The Columbia 2019-2020 Leadership Essay

Who is a leader you admire, and why? (250 words)

This new topic for Columbia gave our clients some trouble in the first round, but there are essentially two approaches:

Aspirational: choosing someone with leadership qualities you hope to develop in yourself.


Confirmational: choosing someone who reflects qualities you already possess.

It’s vital to frame your essay in one of these two ways so that Columbia learns something important about you. They aren’t interested in just reading a 250-word hagiography (GMAT word!) of your leader.

With that in mind, I recommend introducing your leader and their most admirable and relevant qualities in the first half. In the second half, you can provide an example of how you have emulated them (confirmational), which is easier. Or, you can explain the gap between your current level of leadership and theirs (aspirational), which is more difficult — requiring a deeper level of self-awareness and self-analysis — but potentially more impactful.

Given the word limitation, I don’t recommend trying to squeeze in contributions you can make to or takeaways you need from Columbia. If the essay is written well, the connections will be clear. I also recommend against “virtue signaling” (i.e., trying to appear wholesome and righteous) by choosing beloved leaders, such as Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr., just because you think doing so will impress the adcom. As I tell all my clients when we’re brainstorming, start with the truth. That usually leads to the most interesting, insightful, and powerful answers.