How To Write Harvard’s Additional Essay
This article was written based on the information and opinions presented by Elias Miller in a CollegeVine livestream. You can watch the full livestream for more info.
In this post, we’ll look at Harvard University’s third supplemental essay prompt, break down the suggested topics for this essay, and discuss how to tackle the prompt in an unconventional way. For more information about Harvard, check out our article on how to get into Harvard and to read more about Harvard’s supplemental essays, check out our article on how to write the Harvard supplemental essays.
An Overview of the Prompt
Harvard’s third essay prompt reads:
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, living, or working experiences in your own or other communities,
- What you 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 12 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.
If none of these options appeal to you, you have the option to write on a topic of your choice.
Although this prompt is optional, we highly recommend completing this essay as it can only help your application. This prompt provides another opportunity for Harvard to get to know who you are, so you should make sure to choose a topic that highlights your personality and how you align with Harvard’s principles of leadership, community, and intellectualism.
Breaking Down the Suggested Prompts
Unusual Circumstances Prompt
In answering this prompt, remember that just because an experience seems unique to you does not mean it will be unique within the context of Harvard’s applicant pool.
For example, writing about dealing with a learning challenge, such as attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), may not be as effective without proper reflection. Many people have learning disabilities and other challenges, and a lot of people will choose to write about them. That doesn’t mean you should avoid the topic of ADHD. It means you should write about it in a way that is very specific to you, maybe by talking about a specific aspect of your diagnosis or experience and how it’s impacted your life in ways you didn’t expect. Your goal with any essay is to make yourself stand out and, with this prompt especially, to make sure that what you’re discussing is truly unique.
Similarly, writing about the general experience of growing up in an immigrant family will also not be as effective without highlighting your specific personal experiences and reflections. There are also many Harvard applicants who are immigrants or the child of immigrants, so if you choose to write on this topic, you need to make sure that the narrative you craft is unique to you and shows how your experiences have defined a part of your personality.
Not everyone has faced unique or unusual circumstances, and that’s fine. Most people who answer this prompt will discuss challenges or struggles. You could discuss an obscure or rare health challenge from which you suffer, or you could write about a highly specific issue you’ve encountered due to your gender, race, ethnicity, religion, or nationality. Regardless of the topic you choose, make sure your essay isn’t too dark and, ideally, end it on an uplifting or positive note.
Travel, Living, Working Prompt
If you answer this prompt, you want to avoid the cliche of traveling to a low-income part of the world and learning from people who are less privileged than you. Writing about service work at home or abroad is overdone in general. If you do go this route, again, be specific. Pick a unique topic and write it so that it only applies to you and your experience.
If you’re going to talk about traveling, make sure you describe a more compelling and specific purpose than just becoming more culturally aware or more worldly. “I went to France because I wanted to be more worldly” is not a great essay topic here. A better example is a discussion of how you learned about your own heritage by traveling back to the country in which your parents were born and temporarily embedding yourself in the community there. Again, make it specific to you with plenty of personal details.
Future Roommate Prompt
In answering this prompt, you’ll want to strike a balance between positive attributes and humanizing, self-deprecating ones. Obviously, you’re not just going to list your positive attributes. This will sound boastful and pretentious. But you’re not doing this to list your negative attributes, either. If you do that, the Harvard admissions officers probably won’t have the best opinion of you in the end. Even a funny, self-deprecating essay that paints you as a bad roommate will not help you get into Harvard.
It can be effective to mention a couple of your fears or insecurities, as long as you don’t make them sound too serious. Don’t be afraid to use humor or show some personality. Feel free to talk about some quirks you may have or some unique hobbies. Be genuine. You’re allowed to be a little more casual here than in a normal essay but, of course, remember that the audience is admissions officers, not potential roommates.
Finally, make sure you don’t say anything offensive or inappropriate. This advice applies to every essay.
Intellectual Experience Prompt
In answering this prompt, try to zero in on an intellectual pursuit, possibly the major you’re considering, and tell the story of how you found that passion. For example, a future computer science major talking about how a simple robotics project ignited their love for programming. Similarly, a future philosophy major could talk about how they developed an interest in philosophy and ethics through a high school speech and debate experience.
Another interesting approach could be discussing your least favorite or most challenging subject and how you grew to appreciate it, despite your initial struggles. Harvard highly values intellectualism and highlighting your curiosity for all subjects is a great way to show admissions officers that you are a good fit for the school.
Using Your Education Prompt
Although this prompt asks how you hope to use your college education, you should be thinking about it as how you hope to use your college education to create positive change in the world.
Large, frequently discussed missions like reversing climate change or curing cancer are overdone and a little too ambitious. Narrow down your goals to something a little more attainable, and don’t just discuss your future goals in a vacuum. Make sure you’re connecting them back to your current experiences, knowledge, and interests.
For example, let’s say you’re deeply committed to sustainability and environmental advocacy. Maybe your dream is to solve the world’s plastic problem, but you’re trying to make rather more attainable plans. For now, you’re currently working on an initiative that will help educate people on the dangers associated with plastic accumulation, and you’re seeking to ban certain single-use, nonbiodegradable plastics locally. You look forward to proposing a plastic straw ban at Harvard when you become a student there and using Harvard connections to expand your projects’ reach after you graduate.
Book List Prompt
This prompt is generally more effective to answer if you have read many books. If you haven’t read much in the last 12 months, you shouldn’t answer this prompt. If you read books for fun, you can list those. If you read books for school, even textbooks, you can list those as well.
Keep in mind, this is not just a list. Technically, you have unlimited space to respond, so make sure you explain why each book was meaningful or special to you. Maybe the book helped you develop new interests. Maybe it helped you expand your mind in new ways or maybe it helped you change your personal philosophy.
Don’t use this space to simply brag about all the difficult and important books you read. Use the reading list as a chance to dive deep into your intellectual interest and passion. Don’t be afraid to include some lighter reading you may have done for fun.
Keep in mind that it’s OK to include a negative book review. Make sure that you’re not reviewing the entire list negatively. Here is an excerpt from a student’s response to this prompt:
“‘Big Girl Small’ by Rachel DeWoskin ― I love to judge books by their covers; this one looked the book equivalent of a ‘chick flick’ and turned out to be dark, lousy fiction.
‘The Sun Also Rises’ by Ernest Hemingway ― I wish my writing were as precise and powerful as his. The novel sparked my interest in the expatriates of the Lost Generation and influenced several of my other book choices on this list.”
This applicant has given perceptive reviews. One is negative and one is positive. One is kind of humorous while the other is more sincere. These answers also tell the admissions committee about the applicant’s academic interests.
Honor Code Prompt
If you answer this prompt, avoid preaching the importance of honesty and integrity. Anybody reading this essay already agrees that integrity and honesty are important and valuable, so you can jump right into your answer.
It’s OK to discuss a time you acted in a dishonest or reprehensible way as long as you ultimately learn from your mistakes. Avoid talking about any illegal or otherwise extremely troubling behavior in which you’ve engaged.
The strongest essays involve some situations in which lines are blurred and profound thought is required to make an informed decision. For example, let’s say you have a leadership position in Key Club. You’re helping tutor elementary school students in a predominantly minority and or low-income area. You overhear a close friend of yours who also volunteers at the Key Club making offensive comments about the students who you tutor. Instead of ignoring the comments, although you consider ignoring them because you’re afraid of risking your friend losing their position, you do decide to confront your friend and try to help educate them. If your friend ignores you and continues to make ignorant statements, your plan is to end the friendship or at least inform the other key club leaders of the problem but, of course, you’re committed to trying to help them figure out why what they’re doing was wrong and offensive. If you choose this approach, you need to strike a delicate balance of arguing both sides, but when done thoughtfully these essays can be very powerful.
Harvard Mission Prompt
This prompt is very similar to prompt five, which asks how you hope to use your college education to better the world. In this case, we’re focusing specifically on your classmates’ lives. Again, it’s better to focus on somewhat niche issues that aren’t frequently discussed.
Using the same plastic straw example from Using Your Education Prompt, an answer to this prompt might focus on how you’d introduce your classmates to your environmental advocacy efforts and ultimately build a coalition with your peers. Harvard highly values leadership and community, so it is important that your response shows that you share these values and are committed to contributing to the Harvard community.
Deferring Admission Prompt
If you’re not planning to take time off, don’t write this essay. If you’re planning to take time off to pursue an academic or even nonacademic area, go for it. The topic should highlight a genuine passion and or skill of yours.
Some topics that might work well include:
- Taking time off to travel abroad, specifically to spend time with an older or unwell relative
- Designing and pitching a video game to a video game producer
- Trying to qualify for the Olympics
- Writing or producing a play, screenplay, novel, app, or opera
Make sure your reason for taking time off has a larger focus and accomplishment attached to it. You should avoid topics that might not sound like worthwhile ventures to admissions officers. For example, “I’m taking a year off to visit France because I’ve always wanted to be in France,” is not a compelling essay. You could just go to France after you graduate or even study abroad there.
This is a very difficult essay to write. Harvard’s campus has become increasingly diverse, and the more diverse it’s become, the more difficult it is to have a unique background. Of course, you’ll want to make this discussion deeply personal. Make sure it doesn’t also apply to anyone else who grew up under similar circumstances.
One important note is that you can have many different interpretations of the word diversity. Of course, it’s fine to read diversity in terms of racial, ethnic, or religious diversity, but you can also take a different approach to the idea of diversity, such as growing up in a low-income household or seeking to become a first-generation college student.
These examples focus on socioeconomic diversity. Because there are many first-gen applicants and students at Harvard, you’ll still need to make your discussion very personal to you, for example by discussing the expectations that were put on you, the resources that you had or didn’t have at your disposal, how you created opportunities, and how you’ll continue doing that in college.
Writing an Unconventional Essay
As a final option for your topic of this essay, the prompt states: “If none of these options appeal to you, you have the option to write on a topic of your choice.” If you want to create an essay that’s creative or unconventional, this is your chance.
Avoid picking an essay written for a different school and simply copy-pasting it because you don’t want to write another essay for Harvard. The admissions officers will know, and it will show that you haven’t done your homework. Any essay you submit should positively contribute to your profile as the ideal Harvard candidate and should highlight why you are a good fit for Harvard
One more thing to keep in mind is that a poorly executed unconventional essay may detract significantly from your application. Unconventional essays are what we call high risk, high reward. A bad one can reflect negatively on a candidate, but a great one can be even better than the best conventional essay. A discussion of something very specific, like why eighties punk rock is the most compelling form of music of the last century, would be fitting for an unconventional topic this prompt. However, anything that an admissions officer may find offensive or inappropriate should be avoided.