Note: This final question differs slightly between applicants to Columbia College or to the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. For applicants to SEAS, there is no option to apply as undecided, so the second sentence is omitted from this prompt.
The admissions committee is interested in knowing what you find fascinating about your field and what you have done to broaden that interest. They are trying to weed out people who are applying for a given major just because it sounds fancy. But, more than that, they also want to see what makes you tick, how your passion for learning carries you beyond your high school classes, and what keeps you up at night in a fever pitch of wonder and excitement. You want to find the best, and most concise, way to showcase your passion. 300 words are a lot fewer than you would think!
At CollegeVine, we have broken down the “Why Major?” essay into two main questions:
- Why do you want to study this subject?
- Why are you qualified to study this subject?
Your essay should seek to address both of these questions with as high a degree of specificity as possible. Because this essay is so short, it is difficult to address a general field. You cannot fully explain your love of a subject with a mere 300 words. “I love astronomy” is not sufficient. Instead, you could write more specifically about your interest in exoplanets and astrobiology. Include a personal story about stargazing as a child that sparked your love of the field and mention scientific research completed in high school that further cultivated your interest in the stars.
It’s also possible that you are still figuring out what you want to study. No intellectually curious seventeen-year-old is ever certain about the topics and disciplines that will drive their future studies.
One way to communicate your interest and your desire to continue exploring a given topic is to talk about a recent conversation you had with someone who is already immersed in a field that you are curious about. An essay might begin: “Ever since my high school teacher combined potassium permanganate and glycerol and set his lab coat on fire, I’ve been fascinated with the chemical property of flammability. In order to learn more, I reached out to John McJohnson, a graduate student studying autoignition temperatures at the University of California, Davis. What most excited me about our conversation was…”
Of course, in order to write this essay, you need to actually have a conversation with someone who is working in that field. If you live in a town that has a research university, and if you are considering majoring in chemistry, you can actually go to the chemistry department’s university website, find a professor or graduate student whose work looks interesting to you, and send them an email asking to meet for coffee.
This may seem intimidating, but we can assure you that there are lots of researchers who might be willing to take 30 minutes out of their day to talk with a young person about their work. You might not get a response (most of these people are very busy), but the sooner you get used to reaching out to potential future colleagues and making connections, the better off you’ll be.
No matter what approach you take to this question, you’ll want to be sure to avoid cramming in too much jargon in an effort to communicate your technical mastery. You only have 300 words, and the point of this essay is not to dazzle your reader but rather to show what practical steps you’ve taken to explore and develop your intellectual interests.
However, you choose to write your essays, dare to be a little creative. Don’t just describe the university that the Columbia admissions officers already know. Ideally, they will see their campus a little bit differently after having read what you imagine it might be to you. As Columbia’s website says, they are looking for students who “will take greatest advantage of the unique Columbia experience and will offer something meaningful in return to the community.”
As the government begins its crackdown on essay mill websites, it’s easy to see just how much pressure students are under to get top grades for their coursework these days. But writing a high-scoring paper doesn’t need to be complicated. We spoke to experts to get some simple techniques that will raise your writing game.
Tim Squirrell is a PhD student at the University of Edinburgh, and is teaching for the first time this year. When he was asked to deliver sessions on the art of essay-writing, he decided to publish a comprehensive (and brilliant) blog on the topic, offering wisdom gleaned from turning out two or three essays a week for his own undergraduate degree.
“There is a knack to it,” he says. “It took me until my second or third year at Cambridge to work it out. No one tells you how to put together an argument and push yourself from a 60 to a 70, but once you to get grips with how you’re meant to construct them, it’s simple.”
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The goal of writing any essay is to show that you can think critically about the material at hand (whatever it may be). This means going beyond regurgitating what you’ve read; if you’re just repeating other people’s arguments, you’re never going to trouble the upper end of the marking scale.
“You need to be using your higher cognitive abilities,” says Bryan Greetham, author of the bestselling How to Write Better Essays. “You’re not just showing understanding and recall, but analysing and synthesising ideas from different sources, then critically evaluating them. That’s where the marks lie.”
But what does critical evaluation actually look like? According to Squirrell, it’s simple: you need to “poke holes” in the texts you’re exploring and work out the ways in which “the authors aren’t perfect”.
“That can be an intimidating idea,” he says. “You’re reading something that someone has probably spent their career studying, so how can you, as an undergraduate, critique it?
“The answer is that you’re not going to discover some gaping flaw in Foucault’s History of Sexuality Volume 3, but you are going to be able to say: ‘There are issues with these certain accounts, here is how you might resolve those’. That’s the difference between a 60-something essay and a 70-something essay.”
Critique your own arguments
Once you’ve cast a critical eye over the texts, you should turn it back on your own arguments. This may feel like going against the grain of what you’ve learned about writing academic essays, but it’s the key to drawing out developed points.
“We’re taught at an early age to present both sides of the argument,” Squirrell continues. “Then you get to university and you’re told to present one side of the argument and sustain it throughout the piece. But that’s not quite it: you need to figure out what the strongest objections to your own argument would be. Write them and try to respond to them, so you become aware of flaws in your reasoning. Every argument has its limits and if you can try and explore those, the markers will often reward that.”
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Fine, use Wikipedia then
The use of Wikipedia for research is a controversial topic among academics, with many advising their students to stay away from the site altogether.
“I genuinely disagree,” says Squirrell. “Those on the other side say that you can’t know who has written it, what they had in mind, what their biases are. But if you’re just trying to get a handle on a subject, or you want to find a scattering of secondary sources, it can be quite useful. I would only recommend it as either a primer or a last resort, but it does have its place.”
Focus your reading
Reading lists can be a hindrance as well as a help. They should be your first port of call for guidance, but they aren’t to-do lists. A book may be listed, but that doesn’t mean you need to absorb the whole thing.
Squirrell advises reading the introduction and conclusion and a relevant chapter but no more. “Otherwise you won’t actually get anything out of it because you’re trying to plough your way through a 300-page monograph,” he says.
You also need to store the information you’re gathering in a helpful, systematic way. Bryan Greetham recommends a digital update of his old-school “project box” approach.
“I have a box to catch all of those small things – a figure, a quotation, something interesting someone says – I’ll write them down and put them in the box so I don’t lose them. Then when I come to write, I have all of my material.”
There are a plenty of online offerings to help with this, such as the project management app Scrivener and referencing tool Zotero, and, for the procrastinators, there are productivity programmes like Self Control, which allow users to block certain websites from their computers for a set period.
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Look beyond the reading list
“This is comparatively easy to do,” says Squirrell. “Look at the citations used in the text, put them in Google Scholar, read the abstracts and decide whether they’re worth reading. Then you can look on Google Scholar at other papers that have cited the work you’re writing about – some of those will be useful. But quality matters more than quantity.”
And finally, the introduction
The old trick of dealing with your introduction last is common knowledge, but it seems few have really mastered the art of writing an effective opener.
“Introductions are the easiest things in the world to get right and nobody does it properly,” Squirrel says. “It should be ‘Here is the argument I am going to make, I am going to substantiate this with three or four strands of argumentation, drawing upon these theorists, who say these things, and I will conclude with some thoughts on this area and how it might clarify our understanding of this phenomenon.’ You should be able to encapsulate it in 100 words or so. That’s literally it.”
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