Forster-Thomas essay coach Susan Clark shares her tips on how to answer the Columbia GSB essay questions for the class of 2015

Essay 1:

  • Part A. Why are you pursuing an MBA at this point in your career, and how do you plan to achieve your immediate and long term post-MBA professional goals? (Maximum 500 words)

Thanks, Columbia, for including in your prompt an essential part of great goal setting: “What’s your plan, Stan?” “You wanna see Mecca? Ya goin’ by boat, plane, or camel?” In other words, you have a degree in earth science and your dream is to build a green tech consulting company … now what? Your short term goal of a position in a consulting firm is a start, but still a long way from establishing your own company. Including a job currently not attainable, even with your MBA, is an essential interim step. Moving into a strategy position at a sustainability program in a major corporation—eventually becoming senior sustainability officer—would allow you to develop expertise in the industry and the credibility and network to raise funds. Include in your plan the specific role education plays: “An MBA will give me the internship necessary to move into consulting, the management training to lead a corporate department, and the entrepreneurial mindset to start my own company,” for example. Believable steps from where you are now can take you anywhere you like, to Mecca or even the Moon. Make sure the final destination is worth the effort. Demonstrate leadership and creativity in your goal. By the end of the essay, you’ve transformed your image from that of a tree hugger into a thoroughbred the ad-com can bet on.

  • Part B. Please view this video, entitled Community at Columbia. Diverse, tight-knit clusters and carefully selected learning teams are defining features of the first year at Columbia Business School. Along with more than 100 student organizations and countless events each semester, the cluster system helps to create a supportive and devoted lifelong community. Describe why you are interested in becoming a part of the Columbia community. (Maximum 250 words)

What do business schools expect when they ask a “Why do you love us” question? It’s like my husband showing off his muscles (he’s been working out) and asking “You like these guns?” The only thing I can say is “Ooh, ahh, wonderful.” Columbia makes it worse by nearly dictating what they want you to say. They seem to be begging for “I want to be part of Columbia’s community because of its wonderful student organizations, countless events, and lifelong friends.” It’s enough to make you gag. If you want to stand out—and you do—you have to give them something other than the canned answer.

Beneath this question and video is an interesting piece of information. Columbia is looking for students who love student organizations, attending diverse events, and are inspired by working with others. “No loners need apply” is the subtext. Columbia wants community leaders: let them know you are one. Slip in that service accomplishment: “After a month as a volunteer cleaning plastic off Hong Kong beaches, I organized a fundraiser for Project Kaisei, a non-profit cleaning up the Pacific Ocean. I raised $30,000 and convinced the CEO of my investment firm to institute sustainable plastic-use policies in every portfolio investment.” Then, demonstrate how this interest of yours is relevant: “I envision creating opportunities for Columbia students to make an impact on our local environment and community by generating an interface between Columbia’s Community Action Rewards Everyone, and the nonprofit Bronx River Alliance.” 80 words spent on that, plus a few more on why it’s meaningful to you, are infinitely more powerful than the gush about the gorgeous campus and tight knit community in the Big Apple. And, of course, your demonstrated interest in the environment needs to be for real, not for resume.

Essay 2:

Describe a personal experience and how it has influenced who you are today. This essay should have a personal rather than a professional focus. (Maximum 500 words)

Personal. That is a very specific word. This is not the time for the career failure you wrote for that other school. It is about your life as a real person—your dad, your first car, the most embarrassing moment of your life—an experience that made you who you are. Personal does not mean intimate, however. Don’t use that very tempting “My girlfriend broke up with me” story. Slipping in a line or two at the end about how the personal experience resulted in fame and fortune could work; however, remember not to let those few words pull attention away from the main event.

You can look at this question as consisting of three significant parts.

The experience:

  • This can be a story about be an event that caused you to make a decision, or to change your mind. It can be about your first puppy, or about the time your drill sergeant pushed you until you nearly died. It can be beneficial to have an event that stymied you in some way or forced you to make a choice of some sort. I would probably write about the time when I was six and stole a quarter from the church collection plate to buy an ice cream. I cried for three hours after confessing to my mother. You can also take another approach. You can describe an experience that is broader than just an event—one that arises from a condition, like being the shortest kid in class, or growing up with a popular sister. Any state of being is ok: being the loser, the immigrant, the only one that didn’t speak Spanish, the rich kid. I would use the fact that I was one of eight kids raised in the inner city of Trenton, New Jersey.

The influence:

  • This is the heart of the essay—how the experience influenced you. Your response to the experience should be life-affirming and active, rather than passive. “Because my mother dropped me, I became afraid of heights” is passive: Something else was the causal factor. Active is: “My mother dropped me. I decided that I wanted to make sure all babies have safe environments.” This is the part of the essay where you define what you are made of, what kind of thinking drives your behavior. How awful I felt after the theft of the quarter made me realize that nothing is more important to me than my integrity. My large, struggling family made me into a bit of a tough but I also discovered how to stand by others and be loyal.

The result of that influence:

  • Demonstrate how this influence plays out in your life. For my quarter story, I could cite a time my integrity was challenged, but I think I would go with the time I helped a kid make the right decision when he was tempted to make the wrong one. The result of influence could be expressed in a variety of ways. For example, my loyalty has been challenged many times with good and bad results. A lot of my essay could be about the progression of my experience of what it means to be loyal.

Overall, this essay is very adaptable: it can be all touchy-feely, or accomplishment-driven. At its heart, this prompt wants you to reveal who you are. The ad-com wants to get to know you better, just as you learned that I am a Catholic inner city street tough who will never let you down. Given half a chance, I’ll kick your butt all the way into the best MBA program possible.

For more information about the Columbia essay questions and deadlines, see our Columbia Essay Guide.