Note: this blog post has been updated for the 2015-2016 application cycle. To view the most recent version, click here.

Located across the river from Boston, Harvard College is home to around 6,600 undergraduates students. Boasting one of the lowest acceptance rates in the world (last year, just 5.9% of students were admitted), the Crimson College is frequently listed as the number one school on many world-university rankings. Because it possesses one of the strongest alumni network out of any university, Harvard enjoys an endowment of $32 billion—the largest in the world (Princeton’s is around $18 billion dollars). Many students and parents believe Harvard is a school only for the rich elite; however, in recent years Harvard has made unbelievable efforts to increase the student body’s ethnic, socio-economic, and geographical diversity. Indeed, over 70% of students receive some form of financial aid. In other words, Harvard is more accessible than ever.

However, do not be misled. Because Harvard has the luxury of receiving applications from the most talented students in the world every year, it is incredibly important to distinguish yourself in the admissions process. Doing so can be a huge headache for many students. Thankfully, the long-awaited Harvard supplemental essay blog post is here.

Occasionally, students feel that college application forms do not provide sufficient opportunity to convey important information about themselves or their accomplishments. If you wish to include an additional essay, you may do so.

Possible Topics: 

  • Unusual circumstances in your life
  • Travel or living experiences in other countries
  • A letter to your future college roommate
  • An intellectual experience (course, project, book, discussion, paper or research topic) 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

While the Harvard supplemental essay is technically optional, your best bet is to write it.  Indeed, about 80% of the students accepted to the Harvard Class of 2017 opted to write the optional essay.  Now, this obviously doesn’t mean that writing the essay alone increases your chances of acceptance, but rather indicates that Harvard uses a wide range of metrics to evaluate its 36,000+ applicants yearly.  If you really want to stand out, this is the essay to do it.  Before we dive into actual content guidelines, we want to discuss some key points about the essay itself.

First, there is no explicit essay length mentioned.  In general, you want your essay to be between 400-600 words.  Anything less is honestly not enough to truly develop your application any further and would just be a waste of time, while anything more would be a bit much for a supplemental essay.

Next, make sure that before you submit your application for this essay, the essay fits completely on one page.  Harvard admissions counselors review thousands of apps and do not need to fumble through pages of your essay.  If you stay below 600 words, you should be able to completely fit on one page.

Now in terms of content, bear in mind that this essay is completely open-ended; you can literally submit almost anything.  For those of you that have a written a really strong essay for another school that isn’t directly related to that school (such as an essay that talks about your passion for cooking), you can simply recycle that essay.  If you are going to write off of the “possible topics” list, be sure to keep in mind the same guidelines we will explain if writing the essay from scratch.

If you are writing this essay completely from scratch for Harvard, an important guideline to use in framing your essay is that in should substantially differ from your Common App essay in terms of content (obviously), personality traits developed, and even style/tone.  This essay is supposed to add something completely new to your app – a totally different angle – so its best to go for a full 180, or an essay that adds shock factor.  For example, if your application is heavily themed around research and your Common App essay describes the lab as being the environment in which you feel most comfortable, then a supplemental essay about how you and your friends love to get together and have Super Smash Bros tournaments (on the N64 of course) would be an unexpected way to develop your personality outside of academic/professional environments.  The essay would use the game as an organizing tool to reflect on your relationships with friends and the element you add to group/community settings.

Another example of a 180-essay is if your app is full of leadership positions (perhaps you are heavily involved in MUN or debate), then writing an essay that actually speaks to some of your insecurities when getting up in front of a room full of people or in managing others can be a candid way to humanize yourself for the readers.

A few key points to think about when writing this essay (considering it’s for Harvard):

First, Harvard definitely values community involvement/passion development over pure academic success.

 

Second, you want to try to convey some sort of curiosity to Harvard – whether that curiosity is academic, intellectual, extracurricular, or philosophical.  Harvard students for the most part are really passionate about something; you want to convey how you will also contribute to that pool.

Finally, Harvard specifically looks for genuinely good people.  Now that may sound unbelievably corny and cliché, but expressing a sense of citizenship or regard for humanity in the essay is a strong plus for the Harvard palette.

Zack Perkins

Zack Perkins

Zack was an economics major at Harvard before going on indefinite leave to pursue CollegeVine full-time as a founder. In his spare time, he enjoys closely following politics and binge-watching horror movies. To see Zack's full bio, visit the Team page.
Zack Perkins