(Note: this post has been updated for the 2016-2017 application cycle. To view the updated post, click here.)

Founded in 1636, Harvard University is the oldest university in the United States. The Ivy League school is also considered to be the best school in the world, and for good reason. World class learning facilities, unparalleled access to over 350 student extracurricular activities, and unbeatable advantages in pursuing professional opportunities are just some of the perks enjoyed by Harvard students.

As a result, Harvard’s powerful alumni have shown themselves to be quite thankful for their alma mater. This gratitude is indicated by the incredible success of Harvard’s fundraising campaigns. With historic single donations as large as $350M and $400M, Harvard’s endowment totals just under $35 billion for 2013, earning the distinction of being the largest in the Ivy League. (2nd place goes to Yale, which possesses just under $21 billion). One particularly mind-blowing statistic: Harvard’s endowment is larger than the endowments of all 2,000+ universities in China put together. 

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.

Understandably, students around the world consider an acceptance to Harvard to represent the pinnacle of academic achievement and success. Last year, over 37,000 students applied to be part of Harvard’s Class of 2019—the most in university history. Only 1990 students were admitted, bringing the Crimson acceptance rate to a record-low of 5.3%. With the continued success of its outreach programs encouraging even more students to apply each year, Harvard anticipates even more applicants going forward. This trend is unsettling for ambitious seniors. Especially considering Harvard’s famous statement that it could fill its incoming freshmen class several times over with qualified students, the importance of standing out becomes absolutely paramount.

While the Harvard supplemental essay is technically optional, your best bet is to write it.  About 80% of the students accepted to the Harvard Class of 2017 opted to write the optional essay.  Now, this statistic obviously doesn’t mean that writing the essay alone increases your chances of acceptance; rather, this information indicates that Harvard uses a wide range of metrics to evaluate its 36,000+ applicants yearly.  If you really want to stand out, then this is the essay to do it. Luckily, Admissions Hero is here to help.

Note: this year’s Harvard Supplement is identical to previous years’. We’ve updated this year’s post only slightly to reflect new trends in admissions. Read the post for the Class of 2019 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

Before we dive into actual content guidelines, however, it’s important 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 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 adcoms 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 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 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 well as highlighting your involvement in your community in a very unique way.

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. 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, “Cool.”

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. 

With these guidelines in mind, you should be well on your way to writing the perfect Harvard Supplement. Best of luck from the Admissions Hero team!

For more help, feel free to check out the post on why Admissions Hero recommends sending the Harvard supplemental essay or reach out to work 1-on-1 with one of Admissions Hero’s trained Harvard essay specialists.

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