How to get into Columbia University 2023-2024

Bonus Material: PrepMaven’s 50+ Real Supplemental Essays for Ivy+ Schools

Columbia University’s 2022-2023 acceptance rate was 3.7%, meaning just over 2250 students got accepted out of a pool of over 60,000 applicants!

If you want to be one of those lucky few to get an acceptance offer from Columbia next year, you need to ensure that every aspect of your admission application is as close to perfect as possible.

In this blog post, we’ll use our decades of experience and the most recent data to break down exactly what you need to do to have a chance at a Columbia acceptance. We’ll also do an analysis of the Columbia application review process so that you know how you’re being evaluated!

At PrepMaven, the vast majority of our tutors come from Ivy League schools like Princeton and Columbia—they know what it takes to get in because they’ve done it. For over two decades, our academic, test-prep, and college essay coaches have helped students get into their own dream schools. If you’re serious about an Ivy admission, we recommend reading our guide carefully, then working with one of our tutors to maximize your chances

Keep reading to increase your chances of admission, and download our collection of real supplemental essays that worked to get students into schools like Columbia. 

Jump to section:
The three pillars of a Columbia application
What you need to get into Columbia: Academics
What you need to get into Columbia: Extracurriculars
What you need to get into Columbia: Character
The Three Pillars of getting into Columbia: Summary
What is the Columbia admissions process like?
Next steps 


The three pillars of a Columbia application

The best way to think about your application to a school like Columbia is as consisting of three pillars: 

  • Academics
  • Extracurriculars
  • Character

In the following sections, we’ll break down exactly what you need in each of these categories for a short at Columbia. Here, we’ll explain a bit about each of these three pillars and how they come together to support a viable Columbia application. 

Academics refers to everything that’s on your transcript, plus your test scores. In other words, the Academics pillar consists of:

  • GPA
  • Rigor of curriculum
  • Dual enrollment/college credit courses
  • SAT/ACT scores
  • AP/IB scores

Extracurriculars are somewhat self-explanatory: these are just about anything you’ve done that isn’t directly connected to your academics. Common examples: 

  • Sports
  • School clubs
  • Service work
  • Research 
  • Gap years
  • Creative projects
  • Paid employment
  • Internships

But it’s Character that can be one of the most important elements of a Columbia application, and one of the hardest to pin down. What’s the Character pillar? In a nutshell, it’s your story: what kind of person and student are you? What drives you? What do you hope to accomplish?

All of these big and probably scary questions are what we mean when we discuss Character as part of your application. While all elements of your application come together to showcase Character, the single biggest place where you can convey it is in your college application essays. 

Below, we’re going to break down Columbia University’s admissions process according to each of these three pillars: what do you need to do when it comes to Academics, Extracurriculars, and Character to have a shot?


What you need to get into Columbia: Academics

We want to start with a disclaimer: nobody gets accepted to Columbia based on Academics alone. But plenty of applicants do get rejected because their Academics pillar is too weak. 

When it comes to schools like Columbia, you should think of Academics as a prerequisite: while there are always rare exceptions, if your GPA and test scores do not line up with Columbia’s typical median, your chances of acceptance are very, very slim. 

So, what are the Columbia University baselines as far as Academics? Let’s take a look at the 2022-2023 Common App Data set for the stats. 

When it comes to SAT/ACT: 

To put it bluntly, you’ll need near-perfect SAT/ACT scores to have a shot at a Columbia admission. We’ll break down some statistics below: 

To break that down quickly: 

  • For SAT-takers, 50% of students who enrolled had an SAT Verbal score at or above 760
  • For SAT-takers, 50% of students who enrolled had an SAT Math score at or above 790
  • For ACT-takers, 50% of students who enrolled had an ACT Composite of 35 or higher.

To put that in perspective: these scores are equivalent to a 99th percentile nationally. Meaning that at least half of Columbia admits scored in the top 1% nationally on their ACT and SATs.  

But while people often look at percentiles and medians, there’s another crucial statistic people often miss: how many people actually get in with lower scores? The answer: basically none. Take a look below. 

It’s a lot of numbers, but here’s the TLDR summary: 

  • Only 3% of Columbia admits had an SAT score below 1400. 
  • Only 1% of Columbia admits had an ACT score below 30. 

The takeaway is simple: it is practically impossible to get accepted to Columbia without an ACT or SAT score in the top 1%. 

A note on test-optional policies

Many people see that Columbia is test-optional and breathe a sigh of relief: if the policy says “optional,” then surely you don’t have to take the test, right? 

Sadly, that’s not the case. The vast majority of Columbia applicants submitted test scores for last-year’s application cycle. The reality of it is that test-optional policies are not meant to apply to everyone.

 If you come from a background where the Columbia admission committee could see testing as a real burden—you come from a low-income family or community, you worked a full-time job to support your family, you were dealing with serious health issues in high school, etc.—then test-optional can work for you (though you would still be better off submitting exceptional test scores). 

But if you don’t have anything like that to point to, Columbia will expect you to submit test scores. They might not say so, but failing to do so when you don’t have a good reason will signal to admissions committees that you simply didn’t do well enough on the test. 

Regardless of application requirements, at PrepMaven we encourage students to still take the SAT (or the ACT, depending on which test suits their skills). 

Doing so will allow them to keep their options open as they navigate future college admissions cycles, and our philosophy as educators is to give our students as many tools as possible to maximize their future opportunities.

Higher test scores will always give applicants an advantage.

When it comes to GPA: 

According to the stats, it’s just as important to have a sky-high GPA:

95.7% of Columbia admits who submitted class rank information were in the top tenth of their graduating class. 

The takeaway here is similar to that with test scores: if you’re not in at least the top 10% of your graduating class, you’re effectively out of the running for a Columbia admission.

Other considerations for Academics: Rigor

We want to add a quick note here: colleges like Columbia expect you to take the most rigorous courses offered by your school. While there’s not much exact data on this, we can confidently say that if you only took regular or Honors courses, you won’t be considered seriously as a candidate regardless of GPA. 

Though this depends on your school’s offerings, Columbia University will expect applicants to take AP courses wherever possible. Many successful Columbia applicants go further, taking dual enrollment or additional courses at local colleges. 

Academics Summary: What do you need to do?

If there’s a shorthand, it’s this: Academics won’t get you into Columbia, but they can definitely keep you out. Think of this pillar as a hurdle you have to clear before admissions committees even consider your application seriously. Here’s close to the minimum of what you need for a shot:

  • Take maximally rigorous courses. 
  • Be at least within the top 10% of your graduating class.
  • Achieve an ACT or SAT score at least in the 99th percentile. 

We can’t stress this enough: doing all of the above does not make you a strong candidate for Columbia. It is effectively the minimum that you need to accomplish to be considered a candidate at all. 

If you’re serious about Columbia, you should start building up your Academics pillar as early as possible. There’s absolutely no substitute for expert academic and test-prep coaching: when everything has to be perfect for you to have a shot, you don’t want to take chances. Our tutors can help you maintain that GPA and work your way up to a competitive test score. 


What you need to get into Columbia: Extracurriculars

If your Academics are competitive, it’s time to look at the second pillar: Extracurriculars. Just like with Academics, the exceptional is the norm for a school like Columbia. 

So, what makes a strong Extracurricular profile for Columbia? In addition to the suggestions from Columbia’s site above, we encourage you to focus on four key elements to evaluate how competitive your extracurriculars are—and, if you have time, to begin developing a competitive Extracurricular pillar.

Key elements of a competitive Columbia Extracurricular profile, in order:

  1. Excellence
  2. Dedication
  3. Leadership
  4. Initiative 

Let’s take these one at a time. 

  1. Excellence

Columbia isn’t looking for someone who dabbles: they want applicants who have proven that they can excel at what they pursue. Whatever your main extracurriculars, there should be some kind of objective proof that you excelled above and beyond the norm in them. What might that look like?

  • If you code: placing high a national or international competition/challenge. 
  • If you play sports: being a high-level competitor on a national competitive team. 
  • If you write: winning state, national, or international prizes. 

The idea here is fairly clear: it’s not enough just to do: you’ve really got to prove you can perform at an incredible level. 

Note the scale as well: winning a school or local competition simply isn’t good enough to matter in most cases. 

  1. Dedication

Whatever you pursue, Columbia wants you to prove you’re dedicated to it. Having 1-3 core activities that you have spent years pursuing is the mark of dedication. While it’s totally fine to have a few lighter extracurriculars that you don’t dedicate as much time to, you need to have at least 1 thing that you’ve pursued for a long time with (as mentioned above) proven excellence.

Here, the key is really length of time and commitment: the best ECs are ones you’ve pursued for years, with significant time investment each week. 

  1. Leadership

In addition to excellence and dedication, Columbia will expect you to demonstrate some form of leadership in the ECs you pursue. The most obvious example of this is, of course, holding a position like team captain or class/club president. 

While those can serve to demonstrate leadership, it’s clear that you’re able to show what came of that leadership. Many students aiming for Ivies try to join the Executive Boards of as many clubs and organizations as possible in high school, but this is the wrong move

Instead of looking like a dedicated, passionate leader, you’ll look like someone who doesn’t care what they do so long as they have a fancy title. What you want is for your leadership to align with excellence and dedication: if you’ve been a member of a nationally recognized robotics team, it’ll be meaningful to show you also captained it. 

If, on the other hand, you joined four clubs senior year and were president of all four, it’ll seem more like you were trying to build a resume. 

  1. Initiative

This is one people often forget, or misunderstand. When it comes to the Extracurricular pillar, one of the most crucial elements is to show that you sought something out and pursued it because of a real passion. 

In a nutshell, this means that the more work you had to do to pursue your ECs of choice, the better. Joining an existent club at school might show dedication, excellence, and leadership, but it won’t, in itself, show much initiative. Starting a club that grows and becomes self-sufficient, however, does show initiative. Here are some examples of initiative:

  • Starting an organization that will continue to thrive after you leave high school.
  • Seeking out an unusual service, research, or work opportunity. 
  • Making a personal sacrifice to pursue your extracurricular of choice. 

A note of caution: Columbia is looking for the exceptional and the unusual. Standard accolades like Merit Scholar, NHS, AP Scholar, or club e-board member are a dime a dozen—in other words, they won’t make you more competitive. Below, we’ve put together a list of ECs that make for a competitive Extracurricular profile for Columbia, and another list of ones that don’t. 

Examples of competitive ECs for Columbia:

  • You’ve pursued music since childhood, practicing 20 or more hours a week and performing at concerts across the country. 
  • You fell in love with cooking your sophomore year of high school: first you got a job as a busser at a local diner; by the summer of junior year, you were a prep cook at a local restaurant, working 30 hours a week. You also have a growing Youtube channel where you show off recipes.
  • Interested in international relations, you sought out a local professor and helped them as a research assistant for a year. Eventually, you published an original research paper with their help.
  • You love visual art, and have dedicated countless hours each week over the last few years to painting and multimedia art projects. While not a member of any club or organization, you have a website gallery of your work and have even sold a few paintings to local businesses. 

Examples of NON-competitive ECs for Columbia:

  • You started an Ultimate Frisbee club with 10 members your junior year of high school that you were President of. 
  • You volunteered sporadically for a local soup kitchen to meet your NHS service hours minimum. You didn’t dedicate a significant amount of time to this activity, nor did you participate for very long.
  • You were a rank-and-file member of several school interest clubs (chess club, coding club, book club, etc.), but don’t have any notable accomplishments or results to point to. 

Do you see the difference? It’s not that there’s anything wrong with the activities on the second list. In fact, it’s totally fine if you have a few activities like that on your Columbia application, but only if they are small side-projects in addition to your 1-3 main extracurricular activities, which should look more like the things on the first list. 

This probably seems like a lot, and it absolutely is. But this is the kind of excellence that Columbia is looking for. So, what can you do to develop the Extracurricular pillar of your Columbia application?

  • Start early. The earlier you start pursuing an activity, the more impressive your commitment to it will be. 
  • Keep a record of your pursuits. Websites, Youtube channels, etc., are a great way to maintain a portfolio of any creative projects. 
  • Enter contests and seek out publication/recognition. 

The last point deserves a special mention: as you can see from the list of competitive ECs, most of them take years of dedication. If you’re already a junior, one of the best things you can do is pursue contests, research, and publication, all of which can be accomplished fairly quickly and will add a solid EC to your list. 

On that front, writing competitions and research are great places to start. Many of our tutors come from creative writing backgrounds, and many more are graduate students who’ve published research themselves—by working with one of these coaches, you can develop your own independent creative or research project


What you need to get into Columbia: Character

This third aspect of your Columbia application is perhaps the most elusive—but it can be the most important. 

What do we mean by Character? You can read our full breakdown of the Three Pillars of a College Application here, but for now we can summarize Character as those personal qualities that set you aside from other applicants who have similar grades and extracurriculars. It’s really that ”extra” factor, the one that doesn’t really show up on a transcript or resume. 

So, where does Character appear on your college admissions applications? Mostly, it comes across in the essays! This is where college admissions committees can actually hear your voice, see your thought process, and get an insight into how you view the world. 

Some people tend to write off the college essay, but for an application to Columbia or an Ivy League school, it plays a vital part. You can read our post on how important the college essay is here, but for now you can think of it this way: Columbia gets so many incredibly talented applicants, so the college essay is one of the main things that can truly help you stand out. 

What is Columbia looking for in terms of Character? Key qualities to convey in your essays are things like: 

  • Self-awareness
  • Empathy
  • Community-mindedness
  • Passion
  • Resilience

We’ve got an entire collection of blog posts on how to structure the perfect college application essay—if you’re applying to Columbia, we highly recommend you start here. At the end of the day, Character is also a way of capturing your entire story, of connecting all of the different threads into one compelling narrative that presents you as someone who will contribute something to one of the most selective universities in the world. 

Columbia’s supplemental essay prompts for 2023-2024

In addition to your main essay, the supplemental essay questions are the perfect place to demonstrate Character. Below are Columbia’s supplemental essay prompts, updated for 2023-2024:

  • List a selection of texts, resources and outlets that have contributed to your intellectual development outside of academic courses, including but not limited to books, journals, websites, podcasts, essays, plays, presentations, videos, museums and other content that you enjoy.  (100 words or fewer) 
  • A hallmark of the Columbia experience is being able to learn and thrive in an equitable and inclusive community with a wide range of perspectives. Tell us about an aspect of your own perspective, viewpoint or lived experience that is important to you, and describe how it has shaped the way you would learn from and contribute to Columbia’s diverse and collaborative community. (150 words or fewer)
  • In college/university, students are often challenged in ways that they could not predict or anticipate. It is important to us, therefore, to understand an applicant’s ability to navigate through adversity. Please describe a barrier or obstacle you have faced and discuss the personal qualities, skills or insights you have developed as a result. (150 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. (150 words or fewer)
  • What attracts you to your preferred areas of study at Columbia College or Columbia Engineering? (150 words or fewer)

If you’ve been reading our blog posts, you might already notice that we’ve already written extensive guides on how to approach the last two questions, which fall into our “Why major?” and “Why us?” categories of supplemental essays. 

Across all supplemental essays and the personal statement, Columbia is searching for five specific things:

  1. Columbia is a vibrant residential community where learning happens everywhere students gather… Your commitments to your household, school, and broader interests and communities can demonstrate how you might engage as a peer and participant in this rich campus life. 
  2. We’ll look for qualities such as dedication and integrity, kindness and inclusivity, leadership and collaboration, and your developing sense of personal and civic responsibility
  3. We also want to see what activities and pastimes you choose to spend your time doing; excellence or significant achievement in some or any of your pursuits is one way to show depth in your exploration.
  4. We are interested in getting to know who you are as an individual shaped by your background, personal values and experiences. What might your voice contribute?
  5. We look to see that you have an understanding of whether Columbia’s distinctive characteristics would be fulfilling for you. Examples include knowledge of and enthusiasm for the Core Curriculum, our traditional campus in an urban setting, and any other aspect(s) that you find unique and compelling about Columbia.

Communicating how you fit in on campus, core values, extracurricular excellence, voice, and  knowledge of Columbia is a daunting task to achieve in a few hundred words. That’s why  we recommend working with a college essay coach to perfect your personal statement and optional essay. 

If you want to ensure your answers to these deceptively simple questions actually give Columbia admissions officers what they want, make sure to read through our guides, and take a look below for examples of real, successful supplemental essays. 

When it comes to Columbia, every piece of your application has to be perfect. Your Academics are what gets you considered, and your Extracurriculars are what prove you’ve accomplished something unusual. But it’s your Character—exemplified mostly in your college admissions essays—that can convince college admissions committees you’re someone they want to have on campus for the next four years. 


The Three Pillars of getting into Columbia: Summary

So, what does it take to get into Columbia, really? 

  1. A near perfect GPA achieved in a maximally rigorous courseload. 
  2. An SAT or ACT score well within the top 1% of test-takers. 
  3. An extracurricular profile that shows remarkable dedication, excellence, passion, and initiative. 
  4. Essays that tie together your story and convince admissions officers that you’re an interesting, unique applicant they want to have around for four years.

If that sounds tough, well, it is! So, what can you do to maximize your chances? Start preparing for all of the above as early as possible. If you want to do everything you can, we strongly recommend our tutors: they can help you ace your courses, prepare for your SAT/ACT, develop interesting extracurriculars, and write the perfect essay. 

Below, we’ll get into some crucial info that can help you prepare your Columbia application, including an analysis of a real Columbia application (from one of our star tutors) and a breakdown of the Columbia application process. 


What is the Columbia admissions process like?

Columbia helps applicants understand their application process by walking through how applications are reviewed and what is considered. 

Their admission’s officers follow the four steps to how admission officers read applications. While they read applications, they are looking to identify students who they “believe will take greatest advantage of the unique Columbia experience and will offer something meaningful in return to the community.”

Columbia has a holistic admissions process, meaning that all parts of the application inform the admission committee’s evaluation of candidates.  

“Columbia is test-optional and does not have a “cut-off” GPA or test score for admission, and academics are considered alongside the full application. We read your personal statement to try to understand your perspective and how you engage with the world around you. We read your transcript, school report and teacher recommendations to understand your academic preparation, your contributions in the classroom and school and what you might offer to your Columbia classmates. We read your responses to our Columbia-specific application questions to gain insight into your intellectual interests and the ways your expressions of curiosity and sense of community might translate to Columbia’s campus.”

In addition to being holistic, their review process is contextual. Columbia University takes into account the different ways that applicants have been shaped by “your family circumstances; work, commute or home responsibilities; secondary school and community resources; and systemic and situational barriers and advantages.” 

This means that while Columbia is searching for students who excel, they understand that excellence looks different based on the opportunities a student has access to. You’ll need to demonstrate not that you hit a pre-set standard metric, but that you truly excelled within your own context. 

Columbia University’s application review process is also need blind. Applications are considered without regard to an applicant’s financial need. 

Lastly, Columbia undergraduate’s admissions process is committee based; “no candidate is admitted to Columbia College or Engineering without discussion and examination of the application by multiple admissions officers.”

The admissions committees are “dedicated to considering each applicant as an individual person.” Meaning there are no formulas for success or cut-offs used to help admit candidates to Columbia college. 

Instead, Columbia University admissions pieces together the different parts of your application to understand who each applicant is, and what matters to them. 

During this holistic, contextual, and committee-based review process, admission’s officers are looking for five things in successful candidates:

  1. Academic preparation
  2. Curiosity
  3. Engagement with others
  4. Individual voice
  5. Knowledge of Columbia 

Keep reading to see how you can express these five items across the different components of your application!

Interviews

As of the 2023-2024 admissions cycle, Columbia University does not include an interview as part of their application process. 

They released a statement explaining that due to the rising number of applications that Columbia receives each year and their limited capacity to interview candidates, they have decided to remove the interview as part of the application “to ensure that all candidates have the same opportunity to connect with and learn about Columbia through the application process.”


Next Steps

With an acceptance rate of just 3.7%, getting into a dream school like Columbia University is no easy task. Here are some next steps you can take to better navigate the application process and improve your chances of getting in. 

  • Overall academic success is critical to admissions at Columbia college. Check out academic subject tutoring for your student here.
  • Having a top performing SAT or ACT score can only make you a more competitive applicant. We can help you reach that score, consult with a test prep expert to see if individual tutoring or prep courses would be right for you. 
  • Your personal essay can demonstrate your character and highlight your skills better than any part of your application. Our top tutors can also help your students perfect their personal essays. Schedule your initial consultation here.

If you’re in the process of applying, there are few better resources than real sample essays that worked to get other students into Ivy+ schools. Fortunately, we’ve got over 50 real essays for you to use as examples: click the link below to download them for free. 


Top College Essay Posts


Mike

Mike

Mike is a PhD candidate studying English literature at Duke University. Mike is an expert test prep tutor (SAT/ACT/LSAT) and college essay consultant. Nearly all of Mike’s SAT/ACT students score in the top 5% of test takers; many even score above 1500 on the SAT. His college essay students routinely earn admission into their top-choice schools, including Harvard, Brown, and Dartmouth. And his LSAT students have been accepted In into the top law schools in the country, including Harvard, Yale, and Columbia Law.