How to Get Into Columbia

Amelie Lasker

How to Get Into Columbia

Even though lots of people hope to attend Columbia University, it’s easier said than done. With an acceptance rate of only 3.73%, it’s consistently one of the top five most selective schools in the U.S. Students from all kinds of different backgrounds thrive there. If you’re curious about how to get into Columbia, read on to learn more about the Columbia experience. If you do think it’s a good fit, we’ll go through some tips on how you can stand out among Columbia’s many applicants.

Undergraduate Colleges and Core Curriculum 

Columbia’s several undergraduate colleges meet the interests and circumstances of different students. Columbia College is for liberal arts, the School of Engineering and Applied Science is for engineering, and General Studies is for returning and nontraditional college students. Barnard College, just across the street, is a small women’s college with which Columbia also shares resources. 

Columbia’s most iconic characteristic is probably its Core Curriculum, which is a set of common courses all students, regardless of major, have to cover in order to have a well-rounded education. In classes like Literature Humanities (Lit Hum) and Frontiers of Science, students at all stages of their undergraduate degree take seminars where they are challenged to think across fields and engage with other students’ perspectives. By the time you finish your second year at Columbia, you will have read a number of classical texts, philosophers, and historians. If you’re wondering how to get into Columbia, you’ll want to be ready to read a lot, and to engage with lots of different subjects.

We’ll focus on Columbia College in this blog post, since it has the most traditional liberal arts structure and includes the full Core Curriculum.

The Personality of a Columbia Student

If you’re researching how to get into Columbia, it helps to know that students are deeply involved in the world around them. Whether that means leading their communities, attending lectures and arts events, or working intensely on independent research projects, Columbia students show their interests through their engagement. This translates to the culture of the campus, where Columbia students often find communities through the activities they do outside class. If you want to go to Columbia, be ready to be busy. People at Columbia work hard in everything they do.

Columbia students are also vocal about their passions, whether in politics or culture. Whatever you’re excited about, show it on your application! Columbia admissions officers will want to hear about who you are and what matters to you. Students at the school take initiative. With an undergraduate student body population of nearly 7,000, Columbia is a big school, located in a bigger city. Students advocate for themselves and reach out for the resources they want. You will want to show your independence through your application and essays if you believe you will fit in in this environment.

Campus Overview

If you’re a city lover, it’s hard to beat Columbia for location. In Morningside Heights, Manhattan, it’s a subway ride away from the wonderful offerings of New York. From dorm and classroom windows, you can see parks and rivers and miles of NYC buildings

The Morningside Heights campus itself is breathtakingly grand, and the main square of the undergraduate campus, while small, feels peaceful and spacious. Here, Columbia has three dining halls, as well as arts buildings, science resources, and plenty of student spaces despite its urban location. You can sit in cafes among grad students in Columbia’s wonderful Journalism School, future MBAs at the Uris Center, and English PhD students talking about the novels they’re writing. Down the street at the iconic Hungarian Pastry Shop, you can frequently see professors holding office hours.

In classic New York style, Columbia’s Butler Library is open twenty-four hours a day. Its impressive book collection and massive study rooms are plentiful, but it’s by no means Columbia’s only library. Depending on what kind of study mood you’re feeling, you can find anything within Columbia’s blocks. The Union Theological Seminary library is beautiful. At Avery Library, you can explore visual arts books and spot grad students working on their architecture and art projects. At the small Music library at the top of the Dodge Arts building, you can check out sheet music. 


Columbia is rife with resources for students of many kinds of ambitions.

Arts: Columbia Arts Initiative helps connect students to the city through arts internships and get access to museums, shows, and other events. Student publications are intense: the Columbia Spectator functions like a professional newspaper, and publications like the Columbia Review and Blue and White put out high-quality student writing on a regular basis.

Research: Columbia is a big research university, which means there are ample resources for growing scientists and academics. Through programs, fellowships, and undergraduate publications, students can find funding and teams for any range of interests and publish their work. Read about the academic centers and resources linked to your interests here.

Community: Check out Columbia’s Living and Learning Center, through which students from all four undergraduate years live together, do activities together, and mentor each other. Columbia also has Residential Communities, where students with passions ranging from environmental activism to jazz can live together in dorms or brownstones. Through pre-orientation programs, with one for outdoor activities and one specifically for international students, you can find a community of other first-year students before the first week of class even begins. Read more about all of Columbia’s awesome student groups here.


If you’re wondering how to get into Columbia, you’ll need to be very competitive academically. The 2019 entering class had an average GPA of 4.0, so the standards are incredibly high. Remember, the acceptance rate in 2019 was 5.1%.

Your GPA isn’t the only number you should focus on, as you also need to do well on your ACT or SAT test. The median ACT score range for admitted students is 31-34, while the median SAT score range is 1410-1570. Columbia accepts self-reporting when you submit your SAT scores, so you don’t have to send your scores officially. They will also superscore multiple sittings of one type of test, so you can use your best scores of different sessions. Due to COVID-19, Columbia will be test optional in the 2022-2023 cycle so if you have a score that you’re not particularly proud of, I would recommend not submitting it.

Supplemental Essays

Because personality fit is so important for Columbia, you’ll need to do lots of research on the school and on your subject(s) of interest to create strong supplemental essays.

The prompts are as follows:

In 150 words or fewer, please list a few words or phrases that describe your ideal college community.

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
  • 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 (200 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.

Tips for Answering the Supplemental Essays

Reading and Cultural Experience Questions 

Columbia will ask you about required books for school, books read for pleasure, print or electronic publications, and titles of films/concerts/other events you’ve read and attended. The best way to prepare for these questions and answer them well is to read a lot and engage with arts, science, and cultural events around you. Try subscribing to a new journal or academic blog and starting to read it regularly. Columbia wants students who are intellectually curious and engaged with the world. But don’t feel like you have to give highly rigorous academic resources for every one of these prompts—you can have fun and show your personality, too!

The “What You Value Most About Columbia” Question

This is where you need to do your research. Think about the Core Curriculum and what’s special about it to you. Think about what you can contribute to Columbia’s community (and not just what Columbia can give to you). Don’t put too much emphasis on New York City, but if you can make a case for how you’ll use the resources of the city as part of your college experience, all the better.

The “Tell Us What Attracts You to the Field or Fields of StudyQuestion

Make sure you’ve done your research here too! When you talk about academic field(s), utilize similar language to describe it that the Columbia academic department uses. Look up the undergraduate department(s) at Columbia for your field(s) of interest and make sure the experiences you talk about are relevant to the Columbia program’s offerings.

You can read more about how to answer each question in detail here

Requirements and Deadlines

When thinking about how to get into Columbia, it’s essential that you know all of the materials you will have to submit and when they are due. The Early Decision (ED) deadline is November 1, and the Regular Decision (RD) deadline is January 1. Keep in mind that Early Decision is binding, which means that if you are accepted, you must attend Columbia.

The materials you need to submit for your Columbia application, as well as deadlines and additional notes, are outlined below:

Requirements for Columbia Deadlines and Notes
Personal statement The Common App limit is 650 words. The Coalition App recommends that you stay below 550.
Columbia supplemental essays The prompts will appear when you add Columbia as a school on the application system.
School report (Common App) or counselor recommendation (Coalition App) These must be submitted with an official high school transcript and received by Nov. 1 for ED or Jan.1 for RD. It is recommended that counselors send them electronically.
High school transcript Must be submitted directly from your school.
Two teacher evaluations (academic) This letter is essential to help you stand out from other applicants and show what you are like in the classroom.
SAT or ACT score SAT or ACT taken in October will not arrive in time for ED. If you have already taken the test and will be retaking it in October, send in your previous scores to ensure your application is complete. Once your October scores are received, they will be added to your application. You may self-report your scores for Columbia.
SAT subject test SAT subject test scores are not required but they will be considered if it benefits your application.

Next Steps

  • Apply Early Decision: If you are passionate about Columbia, have your application components prepared, and are ready to commit to the binding agreement, consider applying Early Decision. This is a great way to demonstrate your interest in the school and perhaps get some good news early.
  • Read! As you can see in their supplemental questions, Columbia appreciates students who love to read. Read outside school, as much as you can, about whatever you want. Try a science journal if you want to be a researcher; try reading film criticism if you want to act. Reading can also help you develop your interests and gain knowledge in the fields that excite you. Plus, what you’re reading might make for great topics of discussion during your Columbia interview!
  • Talk to Your College Counselor: Start building a relationship with your high school counselor as early as possible. If Columbia has any questions about your application, they will turn to your counselor, so make sure they know you well and can advocate for you. Schedule a meeting with your counselor to talk about your interests and whether Columbia is right for you. 

The chances of being accepted to Columbia are low and the application process is difficult, so there is no one way to answer the question how to get into Columbia fully. There are simply so many students who want to go to Columbia. Work hard and show your personality through your activities and, eventually, through your application. If Columbia isn’t in the cards for you, you’ll have developed your ambitions and achieved a lot, and you’ll likely end up somewhere wonderful for you. But if it’s a good match, you might just hear back good news. Best of luck!

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