-wise than the average person. The Columbia Business School admissions committee already knows this. What it wants to learn now is what gets your heart pumping and mind racing outside of work. As Steve Jobs once said, “People with passion can change the world,” and although he was speaking about careers at the time, the statement is true for all aspects of one’s life. Passion is inspiring and energizing and can lead to big ideas and actions. Sharing with the school where your passion lies gives the admissions committee an idea of where you might someday make an impression on the world, how you might leave your mark—especially once you are equipped with all you will gain and learn during your MBA experience.

That said, do not worry if your passions seem commonplace. For example, perhaps you feel passionate about basketball. Because this is an experience that anyone could share and enjoy, it might seem pedestrian. The key, however, is not what inspires you but how you engage with it. If you can show that basketball is not just a hobby you simply enjoy from time to time but is instead something you connect with on a deep level and in various ways—perhaps having played for many years, you now coach youth teams in your community and have amassed a truly impressive trading card or jersey collection—then this initially unremarkable-seeming choice most definitely becomes an acceptable discussion topic. Think about your possible choices in terms of intensity, enthusiasm, devotion, longevity, loyalty, excitement, and heart, and be honest with yourself. The elements of your life that inspire and align with these concepts could be appropriate fodder for this essay, while anything that does not should be immediately discarded as an option.

Once you have identified the passion you wish to discuss, avoid simply telling the admissions committee about it and instead demonstrate how this passion manifests in your life. For example, rather than stating, “I have been watching and playing basketball since I was a child,” you need to create a more vivid impression of your dedication and involvement, such as “From playing with my brothers after school to varsity ball in college to now coaching a youth league in my community, I can hardly remember a time when basketball wasn’t an integral part of my life.”      

b: If you were given a free day and could spend it anywhere, in any way you choose, what would you do?

Like option A, this prompt asks for a window into your personal self, but with a bit of a relaxed twist. It conveys slightly less of an idea of singularly focused drive and intensity and more one of a variety of activities and experiences that would generate inner happiness and satisfaction. Whether you want to spend your free day jumping out of a plane, swinging a hammer building homes for Habitat for Humanity, or reading quietly beside a lake somewhere, the activity you share is not the admissions committee’s focus so much as what your choice says about who you are and how you like to live your life. In this essay, you want your interests to reveal that you are an appealing and likeable character—one who spends his or her time thoughtfully and productively, rather than being easily bored, indecisive, or in need of an outside source to provide distraction. Help CBS understand your internal motivations and values and how they may come into play both in the program and beyond your two years as an MBA student. And as with option A, you will want to take a “show, rather than tell” approach in your writing. Avoid simply stating your anticipated agenda outright, and instead strive to really bring the admissions reader along with you on this imaginary day off via your descriptions.

Optional Essay: Is there any further information that you wish to provide the Admissions Committee? If so, please use this space to provide an explanation of any areas of concern in your academic record or your personal history. 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 (which was not part of the prompt last season) 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 optional 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. 📝


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