A Student Perspective on Columbia University

Philip earned his bachelor’s degree in neuroscience and behavior from Columbia University. He specializes in psychology tutoring, algebra tutoring, and a number of other subjects. Below, he shares his experience at Columbia University:

Describe the campus setting and transportation options.

Philip: Unlike many urban campuses, Columbia’s main campus is quite centralized; most of the undergraduate buildings are within a rectangle bounded by 114th Street to the south, 120th Street to the north, Amsterdam Avenue to the east, and Broadway to the west. It really feels like a self-contained, traditional college campus in the middle Manhattan’s Morningside Heights neighborhood, complete with quads, walking paths, and all the features usually associated with a college campus. While all three of the main freshman dorms are conveniently located within this six-block area, some undergraduate housing (including fraternities and sororities), professors’ offices, and administrative buildings are slightly farther away. However, all of the resources and facilities you will need as an undergraduate are located within short walking distance to on-campus housing, with the notable exception of the football field and some other athletic facilities.

Cars are not only unnecessary for transportation, they’re strongly discouraged. Since Columbia is located in Manhattan, where space is scarce, parking is not provided for students. A student would either have to park their car on the street—which is a huge hassle in the short-term, let alone all year—or pay large fees to a parking garage. Fortunately, New York City has a top-notch mass transit system, and the bus and subway systems will take you anywhere you need to go. Bikes are an excellent option, but they must be stored in your dorm room and may prove to be inconvenient for most purposes. If you do choose to bring your bike, bring a quality bike lock and be very careful—bike thefts are very common in this area.

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

Philip: This varies greatly from class to class. Professors with high-powered research careers tend to be less available for one-on-one contact. These professors often delegate office hours and similar duties to their teaching assistants. However, most professors and some TAs do have regular office hours, but some are available by appointment only. For large classes with a consistently high volume of students (e.g. organic chemistry, biology, science of psychology, introductory sociology), a TA or professor is usually available for office hours every day of the week.

Academic advising at Columbia is pretty laissez-faire; it is incumbent upon each student to formulate a strategy for programs and classes, and while each student is assigned an academic adviser, they rarely reach out to you individually. However, motivated students will find that Columbia’s academic advising offers various specialized programs and resources to help guide each individual’s academic future.

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

Philip: Incoming first-year students at Columbia are required to live in on-campus housing for their first year, with very rare exceptions. While housing is guaranteed for all Columbia College and SEAS (engineering) students for four years, students who opt out of on-campus housing at any point in their undergraduate careers will lose their guaranteed housing, and may not be able to re-apply for housing. For example, if a sophomore chooses to live in an off-campus apartment, they may not be eligible to participate in the housing lottery for junior year.

Freshmen are traditionally assigned to one of three residence halls, all conveniently located on the main campus: Carman, John Jay, and the Living Learning Center (LLC). Carman is comprised of four-person suites, with two rooms of two students each. This dorm is ideal for students who want a more lively social scene. John Jay consists of small single rooms, while the LLC includes larger suites of four or more students.

There are two main dining halls for undergraduates, both located close to undergraduate dorms. The quality of the food itself is fairly top-notch, although their hours of operation vary from day to day and some students have complained about overcrowding at times. JJ’s Place, located in the basement of John Jay, is a casual dining hangout open only on nights and weekends. JJ’s is also included in the meal plan and has been recently renovated. Students can watch TV on flat screens (nearly one per table), play board games or foosball, and enjoy some delicious food.

Which majors/programs are best represented and supported? 

Philip: I think it is safe to say that most programs of study offered at Columbia College and SEAS meet extremely high academic standards. However, certain programs are especially prominent. Columbia is the site of many seminal experiments in neuroscience, physics, chemistry, molecular biology, and psychology, and the biological sciences department is staffed by some of the world’s top researchers in their field. Columbia Journalism is consistently ranked as the number one graduate school of journalism in the world, and the Pulitzer Prize is determined by Columbia Journalism faculty. The most popular majors include economics/political science, sustainable development, history, neuroscience (my own major), and financial economics.

Because of my proximity to excellent neuroscience faculty as well as knowledgeable and motivated students with similar research goals to my own, I have felt very fortunate in the academic and professional guidance I have received as a prospective neuroscience researcher.

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?

Philip: There are ample opportunities for incoming freshmen to meet students with similar interests and goals, from NSOP (Columbia’s week-long undergraduate orientation week), to hundreds of clubs and student groups. While Columbia is home to a dozen or so fraternities and sororities, Greek life at Columbia is less prominent here than at most large universities. However, rush events can be a great way for freshmen to meet other students, Greek or non-Greek.

How helpful is the Career Center and other student support services? 

Philip: Columbia’s Center for Career Education (CCE) is an excellent resource for students seeking professional guidance, networking opportunities, internship and job interviews, and more. Columbia’s LionShare website allows students in any Columbia University program to search for internships and jobs in their field. CCE also hosts workshops and classes throughout the school year, from topics such as time management to resume writing.

Columbia hosts various job and internship fairs, from industry-specific events to those limited to juniors or seniors. These events are often well-attended by representatives from top employers in every industry.

How are the various study areas such as libraries, the student union, and dorm lounges?

Philip: Although Columbia has study space in its libraries, residence halls, and other school buildings, it can be very difficult to find a place to study during midterms and finals season, often forcing students to enter and walk around several campus buildings before finding a decent study area. The most common study location is the enormous Butler Library, followed by secondary libraries belonging to the business school, law school, architecture department, and East Asian studies department.

Many residence halls have excellent study spaces conveniently located on their top floors or basements, and many dorms have been recently renovated for additional study space—including Broadway, Schapiro, McBain, and Carman residence halls.

It would behoove incoming students to scope out lesser-known study spaces through trial and error, and develop a list of go-to study spaces to reduce time spent wandering around the library during finals week.

Describe the surrounding town.

Philip: Columbia University is located in Manhattan’s Morningside Heights neighborhood, part of the Upper West Side. The neighborhood is roughly bounded by 125th street to the north, 110th Street to the south, the Hudson River to the west, and Morningside Drive to the east. Morningside Heights is a primarily residential neighborhood populated by students and faculty of Columbia University, Barnard College, Union Theological Seminary, Manhattan School of Music, the Jewish Theological Seminary, and Bank Street College of Education. Because of the density of educational and cultural institutions in the neighborhood, Morningside Heights has been referred to as New York’s “academic acropolis,” a term that also refers to the area’s relatively high elevations.

While Morningside Heights is a markedly different kind of setting from the familiar college town, local businesses, landmarks, and place names reflect Columbia’s strong presence in the community. Popular restaurants along Broadway include Community Food and Juice, Mel’s Burger Bar, Koronet Pizza, Thai Market, and the famous Tom’s Restaurant from the TV sitcom Seinfeld. Because of Columbia’s proximity to the 1 train, students can also explore downtown neighborhoods. A twenty-minute ride from Columbia’s 116th street station can bring a student to Lincoln Center, where they can watch world class performances. Thirty minutes will bring them to Times Square, and forty minutes will transport them to the trendy neighborhoods of West Village, Chelsea, and Soho.

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

Philip: Columbia’s four undergraduate colleges (Columbia College, Fu Foundation School of Engineering, Barnard College, and General Studies) are comprised of about 8,000 students. Class sizes vary, with large lectures in introductory courses, such as General Chemistry or Science of Psychology, often seating 150 students or more. However, most classes at Columbia are smaller than 25 students, and some seminars can be as small as six students. I was generally satisfied by my class sizes, especially in core curriculum classes. The availability of TAs and after-hours tutoring options supplements the already excellent student-faculty ratio.

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

Philip: My favorite and most memorable class was Genes and Development with Dr. Tulle Hazelrigg. The class size was less than a dozen, and the curriculum was simultaneously challenging and fun. One day after class, Professor Hazelrigg brought us to her genetics lab in Fairchild Hall where we observed some specimens of C.elegans nematodes with the fluorescently marked protein GFP. The nematodes were marked using a technique innovated by her husband, who had won a Nobel Prize just a couple years prior for his pioneering work with green fluorescent protein. While watching the fluorescently-marked nematodes in Dr. Hazelrigg’s lab, I felt like I had stumbled upon a piece of scientific history in the making.

Check out Philip’s tutoring profile.

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