No offense, Columbia, but this is a crappy essay question and we’re surprised that you are using it. But maybe the admissions committee knows something we don’t. Here’s what we do know: Most people’s essays about “a leader you admire” totally and completely suck.
Or perhaps that was the whole point. Maybe Columbia is using an intentionally crappy essay question to see who will rise to the challenge and write something that is insightful and grand.
Thankfully, Columbia tends to change their essay questions every year, so it’s unlikely that Brave Supplicants will have to suffer through this exercise for more than one season.
If you’ve decided to try for Columbia, here’s a cheat sheet for how to handle their Essay 3.
Before we begin: You totally don’t have to write your essay this way. You can pick whatever leader you want. Hopefully it is in fact someone you admire, and not someone you’re picking because you think your choice will impress your admissions reader.
However, all things being equal, we’re willing to bet that leveraging this set of tips will help you get much closer to a good essay for this question than the path that you’ve tried to take on your own.
First, let’s establish some fact.
Fact 1: Columbia does not care who you pick. Really, they don’t. They care about why you are picking them.
Fact 2: Leadership is a thing with bschools; if you don’t have a good grasp of what leadership means to you, you’re gonna be hosed with trying to answer this question.
Fact 3: This question must be about YOU.
That last point is important. If you end up writing 250 words about this leader where your essay basically looks like a Wikipedia page, you have failed before you began.
So then, how do you do it? How do you write Columbia essay 3 so that it actually gives the adcom useful information about YOU? And doesn’t go off into the weeds describing some feats of impressiveness from the leader you name?
Here’s a quick and dirty path to greatness for you:
1. Pick a leader THAT EVERYONE KNOWS. If you have to explain who you’re talking about, then that’s going to bog down the essay. For this reason, we actually recommend picking a famous person, and even probably picking a contemporary (still living or recently deceased) person. If you want to pick your grampa, you can do that, but that means that you’ll need to devote quite a bit of your limited word count in establishing who you’re talking about.
2. Clearly and directly state your “why” answer in the first paragraph of the essay — and make sure that your “why” captures THE LEADERSHIP QUALITY(IES) THAT YOU THINK ARE SIGNIFICANT.
Pro Tip: THIS IS THE MOST IMPORTANT PART OF THE ESSAY.
Or at least one of the most important parts.
If you cannot identify why this person is a leader, then it’s not a fit to the question.
This may require more self-reflection on the qualities of leadership than you would expect. Can you really articulate what that means? Then, can you identify why you see that trait in this person?
3. Now, tie this into your own experience.
There are a gazillion ways to do this, and we’re reluctant to give examples or else there will be gobs of essays that have literally that example in them this season. Suffice it to say, if you do this part well, this is where you will be leapfrogging the competition. Nobody is doing this well on this essay, so if you have even a partial tie-in, with something vivid and precise from your own life that makes the statement of admiration for this leadership personally meaningful, then we bow down to you, BSer, as an essay-writing and self-reflecting god. The gist of it is: If you say that X is the leadership trait that you admire, is there another few sentences that you can say about YOU and why X is important to you? (This is just one way to tease apart this strategy. There are others!!! Just don’t go too far afield with your extrapolation, or you risk the connections getting frayed and the essay feeling forced. It has to be a natural outgrowth of the reasons you’re claiming are important, in your “why I admire this person” statement.)
Again, this is not going to be easy. But if you do all three steps as laid out here, we guarantee you’ll be taking advantage of what this question offers.
Hope that helps you unpack an unfortunately-worded prompt.