How to Get Into Columbia With Average Grades

By Eric Eng

By Eric Eng

Library building with columns and dome at Columbia University.

How to Get Into Columbia With Average Grades

If you are thinking about attending Columbia University, located in the heart of New York City, you most likely have a lot of questions. One of those questions might be regarding how to get into Columbia with average grades.

The truth is that even for students with perfect grades, getting into a school like Columbia can prove to be exceptionally difficult. After all, Columbia is one of the most prestigious and selective universities in the entire United States. In fact, these days Columbia is considered one of the hardest Ivy League to get into.

However, just because it is difficult to get into Columbia with average grades does by no means Mean that it is impossible.

After all, schools in the United States now operate under the holistic admissions practice. This essentially means that admissions officers consider a plethora of different factors and variables when considering whether or not to accept a specific high school student that has applied.

View of the Central Quadrangle and Butler Library at Columbia University.

At AdmissionSIght, we have helped many different kinds of students get into some of the most prestigious and selective schools in the world. For that reason, and many more, we are very confident in the fact that students with average grades can beat the odds and get into schools with even the most restrictive acceptance rates.

But what should students who were only able to earn average grades in high school do to improve their chances and earn the ability to say, “I got into Columbia with bad grades?”

Continue reading to find out!

Columbia admission requirements

When we are talking about admissions requirements, there are a lot of different things that need to be cleared up. First off, it is increasingly rare for schools in the United States to have any list of required courses that high school students must take in order to apply to a given college or university.

The reason for this is quite simple. Admissions officers at American undergraduate institutions know that students are more often than not at the mercy of their own high schools when it comes to what kinds of courses that they can take during their high school years.

Schools like Columbia do not think it is fair to give students who simply have more options at their high schools a clear advantage.

For that reason, there are no admissions requirements from a curriculum standpoint. With that being said, there are certainly classes that admissions officers at Columbia lookout for on a high school students course list. Those basic courses are as follows:

  • 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

Perhaps more importantly than just making sure that a high school student has these courses on their high school curriculum, students should make sure that whenever given the opportunity, they should try to challenge themselves in the classroom.

Admissions officers at schools like Columbia love to see a high school transcript that is filled to the brim with honors courses, AP courses or IB courses. The reason for this is because those admissions officers want to be confident in their belief that a student will be able to handle and thrive within the rigors and challenges of the Columbia University curriculum.

A lower GPA that is made up of tons of advanced classes may very well be more valuable than a high GPA that is solely made up of the base course load and any given high school.

Even for the easiest Ivy League to get into – and Columbia is certainly not that – taking as many advanced courses in high school should be considered a near requirement.

Application requirements

While there are no clear admissions requirements that high school students need to fulfill in order to apply to Columbia, there are certainly a number of application requirements that they will have to complete to correctly submit their application to the school.

If you are nearing the time in which you will start to apply to schools, this information is obviously very important for you. However, even if you are just starting out your high school education and are still several years away from applying to schools, familiarizing yourself with this list can be quite helpful.

Here’s what you need to submit to complete your application to Columbia:

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 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.

Average GPA, SAT and ACT scores at Columbia

Now that you know the kinds of courses that you will have to take, as well as the additional material that you will have to send in to improve your chances of getting into Columbia, it’s important that you know the average grade point average and standardized test scores that students that end up getting into Columbia earn during their high school years. Here’s a quick breakdown of those averages:

  • Average GPA: 4.14
  • Average ACT: 34 The
  • Average SAT: 1505

From these numbers alone, you should be able to tell that Columbia is absolutely one of the hardest Ivy League to get into.

Students essentially need to be perfect within the classroom and near-perfect in standardized testing in order to give themselves a decent shot of getting in. That is especially true considering Columbia’s incredibly low overall acceptance rate.

A person shading their selected choice on the answer sheet.

As of the most recent application cycle – which was admittedly the most difficult in the history of many American colleges and universities – the regular decision acceptance rate at Columbia was a paltry 4.8 percent. For the 2021 application cycle, the only Ivy League schools that were harder to get into were Harvard, Yale and Princeton.

Last year, the easiest Ivy League to get into was Cornell University and the hardest Ivy League to get into was Harvard University.

How to get into Columbia with average grades

Now that you know the kinds of students that typically are accepted to Columbia University you are probably wondering how to get into Columbia with average grades.

And rightfully so! At this point, it seems pretty clear that only the most exceptional students, who are able to accomplish truly impressive things during their high school years, can feel pretty good about their chances of getting into a school as prestigious and selective as Columbia.

Luckily, there are some fairly effective ways in which a student with average grades can improve their chances of getting into any school in the United States.

Here are some of the most important tools that you can keep in mind.

Look at where you got your lower grades

One thing that some students do not actually know before they start applying to schools is that American schools weigh different high school years more than others when they are taking a look at a student’s transcript.

Freshman year grades are often reviewed with more leniency by admissions officers compared to a student’s sophomore and junior year grades.

A bearded man seriously looking at the laptop screen.

It is also very important that if your GPA took a hit because of unforeseen and unfortunate circumstances, such as a serious illness, death in the family, or other kind of trauma, that you should make admissions officers aware of that.

With that in mind, if you received a large portion of your lower grades during your sophomore and junior years of high school, your odds of getting into Columbia will take a substantial hit.

Look at what courses did you get your lower grades in

This is also incredibly important. As previously mentioned, schools like Columbia take close notice of what kinds of courses a high school student takes.

Admissions officers are looking for students that are willing and able to challenge themselves by taking advanced courses.

So, if your GPA has taken a hit because you have earned less than perfect grades in highly advanced courses, you may be in a better position to be accepted to Columbia than you previously thought.

A woman working with a laptop.

What is most ideal is that a student is able to effectively balance their course load throughout high school so that they can be sure to impress with the courses that they are taking while also keeping their grade point average up.

At AdmissionSIght, we advised the students that we work with to prioritize taking advanced courses in subjects that they are either naturally proficient at or especially passionate in. This will increase their chances of getting top grades in advanced classes.

Earn incredible standardized test scores

Right now, it is important that high school students know that schools all over the country have adopted a standardized test-optional policy in light of the unforeseen circumstances related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

That means that for the first time in decades, students are applying to colleges and universities without sending in SAT or ACT scores. However, if you are a student with below average grades who is looking to get into a school at Columbia, you will not have that kind of flexibility.

Quite simply, to prove that you can handle the rigors and difficulty of the Columbia curriculum, you will likely have to score incredibly well on the standardized test of your choosing.

You now know the average scores that high school students that get into Columbia earn on both the SAT and ACT. if your GPA is below average you will have to score quite a bit better than those averages.

Write amazing personal essays

Thanks to this breakdown, you also now know the list questions and short answer questions that Columbia University has every high school applicant answer.

Just like you will need fantastic standardized test scores to overcome a below average GPA, you will also need truly remarkable essay answers to help prove that you are Columbia University material.

In fact, the personal essay section of the undergraduate application process has gained increasing importance in recent years.

A person having a cup of coffee while writing.

The reason for this is because it is now believed that these essays serve as the best resource that admissions officers have to find out whether or not a given student possesses the kind of character, insight, wisdom, curiosity and more to succeed at a given school.

If you want to help prove to an admissions officer that you have what it takes to succeed at Columbia despite your lackluster GPA, this is the place to do it.

So, how does a student write the very best personal essays that they possibly can? Here are a few effective tips to help you along your way:

  • Write your first draft without a character counter.
  • Give yourself the time you need to come up with the best answer possible.
  • Use impressive words but don’t depend too heavily on the thesaurus.
  • Focus on your strengths as a writer and storyteller.
  • Craft an introduction that will draw your reader in and put them on your side.
  • Be honest and write with your voice and point of view in mind.
  • Ask a parent, teacher, peer, or admissions consultant to proofread and edit your work.

Apply via Early Decision

For students who want to know how to get into Columbia with average grades and know for certain that Columbia is their number one choice, one final and fantastic tool is the ability to apply to the school via Early Decision.

Early Decision Is an application program that allows students to send in their application early and signal to the admissions officers at Columbia that the school is their number one option.

The reason why it’s important to know that that is actually true is because if a student is admitted under this program, they are obligated to accept Columbia’s offer of admission. That means that if you get in, you have to withdraw all of your other applications and enroll at Columbia under almost all circumstances.

By looking at the acceptance rate for students that apply via Early Decision, it is clear that it improves your chances.

As we previously mentioned that the Regular Decision acceptance rate for students that applied to Columbia last year was 4.8 percent, the acceptance rate for students that applied Early Decision was a far greater 15.9 percent!

That’s right, the acceptance rate more than tripled for students that applied this way. While doing this alone will not likely be enough to get a student with average grades in, doing this along with all of the other considerations and trips previously mentioned just might be enough.

We can help you improve your chances of getting into Columbia

As you now know, getting into Columbia is difficult even for the most accomplished students. That means that the road ahead for students with average grades is that much harder.

But it is not impossible. If you are curious to learn more about how AdmissionSight helps students with average grades get into Ivy League programs, contact us today to set up a free consultation.


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