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Columbia Business School Admissions Director Provides Insight into 2015-16 Essays

amanda_carlsonColumbia Business School (CBS) kicked off the application cycle for the Class of 2018, sending its application live in late April, before any other leading business school. Though this year’s essay questions aren’t hugely different from last year’s, the school’s admissions director took time to share her perspective on the subtle changes with Clear Admit and offer some guidance to applicants who may be preparing to embark upon the application process.

Speaking to Clear Admit yesterday, Admissions Director Amanda Carlson turned first to the school’s first essay prompt—the “career goals/why a Columbia MBA now” question.

“Through your resume and recommendations, we have a clear sense of your professional path to date. What are your career goals going forward, and how will the Columbia MBA help you achieve them?”

Like last year, applicants this year are given 500 words to map out their career goals and explain how a Columbia MBA fits into achieving them. A slight modification to the first sentence, though, suggests that applicants leave out any synopsis of their work history to date.

As Carlson herself points out, her team has included a career goals/why MBA question or some variation thereof at least since she joined in 2002—and likely longer. It’s important enough to appear again and again not only because it gives the admissions committee useful insight into what the applicant hopes to get out of business school, but also because it forces candidates to really think about their goals long and hard before they arrive on campus.

Like Sand in an Hour Glass
Depending on which program they enroll in—CBS features an accelerated program that begins in January, as well as its regular full-time MBA—students at Columbia are in school for 16 to 20 months. In talking to prospective applicants, Carlson likens that time to sand in an hourglass. “As soon as you turn that hourglass over, your time is limited and it runs out really quickly,” she cautions.

Columbia’s location in New York City—and all of the extra opportunities that affords—only amplifies the effect. This first essay prompt is designed to help make sure students are focused and can maximize all that business school in general, and Columbia in particular, has to offer.

“If students come and haven’t narrowed what they want to focus on, they may miss many of the opportunities here at their fingertips,” she says. “We feel responsible and want to ensure that candidates are super prepared when they walk into Uris Hall.”

Candidates Considering a Range of Careers
What if you’re considering more than one potential career path? “It is completely fair for candidates to say they may be exploring a few options,” Carlson says. The application actually provides two places for candidates to get at this answer, beginning with the short-answer question that invites them to share their immediate post-MBA career goal. “For this one we clearly want people to be concise and focused,” Carlson notes. Indeed, since the form field will only allow submissions of 50 characters or fewer.

The career goals essay, in contrast, offers candidates a full 500 words to describe how their short- and long-term goals fit together, and why Columbia is uniquely suited to helping them achieve those goals. “If someone wants to add a little bit of color and explanation, this is the place to do it,” Carlson says.

In other words, you can hint at more than one potential career path, but to stay within the word count and tell a compelling story—while also focusing enough in advance to make the most of your limited time at school—you’ll do well to narrow things down from the very start.

“No One at Graduation Checks the Admissions Essay”
Of course, there will still be time to refine your chosen career path after application essays are a distant memory. “No one at graduation checks the admissions essay to say, ‘You said you would do x, y or z,’” Carlson reassures. “It’s natural to be inspired by a professor, by your classmates, by the experiences you have in business school,” she continues. That’s part of the reason for going to business school, after all.

As part of its second essay, Carlson and her team want to know how a candidate will take advantage of Columbia’s location “at the very center of business.” More than that, they want candidates to provide examples of how they will seize the unique opportunities the school presents—such as its Master Classes, internships, New York Immersion Seminars and access to world-renowned faculty and practitioners—to bridge theory and practice.

Answering this question fully requires in-depth knowledge of the school’s unique offerings. So, what’s the best way of obtaining this knowledge? Is it through visiting campus? Talking to current students? Sitting in on a class?

“All of the above, of course,” Carlson responds cheerfully. Fortunately, she follows up with some specifics. “We have a group of students called the Hermes Society who volunteer their time to speak with prospective applicants about Columbia,” she offers as a first step, noting that contact information is readily available on the CBS website. “That’s a great way to reach current students and learn what their experiences have been.”

Also, since Columbia’s J-term students take classes for 16 months straight beginning in January, class visits are available even during the summer months. “We find that it’s a really nice benefit for prospective students to have that opportunity over the summer,” Carlson says.

For applicants who are specifically interested in learning more about the unique J-term program, Carlson and team will host a special event on July 16th called “Spotlight on January.” As part of a robust day of programming, participants will learn just what the J-term entails, as well as how it can be a really good choice for someone who is company sponsored, part of a family business or looking to make a slight change in their career, for example.

columbiaIf You Can’t Visit
Acknowledging that some applicants simply can’t make the trip to New York to visit the CBS campus in person, Carlson’s team has hosted dozens of webinars in the past year, some with an academic focus, others spotlighting leadership opportunities or other aspects of the school’s community. She hopes for even more in the year ahead.

Lastly, the team is finalizing its summer and fall recruiting plans and will soon post dates and locations in the United States and internationally where prospective applicant can meet the admissions staff and learn more about the school.

“Any and all of those ways would be really helpful in terms of helping folks learn a little more about what student life is like at Columbia and how they can take advantage of “being at the very center of business.’” Carlson says.

“CBS Matters”
“I am so excited to talk about this,” Carlson says of Essay 3. This essay prompt builds on a question Columbia has been asking for the past couple of years—one that invites candidates to share something about themselves they think will be pleasantly surprising to their future Clustermates.

In fact, an entire program has grown up around the very practice of CBS students sharing little-known aspects of who they are with fellow CBS students. Called CBS Matters, the program was founded a few years ago by one of the school’s alumni, and now it has become an institution in and of itself, Carlson says. This year, the essay prompt includes a link to a video showcasing the program, in which current students share a story or stories about themselves with their fellow classmates. The program is voluntary, but most students choose to participate, says Carlson, sharing their thoughts, aspects of their background, really whatever matters most to them, in a somewhat public forum. (CBS Matters presentations can be delivered to a student’s Cluster or to the entire school.)

“This program has been incredible in helping students foster deeper relationships,” Carlson says. “And when they get to learn about what really drives people—what motivates them most—very often classmates want to help,” she says. “CBS Matters really creates bonds that last longer than just the two years students spend here.”

By interweaving the CBS Matters program into the actual essay question this year, Carlson and team hope to help prospective applicants move beyond a merely hypothetical question and envision themselves actually delivering their own CBS Matters one day.

In terms of what to choose, Carlson encourages prospective applicants, if they want, to take this opportunity to share something personal that doesn’t necessarily relate to their career goals. Beyond that, to gauge the effectiveness of a topic you are considering, she suggests trying it out on two audiences, one person who knows you very well and one person who doesn’t know you at all. If it speaks to them both, that’s a good sign.

Is Imitation the Highest Form of Flattery?
We mentioned that there are some similarities between Columbia’s Essay 3 and Harvard Business School’s newest essay question, revealed earlier this month, in which applicants are invited to introduce themselves to the members of their future section. Carlson was surprised to hear it and seemed quite sure that any overlap was unintentional. Overlap, though, is not surprising, given that schools are looking for similar traits in candidates, she adds. “At Columbia, we ask this question because it is just such a great opportunity to get to know more about something that doesn’t relate to the candidate’s professional goals.”

Parting Advice
“Have fun with it!” Carlson says when asked for one last piece of advice she’d give to candidates before sitting down to write their essays. “I really encourage them to look at this as a ‘glass is half full’ process—in other words, we are looking for reasons to admit people, not the other way around.”