How to Write Columbia’s List “Essays”

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Columbia University asks for three fairly standard supplemental essays, on community, on your chosen major, and on why you want to attend Columbia in particular. In addition to these, however, they have a far less standard short-answer question, where they ask you to produce lists. This can often trip students up, as this is far from a standard essay question, and many students are left wondering if this is a trick of some kind, meant to trip them up.

In this article, then, we’ll explore these questions and what they’re asking, then we’ll explore how to go about answering them. We’ll include some examples from past Ivy Scholars students who saw success when they applied to Columbia. For more general information about Columbia, see our university guide on the school. Let’s get started!


What is Columbia Asking?

Columbia is asking for two separate lists, each of which encompasses materials you have interacted with. These are separated by theme. They ask for:

  • List the titles of the books, essays, poetry, short stories or plays you read outside of academic courses that you enjoyed most during secondary/high school. (75 words or fewer)
  • We’re interested in learning about some of the ways that you explore your interests. List some resources and outlets that you enjoy, including but not limited to websites, publications,  journals, podcasts, social media accounts, lectures, museums, movies, music, or other content with which you regularly engage. (125 words or fewer)

The first essay is on books alone; specifically ones which you read outside of the academic environment of your high school. While it is the shorter of the two, this is still more space to discuss books than everything else. The second question allows you to explore the “everything else” you are interested in.

Each of these allows for a very small word count, meaning Columbia is giving you the space needed to list a reasonable amount of material, but is not asking for a full essay. Instead, they are looking for a brief survey of the media that has shaped you and the person that you are. Note also that they are only asking for the titles of books; you do not need to include the author (and indeed, they request you do not).


What is Columbia Looking for?

Generally, Columbia asks you to answer this question for the same reason universities ask for the answers to any supplemental essay: to better understand who you are, and what you will bring to the school. Thus, what they are looking for is a portrait of you, as seen through the media you enjoy. 

The focus on books especially is telling. While not all intelligent students are voracious readers, and not all voracious readers are great students, a correlation between reading and academic aptitude is often observed. This is another way Columbia is seeing if you will be a fit for the academic and social environment they are trying to foster on campus. If you deeply hate reading, then this question will be difficult to answer for you. This is by design. 

Of course, this is also meant as a more fun way to get to know you and your interests, especially ones which may not come across otherwise in an application. Maybe you enjoy doing problem sets to Johnny Cash, or always have reggae beats in the background. These details can help flavor your application, and show different sides of you to admissions officers.


Example Lists

Now we’ll give you some examples of how past Ivy Scholars students have answered these questions. After, we’ll analyze what these answers did well, and how this can inform your own answers. 

Important Note: The questions asked are from previous years, and Columbia has since updated their prompts. The most up-to-date prompts are the ones listed above, and these are the ones you need to answer. We include these more dated examples because they still show what Columbia is looking for, they just have a slightly different format from what you will see.

Example 1

List the movies, albums, shows, museums, lectures, events at your school or other entertainments that you enjoyed most during secondary/high school (in person or online).


American Factory, Becoming, Good Time, Memento, Knock Down the House, The Partially Unexamined Life, Point of Inquiry, Ratatouille, Room, The Truman Show


Black Mirror, Bojack Horseman, The Boys, Breaking Bad, Glee, Jane the Virgin, Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich, Gossip Girl, Narcos: Mexico


The Future by Leonard Cohen, The Eminem Show by Eminem, The Stranger by Billy Joel, Juno Soundtrack, Mamma Mia Soundtrack, Fine Line by Harry Styles, Born to Die by Lana Del Ray

Live Shows:

Astroworld Festival at NRG Park, Conan Gray at Revention Center


The Menil Collection, Houston Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston Museum of Fine Arts, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Museum of Natural Science – Washington D.C., Houston Space Center


A Conversation on Ratifying and Implementing the USMCA: A View from Congress – Kevin Brady and Don Beyer, The Post-Pandemic Future of Urban Design and Public Health – Richard J. Jackson

List the titles of the required readings from courses during the school year or summer that you enjoyed most in the past year. (150 words or less)

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, “La Casa de los Espíritus” (“The House of the Spirits”) by Isabel Allende, Sonny’s Blues by James Baldwin, The Birthday Party by Katherine Brush, Freakanomics by Stephen J. Dubner and Steven Levitt, The House of the Scorpion by Nancy Farmer, The Forensic Casebook: The Science of Crime Scene Investigation by Ngaire Genge, The Odyssey by Homer, Lost in Math: How Beauty Leads Physics Astray by Sabine Hossenfelder, The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx, The Crucible by Arthur Miller, I’d Love You to Want Me by Viet Thanh Nguyen, The Will to Power by Friedrich Nietzsche, The Allegory of the Cave by Plato, Catcher in the Rye by J.D Salinger, Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepytys, A Midsummer’s Night Dream by Shakespeare, The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan, Piedra Negra Sobre Una Piedra Blanca by César Vallejo

List the titles of the books you read for pleasure that you enjoyed most in the past year. (150 words or less)

The Essential Difference by Simon Baron-Cohen, The Balloon by Donald Barthelme, One Indian Girl by Chetan Bhagat, A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson, Let It Rot! by Stu Campbell, The Awakening by Kate Chopin, The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho, My Brother Sam Is Dead by Christopher Collier and James Lincoln Collier, The Palace of Illusions by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, The Snows of Kilimanjaro by Ernest Hemingway, The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini, A Court of Thorns and Roses by Sarah J. Maas, Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov, Heidegger: An Introduction by Richard Polt, Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell, Tweak: Growing up on Methamphetamines by Nic Sheff, Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly, No One Is Too Small to Make a Difference by Greta Thunberg, The Science of Breathing by Swami Vivekanda

List the titles of the print, electronic publications and websites you read regularly. (150 words or less)

Electronic Publications:

Alliance for Justice, The Economist, ELLE, Funny or Die, GovTrack, MIT Press Journals: Global Environmental Politics, National Geographic, The New York Times, NPR: Code Switch, The Onion, Race Forward, SELF, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Wired

Print Magazines:

Bloomberg Businessweek, The Golden Link

Example 2

List the titles of the required readings from academic courses that you enjoyed most during secondary/high school. (75 words or fewer)

History of Buddha Sculptures in Bamyan, Masnavi Rumi, Kalila and Demna Sanskrit Book of Fables, Letter from a student to the teacher, The Father of Afghanistan Music Biography, I Am Like You, Ibn Sina Balkhi Biography

List the titles of the books, essays, poetry, short stories or plays you read outside of academic courses that you enjoyed most during secondary/high school. (75 words or fewer)

Goals, A Promised Land, The Forty Rules of Love, The Symposium, Sophie’s World, Start with Why, The Power of Concentration, Rich Dad Poor Dad, The Seven Habit of Highly Effective People, Dancing in the Mosque, The Art of Seduction, Masnavi, The Illuminated Rumi, Rumi’s Poems and Animal Farm.

We’re interested in learning about some of the ways that you explore your interests. List some resources and outlets that you enjoy, including but not limited to websites, publications, journals, podcasts, social media accounts, lectures, museums, movies, music, or other content with which you regularly engage. (125 words or fewer)

Netflix, YouTube, Instagram, Playing PS4, Impact Theory by Tom Bilyeu, Simon Sinek Podcasts, TedX, Jay Shetty, The Ellen Show, Athlean-X, Mr. Robot, Jumanji, Fast and Furious, Pirates of Caribbean, X-Men, Selena Gomez Songs, Afghan Comedy Show, 13 Reasons Why, Big DawsTV Show, Kung Fu Panda, Tom & Jerry, The Boss Baby

Short Answer Analysis

These are two very different lists, but each tells you something about the person writing it. Of note in both lists is the contrasts presented, and how the student’s favorites cover an often wide range of materials, styles, and genres. 

You should not lie in your submissions, but you should try to portray yourself in the best possible light. This may mean cautious editing judgment with which albums or movies you include. Having some lighter fare is fine, especially in music, but the worst thing you can come across as is one-dimensional. Also, consider avoiding subjects which may come across as offensive or in poor taste. If you do include such, make sure you have strong reasons for doing so.

This isn’t to say you can’t include albums wherein the artists swear, or leave out the Avengers films if they are your favorites. Instead, think about what each piece of media you include says about you, as a student and person. The goal is to portray the best possible version of yourself.

In the examples above, both authors come across as having intellectual interests, though they are also willing to explore subjects across multiple fields. The first is more intellectually focused, while the second is far less so; but both of these serve to complement the information they include throughout the rest of their applications. 

Admissions officers read and evaluate your application as a whole, with this list as a part of that. You should see how this list fits in, and how it compares and contrasts with the other information you include. Does it reinforce your interests, or offer up new facets of your personality? Both are acceptable, and can be done at once, but should be done with thought and intention.


Final Thoughts

Columbia is a top school, and the difficulty of getting admitted reflects that fact. They review every application carefully to find the ones which best match their view of what a Columbia student is and should be, and your essays are an important component of that. Above all, therefore, your essays should be authentic, and portray an honest view of you and your interests. 

Of course, writing great essays is a challenge for any student, and many worry about perfecting their essays as admissions deadlines loom over the horizon. If you want to hear how we can help you with your application to Columbia, or any other college, schedule a free consultation with us today. We’re always happy to hear from you.

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