- Says something about you,
- “Shows not tells,” and
- Demonstrates fit.
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How to Write the Harvard University Supplemental Essays 2017-2018
From its historic campus to its prestigious alumni, Harvard has built a reputation that speaks for itself. Founded in 1636, Harvard boasts one of the lowest university acceptance rates in the world, second only to Stanford. Last year, Harvard College (the undergraduate school) drew over 39,000 applicants; of that number, just around 5.2% were accepted to join the Class of 2021.
Given these stats, it’s no wonder that Harvard emphasizes its application supplement in the admissions process. After asking students to input their extracurricular activities and recommendation letters, Harvard’s application concludes with a supplement essay. Because Harvard’s prompt is so open-ended, students every year struggle with what to write to put their application over the edge of acceptance.
Luckily, you have come to the right place. Here is CollegeVine’s comprehensive guide on how to tackle the Harvard University supplemental essay for the 2017-18 cycle.
Harvard University Application Essay Prompts
Before You Begin Writing
First: Is the Harvard essay optional?
Each year, students are confused by Harvard’s assertion that its essay is optional. To clear the air, at CollegeVine, we advise our students to take every opportunity available to showcase themselves on their applications. In fact, after surveying over 200 members of the Harvard Class of 2017, we discovered that ~86% of accepted students opted to write the optional essay. Read more about why you should write the optional Harvard supplement essay.
Tips for Your Harvard Application
Right away, you may have noticed that the Harvard essay doesn’t have a specific word count. While in theory that means you could submit a 57-page dissertation as your Harvard supplement, in practice what we’ve seen is that most successful Harvard essays tend to be anywhere from 500-700 words. A good guideline to follow is that your essay should be about a page long when written in 12-point Times New Roman font, single-spaced.
If you are writing this essay completely from scratch for Harvard, an important guideline to use in framing your essay is that it 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 it’s 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 your obsession with biology research and how it has shaped who you’ve become today, then a supplemental essay about how you give haircuts to help raise money for charity can be an unexpected way to develop your personality outside of academic/professional environments. The essay would use your passion as an organizing tool to reflect on your interesting experiences in pursuing an unusual hobby, as well as highlighting your involvement in your community in a very unique way.
Another example of a 180 is one in which your Activities List is full of leadership positions (perhaps you are heavily involved in MUN or debate), but your essay illuminates your insecurities with getting up in front of a room full of people or managing others — this can be a candid way to humanize yourself for readers. Ultimately, the goal is to add unexpected depth to an application that otherwise “makes sense.” If your app makes too much sense, it will be harder to remember than if your app raises eyebrows and causes adcoms to say, “Huh, that’s pretty cool.”
In short, for the majority of students writing the optional essay is a highly, highly recommended way to distinguish yourself. To give admissions officers a well-rounded, authentic picture of you, use this essay to highlight new attributes about yourself, different from those highlighted in your Common Application Essay. This helps readers better picture you on their campus, which is always a plus.
A bit about Harvard’s culture: Harvard encourages an environment of diverse thought and a global outlook. Among the biggest priorities of Harvard College is to build future leaders and innovators that will change the world. Harvard encourages its students to be well-rounded and driven, ready to take on a rapidly changing globe.
Ask yourself: What types of internship opportunities, research projects, curriculum styles, and activities within Harvard interest me? If you don’t have a prospective concentration yet (remember, Harvard students have “concentrations” and not “majors”), you should still explore your potential interests when researching the university. If the research points you gather align with your essay topic, feel free to mention them, and, more importantly, demonstrate why they fit you!
Harvard’s Cultural Quirks
A few key points to think about when writing this essay (considering it’s for Harvard). First, the school tends to value 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, the university specifically looks for genuinely good people. Expressing a sense of citizenship or regard for humanity in the essay is a strong plus for the Harvard adcom.
Writing the Essays
Although the prompt mentions the word “unusual,” your circumstances do not have to be one of a kind. As long as your essay shows who you are and the ways in which your unusual circumstances have influenced you, then you will be on your way to answering this prompt effectively. The second part — “the ways in which your circumstances have influenced you” — in particular is key; while taking the time to explain your unique circumstances is important to beget a full understanding of what happened, it is even more critical that you link your experience to who you have become today.
For this prompt, be specific in terms of how your experience changed your outlook. For example, if you choose to write about how you moved 13 times over the past 17 years, don’t just plainly state that changing residencies repeatedly throughout high school changed many aspects of your life. Express and focus on what specifically shifted in your relationships, perspective, and family life as a result of your nomadic lifestyle, and share anecdotes to show what changed. Details are key — the more you can include, the more your essay will come to life.
It is important to note that the goal of this essay should not be to gain sympathy in the form of an acceptance letter. While you are definitely allowed to tell a sad story in your essay, the main takeaway from your writing should be your personal strengths and qualities. Even if the story is sad, allow your essay to end on a note of optimism or advancement.
This prompt is aimed at students whose travels have had a significant impact on their personal lives and growth. If you haven’t had a significant experience abroad (or none at all), we recommend that you choose another prompt. On the other hand, the existence of this prompt points to Harvard’s emphasis on diversity of background, experience, and perspective when admitting its newest class. If you have an experience to fit this niche, it might be a good idea to write to this prompt.
If you’re writing to this prompt, instead of glossing over an area’s landmarks, dive deeper into the the nature of the place. Sure, you can mention Rome’s Colosseum, but unless it was the focal point of your personal growth and change in the travel, try to dive deeper into the culture.
Be sure to make your story personal rather than a simple itinerary. Make sure to elaborate on how the places impacted you. Ask yourself: How did Spanish architecture shape your understanding of their culture, and what does it say about your own? How did your backpacking trip through the nature of Brazil impact your beliefs about humankind’s place in the world, and how did you change as a result? How do the hunting and dietary practices you experienced in India shape how you feel about what you consume today?
Be sure to be accurate in your depictions of other cultures and the impacts they have had on your life and outlook. These topics show travel to be a desire for deeper meaning rather than just being able to say, “I have been there.”
A great idea, especially if you’ve lived in two different countries, is to compare and contrast the two cultures and how you have lived in both. For example, if you have lived half of your life in rural England and the other half in Los Angeles, elaborate on how interpersonal relations, manners, and even daily life differs between the two places. More importantly, be sure to also highlight how these cultures have both shaped you (perhaps the fast-paced lifestyle of Southern California inspired you to be more daring and discover new passions).
While travel and exploring new places is fun, always make sure this essay relays back to you and your growth. Maybe another country’s hospitality caused you to bring more kindness home. Perhaps a travel experience made you see flaws in your own hometown or nation, and you resolved to be a force for good. As always, be sure to show and not tell.
This prompt runs the risk of producing some very similar essays. Most people like generic things like chocolate and sleep, so try to focus on things more personal. Adopting a unique style (perhaps a letter to your roommate*, or even talking about yourself in the third person), using stories to talk about yourself (where do your core traits originate from?), and even injecting a bit of humor (perhaps you have an irrational fear or an odd quirk) could all help make your essay unique and peak the reader’s interest.
It’s important to remember that while the prompt asks you to talk about yourself as a roommate, that does not give you a pass to be informal or use slang.
Lastly, making yourself sound like the perfect human being does not sound impressive — it sounds disingenuous. On the other hand, if you focus mostly on your negative qualities, so will the admissions officer. It’s certainly okay to admit some flaws, but just use your best judgment and remember that you are still trying to portray yourself to an admissions committee!
*Note that this format is risky, since Harvard may think that you simply re-purposed a Stanford essay.
This prompt is perfect for you to display your intellectual prowess. If a specific experience led you to choose your desired concentration, this is an excellent place to write about it if you haven’t already. Admissions officers love to see that you are committed to your interests and passionate about your future field. For example, if you decided to concentrate in a STEM field after being a research assistant in a neuroscience lab, this prompt is a great place to elucidate your experience.
Another route you may take is to describe an intellectual experience outside of your comfort zone. For example, if your English teacher required you to write a lengthy paper about a topic far outside of your typical engineering realm, and as a result you discovered a passion for medieval English literature, revealing this juxtaposition of seemingly separate interests by highlighting the depths to which you explored this new topic can cause the admissions officer to do a double take (in a good way!). As long as you show how you think and how your experience shaped your intellectual development, there are little boundaries.
Whatever the experience you choose may be, make sure that you can trace an impact from it. Harvard cares about growth and advancement, and so these themes must be central to your essay. How did your experience mature your interests or intellectual development? How did writing that paper change how you problem-solve? How does that research project affect your future aspirations? These are important questions you must answer by taking your reader on an exploratory journey through your writing.
This is a fairly generic question you may need to answer more than once during your experience with the college application process, so it is good to have a firm grasp on your response anyway. Harvard anticipates investing their time and effort into you, and they want to know what they will receive in return. By asking this question, they are really asking you what kind of person you plan to be after graduation, as you will be representing the school during not only your brief years of study, but also for a lifetime.
Never imply that your degree from Harvard or any prestigious institution is worthwhile because of future financial gain. Saying that you want to attend Harvard because their graduates earn more money on average is a pretty poor strategy, even if you try to make the case that building up your wealth first will allow you to make larger changes in society. The same goes for prestige. These are horrible ways to convince admissions officers of your interest.
Even though this essay should focus on how attending Harvard will affect you throughout your life, it is important to be able to mention specific things about the university that will facilitate your success. Go beyond name dropping programs or activities, and deepen your understanding of how an education at Harvard will be beneficial to your personal growth. Then, reflect how that growth will translate into real-world success.
For example, if you want to pursue a Government concentration while at Harvard, do some research on their program. Discussing how the Institute of Politics will help mold you as a debater and a student of the social sciences is far more effective than simply saying that you know they have a good program. Then, go further. Talk about how the skills and lessons you will learn from the Institute of Politics and the Government Program will help you use your degree to the fullest. Specificity is key here!
It is important to not only know specifics about the school but about your field as well. Any student can write about their passion for law, but only you can write about why you want to be a civil rights attorney. Talk about how you want to expand voting rights or change the immigration system in your career. Don’t just say that you want to be a doctor. Rather, talk about what problems in cardiology you are passionate about (and why), and link your pursuit of fixing those problems to your degree.
This prompt is perhaps the most intimidating of them all due to its simplicity. However, it is doable — CollegeVine students are accepted every year having chosen this essay prompt.
At first glance, a simple list of books seems very impersonal, and it deprives your ability to use your own voice and tell stories about your own life and experiences. However, if you are an avid reader, this could be a good prompt to address.
Keep in mind, though, that your Harvard supplement should highlight aspects of your profile not covered very much in the rest of your application. This means that if you discussed your love for reading (and named books you’ve read recently) earlier in your application, doing so again in this essay might seem repetitive.
For this prompt, Harvard asks for a list, but it does not prohibit any commentary on the books you have read. If you have some sort of original (not taken from the Internet!) analysis or personal reflections on the book, feel free to include them. If a book had an abnormally profound impact on you, talk about it and how it changed you as a person. In fact, unless your list is exceptionally interesting because of how unique and different your book choices are (i.e., it contains a ton of acclaimed authors from various genres and disciplines), you would be better served by diving deeper into a select few texts you have read.
Finally, keep in mind the message you are trying to relay throughout your application. If you claim to have a passion for Greek Classics in your Common Application Essay, but haven’t read any of them in the last year, the admissions officer might question your sincerity.
This prompt reveals Harvard’s penchant for students that exemplify honesty and integrity as core traits. Here is a chance to showcase your softer qualities of compassion and self-reflection.
Throughout life, we have all encountered instances where we have a choice between honesty and dishonesty. For this essay, though, you must make sure that your experience is uncommon enough to draw in your reader. For example, if your teacher once gave you extra points on a test due to a calculation error and you brought it to their attention, this essay is not for you. If you led a team of reporters at your school newspaper to pressure your school administration into releasing salary data, you may have come to the right place.
It is okay to talk about an instance in which you lied, so long as you show steps you made to rectify the lie and improve your integrity. The point of this essay is not to make you preach about the importance of honesty, but rather to force you to show a more complete understanding of the concept and its importance. If it took a lie to make you grasp the concept of honesty, be honest about it and tell the story. The most effective answers to this prompt will detail situations where the choices presented to the author are morally ambiguous. The subsequent analysis of how the author reasoned through the situation are what make this essay come to life.
Just make sure to be wary of the lie you choose to write about. Don’t write about committing a crime or anything in a legally grey area. Don’t talk about cheating on a test or falsifying some sort of academic record. Colleges take these offenses extremely seriously, and academic integrity violations almost always end in expulsion. On the other hand, if you told a lie to spare someone’s feelings or to make a good impression on a group of new friends and ended up being hurt more severely in the long run, that is fair game.
Last but not least, go beyond the story. We talk a lot about “show not tell” at CollegeVine, and here it is no different. Rather than explicitly discussing the concept of honesty on a literal level, use a compelling story as a vehicle to prove your point. Avoid clichés such as “the truth will set you free,” or “it is harder to remember lies,” as these will make you sound less sincere. Showcase that you share Harvard’s value of honesty in your story and your reflection on it.
This prompt should tell you that Harvard holds leaders in high regard. Here, they test your self-knowledge as to where and how you can help fit society’s needs. In a similar way to Prompt 5, they are trying to see the type of graduate you will become.
If leadership has been central to your life experiences, be sure to make note of those roles here. Be picky when deciding what roles to highlight, though! Make sure the group you led has something to show for your leadership (whether that thing be tangible or intangible).
For example, if you helped a club on campus better the culture of its membership, talk about how your leadership contributed to that. If you helped a diverse set of teammates come together for a common goal, discuss what aspects of your citizenship helped bring everyone together. Your goal here is in two parts: create an assessment for your personal leadership skills, and address how your community or society has benefited from it (more than simply pointing to trophies or awards, this is intended to show how society itself can change because of you.)
Make sure you showcase your leadership style, and how you believe it was effective. More importantly, make sure to show why you think it will be effective in the future. Remember, this essay should relay back to you as a graduate of Harvard!
One strategy could be to build up your leadership skills, then direct them to a specific area where you feel inspired to change society. If you choose this route, be specific in terms of the needs you can fill. Ask yourself: What qualities of a leader does a good lawyer need to have? How does citizenship help you be a good engineer? Most importantly: How do those necessities in those positions lead back to who you are?
Remember to answer the other aspect of the question. Besides being a good citizen-leader, how will you be a good citizen? Admissions officers want you to discuss how you would be an important part of something greater than yourself. You could use an example of something you did as a part of an extracurricular activity of which you were not the president or the de facto leader. For example, if you built an app for a conference your town was hosting, helped organize logistics for a school recital, or even volunteered at a food bank throughout high school, this prompt would fit your experiences well.
Harvard finds it very important that the citizens of their learning community come from diverse backgrounds, allowing students to learn from one another. Think about how you can add to this environment of diversity, or discuss your experience in a diverse environment in relation to your citizenship within it. Essays about discrimination or inequality in your community, and your development as a citizen-leader as a result, could fit well to this prompt.
Students should use this prompt to highlight aspects of themselves that other prompts cannot cover. Using this prompt will in no way be weighed differently than the others. Harvard’s admissions committee simply wants you to have the freedom to discuss whatever you want in their supplement. Instead of looking at the previous prompts as your only options, consider them mere suggestions. If you have written a really strong essay for another school, you can simply recycle that essay here.
When tackling this essay, keep in mind our advice before you begin writing.
As always, when choosing a topic and writing your essay, make sure it:
Harvard’s supplemental essay gives an opportunity for you to showcase a fuller picture of yourself. With no word limit and myriad options to choose from, the possibilities of your creativity are endless!
Remember: You are convincing the admissions committee to accept your candidacy. The quality of your essay can greatly strengthen that argument. Making sure that your essay says something about you, “shows not tells,” and demonstrates fit will go a long way.
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