Last year, Harvard received 42,749 applications, and accepted fewer than two thousand, for an acceptance rate of under 5% (find out your chance of getting in.) For your application to stand out, write a compelling supplemental essay on one of the provided prompts or a topic of your choosing.
No matter which of the ten essay topics you choose, you need to know the question behind the question, and what admissions officers are really looking to learn about you. Remember, they're evaluating your application for whether you would be a good addition to Harvard's student body. This is your chance to show your full self, be creative, or tell a story crucial to filling in any gaps in your application or understanding what kind of Harvard student you will be.
What Every Essay Must Get Right
Your essay needs to display several crucial features:
- Great writing: This means error-free writing, but also complex sentences, metaphors, tight organization with clear transitions, varied vocabulary, and details that draw the reader's attention.
- Specifics: Vague phrases about "becoming a leader" or "learning important lessons" do little to show the reader who you are or who you will become. Use specific language to detail what, how, and why.
- Self-reflection. Every prompt is really asking you to demonstrate self-knowledge. Go beyond describing what happened to you, and be sure you show what you learned, how you changed, where you grew, and what you know now that you didn't before.
- Authenticity: Don't write the essay you think they want to read. Don't try to sound older, wiser, or more complicated than you actually are.
What the Questions are Really Asking
Below are insights and specific college admissions assistance on what to look out for, what to avoid, and what not to forget in each of Harvard's supplemental essay topics.
Unusual circumstances in your life
This topic is perfect if your story is rare or unique, but don't just pick something funny or weird. Feedback from teachers, peers, or an Ivy League admissions consultant can give you an idea of whether your circumstance is truly unusual. Provide lots of significant details, but avoid merely giving a play-by-play of events. This essay should include why the circumstances continue to matter to you today and how you were shaped by them.
Travel or living experiences in other countries
Enriching foreign travel is a wonderful way to show openness, adaptability, and an intrepid spirit. Don't waste time just describing foreign places. This is an essay about what you experienced and the impact on your character. Above all, avoid cliches at all cost. Stories that have been told too often include I went to help the poor and they helped me instead. I learned people from different countries have a lot in common. I discovered I love travel.
What you would want your future college roommate to know about you
For the student who has more to show than what appears on the standard application, this is a great chance for you to demonstrate how well you know yourself, where you've come from, and what shaped you. The topic is asking you to consider the person you will be living with, so you have room to show a more personal side. The secret here is not to only describe your past experiences or your character quirks. You want to present a full picture of yourself, that includes who you'll be once you get here.
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 is your chance to show your accomplishments, your area of passion, and your intellectual growth. Don't focus on just earning a good grade or winning an award. This essay is calling for you to demonstrate some significant intellectual curiosity, perseverance, open-mindedness, and willingness to learn. Try to pick an experience that required you to take a risk or leave your comfort zone, even if it means telling a story in which you didn't succeed in the traditional sense.
How you hope to use your college education
Writing about your goals is a powerful way to show your ambition, vision, and determination. Your future plans must be concrete, specific, and realistic. Don't just say, I want to be president or I want to contribute to society. You want to connect your goals to your current self, offering the reader a clear understanding of who you are now with a plausible trajectory into your future.
A list of books you have read during the past twelve months
Don't just stop at the list. Important books should have an impact on you, deepen your understanding, and expand your view of the world. Of course you want your list to be impressive, but it's more important that they are genuinely important to you. A deeply insightful essay about your favorite childhood book is better than a generic essay about a famous classic.
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
A great story about honesty is one that avoids an easy conclusion. When choosing this topic, make sure you reflect on a time that required a tough call, sacrifice, risk, or something beyond the obvious choice. It's more impactful if the story is about you, but a story about someone you observed can work, as long as you were directly affected. Complexity is the key here, as is humility and your ability to wrestle with contradictions.
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?
Becoming "citizens and citizen-leaders" comes straight from Harvard's own Mission Statement. If you choose this topic, know that you'll be writing about one of Harvard's core values. Notice that the question uses the words "contribute" and "advancing," so be sure to show clear action with results that will impact your classmates. Remember, contributions don't have to be popular or fun, but they do have to be significant, lasting, and socially relevant.
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?
A year off doesn't mean you don't have serious plans or goals. Dig into your passion and how you would pursue it. Your pursuit can be academic, vocational, spiritual, or recreational, as long as you've got a clear sense of direction and purpose, and can show the reader what you will gain and contribute from the time. Most importantly, only write this essay if it applies to you, not if you're truly eager to start college in the fall.
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
Like the very first prompt, this one is asking you to be honest, forthright, and even vulnerable about your life. If you are from an underrepresented group, you could describe the impact your perspective and experience will have on others. How will you encounter your fellow students, engage, challenge, and enrich the student body? Your diversity alone should not be the topic of the essay. Rather, focus on how your diversity will enhance your contributions.
With the supplemental essay, Harvard is giving you the option to show more of yourself. Take the option that best fits your circumstances and strengths. As you work through your essay, check out our breakdown of the notorious Costco Essay that got one student into 5 Ivy League schools.