Note: This final question differs slightly between applicants to Columbia College or to the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. For applicants to SEAS, there is no option to apply as undecided, so the second sentence is omitted from this prompt.
The admissions committee is interested in knowing what you find fascinating about your field and what you have done to broaden that interest. They are trying to weed out people who are applying for a given major just because it sounds fancy. But, more than that, they also want to see what makes you tick, how your passion for learning carries you beyond your high school classes, and what keeps you up at night in a fever pitch of wonder and excitement. You want to find the best, and most concise, way to showcase your passion. 300 words are a lot fewer than you would think!
At CollegeVine, we have broken down the “Why Major?” essay into two main questions:
- Why do you want to study this subject?
- Why are you qualified to study this subject?
Your essay should seek to address both of these questions with as high a degree of specificity as possible. Because this essay is so short, it is difficult to address a general field. You cannot fully explain your love of a subject with a mere 300 words. “I love astronomy” is not sufficient. Instead, you could write more specifically about your interest in exoplanets and astrobiology. Include a personal story about stargazing as a child that sparked your love of the field and mention scientific research completed in high school that further cultivated your interest in the stars.
It’s also possible that you are still figuring out what you want to study. No intellectually curious seventeen-year-old is ever certain about the topics and disciplines that will drive their future studies.
One way to communicate your interest and your desire to continue exploring a given topic is to talk about a recent conversation you had with someone who is already immersed in a field that you are curious about. An essay might begin: “Ever since my high school teacher combined potassium permanganate and glycerol and set his lab coat on fire, I’ve been fascinated with the chemical property of flammability. In order to learn more, I reached out to John McJohnson, a graduate student studying autoignition temperatures at the University of California, Davis. What most excited me about our conversation was…”
Of course, in order to write this essay, you need to actually have a conversation with someone who is working in that field. If you live in a town that has a research university, and if you are considering majoring in chemistry, you can actually go to the chemistry department’s university website, find a professor or graduate student whose work looks interesting to you, and send them an email asking to meet for coffee.
This may seem intimidating, but we can assure you that there are lots of researchers who might be willing to take 30 minutes out of their day to talk with a young person about their work. You might not get a response (most of these people are very busy), but the sooner you get used to reaching out to potential future colleagues and making connections, the better off you’ll be.
No matter what approach you take to this question, you’ll want to be sure to avoid cramming in too much jargon in an effort to communicate your technical mastery. You only have 300 words, and the point of this essay is not to dazzle your reader but rather to show what practical steps you’ve taken to explore and develop your intellectual interests.
However, you choose to write your essays, dare to be a little creative. Don’t just describe the university that the Columbia admissions officers already know. Ideally, they will see their campus a little bit differently after having read what you imagine it might be to you. As Columbia’s website says, they are looking for students who “will take greatest advantage of the unique Columbia experience and will offer something meaningful in return to the community.”
In addition to the primary components of the Common Application and Coalition Application, applicants are asked to respond to Columbia-specific questions to tell the Admissions Committee more about their academic, extracurricular and intellectual interests. We review the responses to these questions very carefully in order get a full sense of each unique individual beyond his or her transcripts and test scores.
We encourage you to familiarize yourself with these questions before beginning your application:
In 150 words or fewer, please list a few words or phrases that describe your ideal college community.
For the four list questions that follow, we ask that you list each individual response using commas or semicolons; the items do not have to be numbered or in any specific order. No narrative or explanatory text is needed. It is not necessary to italicize or underline titles of books or other publications. Author names may be included, but are not required. You do not need to fill the entire space or use the maximum number of words; there is no minimum word count in this section, so please respond to the extent that you feel is appropriate.
Please list the following (150 words or fewer for each question):
- the titles of the required readings from courses during the school year or summer that you enjoyed most in the past year;
- the titles of books read for pleasure that you enjoyed most in the past year;
- the titles of print or electronic publications you read regularly;
- and the titles of the films, concerts, shows, exhibits, lectures and other entertainments you enjoyed most in the past year.
Please answer the following short answer questions (300 words or fewer for each question):
- Please tell us what you value most about Columbia and why.
- If you are applying to Columbia College, tell us what from your current and past experiences (either academic or personal) attracts you specifically to the field or fields of study that you noted in the Member Questions section. If you are currently undecided, please write about any field or fields in which you may have an interest at this time.
- If you are applying to The Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science, please tell us what from your current and past experiences (either academic or personal) attracts you specifically to the field or fields of study that you noted in the Member Questions section.