Applying to Grad School

Applying to Grad School

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This is the time of year when many prospective students begin gathering their degree certificates, GPA scores, resumes, and references with the view to applying to grad school. It can be a stressful time with so many different deadlines to meet. As a Graduate Student Ambassador, I get a lot of questions concerning Columbia’s application process. As such, I thought it would be helpful for Marginalia readers if I wrote about the process in general terms, as well as shared my own application experience. To make things easier, I have written this post as an FAQ and addressed the most important and common application based questions. If you are about to apply, press pause and read this first!

I want to preface this post by saying one very important thing: “Leave yourself time! Lots and lots of time!” Getting all your documents, portfolios (not you AEMMers!), demo reels etc. together can take longer than you think. Avoid the stress, start now.

“How competitive is the application process?” 

This is one of the most common questions and also one of the most difficult to answer. I believe Columbia brings in around 200 new graduate students for all 15 grad programs. This means that each class is small and students have a great deal of student-teacher interaction. The element of competition should not dissuade you, because ultimately, it means you will be in a great program with a great cohort.

“Why should I apply? I am concerned that I won’t get accepted.”  

Quick answer: Trying is better than not trying at all.

Long answer: The goal of Columbia’s graduate programs is not to accept only those people who are already at the top of their game but to accept those who strive to be. If you are passionate about your graduate education you should apply, as that passion will be evident in your application, and the Graduate Admissions Review Committee will pick up on that. You have to be a strong applicant, sure, but the admissions process is also about “fit”. If you think you are the right fit for Columbia and Columbia is the right fit for you, say so! However, if you do have some concerns, why not hold off on applying for a year and take some time to think about it?

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“I have to write a self-assessment essay… HELP!” 

I won’t repeat the information regarding the essay that you can find on the application for your prospective program. I will talk about my experience. I always answer this question by telling people that I look at the essay as having three main parts:

1) I stated what my goals were,

2) I talked about who I am and what I have done,

3) I described how a Columbia education would allow me to reach those goals.

My essay outlined how Columbia would improve my professional skills and allow me to get to where I wanted to be. Simple! There are, of course, a few more things to sprinkle in the mix, but as a general outline, that is what I did. It is important to convey to the reader the passion you have as well as give them a sense that Columbia is vital for you to progress in your field—You need Columbia, and Columbia needs you! Remember though, be concise and get as many eyes on your essay (and other materials) as possible. Proof read again and again.

“How important is my resume?”

In a word, very. As well as your essay, your resume is your opportunity to tell your story. Make sure to highlight relevant experiences and skills that will strengthen your application. Look back at what you have done and identify the things that distinguish you. If you did an awesome internship at a gallery, say so, but leave out the part-time job you had flipping burgers (unless, of course, you find some extraordinarily inventive way of relating it to your desired field of study). It goes without saying that if the layout/formatting is bad, this can say more about you than the actual words on the paper.

“How important are my references/recommendations?”

Errrrm, as important as everything else! Choose your references carefully. Ideally you want someone that can speak positively about your work ethic, your reliability, your skill set, your personality etc. Make sure you leave enough time to call in these favors, because of all the things you need to submit, recommendations can take a surprisingly long time.

“I am an international student. What extras do I need to submit?”

As an international student myself, I had to satisfy the extra requirements listed HERE. The extra steps require even more time, so keep that in mind. Getting your transcripts translated by WES is a big one!

“What about submitting work samples?” 

As an Arts, Entertainment, and Media Management student, I did not have to submit work samples. However many of the other programs require them. If you cannot find all the info you need on the specific application requirements for your program, do not hesitate to contact the corresponding Graduate Student Ambassador for your program, as well as the Graduate Admissions Office.

There are a whole host of other questions I could answer, but these are the ones that come up most often. If you need more help, send me an email (, and I will gladly oblige!

For more FAQs, visit the Graduate Admission’s FAQ page.