Columbia Business School MBA Essays for 2021-2022: Tips & Strategy

June 16, 2021 | by Karen Hamou

Columbia Business School just posted its deadlines for the Class of 2024, along with a new essay question related to diversity and inclusion. However, Columbia now gives you a choice for essays 2 and 3.

Unlike its M7 rivals, Columbia operates on a rolling admissions process – both for early and regular decisions – and applications are reviewed in the order that they are received. The new Early Decision deadline is October 6, 2021 (which commits you to Columbia if you’re admitted), with January 5, 2022, as the Regular Decision fellowship deadline, and April 8, 2022 as the final deadline.

On the heels of the highest volume MBA application season ever, there are clear advantages for applying early to Columbia: the pool tends to be smaller and your application will likely gain greater visibility. Either way, if Columbia is on your target list of programs, the earlier you start working on your essays, the better.

Speaking of trends, MBA essay questions over the last several years have skewed toward behavioral, with programs posing essay questions requiring candidates to demonstrate substantial self-reflection. Like Standard GSB’s iconic essay ‘what matters most & why,’ Columbia essays 2 and 3 epitomize the notion ‘simple, but not easy.’ As each essay question should help build a coherent and powerful narrative for your candidacy, I’m offering my advice on how to tackle each prompt.

As a Fortuna Admissions coach and Columbia Business School alum, as well as a former Deloitte Consulting recruiting lead, I’ve seen firsthand how the best candidates translate their experiences into a narrative that’s both distinctive and persuasive. Onward to the strategy.

How to Tackle the Columbia MBA Essay Questions

Short Answer Question: What is your immediate post-MBA professional goal? (50 characters)

The Admissions team wants you to be direct, succinct, and demonstrate direction (ambition is good but be realistic). This is an opportunity to provide a simple headline that lays the groundwork for subsequent essays on your career goals and reasons for pursuing the Columbia MBA. But note the subtlety that asks what you envision doing, rather than the position you hope to secure in a specific company. Rather than a narrow path such as ‘strategy consultant at Bain’ or ‘senior analyst at Morgan Stanley,’ you can open things up by indicating what you hope to achieve in a sector, such as ‘consultant focusing on clean technology’ or ‘structure investment deals in real estate.’

There is no right answer here, but whatever you choose should be coherent and credible based on your past experience combined with the Columbia MBA. Columbia is looking to see that you know what you want to do, have a general understanding of that role, and that you understand the paths that would be available to you coming out of Columbia.

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)

A common mistake here is to focus on where you have been rather than where you are going. Columbia specifically asks what your future career goals are, and so a substantial portion of the word count should specifically address short- and long-term goals (at least 250 words, if not more). It often helps to start with a brief hook to show what inspires you to take the path that you will then lay out. It can be a brief anecdote, a quote, a reflection on something that happened in your past, etc. Then, offer a (very brief) paragraph explaining what you have done on that career path to date, just to put a bit more context around the goals you will then introduce.

Short-term goals can be more specific than long-term goals. You certainly need to have a general idea of what you would like to do in the long term, but given that it would be quite a few years out, the admissions committee is not expecting the same level of detail there as they are for the immediate post-MBA goals. Again, Columbia is looking to see that you have a clear understanding of where its MBA can take you.

New this year, Columbia gives you a choice for essays 2 and 3. In doing so, it’s introducing flexibility for candidates to craft the most compelling possible narrative. While essay 1 invites you to speak to your professional ambitions, your two remaining essays should contribute to a fuller picture of who you are and what matters to you outside of the office. Note: 250 words each is scant real estate for storytelling, so you’ll want to aim for substantive yet succinct in your responses. Below is the new essay with additional context, along with my advice on how to respond to each of the three prompts.

New: Essay 2 and 3: Please respond to two (2) of the three (3) essay questions listed below:

The Phillips Pathway for Inclusive Leadership (PPIL) is a new co-curricular program designed to ensure that every CBS student develops the skills to become an ethical and inclusive leader. Through PPIL, students attend programming focused on give essential diversity, equity, and inclusion skills: Creating an Inclusive Environment, Mitigating Bias, Communicating Across Identities, Addressing Systemic Inequality, and Managing Difficult Conversations. 

Option 1: Tell us about a time you were challenged around one of these five skills. Describe the situation, the actions you took, and the outcome. (250 words)

Like many business schools, Columbia is taking a more explicit stand around its values related to diversity, inclusion, and equity in the context of cultivating essential leadership skills. There’s enormous flexibility within this question to showcase ways you’ve engaged in one of five themes and how it impacted you and others. Implicit in this question is to identify one meaningful example and then extract lessons learned that showcase the kind of person you are and leader you hope to be. Your answer stands to communicate how you will engage with the very diverse and global community at CBS, and how you will add value.

Channel your authenticity and courage to show how you have already engaged this capacity – and then make clear where you hope to let it shine at CBS. I repeat: Show, don’t tell – give us the scene, then tie the story to what the implications are for your future. Self-reflection is essential here: Remember that diversity and inclusion can be about race and ethnicity, but also gender, sexual orientation, religion, disability, politics, age, and other realms. How are you questioning the status quo, inviting diverse perspectives, and cultivating awareness of the less visible forces that shape decision-making and group dynamics?

Option 2: Why do you feel Columbia Business School is a good fit for you? (250 Words) 

This essay question prompts you to explain why CBS is uniquely positioned to help you achieve your goals. It is a great opportunity to demonstrate that you have done your homework and are passionate about attending Columbia. You should showcase your deep knowledge of the school and the engagement that you’ve had with members of the Columbia community. Even though it isn’t directly in the essay prompt this year as it was previously, you should still explain not only why Columbia’s campus life is right for you, but also why want to pursue the MBA in New York City, as NYC is such an integral part of the Columbia experience.

Option 3: Tell us about your favorite book, movie or song and why it resonates with you. (250 Words)

Formerly a required essay question, this is for the creative-leaning wordsmiths who are undaunted by having a little fun with getting personal. Know that Columbia cares less about the book, movie or song you choose, but rather the values, characteristics and insights that your choice conveys about what makes you tick. Just as any work of art – literature, film, music – has the ability to transform or reflect unspoken truths, the Admissions Committee wants to understand what moves you.

This essay is where you can really display who you are under the surface, beyond the ambitious achiever with a sparkling record of successes. While essay 1 shows the professional path you want to take in life, opting to respond to essay 3 can add the additional depth to the type of person, and business leader, you want to be. So whether your artistic choice is an undisputed classic, political satire, or a Steampunk thriller, dare get personal and do not get stuck trying to pick the perfect, most impressive one. What is much more important here is the WHY behind your selection, how it speaks to you, and its impact or influence on how you show up.

Want more free advice? 

Find all sessions in our series of MBA Admissions Essay Masterclasses on Fortuna’s YouTube channel.


Fortuna Admissions Expert Coach Karen Hamou is a Columbia MBA alum and former Deloitte Consulting recruiting lead, as well as well as #2 ranked consultant globally in Poets & Quants list of the Top 20 MBA Admissions Consultants of 2021. For more free advice and a personal, candid assessment of your chances, you can sign up now for a free consultation.

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