Harvard College vs. University: What’s the Difference?

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Harvard is the oldest institution of higher education in the U.S., one of the most recognizable names in academia, and a member of the prestigious Ivy League. Harvard is also a moniker shared by both Harvard College and Harvard University—two similar, but different, institutions. 

 

Harvard College vs. Harvard University

 

Harvard College is just part of the larger Harvard University which, in addition to Harvard College, includes 11 graduate and professional schools that maintain their own admissions offices, teaching facilities, and are operated independently from Harvard College. The primary distinction between the two is that Harvard College enrolls undergraduates—awarding Bachelor of Arts (BA) and Bachelor of Science (BS) degrees—while students who matriculate at Harvard University already hold a degree and are pursuing advanced training in a master’s or doctoral program.  

 

What is Harvard College?

 

Harvard College is the largest of Harvard University’s schools—and is of the most interest to college-bound high school students since it’s the home of undergraduate programs. According to CBS, Harvard College is the most difficult college to get accepted at, with a razor-thin 3.4% acceptance rate. Despite the odds, Harvard College has an undergraduate population of 9,900 students from diverse backgrounds.

 

While Harvard College offers both BA and BS degrees, BAs are the predominant degree—between November 2019 and May 2020, the college awarded 1,493 Bachelor of Arts degrees to just 49 Bachelor of Science degrees. Harvard College offers more than 3,700 courses in 50 undergraduate fields of study, which they call concentrations. Concentrations are broken down into four main areas of interest: 

 

  • Arts and Humanities 
  • Engineering and Applied Sciences 
  • Sciences 
  • Social Sciences 

 

At the heart of all Harvard College’s programs in liberal arts. A third of undergraduate coursework fulfills the school’s requirements in areas such as General Education, Distribution, Quantitative Reasoning with Data, Expository Writing, and Language. Harvard College believes that it’s through the liberal arts that students learn to think critically, reason, analytically, and communicate clearly—foundational skills for success in any field. 

 

What is Harvard University?

 

In addition to Harvard College, Harvard University encompasses 11 graduate and professional schools:

 

  • Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences
  • Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences
  • Harvard Business School
  • Harvard Divinity School
  • Harvard Law School
  • Harvard Kennedy School
  • Harvard Graduate School of Design
  • Harvard Graduate School of Education
  • Harvard Medical School
  • Harvard School of Dental Medicine
  • Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health

 

More than 13,000 students are pursuing advanced degrees at Harvard University. The Graduate School of Arts and Sciences is the largest of Harvard University’s schools; in 2020, it received 18,723 applications and enrolled 4,824 students—4,599 in Ph.D. programs and 225 in Master’s programs. 

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Tips for Applying to Harvard College

 

Gaining admissions to Harvard is a major accomplishment, no matter if it’s Harvard College or Harvard University. That said, it’s generally considered easier to gain entry into a Harvard graduate program than it is to get accepted into an undergraduate program. Keep reading for tips to improve your odds of getting accepted to Harvard as an undergrad.

 

1. Take a Rigorous Course Load

 

Top test scores and an outstanding GPA aren’t enough to wow admissions officers at top schools like Harvard, you’ll also need a rigorous course load filled with challenging classes. Harvard is interested in students who demonstrate they’re capable of handling a demanding academic schedule, as well as students who push themselves by taking strenuous classes. 

 

If your high school offers AP classes, you should take them. How many AP classes to take? It’s suggested to complete between seven and 12 AP classes over the course of your high school career. Start slowly with one your freshman year and aim to take between three and four AP classes during your junior and senior years. AP classes in common fields of study, or that align with Harvard’s core curriculum, are thought of as more valuable than other courses. 

 

2. Get Strong Test Scores 

 

Almost everyone who gets into Harvard has exceptional test scores. While they might not set you apart from the competition, you’ll need them just for consideration. The middle 50% scores at Harvard are:

 

  • SAT: 1460-1570
  • ACT: 33-35

 

The middle 50% range indicates the 25th percentile (lower end) and the 75th percentile (upper end). This range is a good indicator of the type of test performance you’ll need to gain entry at Harvard—the higher you score, the better your odds.  

 

CollegeVine has a bunch of great resources for acing important standardized tests, including everything from books to read in preparation for the SAT to where to look for online ACT prep classes to a guide to free SAT prep courses. You’ll even find fun info, like how these 12 celebrities scored on the ACT

 

3. Build an Impressive Extracurricular Profile

 

One way to set yourself apart from other candidates is through extracurricular activities, which are pursuits undertaken outside of the classroom. Not all extracurricular activities are created equal in the eyes of college admissions officers—for example, winning a prestigious award like the Jack Kent Cooke Young Artist Award is more compelling than playing saxophone in your high school’s jazz band. At CollegeVine, we break student activities into four tiers, with one being the most exceptional and four being the most common. 

 

  • Tier 1: These are rare activities that exemplify exceptional achievement or leadership at a national level. You may be the #3 tennis player in the country or a bassist in the National Youth Orchestra.
  • Tier 2: Impressive achievement, high levels of leadership, and noteworthy accomplishments are the marks of tier-2 extracurricular activity—like being President of the Model UN or making all-state in a sport.
  • Tier 3: These include more common leadership roles or achievements, like being a class representative in Student Council or treasurer of your debate club.
  • Tier 4: These are participatory activities with no leadership or other distinctions, such as volunteering or being a member of a club. While less impactful than higher-tiered activities, they are important for showing interests outside of the classroom. 

 

Extracurricular activities can count for as much as a quarter of admissions decisions at highly selective colleges like Harvard. One of the most important things to know about the extracurriculars you need for Ivy League is to focus on quality, not quantity—a few tier-1 and tier-2 activities are more eye-catching than a lot of tier-3 and tier-4 activities. Choose extracurricular activities in fields or interests you’re passionate about. Schools don’t care as much about the activities themselves—although it’s wise to avoid polarizing activities—as they do about achievement and success.  

 

4. Write Engaging Essays

 

Extracurricular activities show admissions officers where your interests and passions lie, but essays provide the opportunity for you to talk about those interests and passions, along with highlighting your goals, giving a glimpse of your personality, and showing why you belong on Harvard’s campus. 

 

Whether you’re applying with the Common Application or the Coalition Application, you’ll want to write a compelling essay and avoid cliché topics. Remember, you’re trying to prove that you can step on campus and excel—proofread carefully to avoid silly punctuation and grammar mistakes, and make sure your tone and style are consistent. 

 

Harvard also offers applicants the option to submit a supplemental essay. Although it’s not required, it’s highly recommended that you submit a supplemental essay, as it gives you another chance to demonstrate why you belong at Harvard and show off the aspects of your life that aren’t represented on other parts of the application. Whatever you choose to write about, be sure to highlight characteristics that Harvard values, like selflessness, leadership, and intellectual curiosity. 

 

What are Your Chances at Harvard College?

Here, CollegeVine can help. Our free chancing engine uses metrics like GPA and standardized test scores—along with other factors like extracurricular activities—to estimate your odds at Harvard and over 600 other schools. Our chancing engine can also illuminate areas of the application where you’re particularly strong and areas where there is room for improvement.

 

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Short Bio
A graduate of Northeastern University with a degree in English, Tim Peck currently lives in Concord, New Hampshire, where he balances a freelance writing career with the needs of his two Australian Shepherds to play outside.

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