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College Spotlight Series: Everything You Need to Know About Harvard

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Harvard University is, to many members of the general public, the archetype of a prestigious college. Its name recognition, reputation, and long history make it world-renown, even iconic, in its stature. Even if it’s not actually the very best at everything, it’s still an incredible place to learn and grow with the backing of an exceptional array of resources and opportunities, and many high school students dream of joining its ranks.


Of course, getting admitted to such a respected university is an extremely competitive process. If you’re a high school student who’s planning to apply to Harvard, you need to take time to familiarize yourself with the university, its expectations, its culture, and its application process. Here’s what you need to know if you plan to include Harvard on your college application list.


Want to learn what Harvard University will actually cost you based on your income? And how long your application to the school should take? Here’s what every student considering Harvard University needs to know.


Harvard: The Quick Facts


Type: Private University

Location: Cambridge, MA

Founded: 1636

Enrollment: 6,710 undergraduates, 20,324 students in total

Tuition: $48,949 (2017-2018)

Average Financial Aid Award: $50,562

Acceptance Rate: 5.2% (class of 2021)

Average SAT Score: 2235 (class of 2020), roughly equivalent to 1530 on the new SAT



An Introduction to Harvard


Students and Culture

With over 6,700 undergraduates and over 20,000 students altogether, Harvard is a fairly large university. (You won’t always encounter all the graduate students, though—some of their campuses are separated from the main campus area.) These students, who hail from all over the world, bring in experiences, perspectives, and expertise from innumerable sources.


Harvard students are intelligent, driven young people with great potential who appreciate a rigorous academic experience, so coursework is challenging and the environment is heavily intellectual. Their numbers include currently high-profile people like Olympic athletes and children of well-known figures, as well as people who are destined for future greatness.


At the same time, Harvard isn’t just an icon; it’s a real place full of real young people learning, exploring, and shaping the future on a daily basis.


Tuition and Financial Aid

A Harvard education is an expensive commodity, with the average student’s cost of attendance (including room, board, books, and personal expenses) adding up to roughly $67,000 for the 2017-2018 year. However, the school does offer need-based financial aid to help mitigate this expense, which can make attending Harvard a much more viable possibility for many students and their families.


You should know that Harvard awards only need-based financial aid, not merit-based, academic, or athletic scholarships. Your aid will depend upon your family’s income, assets, and ability to contribute. Around 55% of students currently receive financial aid, and recently, Harvard replaced all required student loans in their aid packages with more grant aid that students don’t have to pay back later.



Cambridge, Massachusetts is a small, dense town right across the Charles River from Boston, close enough to share in its subway system and many other city amenities. Within the next few years, Harvard is planning to expand its facilities in Boston itself, but for now, most undergraduate activity takes place in the Harvard Square neighborhood of Cambridge.


Boston and Cambridge are steeped in American history, and reminders of the American Revolution are everywhere. The large number of colleges and universities in the area gives it an enduring legacy of intellectual excellence, with Harvard as a major part of that tradition. You’ll find a combination of big-city benefits and quirky local traditions, a strong devotion to the Red Sox, and easy access to the rest of the East Coast.


Academics and Popular Majors

Harvard’s most popular majors lie within the fields of biological and physical sciences, social sciences, history, and math, but these are by no means the only strong academic options. The university is home to exceptional programs and scholars in many disciplines, and even if you can’t study with a star professor directly, their influence helps make the academic offerings at Harvard truly world-class.


Student Life and Activities

Harvard students come from all over the world and bring in a huge range of exceptional talents and backgrounds, and this is reflected in the wide range of student activities available. No matter if you’re interested in athletics, politics, cultural groups, or even rare hobbies, you’re likely to find your people somewhere.


As you can imagine, high-achieving Harvard students often like to compete, whether it’s in debate, crew, or robotics. There are plenty of competitive opportunities, especially given the large number of other colleges in Boston, as well as Harvard’s membership in the tight-knit Ivy League.


However, not everything is so high-stakes; there’s plenty of fun to be had. In recent years, the university has also put more resources toward helping students relax and better manage the stress of their busy academic and extracurricular schedules.



Harvard is a residential community, with 98% of undergraduates living on campus. First-year dorms are located in the campus center, on the iconic Harvard Yard, and the ornate first-year dining hall that reminds many students of Hogwarts is nearby.


After this first year, students are divided among the twelve “residential colleges,” smaller communities within the Harvard campus that combine housing with dining halls and other common spaces. RAs and staff in each college head up activities that range from study breaks to fun group outings.

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Walking Through the Harvard Admissions Process


Admissions Statistics

Each year, Harvard receives close to 40,000 applications for undergraduate admission. In 2017, the university accepted 5.2% of applicants, continuing a general trend of lower acceptance rates each year at Harvard as well as at many other comparable universities. Since Harvard is such a well-known and prestigious school, its yield is typically very high, meaning that most of the students who are accepted to Harvard will decide to go there.


Who Gets Admitted to Harvard?

While Harvard doesn’t have a stated minimum GPA or standardized test score range, successful applicants usually have very high grades and scores. For the class of 2020, the average combined SAT score (on the older version of the test) was 2235, which translates to roughly 1530 on the newest version of the SAT. Applicants also typically show strong extracurricular involvement and have taken on challenging coursework.


However, getting accepted requires more than the right numbers. Harvard’s holistic evaluation procedure looks for students who are truly exceptional and have great potential. Qualities like innovativeness, dedication, and curiosity are important, but most of all, you’ll need to stand out from the large pool of highly accomplished applicants. The key is to focus on what makes you special and the unique contribution you’ll add to this exceptional campus community.


Harvard is a reach school for any applicant due to its extremely low acceptance rate; many highly qualified applicants can’t be accepted do to space constraints. However, many students still decide that the potential benefits are well worth the work required and the risk of being rejected. For more of our insight into what’s necessary to get admitted to Harvard, take a look at our blog post What Does It Take to Get Into Harvard?


Application Timeline

Harvard’s application for the Regular Decision timeline, which most applicants use, is due on January 1st. You can expect to hear back about whether you’ve been accepted by late March. If you’re accepted, you’ll have until May 1st to decide whether to attend.


Harvard also offers a Single-Choice Early Action application option. If you choose this option, you’ll submit your application by November 1st, and you’ll be prohibited from applying early to other colleges. You’ll get your admission decision by mid-December. You’re not contractually obligated to attend if you’re accepted early under this SCEA program, and you’ll also have until May 1st to make your final decision.


How to Apply

Harvard accepts the Common, Coalition, and Universal college application forms; none is preferred, so you can choose the form that works best for you. Whichever form you use, you’ll need to fill out all of Harvard’s required supplemental questions. Harvard’s supplement includes an essay question that is technically optional; we strongly encourage that you do submit this optional essay. 


In addition to your application form, you’ll need to submit your scores on the SAT or ACT as well as on two SAT II subject tests, your transcript, a School Report from your guidance counselor, and two recommendations (referred to as Teacher Reports). An interview with a Harvard alum near you is optional and not always possible, but we recommend you take the opportunity if you have it.


Applying to a place like Harvard can be intimidating, but the more you know, the better you can decide whether to take a chance on Harvard—and the better you’ll be able to prepare for the demands of the application process. If you’re thinking about applying to Harvard University, visit Harvard’s undergraduate admissions website for the most up-to-date information about application deadlines, requirements, and procedures.


Here at CollegeVine, we know how many of our clients are interested in Harvard, so we’re here with advice on how best to approach the Harvard application process. Take a look at the following blog posts for our tips and guidance in putting your best foot forward.



Curious about your chances of acceptance to your dream school? Our free chancing engine takes into account your GPA, test scores, extracurriculars, and other data to predict your odds of acceptance at over 500 colleges across the U.S. We’ll also let you know how you stack up against other applicants and how you can improve your profile. Sign up for your free CollegeVine account today to get started!

Monikah Schuschu
Senior Blogger

Short Bio
Monikah Schuschu is an alumna of Brown University and Harvard University. As a graduate student, she took a job at the Harvard College Office of Financial Aid and Admissions, and discovered the satisfaction of helping students and parents with the often-baffling college admissions process. She also enjoys fiber art, murder mysteries, and amateur entomology.