How to Get Into Harvard: Admissions Data and Strategies
Outside of “Encourage your ultra-wealthy parents to donate a building” or “Be a heavily-recruited athlete who also happens to have an SAT score in the 99th percentile,” there is no meaningful succinct nugget of wisdom that is going to unlock the gates to Harvard Yard. Every successful Harvard applicant possesses a sparking transcript, perfect or near-perfect standardized test scores, and prodigious talents that extend outside of the classroom. Unfortunately, these attributes are necessary but often not sufficient, as Harvard rejects valedictorians every single day of the admissions cycle.
The intent of this article is to give those considering applying to Harvard University:
1) An understanding of what you are up against.
2) More data on which to accurately assess your chances of admission.
3) Advice for how to get your application to Harvard stand out, even against other superb applicants.
To accomplish these goals we will touch on the following topics:
- Harvard’s Class of 2024 EA acceptance rate
- Harvard’s Class of 2024 overall acceptance rate
- SAT, GPA, and class rank of accepted Harvard applicants
- Admissions trends from the Class of 2023
- Why being “well-rounded” won’t help you get into Harvard.
- Harvard’s system for rating applicants
- A look at the demographics of Harvard undergraduates
- The percent of accepted students that attend the university
- Tips for applying to Harvard
- How to assess whether applying to Harvard is even worth the $75 application fee (for you)
Let’s begin with an examination of the most recent admissions data.
Harvard: Early Action Acceptance Rate – Class of 2024
Those applying Early Action to the Crimson Class of 2024 were accepted at a 13.9% clip, a friendlier figure than the 13.4% encountered by the Class of 2023. This was the first time in the last six years that the EA acceptance rate actually went up. Such is the hard-to-grasp level of competition at Harvard University—you have to take your encouraging signs where you can find them.
Harvard Acceptance Rate – Class of 2024
There were 40,248 applications submitted for a place in the 2020-21 freshman class; just 1,980 were accepted. This equates to a 4.9% acceptance rate. Last year’s acceptance rate of 4.5% was the lowest in the school’s history.
Harvard Admissions – SAT, GPA, and Class Rank
According to the most recent official statistics available (Class of 2023), the mid-50% SAT range for admitted freshman was 710-770 on the EBRW section and 750-800 on the math section; on the ACT the range was 33-35. Ninety-three percent had earned a place in the top 10% of their graduating high school class and the average GPA was 4.18. Just shy of 93% of successful applicants possessed a GPA of 3.75 or higher.
Admissions Trends & Notes – (Class of 2023)
- The percentage of international students admitted rose 0.3 percentage points from the previous year.
- The percentage of Asian admits increased from the Class of 2022 numbers.
- The number of veteran and ROTC students increased.
- 650 admitted students were interested in pursuing community service as an activity in college.
- The percentage of admitted African-American students, Hispanic-American, and first-generation students all went down slightly.
Being “Well-Rounded” is Not Enough
Being a so-called Renaissance man (or woman) was impressive in the 16th century. The local genius might be the very best person in their village at painting, writing, conducting scientific experiments, jousting, and playing the lute. However, in a technologically modern and globalized world, you don’t need to rely on the neighborhood genius when you have a hankering for some lovely lute music—you can listen to the very best lutenists in the world on Spotify whenever you like.
What does this have to do with Harvard admissions? Simple: Harvard is looking for young people who are among the best, or, have the potential to be among the very best at something in the world. They are less interested in a jack of all trades, master of none type of individual. Just look at the list of notable Crimson alumni and you’ll get a sense of what the university is looking for: the next generation of politicians, award-winning writers, scientists, intellectuals, actors and actresses, musicians, and tech geniuses whose inventions will literally change the world in which we live.
For advice about how to stand out on the extracurricular front, check out our previous blog entitled How Many Extracurricular Activities Do I Need for College?
How Harvard Rates Applicants
Like a jeweler sifting through piles of perfect diamonds trying to find the “most perfect” of the bunch, Harvard admissions officers need a way to categorize differing levels of excellence. As such, they assign a rating of 1-4 (or 1-6, according to some), with 1 being the top rating in four areas: 1) academic, 2) extracurricular, 3) athletics, and 4) personal. Pluses and minuses can be added on to the numeric rating for further distinction.
This gives us pretty good insight into how Harvard goes about sifting through its hordes of over-qualified applicants.
In order to project your chances at admission, try to accurately assess yourself in these four areas and remember our previous comments about Renaissance men/women. You aren’t going to earn a 1 or a 2 in athletics for playing a year of JV Volleyball in high school. Someone high in that category is being actively recruited by the coach of one of Harvard’s 42 Division I sports teams. Likewise for extracurriculars—Harvard is not going to be impressed that you filled the ten spaces on the Common App Activity List; they are looking for genuine excellence in one or more activities. For example, you won a prestigious international math competition, you are one of the top cellists in the United States, you published original scientific research, or started a charitable organization that made a monumental impact.
Who Actually Gets Into Harvard?
Let’s look at the demographics of the Class of 2023.
Geographically, the Class of 2023 was comprised of students from:
- International (from 89 countries): 12.3%
- Mid-Atlantic States: 21.7%
- Southern States: 19.6%
- Western States: 17.3%
- Midwestern States: 11.8%
- New England States: 16.6%
Competition is stiffest among those hailing from states with endless streams of qualified applicants (the entire Northeast & the West Coast). If you hail from the Deep South or a less-populated state like Wyoming or North Dakota, your location is more likely to provide a boost to your admissions chances.
Looking at ethnic identity, the breakdown was as follows:
- White: 47.2%
- Asian: 22.6%
- Hispanic: 11.1%
- African American: 10.1%
- South Asian: 5.8%
- American Indian: 1.2%
Amazingly, one study revealed that 43% of white students admitted into Harvard in the last six years where either legacies (their parents were alumni), recruited athletes, children of faculty members, or teens whose relatives had donated large amounts of money to the university. A case of alleged discrimination against students by Harvard made its way all the way to the United States Supreme Court, but the university prevailed.
Most People Who Get Accepted Choose to Attend
Harvard’s yield rate—the percentage of accepted students who elect to enroll, divided by the total number of students who are admitted is 82%. This number is absurdly high and helps to explain why the acceptance rate is so very low. For comparison, elite schools such as Johns Hopkins, Carnegie Mellon, Vanderbilt, Rice, Emory, and Georgetown all have yield rates under 50%.
Tips for Applying to Harvard
If you plan on joining the 40,000+ Harvard hopefuls for the next admissions cycle, you should know the following:
Harvard does schedule alumni interviews for most qualified applicants; over 15,000 alumni around the globe serve as interviewers. For advice on what types of questions you should be prepared to answer/ask visit our blog—College Interview Tips.
Harvard does not consider “demonstrated interest” so you will not be judged on whether or not you made a campus visit, contacted an admissions officer, etc.
Make sure to dedicate sufficient time and effort to the supplemental essay and short answers required by Harvard. In the 2020-21 cycle, they are as follows:
- Please briefly elaborate on one of your extracurricular activities or work experiences. (50-150 words)
- 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)
- 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
– Travel or living experiences in other countries
– What you would want your future college roommate to know about you
– 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
– How you hope to use your college education
– A list of books you have read during the past twelve months
– 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.
– 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?
– 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?
– 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.
4) For International Students: What specific plan do you have, if any, for using the education you hope to receive? (0-50 words)
Should I Apply to Harvard?
If you are academically qualified, there is no harm in filling out a Harvard application, but—as with all uber-elite colleges in 2020—even the best and brightest teens need to have a rock-solid backup plan. For more on creating a balanced list, revisit our blog entitled: How Many Schools Should I Apply to?
Dave has over a decade of professional experience that includes work as a teacher, high school administrator, college professor, and independent educational consultant. He is a co-author of the books The Enlightened College Applicant (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016) and Colleges Worth Your Money (Rowman & Littlefield, 2020).