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How to Tackle the Columbia MBA Essay Questions

Columbia Business School requires three essays in its MBA application. For the 2023–2024 admissions cycle, they have changed one essay — or, rather, reverted back to one in use a few years ago.

CBS is once again asking applicants to describe a time when they were challenged around one of five skills essential to becoming an inclusive and ethical leader. That’s a question that should be confronted with courage and careful self-reflection. I have some advice on how to respond below, but first, let’s take the application questions from the top.


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 clear, overarching headline that lays the groundwork for subsequent essays that cover your career goals and reasons for pursuing the Columbia MBA.

Note that the question asks about your goal; it’s subtly asking what you envision doing, rather than the position you hope to secure in a specific company. A strong answer will indicate 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, bolstered by 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 Tips

Essay 1 remains the same:

Through your resume and recommendation, we have a clear sense of your professional path to date. What are your career goals over the next three to five years and what is your long-term dream job? (500 words)

My advice: be sure to focus on the future and how CBS will get you there. A common mistake here is to write about where you have been rather than where you are going. CBS 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, and so on. Then, it helps to 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 the admissions committee is not expecting the same level of detail about where you will be decades from now as they are for the immediate post-MBA goals. Again, CBS is looking to see that you have a clear understanding of where a CBS MBA can take you (and then essay 3 will show how the MBA will help you get there).


The New Essay 2

A question about your favorite book, movie, or song and why it resonates with you has been replaced with this question used a few years ago:

The Phillips Pathway for Inclusive Leadership (PPIL) is a 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 five essential diversity, equity, and inclusion skills: Creating an Inclusive Environment, Mitigating Bias and Prejudice, Managing Intercultural Dialogue, Addressing Systemic Inequity, and Understanding Identity and Perspective Taking.

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

The switch seems to reflect the importance CBS places on its values of diversity, inclusion, and equity and the importance of explicitly cultivating the specific skills that ethical, inclusive leaders need.

Here, you have wide flexibility and latitude in your response.  After all, there are five specific skills to choose from, and you can, of course, address several. That offers many ways to highlight ways you’ve engaged in one of five themes and how it impacted you and others. Your response should identify one meaningful example from your career or experiences, and then extract lessons learned that showcase the kind of person you are and leader you hope to be.

Implicit in this prompt is a question about your knowledge of and your commitment to CBS. Your answer should also communicate how you will develop and practice these skills at CBS. It’s important to show 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, age, or different viewpoints, ideas, or experiences. Show 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?


Essay 3 Tips

This prompt is the classic “why our MBA?” essay question, with a new, shorter word limit this year:

We believe Columbia Business School is a special place. CBS proudly fosters a collaborative learning environment through curricular experiences like our clusters and learning teams, cocurricular initiatives like the Phillips Pathway for Inclusive Leadership, which aims to equip students with the skills and strategies necessary to lead in an inclusive and ethical manner, and career mentorship opportunities like our Executives-in-Residence program.

Why do you feel Columbia Business School is a good fit for you academically, culturally, and professionally? (250 words)

Here, you need 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, assessed your fit with the school, and are eager to attend Columbia. You should showcase your deep knowledge of the school and the engagement that you’ve had with members of the Columbia community.

The framing of the question once again encourages you to demonstrate your readiness to be an inclusive leader. Again, this will require some self-reflection and honesty, to authentically show how your experiences and strengths prepare you to connect to Columbia’s values related to collaboration, mentorship, and DEI. Be sure to explain how and where you will contribute to the CBS community.

Even though it isn’t directly in the essay prompt (as it has been in previous years), you should still explain not only why Columbia’s campus life and leadership culture is right for you, but also why want to pursue the MBA in New York City, because the city, as a global center of business, is such an integral part of the Columbia experience.


Additional Essay Advice

A few final details are worth noting.

  • CBS offers an optional essay as an opportunity to share any other information you wish with the Admissions Committee (maximum 500 words). This space could be used 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.
  • Essay word limits are not absolute; since you upload essays as a .pdf file, the word count is not a hard cap. However, we advise you to stay within the recommendation.
  • Deferred admissions applicants answer two different essays: Why are you interested in obtaining a Columbia MBA in the future? (300 words maximum); and Who is a leader you admire, and why? (300 words maximum).
  • Reapplicants submit just one essay response to this question:

How have you enhanced your candidacy since your previous application? Please detail your progress since you last applied and reiterate how you plan to achieve your immediate and long-term post-MBA professional goals (maximum 500 words).

Want more advice? 

For everything you need to know about how to get into the Columbia MBA program, from program basics and admissions requirements to our team’s insider tips for admission success, read my related blog: How to Get Into Columbia Business School: MBA Application Requirements. You can also view Fortuna’s Columbia MBA B-School Profile.

You can also view Fortuna’s M7 Admissions Masterclass below, which offers a deep dive on the Columbia MBA and how to position a standout application.

Let’s Get You In.

Fortuna Admissions is a dream team of former MBA Admissions Directors and Officers from the world’s most elite business schools, including the Columbia MBA program. With our unparalleled collective expertise, we are able to coach you to develop a clear vision of your goals for business school and beyond. We work closely with you throughout the application process and provide expert guidance at every stage to maximize your chances of admission to a top school.

Our free consultations are consistently rated as the best in the industry. To learn more about Fortuna and assess your chances of admission to CBS and other top programs, request a free consultation.

Updated May 30, 2022


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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