I tend to believe that Columbia offers the most challenging academic program of any school in the nation. I have friends at top schools all over the country, and no one's workload compares to mine. The reason for this starts with the Core. Every undergraduate is required to take a number of classes specializing in Western civilization, aimed at making students well-rounded intellectuals. The classes include Masterpieces of Western Literature, Contemporary Western Civilization, Masterpieces of Western Music, Masterpieces of Western Art, University Writing, Frontiers of Science, and Global Core (classes outside of the Western realm). These classes are capped at roughly 20 students, and are each a healthy amount of work. Most students who come to Columbia want to do the Core, and it is extremely rewarding. That being said, if you have no interest in doing it, you will hate your life, and I advise you to look at Brown or some other school that has no requirements. Most students spend their first two years completing the Core, and then they choose a major. The most popular departments here are Economics, Political Science, History, and Psychology. Often it seems like everyone is majoring in Econ! I started off as a Political Science major, but after taking a class with Eric Foner, I switched to History. The History department here is tremendous, boasting such luminaries as Foner, Barbara Fields, Ken Jackson, Alan Brinkley, Rashid Khalidi, and Richard Billows. American history is the most popular specialization, and the 19th and 20th century programs are the best. Since most classes here are small, most of the professors will learn their students' names (especially in Core classes). Most of the professors are approachable, and many are willing to help you with whatever you need. They all live in the city, so it is never hard to meet up with them if you need something. Because this school is, at its core, a liberal arts college, classes are not geared necessarily towards finding a job. That being said, it is not hard to get a job after college. Most people I know plan on going into the financial industry, and major investment banks and firms are always on campus recruiting. Surprisingly, you don't have to be an Econ major to work for them, but many people here are. Past that, a number of students are pre-law (like myself) and pre-med, and virtually everyone gets into top ranked programs across the country upon graduation.
As I said before, the courseload is beyond ridiculous. The amount of reading is mindblowing and I am sure most of the professors could not even do it. Ya they could probably finish the readings for their individual class. But if they took an entire semester worth of classes and tried to keep up on the readings in every class simultaneously they would realize they are completely out of line with what they assign. No wonder Columbia used to have one of the highest suicide rates. And the core, is completely too big. It is more credits than most of the majors and the teachers expect more in Core classes than the major requirements. Not to mention since we have no choice in the classes it makes them that much crappier. The reading for these classes is beyond insane and there are way too many classes. The language requirement of 2 years is completely reidiculous and they manage to make the easiest subjects impossible.
Sometimes I get the notion that Columbia isn't a place to challenge yourself, but a place to improve what you already know. "Did you take AP chemistry? Take basic level chemistry again, throw the curve." But maybe I'm just bitter. The academics are rigorous, and they certainly do permeate the social atmosphere. I should mention that at Columbia, we have a set of classes everyone (in Columbia College) takes, simply called the Core Curriculum. There's been a bunch of controversy around what should and shouldn't be taught to the general student body, and at the moment they're testing out a broad-spectrum lecture/seminar about current topics in the scientific world. I don't have a major yet, and I'm a little reluctant to decide. A lot of kids know what they want to do the minute they get here, and they blow through the required classes with gusto. That seems to be the norm, but I could be wrong.
Columbia students frequently have intellectual conversations outside of classes and I have found multiple teachers that have taken a vested interest in their students outside of the classroom and taken the time to learn my name and others'. I can not say I spend time with professors outside of the classroom. I frequently feel that it is detrimental that classes at Columbia are focused on learning for learning's sake rather than learning in order to prepare students for jobs and the real world. To elaborate, that feeling stems from the fact that Columbia has an extensive amount of required classes which I find pedantic and absurd when they do not relate to one's specific interests and won't serve to better one's position in the work field after college.
Columbia's academic reputation stands for itself, I think, in terms of our world-class faculty and successful alumni. On a personal note, though, I love my professors. They will rarely reach out to you as a student first, but they're extremely warm and responsive when you make the first effort to meet them and to ask your questions. They're there for recommendations, office hours, questions about the material, life advice, or just to chat. I've even been to some professors' apartments for dinner! There's nothing like the feeling of being able to spend quality time with these people who have published and who know so much.
Columbia's academics are very strong. Many of the intro classes are lecture based, but there are recitation sections that have only around 20 people. Also, professors always have office hours. I was actually surprised that some of my lecture professors knew my name, where I liked to sit, and what grade I had. Students study quite a lot. The main library is often full, but there are many other places to study. The academics are definitely geared towards learning for its own sake. The core requirements give you a wide range of knowledge. A well-rounded education is really emphasized, even in the engineering school.
The academics at Columbia are challenging, but definitely doable. Classes are generally graded on a curve, and sometimes curves are very generous. What it all comes down to, however, is hard-work; even the brightest must study in order to maintain a good standing. Course difficulty also correspond with particular departments and majors; computer science and various fields of engineering, for example, are comparatively hard majors, and, as a result, the average GPA in these fields may be lower than a student majoring in Art History, for example.
The education at Columbia is what you make it of it. I know plenty of seniors (and even juniors) who have jobs lined up for them already once they graduate because of the networking and experience they have come across because of their hard work at Columbia. I also have upperclassmen friends who have enjoyed learning for its own sake and plan to take a year or two off to figure things out after graduation before settling down to work full time. Almost all students, however, are responsible about their classwork and study appropriately.
The students are top-notch, so you have to be really top-notch to get noticed, especially in the giant lecture classes. It's easier to be known in the smaller seminar classes with few students. Students are always studying but have healthy social lives too. Intellectual conversations are frequent; competition is heavy. Most students attend office hours - you'll need that to get your way through class. Education is geared towards learning. Every opportunity you could want is here, but you'll have to find it and work for it.
The professors are in general good, except in math. TERRIBLE. They expect you to be as math-loving as they are. And they just can't conceive the fact that not everyone understands math on their first try. Otherwise, i love columbia! I also had one very bad experience with an English feminist teacher. to her, all men were evil. I simply did not agree and ended up not doing so well in her class. But she got so many complaints from students that i dought she'll be teaching first year english any time soon!