i just got back from columbia and i really liked it a lot. i wasn't expecting to even be considering it, and i just went to the days on campus to have a fun day in nyc, but the campus is beautiful and there are so many cool things to do in nyc. i really liked the housing and the facilities. the thing is, i can get all of columbia's on-campus benefits at my other top choice schools - what sets it apart is the city. however, i know i will probably live or at least work in the city for many years after college, and i really want to go to school where there is a unique college experience that i can't get for the rest of my life. the other unique thing about columbia that i can think of is the core, which i find to be a big detractor because i like choice. what would make me choose columbia over another institution, were it not for the city?
the city is what's special about columbia. of course, it's a great school and they have certain academic fields where they excel, but i assume that you are not asking about academics... if you like the idea of the core (which i do), there is no reason that you cannot approximate the core by taking similar (though different) courses at another top college in art, music, philosophy and literature... if you are looking for the quintessential on-campus college life, then columbia is probably not for you. if you are excited about nyc and plan to take advantage of it during your college years, then columbia cannot be beaten. as i said in a different thread, as a CC alum, i loved being in the city, but i also had moments that i wished i had gone to a school with a more happening on-campus undergrad social life... 4 yrs is a long time. even if you love the city, there will be times when the grass will look greener on the other side. good luck with your decision.
It might be hard to approximate the core at other schools, though, because at Columbia, there is the advantage of limited class size and having everyone else in your grade studying the same things, besides having the older students who did it in past years. There's also the core tradition, which will appeal to the people who like college rituals. I heard that alums give copies of the Iliad to incoming freshman as part of that? Right?
i don't recall that ritual. maybe it's recent (within the last 10-15 yrs)... regarding duplicating the courses, i agree, but it really depends on which school you are attending. some would be better than others in terms of finding similar courses. i didn't mean to say that the core was easily duplicated, because it's not. but, then those courses are not exactly unavailable elsewhere. many schools would offer them in limited class size, but there might be some upper classmen/women as well. at columbia it would be almost all freshmen and sophomores.
getting off the core a moment, there are other def things that set columbia apart from other schools. you say you have other top choice schools... probably none of them (unless they include u chicago) have had as many nobel laureates in the faculty. columbia also has incredibly strong graduate schools, which for me was a huge plus, because it allows for academic expansion (in terms of courses, research opportunities, professors, libraries, etc). i found myself growing out of high school in soph year- i wouldn't be able to fully enjoy myself (academically) in a college that had limited opportunities beyond the undergraduate expectation (nyc obviously will never bore me, as well). and definitely, like chris said before, the student body! brilliant, interesting! columbia's admissions process, in my opinion, is principally based on the essay. so there are lots of wonderful wonderful writers there :-). the students are generally independent and lovers of the city. oh, and this i found very gorgeous - columbia has a reputation of being very very politically active! uniquely so! if you go to columbia, you won't be locking yourself into a tiny academic bubble for four years. just being there makes you aware. one last thing - you mentioned how fun the city is. yeaa. i agree. i definitely agree. living in nyc for college adds another dimension to your education. you learn the subway, the good restaurants, the way new york goes. so you get street smarts + common sense + academic enrichment + intellectual atmosphere + political knowlege + one hell of a social life.
you should soo join columbia class of 2009. it'll be awesome next year - i can't wait.
My short answer from the application asking "Why Columbia" began by praising the city (of course, and admitting that 99% of all applicants do the same) but then claiming that the student body at Columbia is reflective of the city: diverse, individual, and impossible to stereotype. There truly is no typical Columbia student, and it is that quality that makes Columbia one of the most valuable schools for those who seek exposure. Additionally, Columbia, unlike NYU, has a true campus feel to it along the somewhat secluded Morningside Heights, yet has all of NYC at its fingertips.