A Guide to the Columbia Business School Essays (2023-2024)

Coach Melanie E. walks you through each Columbia Business School essay prompt for the 2023-2024 cycle, breaking down what adcoms are looking for and offering expert advice on how to nail your responses.

Melanie E.

By Melanie E.

Posted January 9, 2024

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As a CBS alumnus, Alumni Admissions Ambassador, and professional Coach, I am excited to share my insights into Columbia’s current essays for their MBA application.

Columbia Business School's MBA essays provide applicants with an ample opportunity to showcase their goals, experiences, and fit with the program. Here's a step-by-step guide to approaching each essay.

Short Answer Question

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

It is critical to be straightforward with this question, and be consistent with your essays. It is acceptable to write in phrases versus full sentences given the limited word count. In fact, the word count is limited as a way of forcing applicants to be extremely clear about their goals.

Examples of possible responses (provided by Columbia):

  • Work in business development for a media company. (49 characters)
  • Join a strategy consulting firm. (32 characters)
  • Launch a data-management start-up. (34 characters)

A great example is specific and most likely includes both the function/title and industry or type of company you’re pursuing. For example:

  • Poor execution: Work in CPG. (13 characters)
  • Good execution: Work in marketing for a CPG company. (36 characters)
  • Great execution: Marketing for a healthy-foods focused CPG firm. (47 characters)

Essay 1

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)

  • Understand the Question: Begin by carefully reading the prompt and understanding what it asks for. This is a common mistake where applicants do not directly answer the question(s) being asked in the essay prompt.
  • Be Specific: Clearly outline your short-term career goals, focusing on what you aim to achieve within the next three to five years. Discuss the industry, function, and potential companies or roles you aspire to work in.  It is helpful to provide specific role titles and an example company (such as “a media company like Disney”). If you are sponsored and planning to return to your current employer (such as a Consultant at McKinsey), share this information as well as the mid-term goal, which would be your first role after leaving your current employer.
  • Explain Your Long-term Dream Job: Describe your ultimate long-term dream job. Discuss the impact you hope to make in that role and your mission. Showcasing impact while balancing your vision with realistic possibility is key. For example, sharing that you want to solve world hunger may be a bit outrageous, but saying that you want to build a new business model for achieving large impacts within world hunger is more reasonable.
  • Link to Your Background: Connect your career goals with your past experiences (personal and professional), skills, networks, and/or achievements. Demonstrate how your path to date aligns with your future aspirations. If applicable, share your “light bulb” moment where you realized your long-term career vision.
  • Share Your “Why”: An extension of the previous bullet, share your “why” or your motivations for your career aspirations. Bring this level of authenticity and personality to the essay in order to make it more engaging, believable, and unique from the crowd. This is a critical element that is often missed by applicants.
  • Stay Within the Word Limit: With only 500 words, be concise and focus on the most critical points. I suggest not worrying about the word count for your first few drafts, and then edit down once you have all the relevant content ready to go.

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Essay 2

The Phillips Pathway for Inclusive Leadership (PPIL) is a co-curricular program designed to provide students with the skills and strategies needed to develop as inclusive leaders. Through various resources and programming, the goal is for students to explore and reflect during their educational journey on the following five inclusive leadership skills: Mitigating Bias and Prejudice; Managing Intercultural Dialogue; Addressing Systemic Inequity; Understanding Identity and Perspective Taking; and Creating an Inclusive Environment.

Describe a time or situation when you had the need to utilize one or more of these five skills, and tell us the actions you took and the outcome. (250 words)

  • Consider PPIL: First, take some time to review the PPIL curriculum on the Columbia website.
  • Choose a Relevant Situation: Select a specific situation from your professional or personal life that aligns with one or more of the inclusive leadership skills mentioned (Mitigating Bias and Prejudice, Managing Intercultural Dialogue, Addressing Systemic Inequity, Understanding Identity and Perspective Taking, and Creating an Inclusive Environment). The situation should be somewhat recent, and if possible, within the last ~2 years.
  • Set the Scene: Provide context for the situation. Describe the environment, the people involved, and the challenges you faced. Based upon the limited word count, you may need to leave out some details of the story.
  • Describe Your Actions: Detailing the steps you took to address the situation should take up the majority of your essay. Clearly identify which inclusive leadership skills were utilized via each action. I recommend choosing only one or two skills to focus upon due to the limited word count. It is better to go into more specifics and detail on fewer skills. Lastly, highlight any innovative or creative approaches you used, and share both soft and/or hard skills as is relevant to your story.
  • Share the Outcome: Explain the results of your actions. Emphasize any positive impact on individuals, teams, or the overall situation. Small impact is acceptable as long as it is clear, and the applicant was the one who created it.
  • Reflect on Your Experience: Discuss briefly what you learned from this experience, and perhaps how it has shaped your perspective on inclusivity or leadership.

Essay 3

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, an extremely active co-curricular and student life environment, 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? Please be specific. (250 words)

  • Overall: This is an excellent opportunity to focus on explaining why CBS is a great fit for you. If they are your #1 choice, don’t hesitate to share that in this essay.
  • Conduct Detailed Research: Before writing, thoroughly research Columbia Business School's MBA program. Understand the curriculum, professors, clubs, conferences, events, and unique aspects of the school. You may also utilize virtual and in-person events specifically catering to applicants to gain knowledge. Lastly, you may decide to contact current students for further information, and are welcome to mention them (with their permission) in your essays. You can locate the names of current students through your network, LinkedIn, and/or school club websites.
  • Structure: The simplest and most effective way to structure your essay is by separate paragraphs for academic fit, cultural fit, and professional fit. This directly and clearly addresses each part of the essay question.
  • Unique Aspects: Focus upon aspects of CBS that certainly relate to your profile and career aspirations, but that also are unique to CBS. For example, Columbia is highly aware that they are the only M7 MBA program to be located in fabulous New York City, and thus this is a unique point that can be addressed and utilized in this essay.
  • Academic Fit: Explain how the specific courses, concentrations, programs, and/or professors will support your academic interests and career trajectory. Look for special classes that may not exist at all top MBA programs and that align to the skills gaps you are seeking to fill to reach your long-term career goals.
  • Cultural Fit: Discuss the aspects of CBS's community and culture that resonate with you. Additionally, consider the personal aspects of the school and/or location. Do you have family or friends in the NYC area that would be a supportive community? Do you enjoy the cultural aspects of New York, such as visiting museums in order to relax after a busy school day? Lastly, consider including thoughts on your potential contributions to the school's collaborative environment, such as a leadership position you would like to hold or a club you would like to found. If you’re stumped on this part, consider talking to current students and mention learnings from these conversations (with their permission) in your essay.
  • Professional Fit: Showcase how CBS's strong network, career services, employment data, and/or Executives-in-Residence program will aid in achieving your career goals. An often overlooked option is the fact that CBS’ location enables easy networking across almost any industry in NYC, with a robust local alumni population. The location also allows for in-semester internships, which may be relevant for some candidates.
  • Be Genuine: Be authentic in your response and avoid generic statements. Don’t be afraid to show your personality, interests, and excitement.

Optional Essay

If you wish to provide further information or additional context around your application to the Admissions Committee, please upload a brief explanation of any areas of concern in your academic record or personal history. This does not need to be a formal essay. You may submit bullet points. (Maximum 500 Words)

  • Don’t Write It: Consider if you need to write anything for this essay. In general, admissions committees do not want to receive superfluous materials that are not directly addressing new information that is of significance to the application. Therefore, this essay should only be used to explain any specific situations that are not otherwise addressed in the application. For example, this could be utilized to explain a poor GPA in your undergraduate career due to acute illness.
  • Keep It Short: As the guidance from CBS notes, you are welcome to write in bullet form. This means that the essay or bullets should be as short and direct as possible.

General Tips for All Essays

  • Showcase Your Unique Story: Use the essays to showcase what makes you unique and differentiates you from other applicants. This is your one opportunity to stand out in your application. Admissions committees value genuine stories.
  • Edit and Revise: Plan on having multiple rounds of essay drafts, and take your time to iterate over many weeks. Proofread your essays multiple times to avoid grammatical errors and ensure clarity.
  • Seek Feedback: Share your essays with trusted friends, family, or mentors for feedback and suggestions who understand the MBA process. It is best to utilize someone who has attended business school or who is a professional coach.
  • Stay on Topic: Focus on answering all the specific questions asked in each essay without straying off-topic.
  • Adhere to Word Limits: Respect the word limits for each essay, as exceeding them may reflect a lack of attention to detail.

Final Words

By following this guide and putting effort into crafting engaging, personal, and well-structured essays, you increase your chances of impressing the admissions committee at Columbia Business School and standing out from the crowd.

Good luck with your application!

About the Author

Melanie is an Executive Coach & Admissions Coach with 16 years of experience across strategy, operations, and coaching. A former McKinsey consultant, she is a member of the Forbes Council and has been featured on NBC, ABC, CBS, Business Insider, TEDx, and more. Melanie has worked with prominent corporate clients including Google, KKR, IBM, and Morgan Stanley; as well as individuals such as business leaders, influencers, and Olympic athletes.

Melanie holds an MBA from Columbia University and a BS from Cornell University. She currently lives in Los Angeles (while remaining a New Yorker at heart), and enjoys creative pursuits in her free time.

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