If I was someone who lost their hair when I was stressed, I would’ve gone bald trying to put together my application nearly two years ago. When I considered Columbia right after graduating undergrad, not having any kind of sample work kept me from applying. Later, after having multiple pieces published per month over a nearly two-year span, I had to figure out how to show both my ability to write technically and my ability to write about what was important to me.
I struggled with trying to decide what I could include that would adequately show who I was and not just the skill that I had. I remember almost deciding against a piece and then telling myself that I wanted the admission decision to be made based upon who I was fully and not who I could pretend to be if I needed to. I wanted to make sure the department knew who they were getting based off of my samples and my personal statement.
Hours before the personal deadline I set for myself, I scrapped my entire personal statement in an effort to be a little less polished and a little more honest. I knew I was in a period of my life where making decisions about my future had to include taking risks, and those risks had to push me toward bravery and honesty.
Ironically, Shonda Rhimes’ Year of Yes–which I reviewed and included in my portfolio–propelled me toward all of these risks. Quite simply, Rhimes realized “no” was her default answer for everything and without good reason. She was doing tremendous work but opting out of the experiences her work had made way for. I included this review in my portfolio for two reasons: I wanted to show that I could (or would at least attempt) any kind of writing, and I wanted to show my path to Columbia inspired by the book.
I also included a music review as another attempt to show that I could do cool things. I was asked to review a mixtape released by a group out of Houston, TX. By including this piece, I wanted to show that I was a fan of music and that pop culture writing wasn’t outside of the realm of my ability. I also wanted to show that I could write fun things and not just scathing indictments of rape culture and the justice system as touched upon by a few of the other pieces in my portfolio.
The last piece I want to mention was kind of a personal essay reflecting on growing up in church and then figuring out what religion means to me as I get older. Of the ten or so pieces I included, this might have been the most personal. I knew I wanted to submit it as a way to add even more dimension and honesty to my application. I wanted to show that my faith is important even though it’s evolved over time and that I could write about it in a way that allowed others to relate.
All this is to say, don’t be afraid to show off what you can do and who you are in your portfolio. In this age of feigned objectivity in hard news, there’s still space and so much merit in speaking from your experience. There’s still space in journalism for more poetic and visual writing–space for feeling. Unless that’s what floats your boat, you don’t have to come to Columbia and turn yourself into a newsbot with no connection to what you’re reporting. Don’t forget about the person you were when you wrote the pieces in your portfolio. You’ll learn a great deal here at Columbia but don’t forget to dance with the one who brought you.
P.S. That’s you.