A Student Review of Columbia University

The tutors behind Varsity Tutors are not just here to teach – they’re sharing their college experiences as well. Alastair is studying history at Columbia University. He lives in Cleveland and specializes in European history tutoring, world history tutoring, and literature tutoring, among other subjects. See what he had to say about his experience at Columbia University:

Describe the campus setting and transportation options at Columbia University.

Alastair: Columbia is located in Morningside Heights, a neighborhood bordering the Upper West Side of New York City that affords relatively easy access to the immense cultural riches and professional opportunities of the metropolis while still retaining a relaxed, collegial atmosphere. Although there are few skyscrapers in the vicinity and the area is less densely populated than New York as a whole, Morningside Heights is still a diverse, vibrant subsection of Manhattan that has a distinct culture from the university itself. For undergraduates, a car or bike is totally unnecessary – anywhere within the five boroughs of the city is accessible by bus or subway, while the classes are all within a seven- to ten-minute walk of the dorms. There is a large and available contingent of public safety officers patrolling campus constantly, along with identification card checks at dorms, libraries and the gym, so safety within the self-contained Columbia bubble is assured. Outside, in New York, students should exercise common sense with the awareness that while crime has trended at all-time lows in recent years, caution is always necessary in a megacity.

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

Alastair: The availability of professors is almost entirely dependent on their seniority, their publishing schedule and reputation within the broader academic world, the size of the class, and a student’s standing. Upperclassmen typically receive more attention due to the more pressing nature of their job and graduate school searches. This varies from professor to professor, but faculty with high public profiles are less likely to quickly respond to emails, give feedback about grades, or permit unrelated conversation during office hours. Younger professors, those teaching core classes, and teaching assistants are almost always well-qualified and friendly, but as is the case at any university, faculty expect communication with students to be concise and class-related. Academic advisers can be helpful, but also may not proactively reach out to students during important deadline periods. In general, the school’s administration is massive and somewhat unwieldy, but its inefficiency is masked by the brilliance of individual professors.  

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

Alastair: The quality of the dorms varies significantly between buildings and at different class levels. There is some belief among undergraduates that the administration reserves higher quality housing for freshman, foists dramatically less-appealing dorms on sophomores and juniors, and ratchets the quality back up for seniors who would otherwise be more tempted to live off campus. The vast majority of students do end up staying on campus for all four years, given the desire to live with friends and avoid expensive New York rent rates. Dorms do implicitly cater to different demographics, as outlined in annual features by the school’s two major undergraduate publications, Bwog and the Columbia Daily Spectator. Freshmen looking to socialize often take doubles or triples in Carman Hall, while the most studious types end up in Furnald, and students looking for singles spend their first year in John Jay. The dining options are acceptable but will excite few gourmands – John Jay Hall and Ferris Dining Hall emphasize buffet-style ready meals with some stations. The food is rotated on a predictable calendar and is seemingly heavy on leftovers. Socialization, again, is up to the individual student.

Which majors/programs are best represented and supported at Columbia University?

Alastair: Columbia’s majors are excellent almost to a fault. Academically, the university will not disappoint you. However, while many of the humanities majors are well-resourced, this is not true for the creative writing department, which struggles to retain faculty and provide sufficient courses to meet demand. I am still in the process of deciding my major, and the difficulty of registering for courses in highly sought after and relatively underfunded majors does complicate that decision-making process.

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?

Alastair: Meeting people in your dorms is the easiest option, but clubs and political groups will probably sustain more durable, meaningful relationships in the long term. Classes also offer another way to meet people, and Columbians shouldn’t forget about the millions of residents of the city and thousands of other university students available to befriend. Structured social events like football games are not a major part of campus life, especially because athletics tend to disappoint on the field. Greek life comprises only 14 percent of undergraduates, but nonetheless strongly supports the social scene, particularly during Homecoming weekend, the spring Bacchanal concert, Halloween and other major social events.

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

Alastair: The Center for Career Education is a great resource for students interested in the finance industry, which it collaborates closely with to coordinate interviews for students applying for internships and jobs. Most students do ultimately attain employment or enter graduate school upon finishing their degree, and the high mid-career earnings of Columbia graduates speak for themselves. Consultants can be conveniently scheduled to assist with resume revising, internship and job applications or career counselling.

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

Alastair: Butler Library, at the heart of campus, is the largest undergraduate library in the country and offers six pristine marble floors and fifteen levels of molded wooden stacks for students to study in. Predictably, the grim reality of exam week renders this inviting exterior somewhat less thrilling as literally thousands of students spread out through the library system, causing seating shortages not only in Butler but in the architecture, law, and engineering libraries that are most sought after. Savvy students can generally find a seat any time. Most people avoid dorm lounges given the difficulty of studying in a loud environment, and some do cloister themselves in quieter parts of the student union.

Describe the surrounding town.

Alastair: New York is the major reason for Columbia’s decentralized social scene, as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, MOMA, the United Nations, Broadway, Times Square and multiple other major universities are all an easy subway ride away. The quality and quantity of cultural institutions is astounding, as is the difficulty of extricating oneself from the academic and extracurricular ties that seem to bind students to campus. Going downtown is logistically simple but complicated by the intense workload, in and outside the classroom. Nightlife is inaccessible to underclassmen but, particularly in the summer, a major draw for juniors and seniors.

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

Alastair: There are just over 8,000 undergraduate students divided between the four schools: Columbia College (CC), General Studies (GS), Barnard College and the School for Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS). Of these, Columbia College is the largest and most well-known; SEAS the best resourced and integrated socially with CC; Barnard the most independent in terms of identity, given its history as a women’s college, and GS the most separate from campus, as many of the non-traditional GS students have ongoing careers or family commitments that require them to live in apartments. Class sizes in terms of seminars and discussion sections are well-apportioned and students will not be lost in the crowd.

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

Alastair: During my first week of classes, my International Relations class received an email informing us that our professor, Kimberly Marten, would be making an appearance on PBS. This was in addition to her many articles that fall in publications like Foreign Affairs covering the war in Ukraine, the character of the Putin regime and NATO’s role in the crisis. It was a typical display of the credibility with which the university and its faculty are regarded by the outside world and the microscope on the intellectual and political life of our campus.

Check out Alastair’s tutoring profile.

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