A Day in the Life at Columbia University

The tutors behind Varsity Tutors are not just here to teach – they’re sharing their college experiences as well. Manuel is a New York City tutor and 2010 graduate of Columbia University. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in Applied Physics and specializes in Algebra tutoring, Physics tutoring, and SAT Math tutoring. Check out what Manuel had to say about his time at Columbia University:

VT: Describe the campus setting and transportation options. How urban or safe is the campus? Are there buses or do you need a car/bike?

Manuel: One of the best things about attending Columbia University is living on the campus. While the school is located in Manhattan (essentially in the middle of a massive metropolis), Columbia University’s campus is isolated from the city. It shields those students who want to get away from the urban environment and submerge themselves in a more intimate college setting. Transportation is always available, with the subway system running 24 hours a day and campus buses running around the clock. The campus provides each student with the choice of walking, riding a bike, or taking public transportation, given that most locations within the university are in a 10x10-block area. The beauty of Columbia University is that its campus is big enough to provide a unique and intimate college setting within one of the largest cities in the world, yet small enough to allow students to reach every destination through any means of transportation.

VT: How available are the professors, academic advisers, and teaching assistants?

Manuel: The availability of professors and advisers is a big plus at Columbia University. They are always willing to meet with students outside of office hours. As a result, I always felt encouraged knowing that I had a great support network that sincerely wanted to help me in whatever way I needed.

VT: How would you describe the dorm life – rooms, dining options, location, socialization opportunities with other students?

Manuel: Columbia University has state-of-the-art dormitories. One of the first things I noticed in my freshman year was that the close proximity of housing buildings provided the right setting for new students to socialize and make friends. At the same time, you have to be careful not to get caught up in making new friends. Avoid making your academic responsibilities second to your social life. Dining at Columbia University was not my greatest experience. I would advise students to rely more on getting food from nearby supermarkets, groceries, and restaurants.

VT: Which majors/programs are best represented and supported? What did you study and why? Did the university do a good job supporting your particular area of study?

Manuel: Columbia University is one of the leading liberal arts colleges in the United States. The school places a high value on providing each and every student with a well rounded education regardless of what concentration they choose. As an engineer, I was not only exposed to challenging math and science courses, I was also required to complete a full year of liberal arts courses in literature and history. I chose Applied Physics because as early as I can remember, my mind operated very well when surrounded by numbers. As a result, I felt I was better equipped for an education based on math and science. Though the Engineering school is not as big or as renowned as the liberal arts college, I felt that I was part of an institution that motivated its students to push the limits of knowledge and discovery. That was one of the main reasons I decided to not only study Applied Physics, but to also pursue a doctorate degree in that field.

VT: How easy or difficult was it for you to meet people and make friends as a freshman? Does Greek life play a significant role in the campus social life?

Manuel: It is not hard to make friends as a freshman because you will see a lot of freshmen in housing buildings and classes, as well as at school events. The university hosts many events for freshmen, through which you can meet other students and become familiar with the campus. Greek life is not as significant as at other universities nationwide, but they provide students with another social perspective. Personally, I chose to join a Greek organization that allowed me to expand my circle of friends and participate in community-related events like educational forums and entertaining fundraisers.

VT: How helpful is the Career Center and other student support services? Do many reputable companies recruit on campus? 

Manuel: One of the advantages of attending school in a big city is the recruitment opportunities. The Career Center does a great job of preparing students through resume prep and mock interviews. Columbia University has a great network of mentors, advisers, and accomplished alumni who provide students with not only great advice for securing internships and jobs, but also connections with many reputable companies all over the world.

VT: How are the various study areas such as libraries, the student union, and dorm lounges? Are they over-crowded, easily available, spacious?

Manuel: Columbia University has many study areas and libraries. Butler Library is not only Columbia University’s biggest and most popular library, it is also one of the biggest university libraries in the nation. Due to its popularity, Butler Library is often crowded, so a word of advice to incoming freshmen is to find one of the many other locations on campus that provide great study environments. Among these are the smaller libraries located in buildings where classes are taught, the dorm lounges in upperclassmen housing buildings, and the many actual classrooms that remain open to students for the majority of the day. Most of these study areas are easily accessible to the entire student body, and they satisfy the needs of most students. Whether you need a huge room for group projects or are just looking for a quiet and solitary environment, Columbia University has a place for everyone.

VT: Describe the surrounding town. What kinds of outside establishments / things to do are there that make it fun, boring, or somewhere in between? To what extent do students go to the downtown area of the city versus staying near campus? 

Manuel: Columbia University is located in the middle of New York City, so it is easy to access restaurants, bars, etc. As a freshman, you will soon find out that some students like to go downtown and others like to stay on campus. This provides great flexibility, so it is important to build a social network that is diverse and willing to get to know not just the nearby environment, but also all the different possibilities New York City has to offer. A word of advice is not to get overwhelmed by all the choices at your disposal. You do not have to feel like you have to explore everything in your first year or your first semester. Take it slowly, and allow sufficient time to adapt to campus and city life. You will not have enough time to see everything, so there is never a need to rush.

VT: How big or small is the student body? Were you generally pleased or displeased with the typical class sizes?

Manuel: The student body is large, which can be both a positive and negative thing. Positive because a large student body provides many perspectives on the many issues and topics you will see in class and around campus. Negative because you can feel overwhelmed and get the "small fish in a big pond" feeling, which can make you feel like you need to do more than you should in order to get noticed. Like most schools, class size varies depending on your year and concentration. Introductory courses have around 100 students, while the smaller writing and literature courses can be anywhere between eight and 20 students. From my experience, it is important to become comfortable with both settings early on. Try to take courses in your first semester with large and small class sizes, as this will allow you to explore in-depth the diversity and opportunities that a large student body can provide.

VT: Describe one memorable experience with a professor and/or class. Perhaps one you loved the most or one you regret the most.

Manuel: One of my most memorable experiences occurred during the fall semester of my freshmen year. One of my mandatory Engineering courses required a group project. We had to build a device that could assist disabled individuals in opening a laptop with the push of a button. This project was so memorable because from the first day, the class demanded us to be creative, bold, and collaborative. Given my lack of experience, completion of the project took endless hours of work and collaboration with my peers. However, the success of our device made me feel extremely accomplished. I remember thinking that if in my freshman year I could build a prototype that could help people use technology, then by the end of my college experience, I would be able to accomplish so much more. I can say that Columbia University accomplished its goal of motivating students right from the beginning, and as a result, I felt inspired to accomplish many feats and goals that I would have never thought were within my reach.

Check out Manuel’s tutoring profile.

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Varsity Tutors.