It comes as no surprise that Harvard consistently ranks among the top universities in the world. Its highly regarded reputation and academic chops attract the best and brightest. The alluring Harvard brand coupled with its extraordinary education cannot be ignored.
It is important to keep in mind throughout the application process that your focus should be on finding the school that will allow you to explore and grow to your full potential while delivering what is most important to you. Identifying the best fit requires you to be thorough in your research and to consider a myriad of factors as you assess the best path to achieve your goals.
Harvard accepts the Common Application, the Universal College Application, and the Coalition Application (with no preference). All of these applications require an essay response.
Although Harvard does not require supplemental essays, you have the option of including an additional essay if you feel your application does not adequately represent you or your accomplishments. If you decide to include an additional essay, make sure to use it to tell the admissions committee something significant about yourself that is not addressed sufficiently in another portion of your application materials. The admissions committee wants a holistic picture of you as a potential student. They want to be able to identify your voice and personality in your writing. This is an opportunity to convey meaningful aspects of your character, discuss unique interests, demonstrate how you inspire those around you, and address how Harvard will help you to thrive. How will you take advantage of the opportunities offered at Harvard? How will you contribute to the Harvard educational experience?
If Harvard is your first choice, you have the option to apply through one of its early decision programs (November 1st deadline). For details about these two programs and the exact rules governing both, please see the Harvard website.
As you consider a supplemental essay, remember that your content must be compelling. Think about Harvard’s approach to academic excellence and what that means to you. It recognizes the value of students who are not only academically exceptional but also meaningfully engaged in their world and open to new experiences. Additionally, Harvard’s collegiate atmosphere flourishes based on a dynamic synergy among and between students and faculty. It is looking for “students who will be the best educators of one another and their professors– individuals who will inspire those around them during their College years and beyond.” Harvard prides itself on its close-knit undergraduate community. This emphasis is apparent in the Harvard Houses, where teaching, learning and living go hand-in-hand. How might you contribute to this environment? Perhaps you’d like to sing in a choir? Run a certain club? Is there a research program working alongside professors that is of interest to you? The key is to demonstrate how you will live in community with others in a positive way.
Harvard University supplemental essay prompts (optional)
You may wish to include an additional essay if you feel that the college application forms do not provide sufficient opportunity to convey important information about yourself or your accomplishments. You may write on a topic of your choice, or you may choose from one of the following topics:
- Unusual circumstances in your life
Your goal is to discuss unusual circumstances that provide a better context to your life experience. This may be something you did not choose to share in your Common Application (or Universal College Application) Essay response but feel is essential to a deeper understanding of you. Consider what this experience(s) reflects about your personal qualities, personality, and character. How do these circumstances influence your perspective and aspirations? How might your background make Harvard a particularly good fit for you?
- Travel, living, or working experiences in your own or other communities
Have you traveled or lived in a place or places that made a significant impact on you? Keep in mind this includes your local community or anywhere else in the world! Here, again, is an opportunity to provide further context for your life-experience. Discuss interesting extracurricular, cultural or intellectual experiences and how they have impacted your perspectives about the world. What did you learn from these experiences and what do they reveal about you? Think about how you engage with both familiar and new environments, cultures, and activities. How will your past experiences enrich the Harvard educational environment?
- What you would want your future college roommate to know about you
This question asks you to share something significant about your day-to-day way of being. You can discuss just about anything here! Although you could approach this essay in a somewhat playful manner, do not be tempted to address a topic for its shock value. It’s important that your response is genuine and conveys your personality in an appropriate tone. Remember: Harvard is looking for students who will be excellent educators; think about how that might relate to the things you’d choose to tell a future roommate situation in particular and the Harvard community in general.
- An intellectual experience (course, project, book, discussion, paper, poetry, or research topic in engineering, mathematics, science, or other modes of inquiry) that has meant the most to you
This response allows you to discuss something that is important to you and to demonstrate how you think about intellectual problems. This is an exercise in creative and critical thinking. It also provides a platform for you to convey your enthusiasm for learning. What excited you about this intellectual experience? How did the experience challenge your preconceptions? How did it impact your way of thinking? What was your reaction? How did it change your perspective? This response offers insight into your potential to thrive in the demanding academic environment at Harvard.
- How you hope to use your college education
With a look toward the future, this is an opportunity to discuss why Harvard is the ideal place for you to achieve your goals. It also allows you to discuss your motivations, passions, values, and perspectives on learning. Discuss what excites you about the overall experience at Harvard. Look toward the future and how the Harvard educational experience will support you. Can you articulate the value of a Harvard education? Your response will convey your aspirations, temperament, leadership, and potential to succeed at Harvard.
- A list of books you have read during the past twelve months
As you compile your list, think about the breadth and depth of content. You do not need to include every book you read in the last year. Select the ones that best demonstrate your interests/passions or allowed you to explore something novel. This list should include the books you are most excited about but also the ones that challenged your way of thinking. Each title is a means of interacting with the world of ideas and communicates something significant about you.
- The Harvard College Honor code declares that we “hold honesty as the foundation of our community.” As you consider entering this community that is committed to honesty, please reflect on a time when you or someone you observed had to make a choice about whether to act with integrity and honesty.
This prompt is not only asking you to detail your thought process but also to consider your values and how you or others impact the world around you/them through actions. The focus here is on the fact that there is a “choice” to be made after weighing the options. What do “honesty,” “integrity” and “community” mean to you? Clearly Harvard holds honesty as the essential building block of community. Why do you believe honesty is essential to community? How important are shared values in a community? If you are writing about your own actions, think about what prompted you to act or prevented you from acting: What did you do? What was its result? If you are writing about someone you observed, discuss his or her choice. Why was it significant and what did you think about the behavior? In either case, what was at stake based on the decision and what was the impact of the choice that was made?
- The mission of Harvard College is to educate our students to be citizens and citizen-leaders for society. What would you do to contribute to the lives of your classmates in advancing this mission?
The heart of this prompt gets at your impact on those around you. Remember, Harvard is looking for “students who will be the best educators of one another and their professors— individuals who will inspire those around them during their College years and beyond.” This also asks you to articulate your ideas about the characteristics of a good citizen and leader. This is an opportunity to discuss your imagined role within your peer group at Harvard as well as in a broader sense as you look toward the future. You must also demonstrate your ability to reflect on society from different perspectives. Think about what you can do to contribute to the world in a meaningful way—from a school club to a larger cultural or religious community to the global society. What might you do to inspire, support, or educate others?
- Each year a substantial number of students admitted to Harvard defer their admission for one year or take time off during college. If you decided in the future to choose either option, what would you like to do?
This is a good prompt to address if you are considering a gap year or if you have plans to take time off while at college to pursue a particular interest. This could be career related, a personal improvement quest, or something else. Explain what you plan to do during this time away from Harvard, your rationale, and what you hope to gain from the experience. How would you embrace this opportunity to gain some skill or explore something meaningfully? How might this experience help you achieve future goals and enhance the community at Harvard upon your return.
Tip: You will want to be sure to create a realistic plan for your deferred admission year; saying you will start a business, without naming the business, any kind of business plan, and any reasonable evidence for the business’s projected success will therefore not make for a compelling essay. However, perhaps you would like a year to pursue an internship with an agency whose cause you support; work on a political campaign with which you already have a relationship; volunteer for Habitat for Humanity, etc. Be specific and make sure your plans are plausible, motivated by your values, and supported by past experiences.
- Harvard has long recognized the importance of student body diversity of all kinds. We welcome you to write about distinctive aspects of your background, personal development or the intellectual interests you might bring to your Harvard classmates.
How might your particular life experience add value to the diverse student body at Harvard? How might you enrich discussions or provide different perspectives? This is primarily about what unique insights and perspectives you bring to the table; consider how you might engage with your classmates differently based on your personal experiences. Think about your culture, significant experiences that shaped you, your passions, or issues of concern to your unique intellectual pursuits. Some examples might be: discussing your upbringing as a Catholic in an Evangelical area; how your particular background as an international student will diversify the Harvard class; how being a Democrat or a Republican has impacted your thinking; and countless other examples. In short, what makes YOU stand out?
Final thoughts on applying to Harvard
The Harvard admissions committee seeks not only well-rounded individuals; it also covets students who are intensely creative in some discipline or activity, reflective, passionate, artistic, compassionate, talented, and brilliant. Do not be intimidated by these characteristics. Instead, strive to convey your unique self, life experiences, aspirations, motivations, interests and perspectives in a compelling way.
Not surprisingly, the applicant pool at Harvard is extremely competitive. It received 57,786 undergraduate applications for the class of 2025. Only 2,320 were offered admission. What is the best way to standout in this outstanding applicant pool? Be you, convey your strengths, and express unique identity through your application and essay responses!
Take solace in the fact that Harvard is assessing your overall application in an effort to provide the best fit for you as a student. Stay focused and try not to get overwhelmed. Make sure to adhere to deadlines as you dedicate yourself to this process. Plan appropriately to give yourself the time you need to put forth your best self. And remember, this is a two-way street; you need to do your part to convince the admissions committee that you are the best match for Harvard, while also considering what appeals to YOU about the “big H.”
If you’re applying to Harvard University, you already know you’re up against tight competition. Don’t be overwhelmed. Get the guidance of an experienced admissions specialist who will help you stand out from the highly competitive applicant pool so you can apply with confidence and get accepted! Click here to get started!
Marie Todd has been involved in college admissions for over twenty years. Marie has both counseled applicants to top colleges and evaluated 5000+ applications for the University of Michigan’s College of Literature, Science and the Arts; College of Engineering; School of Kinesiology; School of Nursing; and Taubman College of Architecture. Want Marie to help you get accepted? Click here to get in touch.