Columbia University General Studies Essay

Many fellowship applications require two essays: one explaining a student's background and goals, or the personal statement, and one setting forth a project or research proposal. Ideally these two essays should work together, supplementing the other with essential information about students and their project.

Some tips for writing the personal statement follow.

Make Your Passion Manifest

Your personal statement should convey the essence of your passion—the core of your personality, the well-spring of your commitment and drive. You do this by telling a story about yourself, one in which key moments of self-discovery and self-realization set you on a rising path that culminates, for the present, in the fellowship application. It should also be a path that you plan to stay with for many years to come.

Situate Yourself on a Trajectory

If the second essay, or project proposal, is task-oriented, the personal statement should have a developmental emphasis. In the project proposal, you want to get across all that you intend to do in the fellowship year. In the personal statement, you want to talk about the decades leading up to that year, as well as those that will follow. The goal is to present the fellowship award as both an affirmation and a boost. As an affirmation: it will ratify all of your efforts to realize yourself so far. As a boost: it will give you the experience and knowledge to make a larger contribution to humanity in your coming career.

Show the Origins of Your Desire

The earliest point on your personal time-line is often the most resonant. When did you first realize that you had the consuming passion that animates your application? Often enough, this moment of epiphany lies in the past, somewhere in childhood. Sometimes, however, it can be found in a recent course at Columbia or in last summer’s trip to another country. What book, what teacher, what taste of adversity or of unexpected success revealed your purpose to you? What encounter with the world, willed or accidental, set you on the course that you say you want to take?

Recount One or Two Moments of Triumph

Generally the fellowship applications will offer you plenty of blank boxes to list your honors, awards, publications, and other badges of merit. It would be a mistake, therefore, to use valuable space in the personal statement to reiterate these successes. Instead, establish your qualities of persistence and motivation by focusing on one or two smaller but indicative moments of triumph. These can be times, for example, when you helped solve an intermediate step of a large, intimidating problem; or when you silenced someone who was skeptical of your abilities with an incontrovertible display of competence; or when you managed to communicate your passion to a previously indifferent colleague or classmate.

The nature of the obstacle counts for less, in this context, than the fact that you surmounted it. Keeping technical details to a minimum, and focus on yourself and how you managed to surpass the limits of your own expectations.

Paint a Picture of Your Future

The selection committee is likely to view their award as an investment in your future—and by extension, in the future of the nation or of the world. Help them believe that you are a person of genuine promise by painting a picture of your future self. Explain how you will continue to build, after the fellowship year, on the interests and enthusiasms you have already set forth. Where do you hope to be ten years from now? What kinds of responsibilities do you foresee yourself having? Through the specificity and conviction of your prospective self-portrait, let the selection committee know that you will make them proud of their choice down the road.

Stay Anchored in Your Story

Unlike academic papers, the best personal statements are anchored in earthy details. You are presenting yourself as an individual with a particular, rooted, and contingent life history. It is likely that there was little of the predictable or the generic in your experiences before GS. You made unusual choices, took big risks, and overcame long odds. To anyone who knows you, these may be self-evident truths—but the selection committee doesn’t know you. You can help them recognize and appreciate your uniqueness by capturing the details of your story in your personal essay.

Applicants are admitted to the School of General Studies as matriculated degree candidates. Students may enroll either full or part time and may change their status from semester to semester. 

Applicants are only eligible for admission if they have taken a break of a year or more in their educational paths or have a compelling reason for which they can only attend Columbia as a part-time student.

How to Apply

Undergraduate degree applicants must submit the following:

  1. A completed application, using either of two methods:
  2. Official* high school transcripts, secondary school records, or GED/TASC test results. Applicants with a GED or TASC and two or more years of high school will need to submit their high school transcripts.
  3. Official* transcripts from all colleges or universities attended
  4. Official* test score
    1. If your native and predominant spoken language is English, or if the primary language of instruction in your high school or secondary education was English, you must submit an official score report from a Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT) or American College Testing Program (ACT) score. Official score reports are sent directly to the GS Office of Admissions from the testing service. The SAT code number for General Studies is 2095 and the ACT code number is 2716. Students who have no test scores or test scores older than eight years may take the General Studies Admissions Examination (GSAE) at a cost of $50.


    2. If your native or predominant spoken language is not English and the primary language of instruction in your high school or secondary education was not English you must demonstrate proficiency in English by submitting official scores from TOEFL, the Duolingo English Test or IELTS. The Duolingo online exam takes about 30 minutes to complete, and test results are available within 48 hours. The TOEFL or IELTS must be taken within two years of application to the School of General Studies. To be eligible to apply for admission, GS requires a score of 100 on the Internet-based TOEFL, or a 600 or better on the paper version, a minimum score of 75 on the Duolingo or a score of 7.0 on the IELTS. Applicants should arrange to have recent test scores sent to the GS Office of Admissions directly from the testing service. The Educational Testing Service (or ETS, the organization that administers the TOEFL) code for GS is 2095. English proficiency may also be demonstrated by applicants to GS who are already enrolled in Columbia’s American Language Program (ALP) who have achieved a minimum level of 8 on the ALP Essay Exam.
  5. One typed, double-spaced essay of approximately 1,500-2,000 words. See the Application for Admission for essay question.
  6. Two letters of recommendation from academic and/or professional sources.
  7. A nonrefundable application fee of $80 in the form of a check or money order payable to Columbia University. Applicants using the online application may use a credit card to pay the $80 fee.
  8. New Student Scholarship Application**

*Official documents are those that arrive in a sealed envelope directly from the institution or testing service.

** Submitting the GS New Student Scholarship Application is optional, but highly recommended. The New Student Scholarship Application must be completed and submitted by the appropriate deadline in order to receive priority consideration.

Please note: Documents not in English must be accompanied by certified translations.

Mailed Applications

Completed applications should be sent to:

Office of Admissions and Educational Financing
Columbia University School of General Studies
408 Lewisohn Hall, Mail Code 4101
2970 Broadway
New York, NY 10027

Once submitted, admissions materials become the property of the School of General Studies and are not returnable to the applicant. Applications are processed when files are complete. Admissions decisions are made on a rolling basis.

Admissions Decisions and Tracking Your Application

Information about when admissions decisions are rendered may be found here.

If you have already applied to Columbia University School of General Studies, you may check the status of your application online.

Applying to Other Undergraduate Schools of Columbia University

Applicants may not simultaneously apply to the School of General Studies and to any other undergraduate division of Columbia University—Columbia College (CC) or the Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science (SEAS)—nor are candidates eligible to apply to the School of General Studies if in the last three years they applied to either of these divisions and were not accepted.

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