How to Get Into Columbia University

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Columbia University is a private Ivy League research university in New York City. It’s ranked the No. 18 university in the nation by U.S. News and World Report. 8,148 undergraduate students attend Columbia, and the university’s total enrollment is over 30,000.

Known for its Ivy League prestige, rigorous academics, strong alumni network, and abundance of opportunities for students, Columbia attracts over 60,000 applicants each year.

Competition for a seat at Columbia is fierce, but we’re here to help. This guide is packed with data, information, and advice to help you strengthen your application and increase your chances of acceptance.

About Columbia

For over 250 years, Columbia’s rigorous curriculum has helped shape intelligent, confident students who are ready for the workplace. Its Core Curriculum ensures that students graduate with a breadth of knowledge in literature, history, philosophy, music, art, and science.

Columbia is home to three undergraduate schools, thirteen graduate and professional schools, a world-renowned medical center, 25 libraries, and over 100 research centers and institutes. World-class faculty members are leaders in their fields, and students say they are also “fantastic in their interest in teaching students.”

The student body is described as diverse, intelligent, passionate, and ambitious. With students typically balancing their classes with leadership roles, internships, and volunteer work or activism, Columbia does have a bit of a “stress culture” and can be competitive, but students say their peers are kind.

Going to college in New York City means there’s no shortage of fun activities. Students enjoy nearby restaurants, museums, shopping, downtown clubs, and shows — whether comedy or Broadway. On campus, the university’s World Leaders Forum brings in speakers that include presidents and prime ministers from around the globe. The university offers over 500 student organizations, ranging from philosophy journals and intramural athletics to culinary societies and investment clubs.

Is It Hard to Get Into Columbia?

Most recently, Columbia University had an acceptance rate of 3.73%. For every 100 students who applied, only four were accepted. The other 96 received a rejection.

The previous year, the acceptance rate was 3.66%, and the year before that it was 6.15%. In general, you can expect Columbia’s acceptance rate to hover around 4%-5%.

In comparison to other universities, this acceptance rate makes Columbia extremely competitive. It is one of the hardest schools to get into in the country.

GPA and Test Scores

Students admitted to Columbia have an average GPA of 4.12. To be a competitive applicant, you must be at the top of your class with straight A’s or nearly straight A’s.

You should also take AP and IB classes, which boost your GPA and demonstrate your ability to manage the rigor of college coursework.

Columbia is test-optional through at least Fall 2024. This means it’s up to you whether to include ACT or SAT scores with your application. If you choose not to submit test scores, it won’t put you at a disadvantage. However, we highly recommend submitting test scores unless you feel they reflect poorly on your academic ability.

The average ACT score for students admitted to Columbia is 34. The 25th percentile score is 33, and the 75th percentile score is 35.

Now, we’ll look at an SAT score breakdown for students admitted to Columbia.

Section Average 25th Percentile 75th Percentile
Math 770 740 780
Reading 735 710 760
Total 1505 1450 1560

 

When applying to an extremely selective school like Columbia, it’s best to aim for a score in the 75th percentile to improve your chances of acceptance. Based on the numbers we’ve shared, that means you should aim for a:

  •       GPA of at least 4.12
  •       ACT of 35, OR
  •       SAT of 1560, with a 780 in Math and a 760 in Reading

Of course, these numbers are nearly perfect. However, the data shows that students with slightly lower (but still exceptional) numbers get into Columbia too. Think of your GPA and test scores as a ticket to get your foot in the door.

They prove you have the academic ability for Columbia, motivating the admissions team to take a closer look at the rest of your application. But they aren’t the only factor Columbia considers when evaluating applicants.

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What Other Qualities Does Columbia Look For?

Columbia reviews each application “holistically and with care.” Your application helps them understand not only your academic credentials, but also your passions, interests, and background. They aim to identify students who “will take greatest advantage of the unique Columbia experience and will offer something meaningful to the community in turn.”

They will also review your application in context. They consider your academic performance alongside the opportunities available to you, the personal obligations and extracurricular commitments you’re balancing alongside your coursework, and how you are seeking challenges within the context of your environment. The admissions committee accounts for family circumstances, work and home responsibilities, and “systemic and situational barriers and advantages.”

Ultimately, Columbia looks for:

  •       Academic preparation
  •       Curiosity (e.g, desire to investigate big ideas and solve difficult problems, spirit of inquiry and innovation, openness to cross-disciplinary scholarship and diverse perspectives, and a willingness to interrogate personal beliefs)
  •       Engagement with others (e.g., commitment to broader community and interests)
  •       Individual voice
  •       Intellect, curiosity, and dynamism
  •       Personal qualities such as dedication, integrity, kindness, inclusivity, leadership, collaboration, sense of personal and civic responsibility
  •       Excellence/significant achievement in some of your activities and pursuits
  •       Knowledge of Columbia and enthusiasm for its distinctive characteristics

So, getting into Columbia University is about much more than your grades and test scores. After all, many applicants will have exceptional numbers. To stand out from the crowd, you’ll also need to demonstrate excellence outside of the classroom — through your character, your extracurricular pursuits, and your service to the community.

What Should You Do in High School?

Now that we’ve covered data and information, let’s get to the fun part: strategy. What can you do in high school to increase your chances of acceptance to Columbia?

Excel in Challenging Courses

Like all Ivy League universities, Columbia is academically rigorous. To demonstrate that you can succeed at Columbia, you must show that you can excel in the most challenging courses available at your high school.

So, take AP and IB classes and demonstrate your ability to handle the coursework. The average GPA for students admitted to Columbia is 4.12, which means you’ll also need to earn straight A’s (or very close to straight A’s).

Columbia also expects applicants to have:

  •       Four years of English literature and composition
  •       Four years of mathematics (unless you’ve already completed what is available at your school)
  •       Three to four years of history and/or social studies
  •       Three to four years of laboratory science
  •       Three to four years of one foreign language taken during high school

Take notes in all your classes and review them each week. Turn in all assignments on time and prepare thoroughly for all tests. If you find yourself struggling with the material or starting to fall behind, don’t wait until it starts to negatively impact your grades. Be proactive by asking for help from your teacher, a tutor, or a student who’s performing well in the class.

And remember that although extracurricular participation is important, your grades matter the most. Don’t spread yourself too thin by taking on so many activities that your schoolwork suffers.

Earn Excellent Test Scores

The SAT and ACT give you another opportunity to showcase your academic ability, further demonstrating that you’re prepared for the rigor of Columbia.

Columbia superscores both the ACT and SAT. If you take an exam more than once, you will be evaluated on the highest individual score you received in any individual section.

Even though Columbia is currently test-optional, we encourage you to take test prep seriously and aim for the highest test score possible. If you have a high GPA, excellent test scores can help you stand out from applicants with similar grades. And if your GPA isn’t as strong as you’d prefer, exemplary test scores can help make up for it.

Begin preparing for your exam a few months in advance, using the following test prep process:

  •       Take both the ACT and the SAT to see which exam best showcases your strengths.
  •       Once you’ve selected an exam, use your score report to create a customized study plan. Identify your strengths and weaknesses, along with specific question types or skills you struggle with.
  •       Consider purchasing a test prep study guide. They’re filled with practice tests, sample questions, and helpful strategies.
  •       Schedule time each week to drill practice questions, read high-level texts, and work on the skills you find most challenging.
  •       Continue taking practice tests to track your progress, practice your pacing, and adjust your study plan as needed.
  •       With one month remaining until your test date, focus exclusively on your area(s) of weakness.
  •       If your score is lower than you hoped for, use your score report to create a plan for improvement. With your updated study plan, repeat this test prep process and retake the exam.

We recommend taking the test up to three times to earn the highest score possible. If you still aren’t happy with your test score, remember that you aren’t required to submit it to Columbia. But remember that exceptional test scores can give you a competitive edge, and do your best to earn a score worth including with your application.

Pursue Your Passions

Columbia looks for students who will engage in the university’s “rich campus life” and bring their unique perspective and interests to campus. They want to see what activities and pastimes you choose to invest your time in, and they’re also interested in seeing excellence or significant achievement in some or any of these pursuits.

Instead of pursuing activities you assume will impress Columbia, pursue your passions. The admissions committee wants to get an idea of what you genuinely enjoy doing and how you will engage with the campus community. So, choose a few activities and commit to them long-term, striving to take on leadership roles, make significant contributions, and earn awards and recognition when possible.

Columbia’s website specifically mentions “summer activities,” so find ways to continue pursuing your passions during the summer months too. This may include competitive summer programs, internships, independent research, or volunteer work.

Along the way, keep a record of your extracurricular participation. Record when you began participating in the activity, any formal leadership roles you held or informal contributions you made, and any related accomplishments. This will make it easier to thoroughly report your involvement on your application to Columbia. It may even spark some inspiration for an excellent application essay.

Serve Your Community

Commitment to the broader community is important to Columbia, along with integrity, inclusivity, and a sense of personal and civic responsibility. Additionally, students say activism is “essential to the Columbia experience” and “encouraged by the school itself.”

Serving your school, community, or the wider world will benefit you in many ways, including demonstrating that you’re a good fit for Columbia.

Join an existing service organization or initiative in your community, or even launch your own. Many successful applicants to Ivy League universities have spearheaded social justice movements, built their own nonprofit organizations, or found creative ways to raise funds for causes they consider important.

Whatever you do, make a positive impact on others in a way that is meaningful and inspiring to you. In your opinion, what are some of the most important problems in your school or community? What social justice issue matters the most to you? Identify the causes that are close to your heart and consider what you can do about it.

Along with recording your extracurricular participation, keep a record of your community service involvement. Note what you did and why, how it made an impact, and how many hours you spent on the initiative. Your desire and ability to impact your community now predicts that you’ll make an impact at Columbia, and in the world after your college graduation.

Columbia Application Process and Checklist

Columbia accepts either the Common Application or the Coalition Application, with no preference given to either form.

Your application will include:

  •       Official high school transcript
  •       Self-reported test scores (optional)
  •       Lists and descriptions of achievements, activities, employment, and summer activities
  •       Counselor’s recommendation and school profile
  •       Two teacher recommendations from teachers who taught you in academic disciplines
  •       Personal essay
  •       Columbia-specific application questions

Interviews are optional for admission to Columbia. Due to a limited number of student and alumni volunteers, interviews are not granted to everyone. If you’re granted an interview, you’ll be connected with an interviewer after submitting your application. If you aren’t offered an interview, don’t worry—you are not at a disadvantage in the admissions process.

Supplementary materials are also not required by Columbia. However, you are welcome to include them if you feel they will enhance the admission committee’s understanding of your application. The school’s website states that there is no guarantee that supplementary materials will be reviewed, as they are not a required part of the application.

These materials may include creative portfolios, academic research, or credentials that don’t fit in the activities section of your application.

Columbia University Supplement

In addition to the personal essay required by the Coalition App or Common App, applicants to Columbia must answer two list questions and four short answer questions.

The list questions are:

  •   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)

As the name suggests, these questions are lists. Separate each item on your list with a comma or semicolon, with no additional explanatory text.

Be genuine in your responses and try not to overthink it. It’s not a trick question — Columbia really wants to know what you read, what websites and podcasts you follow, and what music and movies you love.

If you’d like more direction, think about your intended major at Columbia. Try to choose some responses that demonstrate your dedication and inquisitiveness in this area.

The short answer questions are:

  •   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. (200 words or fewer)

This essay is a slight twist on the classic “community” essay asked by many colleges. Start by thinking about the communities you belong to: your neighborhood, family, interest groups (whether it’s “skateboarders” or “aspiring chemists”), cultural and religious affiliations, or clubs and organizations.

What have you experienced with or learned from one of these communities that is important to you, something that has shaped you as a person or changed the way you think? And how would it impact the way you interact with Columbia’s campus community in the fall?

  •   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)

To answer this question, you’ll need to do your research. Spend time on Columbia’s website exploring the programs, people, and opportunities that get you excited about Columbia.

Avoid general answers about rigor, diversity, or the school’s New York City location. Show that you’ve truly spent time imagining yourself at Columbia, and you already know which programs and experiences you’re planning to get involved in.

Finally, your essay should also reveal something about you and your values. Try to find a common thread in the aspects of Columbia that excite you. What does this theme reveal about you?

  •   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)

Again, you’ll need to do your research to answer this question. Narrow your focus to one or two elements of your intended area of study, then connect them to your personal experiences and goals for the future.

Get specific, and let Columbia know which resources you plan to take advantage of — ideally resources that most other applicants haven’t mentioned. As you write, let your enthusiasm for Columbia shine through. Demonstrate that talking about your future as a Columbia Lion makes you feel excited and hopeful.

  •   In Columbia’s admissions process, we value who you are as a unique individual, distinct from your goals and achievements. In the last words of this writing supplement, we would like you to reflect on a source of happiness. Help us get to know you further by describing the first thing that comes to mind when you consider what simply brings you joy. (35 words or fewer)

This is another question that isn’t a trick, and you shouldn’t overthink it. When you read the question, did anything immediately spring to mind? Going with your first thought, as the essay suggests, is the best way to ensure your response is genuine and reflects who you are.

You don’t have to write about (and probably shouldn’t) the overwhelming joy you feel in calculus class. It can be learning a new instrument, eating your grandmother’s signature dish, braiding your sister’s hair, working on your car, or growing your garden. Try to write about something new — so if you’ve already mentioned that you’re the captain of the soccer team, write about a source of happiness other than soccer.

Simply describe something that brings you great joy, and briefly reflect on why it makes you feel completely over the moon.

General Essay Tips

For all your essays, including the Coalition App/Common App essay, keep the following tips in mind:

  •       Stick to the topic. These questions reflect what the admissions committee wants to know about you, so be sure to fully answer each question. And because your word count is limited, it’s essential to stick to the topic, avoiding unnecessary tangents or excessively long introductions.
  •       Write in your genuine voice. Your essays are the best opportunity to show the admissions committee who you are as a person. Let your personality and voice shine through. Your essays should be polished, but they should also be authentic and true to who you are.
  •       Show your values. Remember the values that are important to Columbia: dedication, integrity, kindness, inclusivity, leadership, collaboration, sense of personal and civic responsibility. When relevant, show examples of how you live these values in your essays.
  •       Be reflective. Columbia’s website specifically states that self-reflection is important in your essays. Demonstrate critical thinking and self-awareness. Don’t just answer the question; reflect on why the topic is important to you, how it has impacted you, and what you’ve learned from your experiences.
  •       Include specific details. Specific details make your essays unique and memorable. Instead of speaking in generalities, use concrete details that bring your experiences and ideas to life.
  •       Proofread carefully. When applying to a school with a 4% acceptance rate, you don’t want to submit a typo-filled essay. Proofread multiple times for grammar, spelling, punctuation, word usage, clarity, and concision. Remove unnecessary or repetitive words and phrases. Then, have a parent, teacher, or trusted friend review your essays as well.

Should You Apply Early to Columbia?

Columbia offers both Early Decision and Regular Decision. The Early Decision deadline is November 1, and applicants receive a decision in mid-December. The Regular Decision deadline is January 1, and applicants hear back from Columbia around March 31st.

Early Decision at Columbia is binding. If admitted, you must withdraw all other applications and accept Columbia’s offer of admission. This means you should only apply Early Decision if you’re certain that Columbia is your first choice.

But does applying Early Decision give you an edge in the admissions process? Columbia’s Early Decision acceptance rate is 10%, more than double the Regular Decision acceptance rate. This suggests that applying early may give you an advantage, although it’s possible that stronger applicants tend to apply early.

You’ll also receive a decision much earlier if you apply Early Decision. You may find out that you were deferred, which gives you the chance to submit updated information that will enhance your application.

If Columbia is your top choice, we recommend applying Early Decision. Just remember that you’ll need to have your application ready to go by November 1, and you must be willing to make a binding commitment to the university.

Final Thoughts: How to Get Into Columbia University

Columbia is an extremely selective university, one of the most competitive in the country. To get in, you’ll need an exceptional GPA and test scores, intellectual curiosity, strong personal qualities, passion, a desire to help others, and demonstrated excellence outside the classroom too.

Here’s how to get into Columbia, or at least increase your chances:

  •       Take challenging classes and earn a GPA of at least 4.12.
  •       Score a 35 on the ACT, OR a 1560 on the SAT, with a 780 in Math and a 760 in Reading.
  •       Dedicate time to extracurricular activities you’re passionate about, serving in leadership roles, making significant contributions, and striving for awards and recognition when possible.
  •       Serve your school, community, or the world in ways that make a difference and are meaningful to you.
  •       When you write your essays, stay on topic, do your research, write in your authentic voice, include specific details, show your values, and let your enthusiasm for Columbia shine through. Remember to proofread thoroughly.
  •       If Columbia is your first choice, apply Early Decision.

Armed with your academic brilliance and the information and strategies in this guide, you’ll improve your chances of becoming a Columbia Lion.

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