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How to Write the Harvard University Essays 2023-2024

Harvard University, perhaps the most prestigious and well-known institution in the world, is the nation’s oldest higher learning establishment with a founding date of 1636. Boasting an impressive alumni network from Sheryl Sandberg to Al Gore, it’s no surprise that Harvard recruits some of the top talents in the world.



It’s no wonder that students are often intimidated by Harvard’s extremely open-ended supplemental essays. However, CollegeVine is here to help and offer our guide on how to tackle Harvard’s supplemental essays. 


Read this Harvard essay example to inspire your own writing.


How to Write the Harvard University Supplemental Essays


Prompt 1: Harvard has long recognized the importance of enrolling a diverse student body. How will the life experiences that shape who you are today enable you to contribute to Harvard? (200 words)


Prompt 2: Briefly describe an intellectual experience that was important to you. (200 words)


Prompt 3: Briefly describe any of your extracurricular activities, employment experience, travel, or family responsibilities that have shaped who you are. (200 words)


Prompt 4: How do you hope to use your Harvard education in the future? (200 words)


Prompt 5: Top 3 things your roommates might like to know about you. (200 words)


Prompt 1

Harvard has long recognized the importance of enrolling a diverse student body. How will the life experiences that shape who you are today enable you to contribute to Harvard? (200 words)


Brainstorming Your Topic


This prompt is a great example of the classic diversity supplemental essay. That means that, as you prepare to write your response, the first thing you need to do is focus in on some aspect of your identity, upbringing, or personality that makes you different from other people.


As you start brainstorming, do remember that the way colleges factor race into their admissions processes will be different this year, after the Supreme Court struck down affirmative action in June. Colleges can still consider race on an individual level, however, so if you would like to write your response about how your racial identity has impacted you, you are welcome to do so.


If race doesn’t seem like the right topic for you, however, keep in mind that there are many other things that can make us different, not just race, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, and the other aspects of our identities that people normally think of when they hear the word “diversity.” That’s not to say that you can’t write about those things, of course. But don’t worry if you don’t feel like those things have played a significant role in shaping your worldview. Here are some examples of other topics that could support a strong essay:


  • Moving to several different cities because of your parents’ jobs
  • An usual hobby, like playing the accordion or making your own jewelry
  • Knowing a lot about a niche topic, like Scottish castles


The only questions you really need to ask yourself when picking a topic are “Does this thing set me apart from other people?” and “Will knowing this thing about me give someone a better sense of who I am overall?” As long as you can answer “yes” to both of those questions, you’ve found your topic!


Tips for Writing Your Essay


Once you’ve selected a topic, the question becomes how you’re going to write about that topic in a way that helps Harvard admissions officers better understand how you’re going to contribute to their campus community. To do that, you want to connect your topic to some broader feature of your personality, or to a meaningful lesson you learned, that speaks to your potential as a Harvard student.


For example, perhaps your interest in Scottish castles has given you an appreciation for the strength of the human spirit, as the Scots were able to persevere and build these structures even in incredibly remote, cold parts of the country. Alternatively, maybe being half Puerto Rican, but not speaking Spanish, has taught you about the power of family, as you have strong relationships even with relatives you can’t communicate with verbally. 


Remember that, like with any college essay, you want to rely on specific anecdotes and experiences to illustrate the points you’re making. To understand why, compare the following two excerpts from hypothetical essays.


Example 1: “Even though I can’t speak Spanish, and some of my relatives can’t speak English, whenever I visit my family in Puerto Rico I know it’s a place where I belong. The island is beautiful, and I especially love going to the annual party at my uncle’s house.”


Example 2: “The smell of the ‘lechón,’ or suckling pig greets me as soon as I enter my uncle’s home, even before everyone rushes in from the porch to welcome me in rapid-fire Spanish. At best, I understand one in every ten words, but my aunt’s hot pink glasses, the Caribbean Sea visible through the living room window, and of course, the smell of roasting pork, tell me, wordlessly yet undeniably, that I’m home.”


Think about how much better we understand this student after Example 2. If a few words were swapped out, Example 1 could’ve been written by anyone, whereas Example 2 paints us a clear picture of how this student’s Puerto Rican heritage has tangibly impacted their life.


Mistakes to Avoid


The biggest challenge with this particular “Diversity” essay is the word count. Because you only have 200 words to work with, you don’t have space to include more than one broader takeaway you’ve learned from this aspect of your identity. 


Of course, people are complicated, and you’ve likely learned many things from being Puerto Rican, or from being interested in Scottish castles. But for the sake of cohesion, focus on just one lesson. Otherwise your essay may end up feeling like a bullet-point list of Hallmark card messages, rather than a thoughtful, personal, reflective piece of writing.


The other thing you want to avoid is writing an essay that’s just about your topic. Particularly since you’re going to be writing about an aspect of your identity that’s important to you, you’ll likely have a lot to say just about that. If you aren’t careful, you may burn through all 200 words without getting to the broader significance of what this piece of your personality says about who you are as a whole. 


That component, however, is really the key to a strong response. Harvard receives over 40,000 applications a year, which means that, whether you write about being Puerto Rican or Scottish castles, it’s likely someone else is writing about something similar. 


That doesn’t mean you need to agonize over picking something absolutely nobody else is writing about, as that’s practically impossible. All it means is that you need to be clear about how this aspect of your identity has shaped you as a whole, as that is how your essay will stand out from others with similar topics.


Prompt 2 

Briefly describe an intellectual experience that was important to you. (200 words)


Brainstorming Your Topic


Harvard admissions officers are being considerate here, as they’re telling you explicitly what they would like you to write about. Of course, there are still nuances to the prompt, but in terms of brainstorming, just ask yourself: What is an intellectual experience that’s been important to me?


Keep in mind that “intellectual” doesn’t necessarily mean “academic.” You absolutely can write a great response about a paper, project, or some other experience you had through school. But you could also write about attending a performance by the Berlin Philharmonic, or about a book you read for fun that made a big impact on you. So long as the experience was intellectually stimulating, you can write a strong essay about it.


Tips for Writing Your Essay


Once you’ve picked an experience, the key is to describe it in a way that shows Harvard admissions officers how this experience has prepared you to contribute to their classrooms, and campus community as a whole. In other words, don’t just tell them what you did, but also what you learned and why that matters for understanding what kind of college student you’ll be.


For example, say you choose to write about a debate project you did in your American history class, where you had to prepare for both sides and only learned which one you would actually be defending on the day of the debate. You could describe how, although you came into the project with pre-existing opinions about the topic, the preparation process taught you that, if you’re thoughtful and open-minded, you can usually find merit and logic even in the polar opposite position from your own.


Alternatively, you could write about a book you read that had been translated from Danish, and how reading it got you interested in learning more about how to translate a text as faithfully as possible. After watching many interviews with translators and reading a book about translation, you have learned that sometimes, the most literal translation doesn’t capture the spirit from the original language, which to you is proof that, in any piece of writing, the human element is at least as important as the words on the page.


Notice that both of these examples include broader reflections that zoom out from the particular experiences, to show what you took away from them: increased open-mindedness to different perspectives, for the first, and a more nuanced understanding of what makes art, art, in the case of the second. 


A strong response must include this kind of big-picture takeaway, as it shows readers two things. First, that you can reflect thoughtfully on your experiences and learn from them. And second, it shows them a skill or perspective you’d be bringing with you to Harvard, which gives them a better sense of how you’d fit into their campus community.


Mistakes to Avoid


The only real thing you need to watch out for is accidentally selecting an experience that, for whatever reason, doesn’t allow you to incorporate the kind of bigger-picture takeaway described above. Maybe the experience just happened, so you’re still in the process of learning from it. Or maybe the lessons you learned are too nuanced to describe in 200 words. 


Whatever this reason, if you find yourself unable to articulate the broader significance of this experience, head back to the drawing board, to select one that works better for this prompt. What you don’t want to do is try to force in a takeaway that doesn’t really fit, as that will make your essay feel generic or disjointed, since the “moral of the story” won’t clearly connect to the story itself.


Prompt 3 

Briefly describe any of your extracurricular activities, employment experience, travel, or family responsibilities that have shaped who you are. (200 words)


Brainstorming Your Topic


This is a textbook example of the “Extracurricular” essay. As such, what you need to do is well-defined, although it’s easier said than done: select an extracurricular activity that has, as Harvard says, “shaped who you are,” and make sure you’re able to articulate how it’s been formative for you.


As you brainstorm which extracurricular you want to write about, note that the language of the prompt is pretty open-ended. You write about “any” activity, not just one you have a lot of accolades in, and you don’t even have to write about an activity—you can also write about a travel experience, or family responsibility. 


If the thing that immediately jumps to mind is a club, sport, volunteer experience, or other “traditional” extracurricular, that’s great! Run with that. But if you’re thinking and nothing in that vein seems quite right, or, alternatively, you’re feeling bold and want to take a creative approach, don’t be afraid to get outside the box. Here are some examples of other topics you could write a strong essay about:


  • A more hobby-like extracurricular, like crocheting potholders and selling them on Etsy
  • Driving the Pacific Coast Highway on your own
  • Caring for your family’s two large, colorful macaws


These more creative topics can do a lot to showcase a different side of you, as college applications have, by their nature, a pretty restricted scope, and telling admissions officers about something that would never appear on your resume or transcript can teach them a lot about who you are. That being said, the most important thing is that the topic you pick has genuinely been formative for you. Whether it’s a conventional topic or not, as long as that personal connection is there, you’ll be able to write a strong essay about it.


Tips for Writing Your Essay


The key to writing a strong response is focusing less on the activity itself, and more on what you’ve learned from your involvement in it. If you’re writing about a more conventional topic, remember that admissions officers already have your activities list. You don’t need to say “For the last five years, I’ve been involved in x,” because they already know that, and when you only have 200 words, wasting even 10 of them means you’ve wasted 5% of your space.


If you’re writing about something that doesn’t already show up elsewhere in your application, you want to provide enough details for your reader to understand what you did, but not more than that. For example, if you’re writing about your road trip, you don’t need to list every city you  stopped in. Instead, just mention one or two that were particularly memorable.


Rather than focusing on the facts and figures of what you did, focus on what you learned from your experience. Admissions officers want to know why your involvement in this thing matters to who you’ll be in college. So, think about one or two bigger picture things you learned from it, and center your response around those things.


For example, maybe your Etsy shop taught you how easy it is to bring some positivity into someone else’s life, as crocheting is something you would do anyways, and the shop just allows you to share your creations with other people. Showcasing this uplifting, altruistic side of yourself will help admissions officers better envision what kind of Harvard student you’d be.


As always, you want to use specific examples to support your points, at least as much as you can in 200 words. Because you’re dealing with a low word count, you probably won’t have space to flex your creative writing muscles with vivid, immersive descriptions. 


You can still incorporate anecdotes in a more economical way, however. For example, you could say “Every morning, our scarlet macaw ruffles her feathers and greets me with a prehistoric chirp.” You’re not going into detail about what her feathers look like, or where this scene is happening, but it’s still much more engaging than something like “My bird always says hello to me in her own way.”


Mistakes to Avoid


The most common pitfall with an “Extracurricular” essay is describing your topic the way you would on your resume. Don’t worry about showing off some “marketable skill” you think admissions officers want to see, and instead highlight whatever it is you actually took away from this experience, whether it’s a skill, a realization, or a personality trait. The best college essays are genuine, as admissions officers feel that honesty, and know they’re truly getting to know the applicant as they are, rather than some polished-up version.


Additionally, keep in mind that, like with anything in your application, you want admissions officers to learn something new about you when reading this essay. So, if you’ve already written your common app essay about volunteering at your local animal shelter, you shouldn’t also write this essay about that experience. Your space in your application is already extremely limited, so don’t voluntarily limit yourself even further by repeating yourself when you’re given an opportunity to say something new.


Prompt 4

How do you hope to use your Harvard education in the future? (200 words)


Brainstorming Your Topic


Although the packaging is a little different, this prompt has similarities to the classic “Why This College?” prompt. That means there are two main things you want to do while brainstorming. 


First, identify one or two goals you have for the future—with just 200 words, you won’t have space to elaborate on any more than that. Ideally, these should be relatively concrete. You don’t have to have your whole life mapped out, but you do need to be a lot more specific than “Make a difference in the world.” A more zoomed-in version of that goal would be something like “Contribute to conservation efforts to help save endangered species,” which would work.


Second, hop onto Harvard’s website and do some research on opportunities the school offers that would help you reach your goals. Again, make sure these are specific enough. Rather than a particular major, which is likely offered at plenty of other schools around the country, identify specific courses within that major you would like to take, or a professor in the department you would like to do research with. For example, the student interested in conservation might mention the course “Conservation Biology” at Harvard.


You could also write about a club, or a study abroad program, or really anything that’s unique to Harvard, so long as you’re able to draw a clear connection between the opportunity and your goal. Just make sure that, like with your goals, you don’t get overeager. Since your space is quite limited, you should choose two, or maximum three, opportunities to focus on. Any more than that and your essay will start to feel rushed and bullet point-y.


Tips for Writing Your Essay


If you do your brainstorming well, the actual writing process should be pretty straightforward: explain your goals, and how the Harvard-specific opportunities you’ve selected will help you reach them. 


One thing you do want to keep in mind is that your goals should feel personal to you, and the best way to accomplish that is by providing some background context on why you have them. This doesn’t have to be extensive, as, again, your space is limited. But compare the following two examples, written about the hypothetical goal of helping conservation efforts from above, to get an idea of what we’re talking about:


Example 1: “As long as I can remember, I’ve loved all kinds of animals, and have been heartbroken by the fact that human destruction of natural resources could lead to certain species’ extinction.”


Example 2: “As a kid, I would sit in front of the aquarium’s walrus exhibit, admiring the animal’s girth and tusks, and dream about seeing one in the wild. Until my parents regretfully explained to me that, because of climate change, that was unlikely to ever happen.”


The second example is obviously longer, but not egregiously so: 45 words versus 31. And the image we get of this student sitting and fawning over a walrus is worth that extra space, as we feel a stronger personal connection to them, which in turn makes us more vicariously invested in their own goal of environmental advocacy.


Mistakes to Avoid


As we’ve already described in the brainstorming section, the key to this essay is specificity. Admissions officers want you to paint them a picture of how Harvard fits into your broader life goals. As we noted earlier, that doesn’t mean you have to have everything figured out, but if you’re too vague about your goals, or how you see Harvard helping you reach them, admissions officers won’t see you as someone who’s prepared to contribute to their campus community.


Along similar lines, avoid flattery. Gushy lines like “At Harvard, every day I’ll feel inspired by walking the same halls that countless Nobel laureates, politicians, and CEOs once traversed” won’t get you anywhere, because Harvard admissions officers already know their school is one of the most prestigious and famous universities in the world. What they don’t know is what you are going to bring to Harvard that nobody else has. So, that’s what you want to focus on, not vague, surface-level attributes of Harvard related to its standing in the world of higher education.


Prompt 5 

Top 3 things your roommates might like to know about you. (200 words)


Brainstorming Your Topic


Like Prompt 2, this prompt tells you exactly what you need to brainstorm: three things a roommate would like to know about you. However, also like Prompt 2, while this prompt is direct, it’s also incredibly open-ended. What really are the top three things you’d like a complete stranger to know about you before you live together for nine months?


Questions this broad can be hard to answer, as you might not know where to start. Sometimes, you can help yourself out by asking yourself adjacent, but slightly more specific questions, like the following:


  • Do you have any interests that influence your regular routine? For example, do you always watch the Seahawks on Sunday, or are you going to be playing Taylor Swift’s discography on repeat while you study?
  • Look around your room—what items are most important to you? Do you keep your movie ticket stubs? Are you planning on taking your photos of your family cat with you to college?
  • Are there any activities you love and already know you’d want to do with your roommate, like weekly face masks or making Christmas cookies?


Hopefully, these narrower questions, and the example responses we’ve included, help get your gears turning. Keep in mind that this prompt is a great opportunity to showcase sides of your personality that don’t come across in your grades, activities list, or even your personal statement. Don’t worry about seeming impressive—admissions officers don’t expect you to read Shakespeare every night for two hours. What they want is an honest, informative picture of what you’re like “behind the scenes,” because college is much more than just academics.


Tips for Writing Your Essay


Once you’ve selected three things to write about, the key to the actual essay is presenting them in a logical, cohesive, efficient way. That’s easier said than done, particularly if the three things you’ve picked are quite different from each other. 


To ensure your essay feels like one, complete unit, rather than three smaller ones stuck together, strong transitions will be crucial. Note that “strong” doesn’t mean “lengthy.” Just a few words can go a long way towards helping your essay flow naturally. To see what we mean here, take the following two examples:


Example 1: “Just so you know, every Sunday I will be watching the Seahawks, draped in my dad’s Steve Largent jersey. They can be a frustrating team, but I’ll do my best to keep it down in case you’re studying. I also like to do facemasks, though. You’re always welcome to any of the ones I have in my (pretty extensive) collection.”


Example 2: “Just so you know, every Sunday I will be watching the Seahawks, draped in my dad’s Steve Largent jersey. But if football’s not your thing, don’t worry—once the game’s over, I’ll need to unwind anyways, because win or lose the Hawks always find a way to make things stressful. So always feel free to join me in picking out a face mask from my (pretty extensive) collection, and we can gear up for the week together.”


The content in both examples is the same, but in the first one, the transition from football to facemasks is very abrupt. On the other hand, in the second example the simple line “But if football’s not your thing, don’t worry” keeps things flowing smoothly. 


There’s no one right way to write a good transition, but as you’re polishing your essay a good way to see if you’re on the right track is by asking someone who hasn’t seen your essay before to read it over and tell you if there are any points that made them pause. If the answer is yes, your transitions probably still need more work.


Finally, you probably noticed that the above examples are both written in a “Dear roomie” style, as if you’re actually speaking directly to your roommate. You don’t have to take this exact approach, but your tone should ideally be light and fun. Living alone for the first time, with other people your age, is one of the best parts of college! Plus, college applications are, by their nature, pretty dry affairs for the most part. Lightening things up in this essay will give your reader a breath of fresh air, which will help them feel more engaged in your application as a whole.


Mistakes to Avoid


Harvard is doing you a favor here by keeping the scope of the essay narrow—they ask for three things, not more. As we’ve noted many times with the other supplements, 200 words will be gone in a flash, so don’t try to cram in extra things. It’s not necessary to do that, because admissions officers have only asked for three, and trying to stuff more in will turn your essay into a list of bullet points, rather than an informative piece of writing about your personality.


Finally, as we’ve hinted at a few times above, the other thing you want to avoid is using this essay as another opportunity to impress admissions officers with your intellect and accomplishments. Remember, they have your grades, and your activities list, and all your other essays. Plus, they can ask you whatever questions they want—if they wanted to know about the most difficult book you’ve ever read, they would. So, loosen up, let your hair down, and show them you know how to have fun too!


Where to Get Your Harvard Essays Edited


Do you want feedback on your Harvard essays? After rereading your essays countless times, it can be difficult to evaluate your writing objectively. That’s why we created our free Peer Essay Review tool, where you can get a free review of your essay from another student. You can also improve your own writing skills by reviewing other students’ essays. 


If you want a college admissions expert to review your essay, advisors on CollegeVine have helped students refine their writing and submit successful applications to top schools. Find the right advisor for you to improve your chances of getting into your dream school!

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