This post has been marked as OLD. EssaySnark's advice and strategies for winning MBA applications don't change from year to year, but some of the school-specific admissions policies, essay questions, or other information covered in this article may be outdated.
As you can see from that little banner announcement that we posted at the top of the site yesterday, Columbia has released its MBA essay questions and application deadlines for the upcoming admissions season. Columbia is typically first out of the gate (sometimes HBS beats them) with making such announcements; they’re the ones to formally kick things off, most years. They’re right on time with what was expected.
We offered our standard shorthand reaction to the new essay questions on our dedicated Columbia school info page (and the Columbia 2016 MBA essay guide will be available shortly) and we were tempted to leave it at that. After all, we’ve done enough Columbia-bashing over the years.
But of course we couldn’t leave it alone.
Not with this one thing that needs to be said.
They’ve left their essays mostly unchanged, which is not uncommon for Columbia Business School. They’re very consistent in what they’re looking for in applicants and the questions they use to solicit that information. They did some tweaking of those questions, which signals the type of essays they DON’T want to get for those questions based on what they got last year (though frankly, anyone who read last year’s Columbia guide would not have made those mistakes, since we anticipated them for you and steered you away from the common issues). None of this was a surprise.
The big change they made was unfortunately a very very (very very very) small one:
They increased the allowed length of your answer to “What’s your immediate post-MBA professional goal?” from 50 characters to (drum roll please)…
When we first saw the number “51” on the Columbia site yesterday, we actually thought we’d made a mistake in the just-passed admissions season. We figured that they had somewhere along the way increased the 50 character limit to 51 last year, for the Class of 2018 application, and we just hadn’t noticed it.
Maybe there was some type of system glitch that did not allow their online application to store 50 characters and they had a system requirement that 51 was the shortest field possible. (Unlikely.) Maybe the IT person who had originally configured the Class of 2018 app software had mistakenly created the field as 51 characters long, and they’d already been accepting apps, so instead of changing it to 50 and cheating new applicants of that extra character, they made it 51 officially. (Also not very likely, but we believe something like this is what happened with Michigan Ross this past year with how they changed their essay prompt in mid-season.) Sometimes schools make mistakes with what they post, and then they fix it.
But we kept looking at our notes and talking with the team here in Snarkville and nobody could remember seeing a 51-character limit before. So after much debate, we had to come to terms with the fact that they upped the limit without upping the limit.
On behalf of all BSers everywhere, we are trying not to be insulted by this.
The thing is, we called Columbia to task last year for decreasing the limit allowed for this answer from 75 characters (Class of 2017) to 50 characters. This was an answer that they used to give you 200 characters for. They kept whacking away at it until we ended up at 50. Which, as we’ve now said like a gazillion times, is ridiculous.
But it’s even more ridiculous to increase it by one character.
What message is THAT supposed to send?
“Here you go, all you future applicants. You said the field was too short. We’ve increased it!”
We try to be the voice of the applicant in this process. It’s an uneven market, with a lack of transparency on the side with the most power. The schools can do whatever they want, generally speaking. That’s definitely true in an era of increasing app volumes. They don’t have to make things easier on their applicants – though thankfully, over the past few years, many of them have tried, by implementing different processes, like the mid-cycle release where candidates who are being rejected find out much earlier than they used to (though that can result in some significant bouts of depression for many) or by reducing the number of essay questions (whether that’s applicant-friendly or not is debatable given the unintended consequence of app inflation – more apps across the board at all schools – which leads to lots more waitlisted applicants). The fact that Columbia has also implemented variable length limits on their three standard essays this year is a nice attempt by the adcom to give applicants more control over the process. (You’ll want to pick up our Columbia 2016 app guide as soon as it’s released since that’s where we’re going to do the full discussion of strategy on essay length for this school.)
We know that some adcoms have started to do customer surveys at the end of the admissions cycle, where they send out a questionnaire to candidates to see what they thought of the process. The first time we saw that – from, we think, Tuck (? could’ve been Yale) – we were pretty impressed. There’s this debate in academia about whether students should be viewed as customers at all – we’re not going to go into that right now but it was certainly refreshing to see some schools solicit feedback on their processes from the people who actually have to suffer through them.
We’ve never heard of Columbia doing formal surveys but maybe they do. Certainly admitted students will give unsolicited feedback to admissions on elements of an application that they don’t like (and rejected students also do too, frequently with high emotions and less objectivity). The schools do get an impression of what people think of their requirements. But it’s not like schools are focused on pleasing the customer. This is not a repeat-buyer business; it’s one time through the process and then most people move on, or if they end up as a reapplicant, if they’re smart they’re not going to b!tch to the school about how awful the app was the first time they went through it. Adcoms aren’t in the business of people-pleasing. They’re not trying to court repeat customers coming back again and again. It’s easy for schools to get blinders on and be willfully oblivious to the pain and suffering they impose on their candidates.
(OK, that’s a little extreme. Limiting a short-answer question to only
50 err 51 characters is not in the category of “pain and suffering” – but it does make it difficult on the applicant – in our opinion, unnecessarily so.)
We’re not so arrogant as to assume that all schools actually read the little snarky blahg we’ve got going here – though we know that sometimes they do! We’re trying not to take this personally. It’s not like we think that there was some discussion in the Columbia Admissions Team Conference Room in Uris Hall when they were deciding on the app requirements this year, and someone said, “Hey, last time EssaySnark was pretty upset about how we took that field down to 50 characters and they thought it should be bigger” and someone else said, “OK, let’s increase it to 51 then!” and everyone laughed and so they did it.
We honestly cannot imagine what conversation DID transpire for them to go from 50 to 51.
What message is that intended to send?
Why not just keep the darned thing exactly the same?
It’s not like most UP-AND-COMING APPLICANTS who are applying for their very first time in the about-to-begin application season would ever notice the difference. Maybe they’ll be like, “51 characters? That’s a weird number” and move on. Most of them have no clue as to the history.
Keeping track of those things is our job.
Any change will obviously be subject to scrutinization (yes that’s a word) in Snarkville. They could not have expected this to go un-snarked-upon. So again, we’re trying not to over-interpret (or take it personally) but we have to issue this, usually reserved for only the very special essays we’re reviewing, as our final assessment:
EssaySnark feels like little minions running around launching marshmallows at the walls of the Ivory Tower where these adcom people reside. We’ll keep our marshmallow-launchers fully stocked and ready to fire, on behalf of you BSers, even though all they seem to do is bounce off.
Here's what others have said about this:
Some of us love reading your ‘little snarky blahg’ 🙂
I agree, the 1 character increase sounds ridiculous. Maybe they wanted to account for the dot at the end of the sentence? Who knows. In any case, I am happy I am not applying to Columbia. All the time they gave that impression of aloofness on me, and they demonstrate it again with this…
Aw, thanks, Char!
You know, we’ve heard feedback about Columbia such as you’ve shared before. We do know that they made a concerted effort to try and change the culture to a more team-focused and outwardly friendly(ier) one but still, we hear people say these things. “Aloof” is a good way to put it. Admittedly, culture is hard to change (but then yeah, they do weird stuff like this, which makes ya wonder…).
Anyway, thanks for the kind words, and we hope to see you around again!