A 3.2% acceptance for the Class of 2026 gives you a pretty informative introduction to the ultra-competitive admissions process at Harvard University. To dive deeper, Harvard rejects the majority of valedictorians who apply each year as well as a sizable chunk of those who bring 1600 SAT/36 ACT scores to the table. Further, more than one-third of current Crimson undergrads are legacy students (their parents and/or other close relatives are alumni) and recruited athletes make up around 20% of each incoming freshman class. Therefore, it is reasonable to assume that, if you fall outside of those categories, your chances of getting into Harvard are less than 3%. This brings us to the topic of this blog – the Harvard supplemental essays.

 Want to learn more about How to Get Into Harvard University? Visit our blog entitled: How to Get Into Harvard University: Admissions Data and Strategies for all of the most recent admissions data as well as tips for gaining acceptance.

Yet, this sobering and realistic assessment of the facts on the ground should not discourage those with an extremely strong record of accomplishment—both inside and outside of the classroom—from applying.  Rather, we present this information to highlight one glaring truth: the essays are one of the best opportunities you will have to make your Harvard application shine brighter than your competition.

In the 2022-23 there are three Harvard supplemental essays. This first essay is required. Technically, the other two essays are optional. However, these are pretty much required if you want serious consideration for admission.

2022-23 Harvard Supplemental Essays 

Required Extracurricular Short Response

Please briefly elaborate on one of your extracurricular activities or work experiences. (150 words)

Harvard is not necessarily asking you to write about the activity where you earned the most prestigious awards. Nor does it have to be the one where you held the highest position of leadership. The university is going to see all of your activities in that section of the Common App. As such, you want to ask yourself which of your entries is crying out for more explanation and detail? Which one is closest to your heart and most representative of your unique passions? Pick the option that will allow you to deliver additional detail that may be memorable to the admissions reader. For example, you may be a volunteer EMT and have compelling, drama-filled experiences to share.

Alternatively, you may have worked in local restaurant and learned more about the lives of your undocumented coworkers. Start this process by asking yourself, “What is the most interesting and consequential moment that I have experienced in one of my extracurricular activities?” If you can identify one clear-cut moment, that is likely the activity worth sharing with Harvard.

Lastly, you may wish to connect your previous activities to a Harvard student organization you wish to join.

Optional – Academic Short Response

Your intellectual life may extend beyond the academic requirements of your particular school. Please use the space below to list additional intellectual activities that you have not mentioned or detailed elsewhere in your application. These could include, but are not limited to, supervised or self-directed projects not done as school work, training experiences, online courses not run by your school, or summer academic or research programs not described elsewhere. (150 words)

So, what is Harvard really looking for here? In short, admissions officers want to see evidence of your drive, passion, and intellectual ambition. You may have taken over a dozen AP courses, but so did most of your competition. Did you pursue independent research or a more formalized research experience at a university? Did you spend your summer pursuing your academic interests to the best extent that was financially feasible (e.g. expensive summer programs are not accessible to everyone)? What were the fruits of your labor? Does your name appear on published research? Did you present at a conference? Did you independently pursue CS certifications, mastering multiple programming languages? Or did you learn a foreign language outside of school hours? Perhaps you even helped to translate a work of literature into another language.

Ideally, whatever example you cite will be closely aligned with your future academic area of interest.

Optional Additional Essay

Additional Essay: You may wish to include an additional essay if you feel 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:

1) Unusual circumstances in your life

2) Travel, living, or working experiences in your own or other communities

3) What you would want your future college roommate to know about you

4) 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

5) How you hope to use your college education

6) A list of books you have read during the past twelve months

7) 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.

8) 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?

9) 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?

10) 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.

You may find yourself bemoaning the fact that there are SO MANY prompts to choose from here. Which one does Harvard want? Which is the “best” and which is the “worst”? The good news is that you are ultimately allowed to write on whatever topic you wish. Therefore, you shouldn’t feel too much pressure to conform to any of these ten choices.

That said, some prompt choices will not be applicable to everyone (e.g. if you are not taking a gap year). Others do seem more likely than others to elicit a deep and meaningful response. For example, how you hope to use your college education. If you happen to have written a killer supplemental essay as part of an application for another school, this is a chance to get some extra mileage out of that beautiful piece of writing. Of course, you want to be sure to remove any references to another college.

One last note on this essay—while listed as being “optional”—as we mentioned above, it is not truly optional for anyone who wants to maximize their chances of getting into Harvard.

How important are the Harvard supplemental essays?

The Harvard supplemental essays are in the “considered” bucket. They are placed in the same category as factors such as test scores, GPA, and recommendations.

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If you are interested in working with one of College Transitions’ experienced and knowledgeable essay coaches as you craft your Harvard supplemental essays, we encourage you to get a quote today.