Podcast Summary – What a Columbia Admissions Officer Really Looks For – Inside the Admissions Office

A recurring feature in the Advanced Thinking blog will be podcast summaries. These summaries will include 1) a brief summary of the entire episode, 2) a timestamped breakdown of the segments of the podcast, and 3) my takeaways for students and families.

Podcast Summary

In this episode, the host interviewed Jennifer Duran, a former admissions officer at Columbia University. Ms. Duran discussed applying early decision or regular decision. She also commented on Columbia’s test-optional policy. Ms. Duran noted several ways students can stand out above their peers and noted that Columbia pays attention to students’ demonstrated interest in the university. In the second half of the episode, Ms. Duran described the sections of the Columbia application in detail.

Segment Breakdown

Admissions (1:00-12:07)

What’s Columbia looking for? Students who want to use the city as an extension of the campus

What’s unique about Columbia? Internships in the city, diversity (geographic & ethnic), the Core Curriculum

Should you apply early decision? If Columbia is your top choice and you don’t have a concern about financial aid, then yes, apply early decision. If you are deferred or waitlisted, write a letter of continued interest – it will help get you to the top of the waitlist.

What about the test-optional policy? Test scores are preferred by admissions officers. If your scores is in the middle to the top of Columbia students’ scores, share the scores!

Seasons of the admissions officer’s year (12:07-14:52)

Summer – Getting ready for the fall

Fall – College fairs, information sessions, reading early admissions applications

Winter – Reading regular admissions applications

Spring – Hosting campus visit days

Process of reading the application (14:52-22:02)

High level overview – Type of high school, parents’ jobs, activities, short answer questions, essays, academics (AP courses, GPA, rank, test scores)

Rate the student – Rigor of the student’s high school work, SAT/ACT, impact of the involvement of the student (don’t just be involved, make an impact through your involvement)

Read the essays – 15-20 minutes to read the entire application if the candidate is competitive

How to stand out (22:02-25:42)

Top 5% of your class, take AP courses, involvement & impact, demonstrated interest

Misconceptions about Ivy League schools (25:52-28:06)

Less stuffy and elite than one might think, most students are from public high schools, there are both liberal and conservative students

The Application (28:06-51:18)

Which college? Decide which college is the best fit for you and apply to it. Don’t expect to get in to one college and then transfer to the other (Columbia College or Columbia Engineering). Know your strengths and how you would fit in at each college.

List questions – These brief essays (75 words) are unique to Columbia. 1) Titles of required readings from high school, 2) Titles of books, essays, poetry, short stories, or plays enjoyed outside of school, 3) Interests: publications, journals, podcasts, lectures, museums, music, social media accounts followed. The school is looking for students who are intellectually curious, engaged, and involved. Again, admissions officers are looking for students’ impact: how do these readings impact who the student is and how the student impacts his/her community.

Essays – There are three essays. The first one is about living in diverse community. This essay can put someone above other candidates. The second essay is about why the applicant is interested in attending Columbia. This essay can take a candidate out of the running. The student should know what research is going on at Columbia he/she wants to be involved in as well as the characteristics of Columbia that draws the student to the university.

Supplementary materials – These are optional. If your supplementary materials don’t show a national or international level of work, don’t submit it.

Wrap-up (51:18-52:40)

Start exploring early – take a virtual tour early in high school to start determining if Columbia is on your list. Become knowledgeable about the campus and the admissions process.


  • Be intentional about what you are reading throughout high school. How does your reading impact who you are becoming?
  • Make an impact. Think through whether you are making more of an impact on your community than your peers.
  • You don’t need to be well-rounded. Stand out in your area of focus.
  • Remember to demonstrate interest in your top colleges.