Columbia Application Mistakes to Avoid at All Costs

By Eric Eng

By Eric Eng

Columbia University's campus scene with its academic buildings

Columbia Application Mistakes to Avoid at All Costs

Though the majority of Ivy League schools are located in quaint, New England towns that often feel quite separated from the hustle and bustle of a major metropolis, Columbia University is the exact opposite.

In fact, the historic and prestigious school sits right in the heart of Manhattan! That is just one of the many reasons why tens of thousands of students make the decision to apply to Columbia each and every year.

If you are one of them, you owe it to yourself to learn about any Columbia applications mistakes that you will want to avoid at all costs. For many students, the application process can be a stressful experience. After all, they are attempting to utilize and encapsulate the last four years of their school experience to essentially try to convince a college or university to accept them.

That job is hard enough no matter what kind of school a student is applying to, but the level of difficulty, stress, and expectation certainly takes it up a notch if a student is applying to Ivy League schools like Columbia or other top 10- schools in the United States.

Columbia University's old white building with students walking on the stairs

The reason why it is important to learn about Columbia application mistakes to avoid is really as simple as the fact that any mistake on Columbia application can, sadly, end up having an impact on a student’s chances of getting in.

When the margins are so small, and when truly every student applying is an intelligent and dedicated young adult, admissions officers have the tough job of making tough decisions. An application riddled with errors or one that does not represent the student in the best of lights will simply make an admissions officer’s job that much easier.

At AdmissionSight, we know that the knowledge and information that a student has going into the Ivy League application process is crucial. That is why we are proud to break down some of the top Columbia application mistakes that we advise our students – and any other students out there reading this – to avoid.

Let’s get started!

Columbia admission basics

Before we get into the list of mistakes that any student can avoid, we thought it would be helpful to break down some of the most basic facts regarding admissions at Columbia.

The truth is that while Columbia is not officially part of the “Big 3” of the Ivy League – which is comprised of Harvard University, Yale University, and Princeton University – it is just as hard, if not harder, to get into.

For example, consider the fact that back in 2020, a total of 40,084 students applied to the school. On top of that, 4.318 students applied to the school’s Early Decision program, meaning that they had agreed to attend Columbia in the event that they were to be accepted.

By the time all of the decisions had been made, just 2,544 students were accepted to the school, and just over half – 1,492 – ended up enrolling. That is good for an acceptance rate of just 6.0 percent!

From these numbers alone, it should be abundantly clear just how difficult it is for high school students to get into Columbia. Truly, it is not only one of the hardest schools in the world to get into, but also one of the harder schools in the Ivy League to get into. Now that is saying something!

If you are curious about how Columbia compares to the rest of the Ivy Leagues, take a look at the breakdown below.

A list of school with information.

Of course, it is important to note that these numbers change every year. In fact, the graduating class of 2025 (high school students applying in 2021) saw historically low acceptance rates. Based on trends from recent years, chances are good that acceptance rates are only going to get lower.

Columbia admissions expectations and application requirements

The final thing that we want to break down before we get into the mistakes to avoid on a Columbia application is the admissions expectations and the application requirements that students will have to send in.

When it comes to admissions expectations, we say – and the school itself – call them expectations because the school knows that not every student will be able to fulfill them based on the high school curriculum available to them. Still, the students who have the opportunity to do so at their high school should absolutely fulfill these expectations to improve their chances of getting in.

  • Four years of English (including continued practice in writing)
  • Four years of mathematics (including calculus for students interested in engineering)
  • Four years of one foreign language
  • At least two years of laboratory science (including physics and chemistry for students interested in engineering)
  • At least two years of history
  • In addition, most candidates have had some study in the visual or performing arts.

There is also a lot to be said about the kind of classes that students should be taking, but we’ll get to that in a little bit.

Beyond admissions expectations, there are also a lot of things that students will need to fill out and complete as part of the actual application process. Columbia has a very in-depth and involved application process as a way for the school to make sure that it is making the right decision with every student that applies to it.

Below are the application requirements that students will need to send in:

Columbia accepts either the Coalition Application or the Common Application. They also accept the QuestBridge Application from QuestBridge Finalists. The applications include:

  • Autobiographical information
  • Lists and descriptions of a student’s achievements, activities, employment, and summer activities
  • Personal essay

Columbia-Specific Application Questions

The questions that students who apply to Columbia are specific to both their experiences within the high school. They also deal with what students hope to gain out of their university experience and why they think attending Columbia is the right choice for them. Here are the questions that were offered to students for the 2020-21 application cycle:

List questions

  • List the titles of the required readings from academic courses that you enjoyed most during secondary/high school. (75 words or fewer)
  • List the titles of the books, essays, poetry, short stories or plays you read outside of academic courses that you enjoyed most during secondary/high school. (75 words or fewer)
  • We’re interested in learning about some of the ways that you explore your interests. List some resources and outlets that you enjoy, including but not limited to websites, publications, journals, podcasts, social media accounts, lectures, museums, movies, music, or other content with which you regularly engage. (125 words or fewer)

Short answer questions

  • A hallmark of the Columbia experience is being able to learn and live in a community with a wide range of perspectives. How do you or would you learn from and contribute to diverse, collaborative communities?
    (200 words or fewer)
  • Why are you interested in attending Columbia University? We encourage you to consider the aspect(s) that you find unique and compelling about Columbia. (200 words or fewer)
  • Please tell us what from your current and past experiences (either academic or personal) attracts you specifically to the areas of study that you noted in the application. (200 words or fewer)

Secondary School Report

  • An official high school transcript from all high schools attended
  • One high school counselor’s recommendation and school profile
  • The completed Mid-Year Report

Standardized tests

  • SAT or ACT
  • Applicants may self-report their scores
  • English proficiency examination score (if necessary)

Teacher Recommendations

  • These recommendations must come from teachers who taught you in academic disciplines
  • For engineering applicants, one must come from a math or science teacher

Finally, students will have to send in either their application fee or a fee waiver.

Columbia application mistakes to avoid

Okay! We have finally gotten to the portion of this breakdown where you will learn about the crucial mistakes on Columbia application to avoid at all costs. While these potential issues will not all apply to every student, we at AdmissionSight hope that they will at least alert you to any possible areas of concern that you should be keeping an extra close watch on as you begin your own application journey.

Let’s get into it!

Not earning a high enough GPA or standardized test scores in high school

This may seem like an obvious mistake to avoid for students who are applying to schools as prestigious and competitive as Columbia, but we know that it is simply far too important to assume that students know this.

Quite simply, a student’s GPA and SAT or ACT scores are the most important factor when it comes to whether or not they will get into a specific school.

With that being said, great grades and test scores will not be able to get a student in on their own. For that reason, students should consider great grades and standardized test scores as something of a prerequisite to get into schools like Columbia.

A female student writing her personal essay

While it is not impossible for students with average grades or test scores to get in, they are certainly facing an uphill climb, and the odds are against them.

When it comes to Columbia, specifically, the average GPA for high school students that end up getting in is an incredible 4.16! As for the SAT and ACT, the average ACT score for students that get into the school is 34 out of the percent score of 36. The average SAT score is 1505 out of the perfect 1600.

After reading this, it should be clear not only how important grades and standardized test scores are for high school students to nail, but also how excellent students need to perform in high school if they want to feel good about their chances of getting into the school.

Not having an impressive curriculum

If you thought we were done talking about grades in high school, you were wrong! Students who see that 4.16 average GPA may be inclined to believe that the best way to improve their chances of getting into Columbia may be simply be to sign up for courses that are easy throughout high school so that they can earn top grades.

That would be a major mistake!

In fact, the 4.16 GPA should tell you all you need to know about the kinds of classes that students who are getting into Columbia are taking. That’s right, they’re taking weighted, advanced courses such as AP, honors, and IB classes.

Students should take as many advanced courses as they are comfortable taking throughout their high school years. This will show admissions officers at the school that students are looking for, and are up for an academic challenge. That will make them much more confident that a student will be able to succeed within Columbia’s strenuous curriculum.

Not putting in the time when it comes to personal essays

Remember those personal essay questions that you read a little bit earlier in this breakdown? Well, it turns out that the answers to those questions play an incredibly important role when it comes to which students get into the school every application cycle.

In fact, many schools consider a students’ personal essays to be nearly as important as their high school GPA when deciding whether or not a student should be accepted. That is saying quite a lot considering the fact that a GPA is comprised over four school years!

In the library, a female student is studying.

Because of this, any student that thinks they can simply sit down and hammer out some essays within a couple of hours is likely going to really regret that decision when they finally hear back from Columbia or any other top schools that they are applying to.

Students need to sit down and come up with essay topics and answers that they believe will truly show any admissions officer reading it who they are not only as a student, but as a person.

After all, schools are accepting people into their halls and classrooms, not a bunch of numbers and test scores. Before, during and after the essay process, students should make sure to ask and answer these questions to give themselves the best chance at writing something truly impactful.

  • Is it specific to me?
  • Does it show who I am?
  • Is the topic meaningful to me?
  • Is it unique?
  • Does it answer the question?

This should set any student down the right path when it comes to crafting fantastic personal essays.

Moreover, students should make sure that they begin and finish the essay writing process early enough so that they can go through all of their essays and proofread for grammatical and spelling errors.

In fact, we advise that students not only do this on their own but also ask a parent, teacher, peer, or admissions consultant to go over their work as well to make sure that the essays are of the highest quality possible.

Not making clear what you are passionate about inside and outside of school

Another really important aspect of the application process has to do with the extracurriculars a student gets involved in during their high school years. These activities are important for a number of reasons, but perhaps the most important reason is that they help admissions officers get a good sense of what a student is interested in and passionate about.

a group of student talking while sitting at a campus field

For that reason, the extracurriculars, paired with your high school curriculum should be able to give any admissions officer at Columbia a very good idea of what you are passionate about.

This should also give them a pretty good guess at what you may decide to pursue inside and outside of the classroom in the event that you end up at Columbia.

Finally, it could even shine some light on what kind of career a student may end up going into following their education.

So, when you are listing and writing about your extracurriculars, make sure that they help to tell a story about what you love to spend your time doing, how you became a leader in your chosen communities during high school, and what you are most naturally gifted at.

Get more Columbia admissions advice

Well there you have it! There are four of the most important Columbia application mistakes that any student thinking about applying to the school should make sure to be aware of so that they can avoid making them when it comes time to start.

The truth is that the application process does not begin when a student starts to fill out the application. Instead, the process really begins on their very first day of high school, as their decisions then will impact their chances years later.

We at AdmissionSight know that all too well, that is why we work with many of our students for several years. That’s also just one of the reasons why our success rate when it comes to helping students get into Ivy League or top-10 schools outside of the Ivies is so high!

If you are interested in learning about what we can do for you when it comes to your Columbia application and so much more, contact us today for a free consultation.

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