What is it Like to Attend Columbia University?

The tutors behind Varsity Tutors are not just here to teach – they’re sharing their college experiences as well. Julia is a New York City tutor and 2012 graduate of Columbia University. She majored in Ecology and Evolution & Environmental Biology. Julia specializes in several subjects including Geometry tutoring, Statistics tutoring, and Organic Chemistry tutoring. Check out her review of Columbia:

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?

Julia: Columbia is in New York City, of course, so public transportation is excellent. The 1 line on the subway will take you wherever you need to go in Manhattan, and there’s a bus that stops at Columbia that goes directly to LaGuardia Airport. As for safety, New York City in general and the Columbia neighbourhood in particular are much safer than people think. It’s not the 80’s anymore. 

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

Julia: Professors and TA’s are generally very personable and available, unless your professor is someone really famous, like Jeffrey Sachs. Academic advisers are available by appointment, but aren’t terribly helpful. If you have a problem with your schedule or your credits or anything else academic, you need to take the initiative. Try to solve it yourself, and if you can’t, then go to your adviser with specific demands that they can fulfill.

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

Julia: The rooms aren’t great until senior year, but honestly, who cares? You’re in New York City. People pay $1000/month to live in much worse housing than this, and if you don’t like it, you can always strike out on your own and live off-campus. The housing for seniors is fantastic, though. The food is pretty bad at Columbia, but you can use your dining plan to eat at the Barnard cafeteria, which is better. All the same, I’d advise that you get off the meal plan as soon as possible. I started cooking for myself my sophomore year, and the upshot is that I’m a much better cook than most people my age. As for location and socialization – that hardly needs saying. If you use your evenings well, you’ll make tons of friends both on and off campus. I’m from New York and even so I can say I had my most thrilling urban adventures while at Columbia.

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?

Julia: The biggest majors at Columbia are History, Economics, and Political Science, but you’ll find incredibly dedicated and intelligent people in every department. My major was Ecology, Evolution & Environmental Biology, which I think is a hidden gem at Columbia. Everyone in the major does a thesis, which gets generous funding from the department. I had the opportunity to do my thesis research in Kenya. 

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?

Julia: Making friends at Columbia is easy if you want to make friends. You can’t be shy or passive about it. If you don’t reach out to people, you could float along in a bubble of solitude and no one will notice. But if you go out, talk to strangers, take part in campus activity, then you’ll have more friends than you know what to do with. I know I did. There is absolutely no need to take part in Greek life to make friends – in fact, I’d advise against it, given all the recent scandal with Columbia fraternities. They constitute less than 10% of the undergraduate body and have a poor reputation to boot. 

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

Julia: Not very helpful. If you want an administration that will nurture you and guide you every step of the way, don’t go to Columbia. There are millions of opportunities available to Columbia students, but you have to find them yourself. No one will show you the way. That’s not to say that there aren’t recruiters on campus, but the most aggressive ones are from Wall Street banks, and frankly I think they’re evil.

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

Julia: The libraries are numerous and architecturally beautiful. Be sure to branch out beyond Butler, our most famous and most used library, especially around finals time when it gets crowded. I’m personally fond of the Teacher’s College library, which is great for group study sessions because you’re allowed to talk, within reasonable volume limits.

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? 

Julia: I don’t know what to say about New York City that people don’t already know. It’s constant excitement. If you want to do something completely new and mind-boggling every single day, you can (though you’ll exhaust yourself very quickly.) Columbia is in Morningside Heights, which compared to the rest of Manhattan is pretty low-key, though low-key for Manhattan is high-octane compared to anywhere else. One thing I’ll say is that not enough Columbia students venture out of Morningside Heights. There’s plenty to do in the neighborhood, but to me it seems the pinnacle of laziness to forgo a short trip on the subway to enjoy the rest of the city. 

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

Julia: Columbia is just about medium-sized in the scale of things: big enough that you can maintain your privacy, small enough that you don’t get lost in a faceless crowd. The class sizes never bothered me. Obviously, something like Intro Chemistry is going to be a big lecture class, but all the core curriculum classes are small, as all the really important classes are.

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

Julia: Columbia is famous for its core curriculum, a suite of classes that everyone must take. Personally, I had a great time with the core curriculum and I’ll never forget my Contemporary Civilization class. The professor was much like Socrates, the ancient philosopher about whom we read so much: he questioned everything the students argued. He let no belief go unfounded, no unconscious bias go unmasked. By the end of the class, I internalized him. I interrogate everything I hold dear, and anything that can survive that scrutiny I keep, and anything that doesn’t hold up I discard. I think the core curriculum turns you into a very thoughtful person, if you’re willing to open your mind and give up your pretensions.


Check out Julia’s tutoring profile.

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