Nettra Pan - Columbia University
Topic Life at Columbia University
Date July 6, 2017
Tags, , ,

Life at Columbia University with Nettra Pan

Nettra Pan is a PhD student at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (EPFL), studying investor decision-making and new ways of organizing. She has worked with a number of organizations on how to design and improve business initiatives which aim to solve the world’s most pressing challenges and improve the lives of the most vulnerable. Nettra grew up in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, and lived there for 14 years before moving to New York City to attend Columbia.

On the 6th of July 2017, Nettra Pan hosted a live 30 minute Q&A session on Goodwall. The session was joined by over 175 students around the world.

"You are on campus, within the gates, but also, right next to the subway and directly connected to the city, where you have so many amazing conferences, museums and restaurants - you will never be bored"

What were your biggest difficulties getting into Columbia? —Eric

Applying to colleges is such a long and different process for everyone. In my case, the first hard step started probably in the 8th or 9th grade and that was to be committed to my studies.

If I hadn’t done so, I don’t think I would have developed the curiosity about the world (history, politics, technology) which would make me an interesting applicant for Columbia, I also would not have gotten the grades and the foundation to do better in my later courses.

Looking back, it was also in these early days that I formed relationships with teachers and mentors who encouraged me, learned enough about me to believe in me and eventually wrote great recommendation letters for me.

Then, when it came closer to the actual college application process, I’d say it was “hard” to get the discipline to study the SATs (taking a prep course over the summer of 10th grade helped) and the other subject tests… but even that is “easy” if you put your mind to it!

Does Columbia University have a fashion design program at all? —Veronica

At the undergraduate level, I don’t believe that Columbia has a fashion degree. However, Columbia offers the main liberal arts subjects, which provide an important foundation for whatever you want to study or do in the future.

And many classes and professors encourage you to build on these “main” “classic” topics like sociology, economics, math, to pursue your own specific interests. For example, a friend of mine who studied East Asian Studies, did her thesis on fashion trends in Japan.

I think her thesis title was “From Cosplay to Comme Des Garçons: Re-conceptualizing the Revolution in Japanese Fashion.” So there is a lot of flexibility, as long as you are open to using the theories you learn in the courses.

What is the most important aspect in our application profile in order to get accepted in Columbia? —Lucas

I don’t think that there is any ONE key aspect that is the most important in your application, because Columbia, like many top schools, want well-rounded individuals, and individuals, who when you combine all their aspects together, make a really interesting person. I am just thinking about a classmate who was passionate about business, but also a pilot.

Another was interested in psychology, but was also a dancer. That being said, I would say that most top schools also are looking for people who want to go to that particular school (so in your essays, make sure you use the right university name (! I nearly forgot to edit my essays) and show that you did research on what is unique about that school (for Columbia, it might be The Columbia Core Curriculum, the Global Speaker’s series, the proximity to the United Nations, the New York City location).

If you do a particular sport or art form, do some research on the clubs and teams that are at that university. Maybe you are the missing person in that swim team they are looking for.

How was the staff there? —Ayah

I loved the staff at Columbia. Every school will complain about the bureaucracy, but really I think Columbia was pretty good. I was lucky to have a great academic adviser, and great residential leaders in my dorm.

How important do you think investing in a good college is? —Pamela

It depends on what you want to do and what you mean by a “good college.” There is no question that a top university can open a lot of doors due to brand recognition and a powerful alumni network.

But you can also get there through hard work and networking on your own. Also, a good college which is not a top university, usually still has some degree of local (though maybe not global) brand recognition and a strong alumni network.

And a good enough college can get you to a very good university or job (either an organization you join or you create on your own). It depends what you want to do.

I’d say, in this changing climate, don’t depend on any institution to get you to where you want to be. Yes, go to a good college, but also, get involved in clubs, in local businesses, in online businesses, pursue hobbies, your arts, your talents… those will help you answer questions about where you want to go and which college or training you need to complete the missing pieces of your puzzle!

Can you tell us about the application process? How long did it take and how important is the application in getting in? —Rayna

The application process for me really began early on, in developing my academic background and interests. Then, I would plan enough time to do the tests that you need to do (SAT, ACT, subject tests), since those happen at set times in the year (although I think Columbia no longer requires them).

After that, I just had to fill out two forms, and submit an essay. I think the essay takes the most time because remember, these universities are getting so many applications, they don’t want to read yet another essay about how your parents are your heroes (I am not saying that that is not a good topic, I actually have a friend at Columbia who got in writing about her mom).

What I am saying is that you need to think hard about how to present:

1) who you are

2) why you are here (writing the application, wanting to go to Columbia) and

3) what makes you a unique person on this Earth.

I got the essay idea I think at the end of 11th grade in math class. It just came to me. But for you it may take more time to choose a question to answer (they give you a list), try a few out and write several drafts. Here is a link to FAQ questions about Columbia:

Which is the best university for engineering? —Manav

There is a School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) at Columbia, although I believe you can pursue a technique major at Columbia College as well.

What is living on campus like at Columbia? —Marissa

Living on the Columbia campus is what you make of it! I loved living on campus, which I did for three years, and I even spent a summer in Morningside Heights in graduate student housing.

It’s lovely because you are in a safe(r) residential neighborhood, surrounded by parks, close to families and the river.


Does Columbia have journalism course? —Thao

Columbia has a great Journalism school as your peers have mentioned, and although this is a graduate program, there are ways for undergraduates to benefit from their program, either by directly attending classes (more difficult, but possible), or attending seminars and conferences.

I did not study Journalism at Columbia but I wrote two op-eds for the Columbia Spectator (check it out, great college newspaper) and I was friends with people who actually ran the newspaper.

Yes, undergraduate students running a daily newspaper (oof!) — so there’s some journalism education for you right there.

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How does the scholarship system at Columbia University work? —Vitor

If you are US-citizen or eligible non-citizen, you are accepted to Columbia based on merit alone and are offered financial aid according to your need.

If you are not either of these things, then your acceptance may be affected by your financial need, but Columbia has been known to offer international students financial aid.

Once you are accepted at Columbia, there are a number of work-study jobs and fellowships you can apply for. Here is more about financial aid and eligible non-citizens:


How does the Medicine program compare to other Ivy League schools? —Marissa

Columbia has a rigorous Pre-Med program for undergraduates, which works kind of like a concentration, where you are encouraged to take a number of classes to make you more attractive to medical schools you apply to after graduating.

Aside from that, I know that Columbia has a great school of dentistry (I seem to always meet alumni from that program abroad) and a number of partnerships with leading NYC hospitals.

Does Columbia University offer courses in medicine? —Valdrina

At the undergraduate level you cannot get a medical degree but you could get a Pre-Med specialization. At the graduate degree you can get a medical degree from Columbia. This is specific to the US system where you usually complete your undergraduate first before pursuing a medical degree. 

There are also opportunities to volunteer. For example, a classmate of mine was on-call for the school’s ambulance service. 

What are the SAT requirements? —Ali

I am not sure if Columbia still requires them, but I think applicants still submit them. Here is an overview of the most common scores of accepted applicants:

What can Columbia University offer that other universities can't? —Ayah

I really appreciated the cosmopolitan, diverse, urban environment (but some may highly dislike this!), and the contacts to so many people from all walks of life, professions, and countries.

I felt at home in the international community there (I believe in 2008 when I joined, it was the most international Ivy League with 11% of international students).

I also loved the Columbia Core, which was a common program all students had to go through, whether or not they were studying Math or Biology or French Literature… this made me feel connected to each Columbian.

What do you suggest students should do in the summer before senior year to perfect their application for Columbia? —Mahnoor

I am not sure if much more can be done at that point, but the best would be for you to continue to show evidence of your passions and interests.

For me, I did a summer program at UCSD where I took a college-level course in journalism, which I was able to add to my application as an example of college-readiness.

But you might take a summer to volunteer, start a company, write a book… whatever it is that makes you, you.

I was wondering how was your experience transitioning from high school to University, on top that one like Columbia? —Sheirah

Thanks for your interesting question. Here’s an article I wrote about it when I was at Columbia:

What are the requirements for an IB student going for CS in your university ? —Ahmed

There are no specific requirements for IB students, or for specific majors. You can even indicate that your major is undecided when you apply.

But I believe what the universities are looking for is a dedication to learning and having a positive impact in the world.

Why do you choose Columbia? —Nur

I was flipping a coin in April 2007 every day, thinking Stanford or Columbia, Stanford or Columbia? In the end I chose Columbia, because it seemed better for what I wanted to study.

International Relations and student job prospects in that field were more highly ranked at Columbia, I read positive reviews about Professors in that field, and I could imagine it being easier to find a United Nations internship (my dream at the time) by being in the same city.

I also like what I read and saw from Google Maps (if you can visit a university, do it, otherwise, use Google Earth, like I did). There was beautiful campus (so, it was separated from the city) but it was also very much in and connected to the city.

There are no wrong choices at a certain point, and if you really feel unhappy about a choice, you can also transfer. I knew many students who did this (but you will need to keep your grades up to do this!).

What kind of after school activities should we join that might help to get an admission at this university? —Mosammat

My experience was great, especially the first year, which is so exciting and hopeful!

In retrospect, I would say I had a good time overall, but there were a few tough parts, mostly because when you are university, you are not only studying, and trying to prepare yourself for the rest of your life, but you are also learning what kind of person you are and what kind of person you would like to be.

There are always some disappointments in this journey as you learn more about yourself and others – these are necessary for learning, and I overcame them, but it’s not always 100% fun.

One thing I will say is that even if you are not thrown into a bustling city and a university full of very, very, very smart kids, it’s possible to have doubts and sad moments, reach out for help and support.

It’s absolutely normal. I did, and I reached out for help, and that’s how I was able to learn how to cope and thrive in this thing called life and get he chance to talk to all of you!

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How was your experience at the university? —Mosammat

Any kind of activity that fits your passion and interests. I did art, swimming, volunteer work, music, debate clubs.

What’s important is that you show that you are a:

Dedicated person (maybe a club for several years),

An interesting person (not just one single interest – even if you like math, maybe different types of math, or math and something completely different),

A person who can improve and learn (if you have awards or honors related to your activity, that’s great!),

And have experience working in a team and at times, being a leader (proposing things on your own, getting people to understand your point of view, listening to others, showing others you understand their needs, recruiting people, etc.).

What should I do after my O levels? —Simra

I’d say that you should think about what your interests and passions are and look for ways you can start pursuing them.

Maybe that means a top US university, maybe you don’t need it!

Topic Life at Columbia University
Date July 6, 2017
Tags, , ,