My Experience at Columbia University

The tutors behind Varsity Tutors are not just here to teach—they’re sharing their college experiences as well. Benjamin is a Brooklyn tutor and 2015 graduate of Columbia University. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in Linguistics and tutors several subjects, including algebra tutoring, computer science tutoring, and writing tutoring. Check out what Benjamin had to say about his time at Columbia University:

Describe the campus setting and transportation options.

Benjamin: Columbia University has a decidedly urban campus—after all, its extended name is Columbia University in the City of New York. Public transit in Manhattan is fantastic and inexpensive, and with it, you should be able to get anywhere you need to without a car or a bike (although we do have a free bike-share program). The school has intra- and inter-campus shuttles, but the campus is so compact and walkable that I never needed to use any of them.

Columbia University’s campus and the surrounding neighborhood (Morningside Heights) always felt safe to me. Both are well lit, and students are out at all hours of the day and night, not to mention that we have a lot of late-night grocery stores and pizza places. Dorms are particularly secure, since only current students have access to them.

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

Benjamin: Professors, advisers, and teaching assistants are generally very accessible. With professors, it is important to proactively reach out if you are having a problem (or if you just want to chat), which is why it is always a good idea to go to office hours. The vast majority of them want to help you if they can, and they love it when students show an interest in what they are teaching outside of just showing up to class.

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

Benjamin: The dorms themselves vary a lot from year to year and building to building. The newer ones tend to have a lot of great amenities, such as central air conditioning, island kitchens, and big common spaces. The older dorms sometimes have these features if they have been renovated recently, and they all have a lot of character (e.g. high ceilings, ornate fireplaces, wood floors, etc.). In general, your housing options improve every year, so you will likely end up with something great for your junior and/or senior years. All the dorms are located close to classes and dining halls because the campus is so compact, and you have a good chance of having a fantastic view of the New York skyline and/or the Hudson River in almost all of the buildings.

One of the biggest advantages of having such a compact and walkable campus is that you are never far from your friends (especially since the vast majority of undergraduates live on campus all four years). It is generally easy to make friends in your dorm if you make an effort, particularly as a freshman. In fact, most of my best friends lived on my freshman floor.

Dining hall food in general can get very tiresome, but Columbia University’s is pretty good as far as they go—it is relatively fresh and interesting, and there are four different locations at which you can use your meal swipes.

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

Benjamin: Columbia University’s American studies department has a number of superstar professors, and the computer science department is growing quickly. The political science and economics departments are also large and well funded.

I studied linguistics because I had a longstanding interest in English grammar and foreign languages throughout high school. There is no linguistics department at Columbia University, so I had to make my own major. The upside of this was that I became close friends with a lot of the other linguistics majors, got to know my professors really well, and had a lot of flexibility in which courses I could take. The downside was that most linguistics classes were offered only once every two years (as opposed to every semester), and there was very little institutional/monetary support for thesis research, summer programs, etc.

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?

Benjamin: It’s very easy to make friends! Doing one of the pre-orientation programs—COOP or CUE—is a good way to meet people right off the bat, but you will have many opportunities to make friends otherwise. I made a lot of friends in my dorm, and through extracurricular activities and my major. Greek life has a growing presence on campus; it can be a big part of your life if you want to be, and if you do not, you will barely even know it exists.

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

Benjamin: Columbia University’s career center is accessible and helpful, particularly if you are interested in jobs in the non-profit, legal, and finance/consulting sectors. They arrange on-campus interviews for practically every large company, non-profit, and government agency you can think of, from IBM and Goldman Sachs to the FBI.

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

Benjamin: Space is generally somewhat limited at Columbia University given its location. However, the main library is open 24/7, and you can almost always find a seat in a library if you want one. There are a ton of different libraries and other study spaces, and the university is in the midst of a huge expansion that should free up some space on the main undergraduate campus. The Columbia University student center is not as user-friendly as the Barnard College student center across the street (the Diana Center), but you will have full access to that one as a Columbia University student.

Describe the surrounding town. 

Benjamin: It is New York, which is pretty much all you need to say. You will never run out of things to do. Restaurants near Columbia University tend to be a little mediocre and overpriced, but there are a few gems. You can also find great food if you go just a few blocks outside of the neighborhood in any direction. I did not leave the neighborhood much my freshman year because everything you need to survive is within a few blocks of campus, but I would recommend getting out into the city as much as you possibly can.

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

Benjamin: Columbia University is a medium-sized school, and there are between 1,000 and 1,500 students in each undergraduate class. Class sizes vary wildly depending on your major—I have had courses with over 200 students, and some with only three or four. The bigger classes are almost always large lectures, so it does not really matter how many students are in them (especially if you have a separate section). I always found teaching assistants and professors—even in the bigger classes—to be responsive and accessible.

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

Benjamin: During the second semester of my freshman year, one of my professors invited our whole class over to his beautiful Riverside Drive apartment for dessert, and talked to us about his work at CERN on the Large Hadron Collider. It was inspiring to hear an accomplished professor talk about such important work, and to see that he took an interest in us even as a group of bewildered freshmen (not to mention that there was a lot of chocolate).

Check out Benjamin’s tutoring profile.

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