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.”
For many top achieving high school students around the world, gaining admittance into Harvard University represents the realization of a dream. However, with applications soaring and acceptance rates down to just 5.3% for the class of 2019, achieving that dream has become harder and harder.
A key component in your application to any college is the essay, giving admissions committees a window into your life beyond your resume. A well written essay can revive the chances of a student with a weak extracurricular profile and poor SAT scores, while a poorly written essay full of cliché can derail even the valedictorian with a 2400 SAT and perfect extracurricular activities. Harvard in particular heavily emphasizes the essay portion of a student’s application due to the exceptional quality of the applicant pool each year.
For most schools, the essay on the Common Application provides one opportunity for students to introduce themselves. But most elite schools also have a supplement to the Common App, in which they ask for additional required essays to gain more insight into you as an applicant.
Harvard’s supplement doesn’t work in exactly the same manner.
On the Harvard Supplement, the Additional Essays section reads as follows:
“Occasionally, students feel that college application forms do not provide sufficient opportunity to convey important information about themselves or their accomplishments. If you wish to include an additional essay, you may do so.
Unusual circumstances in your life
Travel or living experiences in other countries
A letter to your future college roommate
An intellectual experience (course, project, book, discussion, paper or research
topic) that has meant the most to you
How you hope to use your college education
A list of books you have read during the past twelve months”
The optional and open-ended nature of the supplement has resulted in frustration for hundreds of thousands of students over the years. Opinions vary regarding whether you should or shouldn’t send in the Harvard Optional Essay. Debate is always heated when this question is asked on the popular College Confidential forums, with about half of the posts saying “go for it!” and the others saying that you don’t need it. A quick scan of the Internet literature shows mixed opinions as well. When you keep in mind that most of the opinions expressed on the web are by students looking to reassure themselves of their own uncertainty, the issue quickly becomes a wild goose chase.
Luckily, we have an answer that ends the debate and will help you rest easy. We polled a random sample of over 200 students in Harvard’s Class of 2017 and found that of those accepted students, over 85% wrote the optional essay. So you probably should as well.
This finding shouldn’t surprise you. For a few students it truly doesn’t matter – kids have been accepted into Harvard before without sending in the optional essay. On the flip side, if you know that your test scores, GPA, or ECs are average or worse (in the context of Harvard, that describes 99% of applicants) – then the optional essay provides an invaluable opportunity to enhance your application and increase your chance of catching the eye of that admissions counselor.
And when you do write that optional essay, be sure to go big; write an essay on a totally unique passion, a compelling narrative of a key moment in your life, or an insightful academic essay that highlights your intellectual talents. Statistically, your chances of getting into Harvard are so slim that it can’t hurt.
For help on how to write the Harvard Supplement, feel free to check out this year’s post on How to Write the Harvard Optional Supplement Essay or reach out to work 1-on-1 with one of Admissions Hero’s trained Harvard essay specialists.