Columbia Business School Essay Analysis, 2018–2019:
Columbia Business School (CBS) has just released its essay questions for this year, and the Admissions Office is offering applicants “a little bit old and a little bit new.” Its micro essay (really just a goal statement, to be fair) and first essay remain unchanged, while its second essay is a repackaging of a prompt from two years ago, and its third is brand new. In the past, for its third essay, CBS applicants could choose from two prompt options, generally pertaining to their personal lives and passions; now, candidates must respond to a question about a team failure instead. In short, this year, applicants have less choice with their essays (though the word counts have not changed), and the topics involved skew slightly in favor of the professional and academic and away from the personal. Let us jump into our analysis…
Interested in learning how to tackle this year’s CBS application essays? Watch the short video below before you continue reading the full analysis!
Goal: What is your immediate post-MBA professional goal? (50 characters)
Twitter’s recently expanded character count from 140 to 280 looks positively luxurious next to CBS’s miserly 50 for this goal statement—and that includes spaces! To get a sense of how brief your opportunity really is, note that the school’s prompt is itself exactly 50 characters. With such limited space, 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. During mbaMission’s recent Q&A with several admissions officers, CBS Assistant Dean of Admissions Amanda Carlson told our audience,
That 50 characters really helps people to just break it down very simply for themselves and simply for us . . . . Pursuing business education, it’s a huge investment in time, in money, in effort, in energy, and I think this 50-character exercise is as much for the candidate as it is for our team, and we want to know that people are serious, they’re focused, and they’re ready for this kind of adventure.
So, this prompt is a no-nonsense request for information that is all about getting to the point and telling the admissions committee what it needs to know—that you have a clear and achievable goal. 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 CBS 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. CBS 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.
CBS 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: How will you take advantage of being “at the very center of business”? Please watch this short video featuring Dean Glenn Hubbard (250 Words)
We start our recommendation for approaching this prompt with a perhaps unorthodox suggestion: write down why you want to be at the center of business before you watch Dean Hubbard’s video. Why? Because after seeing Dean Hubbard passionately extol the virtues of the CBS program and New York City, you may inadvertently parrot hisreasons right back at the school, rather identifying your own. This is not to say that you cannot have any overlap with the dean, but you should not feel obliged to echo his rationale or simply do so unconsciously. And if you legitimately do have similar themes, certainly make them your own by framing or presenting them in a different way.
For example, Dean Hubbard proudly notes, “Many of our students take the opportunity to intern during the school year”; if that opportunity is appealing to you, go beyond just mentioning that you would want to complete such an internship and actually identify a target firm, a role, skills you want to develop, and how this would all contribute to your experience as a CBS student. Whatever your reasons are for wanting to attend CBS, keep in mind that in an environment that prides itself on fusing “theory and practice,” the key is not to consider what the program itself offers but to focus on how your overall experience will be enhanced by the school’s proximity to practical opportunities.
To effectively answer this question, many applicants will need to conduct some significant research about CBS and the program’s relationship with New York City. You must create and present a plan of action, rather than simply cheerlead for the school or the city. Strive to create a narrative that explains where and how you will grow through the opportunities available there and benefit from the immersive experience.
Essay #3: Please provide an example of a team failure of which you have been a part. If given a second chance, what would you do differently? (250 Words)
No excuses. No shifting blame. The key here is ownership. You must discuss a team failure—one in which you were responsible for all or part of a process that led to an undesirable outcome. If you present a scenario in which others were the determinants of the ultimate failure (and you, by contrast, were perfect!), the admissions committee will deduce that you are not a reflective (or worse, honest) person and that you will therefore be unable to improve your approach to problem solving as a student in the CBS program. Clearly, the admissions committee would not want to select such a person for a position in the next incoming class. We are not saying that you need to have been the sole cause of a catastrophe for the admissions committee to accept your story, but you do need to show that you recognize how you could have better affected the team’s outcome. Maybe you failed to speak up at a crucial moment or to monitor another’s poor decisions, for example. You would not have been the direct or singular cause in such a case, but you would have still played a significant role and could have learned from the experience.
Although you have only 250 words for this essay, you must still present a complete narrative that shows momentum toward a positive outcome, presents the inflection point at which the situation turned, and explains how the original plan ultimately failed, all the while revealing your particular role in the failure. A mistake that many candidates make is discussing a failure and then revealing their involvement at the end of the essay, unrelated to the context of the story. Your takeaway from the experience—essentially what you would do differently if given a second chance—needs to be clearly supported by the depiction of the problems in your story. In discussing how you would have changed or improved the outcome, you are effectively explaining how you would have changed or improved the process, of course. And to achieve this, you cannot simply include a few basic statements like “I would create greater transparency in this process if given another chance” but must show that you have seriously reflected on the experience and would now have a better plan, both tactically and personally, for achieving success.
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)
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 option 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.
Columbia Business School receives more than 5,000 applications each year. How will you ensure that your essays will grab the attention of an overworked CBS admissions officer? Join us on Tuesday, June 12, 2018, for Writing Standout Columbia Business School Essays, a free webinar during which an mbaMission senior consultant will help you conceptualize your essay ideas and understand how to execute them, so that your experiences truly stand out!
For a thorough exploration of Columbia’s academic offerings, defining characteristics, crucial statistics, social life, community/environment, and other key facets of the program, please download your free copy of the mbaMission Insider’s Guide to Columbia Business School.
The Next Step—Mastering Your CBS Interview: Many MBA candidates find admissions interviews stressful and intimidating, but mastering this important element of the application process is definitely possible—the key is informed preparation. And, on your way to this high level of preparation, we offer our free Interview Primers to spur you along! Download your free copy of the Columbia Business School Interview Primer today.