What is Columbia Known For? Is Columbia a Good School?

Originally established as King’s College in 1754 by England’s King George II, Columbia University is New York’s oldest higher learning institution (and the 5th oldest in the nation). 

Columbia’s endowment currently sits at almost 14.5 billion dollars, making it the grandest of any academic institution in the world. This endowment provides countless opportunities for student research and financial aid. 

Columbia meets 100% of demonstrated financial need of all first-year and transfer students pursuing their initial degrees.

The school is currently New York City’s only university-related research park, and its Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory is a significant contributor to the investigation of global climate change.

These assets are likely contributing to Columbia’s recent surge in applications. Just over 30,000 students applied to Columbia in 2012, and as of 2021, that number has more than doubled. 

Within that decade, the acceptance rate has thinned from 7% to 4%, though the school now yields more admitted students.

Columbia University is one of the most prestigious schools in the Ivy League, the United States, and the world. 

In the following sections, we’ll discuss the school’s most popular academic majors, long-running traditions, an abundance of student organizations, and why it’s one of the best places to gain an exceptional education.

What Majors & Academics Are Columbia Known For?

Columbia University
JSquish, Butler Library Columbia University, CC BY-SA 4.0

Columbia is divided into three undergraduate schools: Columbia College, the School of General Studies, and the Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science. 

All students begin their Columbia education with the “Core Curriculum” before proceeding to a program in one of these three schools.

The Core Curriculum was conceived to expose Columbia students to a broad range of disciplines, including literature, philosophy, science, and music. 

Class sizes typically do not exceed 22 students, allowing more significant interaction with faculty and peers. 

The most popular majors at Columbia are engineering, economics, and political science. After completing the Core Curriculum requirements, engineering students enroll in “technical Core” classes such as chemistry, physics, and calculus. 

Computer science is a popular major within the school of engineering – students learn how to design software, code, and develop algorithms that will be adopted by successful organizations.

Many engineering students apply to Columbia’s School of Engineering and Applied Science to complete their graduate degrees. 

The SEAS is one of the best engineering schools in the world, and it was most recently ranked #1 in the Ivy League and #13 in the world by U.S. News & World Report.

When it comes to economics, Columbia’s department is considered among the best in the world. 

Columbia economics majors explore questions like what drives CEO pay and income inequality, how the markets respond to financial crises and the impact of a slow-growing population on the economy.

Econ students who collaborate with a faculty member can register to receive 1-2 hours of credit. These positions typically involve fewer than ten hours of work per week and are an excellent opportunity to develop relationships with experts on and off-campus.

The political science major requires students to choose a primary field; next, they complete a minimum of three courses and a 4-hour seminar within that field. They will also choose a second field and complete a minimum of two courses.

In the comparative politics field, for example, students investigate why democracy thrives in some countries and fails in others, how political institutions influence economic development and the effects of political violence. Students in this field pay special interest to regions outside of the United States.

Is Columbia a Good School?

Columbia is easily one of the best schools in the nation. 

Its reputation is predicated upon its commitment to research and innovation. The school boasts more Nobel Prize laureates than any other American university (84 to be exact). 

In addition, four U.S. presidents, 90+ Pulitzer Prize recipients, and 46 Olympians all called Columbia home at one point.

Many students gravitate to Columbia for its geographic appeal. Situated in Manhattan, there are few colleges like Columbia that offer opportunities for total immersion in a melting pot of cultures and industries. 

Students whose interests range from fashion and design to finance and engineering will find exceptional programs to suit their needs at Columbia.

In addition to granting access to all of New York City’s wonders, Columbia University maintains several international partnerships with schools like Oxford, Cambridge, and King’s College. 

The school also has a domestic partnership with the all-female Barnard College, located just across the street. Students can enroll in classes at both locations and participate in each other’s extracurricular activities. 

Columbia is considered to be the most diverse college in the Ivy League – students attending the school can expect exposure to diverse perspectives and experiences, and there are many extracurricular groups dedicated to bridging connections among students of different backgrounds.

In addition to being the most diverse of the Ivy League institutions, Columbia holds a top spot in various acclaimed rankings lists. The U.S. News & World Report, for example, ranked them #2 overall among U.S. universities and #6 in the world. 

Columbia Traditions

Columbia is brimming with traditions. From the rowdy to the reverent, Columbia students enjoy the opportunity to participate in a wide range of activities perpetuated by prior generations.

Let’s start with one of the first rituals of the year – Through the Gates. Each year (as part of the New Student Orientation Program), Columbia faculty and staff sing the Columbia fight song while first-year students enter the gates of the school. 

Thanksgiving brings Columbia students together with a giant feast – over 1,000 students attend before departing for a week-long break. 

There is turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing, and all the sides one could imagine, all served family-style in the John Jay Dining Hall. 

This meal is often a highlight for international and out-of-state students who don’t depart campus for the short break.

Other fun fall activities include Homecoming and the President’s Annual Fun Run. This 5K race brings in hundreds of Columbia students, faculty, and alumni for a walk/run through Riverside Park, which lines the Hudson River. 

This tradition was started by President Lee Bollinger in 2002 – the longest-serving president of any Ivy League school, to date.

In the wintertime, Columbia’s tree-lighting ceremony steals the show. The campus is illuminated with lights from trees along the College Walk. 

Before and immediately after the lights are turned on, students can indulge in hot chocolate and fresh donuts while acapella groups perform holiday-themed songs.

Bacchanal is one of the most anticipated events of the year. Taking place before spring finals, this day-long festival attracts major singers and bands to campus (like Lupe Fiasco, Big Sean, and A$AP Ferg). Food trucks abound, and there are often free movie screenings in open campus spaces.

Class Day Ceremonies are one of the most special traditions occurring at the end of the academic year. Here, students’ names are read aloud as they walk across the stage to receive their graduating class memento. 

Those who have achieved particularly impressive academic, research-based or athletic feats are also acknowledged.

Prominent Clubs & Extracurricular Activities at Columbia

Columbia University Hall
Beyond My Ken, Columbia University Earl Hall from north, CC BY-SA 4.0

Over 500 student organizations await students at Columbia. From leadership and mentoring to program-focused and philanthropic, there are plenty of groups for students looking to get involved.

The Residence Hall Leadership Organization has a significant presence on campus. They serve the needs of students living in on-campus housing and put together fun and engaging events to bring people together. 

The RHLO Send-Off occurs each autumn on the South Lawn of campus. Here, students from all three colleges at Columbia participate in carnival games (there may or may not be inflatable jousting tournaments…), listen to live music, and enjoy treats like cotton candy and funnel cake. 

The Multicultural Affairs Advisory Council is a group of student advocates from all three colleges who are dedicated to identifying on-campus issues, promoting inclusion, and organizing intercultural activities. 

They are made up of four separate but unified boards focused on serving first-generation students, international students, students of color, and queer and trans students.

MAAC members participate in a range of activities, like organizing awareness campaigns, fostering connections among various demographics, and drafting recommendations for social issues that harm the experience of students on campus.

The Columbia Mentoring Initiative is a popular club that matches first-year students (mentees) with returning students (mentors). All students in the club can also develop connections with Columbia alumni.  

There are several “family trees” within the CMI where students can develop connections, including the “Latinx,” “LGBTQ,” and “Indigenous” Family Trees. 

Returning student and alumni mentors focus their conversations on supporting mental health, academic excellence, social belonging, and leadership cultivation. 

There are many other fun organizations devoted to specific talents and passions. The Bach Society is Columbia’s sole student-run orchestra and choir ensemble. 

They hold regular performances on campus, which are free to all students. Other music aficionados may enjoy WKCR, a student-led, ad-free radio station that has a 25-year broadcasting history.

With engineering being such a popular major at Columbia, the Society of Women Engineers may prove to be a valuable resource. 

SWE’s mission is to empower females to serve and lead in engineering positions all over the world. They attend many conferences, community events, corporate sites, and other professional sessions designed to support their members.

What Sports Are Columbia Known For?

Columbia is best known for its nontraditional sports offerings. Their fencing program, for example, is one of the oldest and best in the nation. 

The school has sent several fencers to Olympic competitions, and Katy Bilodeau was named the NCAA female athlete of the decade. 

The team has won 16 NCAA tournament championships (more than any other school in the conference) and 53 Ivy League titles since its inception.

The women’s archery team is an equally successful group. They originally started at Barnard College in 1978 and became included in Columbia’s athletic program in 1983. 

The team has won the outdoor national championships seven times since 2005, and five archers were recently named to the Collegiate Archery All-American Team.

As of late, the Columbia Athletic Department has increased its efforts to draw students to football and basketball games. Basketball Mania takes place before the basketball season begins, and includes a fun night of dance and cheerleading performances. 

Columbia students can also enter a raffle to win impressive prizes, such as $10,000 or free tuition for a year!

Why Columbia?

Those fortunate enough to be admitted to Columbia will find themselves attending school in one of the most innovative, diverse, and exciting cities in the world. 

From Madison Square Garden and the Lincoln Center to the theaters dotted along Broadway and people-watching in Times Square – a student can walk through Manhattan every day and never experience the same thing twice.

If the cultural appeal isn’t enough to enchant students, they will certainly be satisfied with unparalleled access to research, study abroad, and internship opportunities. 

The Data Science Institute – one of the school’s premier research facilities – was launched in 2012 and exists to train the next generation of data scientists. 

With an undergraduate population of less than 10,000 students, Columbia is small enough to feel connected while large enough to take advantage of many extracurricular offerings. 

Those looking to attend a school immersed in tradition will find a happy home at Columbia, where students celebrate everything from the first snowfall to the end of organic chemistry exams.

Columbia graduates join the ranks of Nobel Prize winners, American presidents, Pulitzer Prize recipients, and Olympians. A trailblazer at the time of its inception, Columbia continues to pave the way for diversity, innovation, and collaboration in education today.