How to Write the Harvard University Supplemental Essays 2020-2021
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.
With only a little over 1,900 students gaining admission out of an applicant pool of about 40,248, Harvard College’s acceptance rate for the class of 2024 came in at a record low of 4.9%. In addition to academic transcripts, extracurricular activities, and letters of recommendation, Harvard requires one essays, and two optional essays.
With such daunting numbers, 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. Want to know your chances at Harvard? Calculate your chances for free right now.
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How to Write the Harvard University Supplemental Essays
While you don’t have to complete this essay, we at CollegeVine recommend completing any essay that could potentially give Harvard a deeper insight into your personality. Here, Harvard is simply asking for a list of the activities you participate in outside of school. However, note that you don’t want to repeat anything you may have mentioned when listing your extracurriculars elsewhere on your application.
For example, if you took an online course on Python, this would be an appropriate place to list that. Or perhaps you designed an app on your own time that couldn’t be classified as an extracurricular or an academic responsibility; here would also be the place to list that.
If this question does not apply to your experiences, however, feel free to skip it. There’s no need to dwell on not completing this question, as it won’t make or break your application.
This is the classic Extracurricular Activity essay prompt. Since this essay is only 150 words, there’s no need to add any gimmicks or overthink your response, though you can consider adding one short anecdote. The purpose of this question is essentially to give you the opportunity to further describe one of your activities, as Harvard can’t see these details from your extracurricular list.
When picking the topic, it’s definitely best to pick the activity/work experience that is the most significant to you, since this is likely to have played a larger role in your life. You also should pick an activity that was central to your personal growth. For instance, if you choose to discuss Model United Nations, you can briefly describe your role on the team and how it taught you to think on your feet (you were once asked to switch positions just hours before the simulation). If you were involved in research, you could describe the subject you studied, what you learned, and why it inspired you to study science.
Take care to view your essays as a portfolio, however. If you already discussed one activity in your Common App essay, don’t talk about it again for this essay. Pick something else that shows a different side of you, or emphasizes a personal quality you really want to drive home.
Despite the limited word count, try to be as detailed as possible and avoid adding unnecessary “fluff” to your response. Every sentence should reveal something new about the experience and give Harvard a clearer sense of the ways in which you involved yourself outside of academics.
Before we jump in, note that this essay is optional. However, we highly recommend that you complete the essay, as it can only help your application by revealing another side to yourself. So far, the main source that Harvard can use to perceive your personality is your Common Application essay; this supplemental essay, however, gives you another opportunity to do so.
Although you are free to choose any topic you please, Harvard lists the above topics as jumping points for your writing. No matter what topic you choose, keep in mind the high-level principles that Harvard abides by: leadership, community, and intellectualism. Students who demonstrate selflessness through charity work or leadership in their communities are generally preferred to those with just a perfect academic record. Furthermore, Harvard also values unique and interesting academic interests, such as partaking in anthropology research, as this demonstrates going beyond your academic requirements.
The ideal length for your essay is about 500 words, any longer and your essay will be hard to read; if it’s too short, it will feel a little incomplete. With all of the above being said, let’s analyze each of the following topics in more depth.
The most common mistake when writing this essay is choosing a topic that is unique in your immediate circumstances but not unique among the tens of thousands of Harvard applicants. You may want to avoid common topics, such as writing about a learning challenge such as ADHD; while there are ways to effectively write about such a topic, here is not the appropriate circumstance for that.
A better way to approach this prompt would be to analyze an interest that is truly niche such as a specific anime fandom or restoring a brand of cars from the 1960s. If you write about restoring cars, for example, you could discuss how this interest has impacted your life and personality. Perhaps it has connected you with a small, but like minded group of individuals and has allowed you to find your inner circle.
Another example could be discussing any health issues you may have encountered in your life, especially those that are not very common. For instance, if you have a vision disorder that, if left untreated, progressively causes you to go blind, you could discuss your thoughts around this experience. Perhaps you sought treatment and were able to completely regain sight and want to discuss the ability of being able to see for the first time in years. This, unlike a more common challenge such as ADHD (although also justifiably challenging), is definitely more rare and unusual and would allow you to stand out among applicants.
Consider experiences that would distinguish you among a crowd of people. Although growing up in an immigrant family is a circumstance that may have affected several aspects of your life, this is not all that “unusual.” If you’re going to discuss racial or ethnic background, try to go one layer deeper into a highly specific issue that affected you. Examples might be colorism in the South Asian community or immigration’s impact on the Hispanic community. In addition, while it is perfectly acceptable to discuss struggles, you want to end your essay with some optimism or positivity to avoid having your essay feel like a rant.
If you choose to take this route, try to brainstorm a topic that a majority of people likely would not have experienced or encountered. However, if you’re struggling with this, there’s no need to worry because there is an endless number of other routes you could take with this essay. Not everyone has an unusual circumstance, so perhaps the next few topics will be a better fit.
Beware of falling into the cliche of writing about being a high school kid conducting service in other countries. It’s great if you’re involved in community service work, but these topics are often overdone and tend not to offer as unique of a perspective as other experiences, since many others may share the same experiences.
However, the inverse of this story works well, such as being a waiter serving people of higher socioeconomic classes. While this prompt is not the place for writing about assisting those less fortunate, as this is likely the topic that many applicants jump to, it could be a great place to discuss working with those with more privilege, as this would provide a unique perspective.
If you’re writing about travel by itself, make sure it involves a broader purpose than you simply becoming more worldly or culturally aware. For example, traveling to Peru and tasting Peruvian chicken and contemplating its flavors can connect back to your passion for history and cooking. You could discuss the history of Peruvian society and how the cooking methods are driven by Incan and Spanish elements. Decoding this origin of flavors can further connect back to your love of problem solving.
If you lived in another country for a few years, you could discuss learning the local language and how being in a foreign environment impacted your life as a whole. If there is a stark contrast between this country and the previous country you lived in, you could compare and contrast the two environments and discuss why this was significant.
Similar to the previous example, perhaps this experience heightened your passion for history and created a newfound love for linguistics, as you began to notice both the subtle and drastic differences between languages. Perhaps the overlap between history and linguistics is now a discipline you wish to pursue in the future.
This essay allows you to be a bit more casual, as you don’t necessarily have to sound overly academic. As you begin, make sure you don’t want list every single one of your strengths or accomplishments, as this will read like a resume and come off a little too dry.
You want to strike a balance between indicating your strengths and humanizing yourself. Listing all positives will seem insincere, while focusing on negatives will cause Harvard to do the same. Sprinkling in a few of your fears and insecurities (without revealing anything that might cause you trouble on campus) is a great way to show honesty and make you more personable. Perhaps you could say something along the lines of “if you hear me screaming at the top of my lungs alone at my desk, don’t worry I probably just saw a spider.” A bit of humor can help your personality shine.
Another approach is crafting an inner monologue that discusses your initial struggle to make new friends or find your inner circle, reflects on your emotional maturation across high school, or contemplates the moment when you confronted your biggest fear. For example, if you struggled with transitioning into your new high school, you could trace back your thought process and reflect on the emotions you experienced during your first week of school. Perhaps you were afraid of approaching new people, or you were worried that you wouldn’t fit into this new environment. You could frame it as if you’re having a conversation with yourself by documenting the reactions you had to specific moments. This would show a different side to you by revealing the ways in which you think and how these thoughts translate into action.
With that being said, however, keep in mind who’s reading your essay. Although this is a “letter to your future roommate,” your roommate actually won’t be reading this. The only people who will be reading your essay are those on the admissions committee, so while you should be a little more casual, you still want to be appropriate.
An excellent way to ensure that you’re remaining true to yourself is to have a close friend or family member read your essay to see if the essay screams you. Students often fall into the trap of trying too hard to be someone they’re not, when in reality your most honest self is your true self. Harvard simply wants greater insight into who you are as a person so don’t be afraid to show some personality!
We read through an example answering this essay prompt in the video below:
This is the perfect prompt to show your intellectual vitality and illustrate the ways in which you exercise your passions. For instance, if a simple robotics project was what ignited your love for engineering, here would be a great place to discuss that.
If you recently read an intriguing neuroscience paper, you could retrace your thought process when analyzing the paper and depict your curiosity in the topic. Perhaps this was the most meaningful to you because it allowed you to explore a new facet of science that you previously had not considered. Perhaps you used this paper as motivation to pursue neuroscience research in an outside lab, influencing your current passion of studying the complex workings of the brain.
You could also discuss a passion that is outside of your primary discipline in order to show Harvard the diverse range of interests you may have. Perhaps while you’re primarily passionate about medicine, you became interested in philosophy and ethics after having a debate in one of your high school courses. You could highlight how these two disciplines, while seemingly different, overlap and create a need for a deeper emphasis in medical ethics. By connecting your main passion with another topic, you can provide greater depth on your intellectual vitality.
This is a great prompt to discuss your intellectual passion and apply this to your vision of the world. A mistake that students commonly make is discussing their future dreams without connecting it back to their present experiences and passions. Make sure to draw the connection between the two and fuse the present with the future to avoid making this error.
While students often have large visions for tackling major problems such as global warming or curing cancer, these are often overdone since admissions committees see too many of these essays. Rather than focusing your essay on such a broad topic, try to narrow it down into something more specific that is equally impactful but may often be overlooked.
An example of this could be a student pursuing urban studies wanting to convert more rural and suburban intersections into roundabouts. While this may seem insignificant, such a change could save tens of thousands of lives over a time span of 20 years.
If you’re passionate about the environment, rather than discussing something broad like recycling or renewable energy, you could discuss the dangers that plastic straws pose to the environment. Perhaps you hope to create an initiative at Harvard to ban the use of plastic straws over the next few years in an attempt to prevent the accumulation of plastics in nature. Through this, you hope to take a role in improving Harvard’s campus sustainability for decades to come.
Students often approach this prompt too similarly to a resume, making their essays sound dry and a little boastful. Rather than attempting to show off every aspect of your life, dive deep into your academic or extracurricular passions, or add an element of personality to your list.
One way to successfully execute this essay is to order the titles in such a way that shows your progression through a topic. For example, you could begin with Freakonomics, then an AP Economics textbook, followed by the Wealth of Nations, the General Theory of Employment, Interest in Money, and ending with a book on market monetarism.
With the previous example, the key is to show why you found each title compelling and how it further contributed to your passion for economics. Make sure to discuss the changes that occurred between each transition and how this impacted your perspective of the topic. Why were you intrigued by each of these books and why did it allow you to fall in love with the subject?
The same structure goes with any other discipline. If you’re passionate about women’s literature, you could compare and contrast your observations from reading books written by various female authors written in different time periods. If you were involved in Science Olympiad, you could chronicle your journey through different discoveries based on the scientific novels you read.
However you could also simply list a series of books that you’ve read that do not necessarily have relationships to one another. Here are a few snippets from a student who chronicled her love for reading with her extensive book list:
This student added an immense amount of personality into what initially appears to just be a list of books. However, the student expresses humor in book #7, shows an ability to analyze in #11, and connects a book to her passions in #1. In doing so, the student transforms what’s fundamentally a list of titles into something that is quite revealing and enjoyable to read. This is an extremely strong example and is a great template to follow if you choose to execute this prompt.
The goal for this prompt is to write about something that is both insightful, yet won’t make you appear like a problem to Harvard. For instance, you would not want to discuss anything illegal that you’ve done or anything morally questionable. You should therefore look for a topic that has severe consequences but is also appropriate to discuss in a college application.
An example of this could be if you were the editor in chief of your school newspaper and had to handle a plagiarism issue. However, the lines became blurred when you discovered the individual under suspicion was one of your friends, making it more difficult for you to make a concrete decision. Perhaps, though, you realized that you must be a role model as the editor and uphold the moral standard that the role entails, ultimately causing you to terminate your friends membership on the team. Although you feared risking your friendship, your conscious proved to be the stronger force in the situation.
Other examples could be challenging your friends in other ways, such as ending friendships over sexist, racist, or homophobic comments or actions. Here, the consequences are severe in the sense that you lost a friend and risked being criticized for a lack of loyalty, but appropriate in that the law was not involved.
Harvard does not want you to preach the value of honesty and integrity since this is already given. Rather, they want to see that you recognize the implications of certain actions and how integrity plays a role into the choices you make.
Due to this, it is acceptable to tell a story of a time where you acted dishonestly but suffered consequences from your action, causing you to mature from your mistakes. The strongest essays are those involving situations where the lines between moral and immoral are blurred, making it all the more challenging to reach an appropriate conclusion.
This essay is similar to the prompt asking how you hope to use your college education, but eliminates the need to discuss pure academic interests. The same guidelines follow for this prompt, but with more focus on the leadership aspect.
For instance, the aforementioned example about eliminating plastic straw usage can also be applicable to this prompt. However, rather than discussing your goals to promote sustainability, you could instead analyze the topic from the perspective of educating your peers on being role models in the face of modern challenges. Perhaps you want to encourage fellow students to be leaders by signing your initiative to end plastic straws on campus. While true that you initiated the campaign, educating your peers allows them too to be leaders for future environmental change.
As in prompt 5, it’s preferable to choose a topic that’s underrated rather than a broad well-known issue. Perhaps you are passionate about a niche, but equally important, social issue and want to create an organization dedicated to its advancement. This would be a great place to discuss your goals surrounding this and how your leadership skills would apply.
If this applies to you, this would be an excellent opportunity for you to show a non-academic passion and how you plan to pursue it in your gap year. Make sure you discuss this topic in a constructive way that conveys a sense of passion and highlights your skill.
For instance, if you have a passion for gaming, perhaps you want to take a year off to pursue eSports or intern at a video game company in order further advance your passion in ways that an academic environment may not allow you to do so.
Another option for those business-minded applicants could be taking time off to pursue your own startup or gaining work experience at a company. Perhaps you feel that this experience would supplement your education and allow you to apply your skill set to real world applications.
You want to make sure that you use any potential time off in a meaningful way. For instance, if you want to take a year off to travel the world, make sure you make this time off significant to justify you leaving school. Perhaps you have extended family that cannot travel due to health or age and you had never had the opportunity to visit them. This would make your time off more meaningful since the usage has personal weight.
This is a challenging essay to write because it is difficult to be unique among tens of thousands of applicants. While some students from immigrant backgrounds might focus on stories about their heritage, this has become less unique over the years, since many students have similar stories.
An exception to this is if you grew up in poverty or a low socioeconomic background, as these will convey the same honesty as immigrant stories with the added benefit of being a little more uncommon. Your perspective on this issue would be greatly valued as it is one that likely will not be shared by a significant proportion of applications.
Another suggestion would be to consider different definitions of diversity as opposed to the obvious definition of diversity. This could be something like a physical attribute such as weight. Perhaps you are a strong advocate for body positivity and want to comment on the ways in which your body type has impacted you. Or perhaps you have been mistreated based on your physical experience and want to discuss the ways in which you overcame this.
Beyond physical traits, however, you could discuss cognitive diversity. For instance, if you worked on a team conducting a project, you could discuss the diverse ways in which each person approached a problem and how combining these differences fostered greater productivity. You can then discuss your own perspectives and your personal approaches to problem solving and how you think this will positively contribute to Harvard’s student body.
An independent topic, if done correctly, can be much more powerful than any of the above options. However, beware of trying too hard to be creative, as this can feel disingenuous and will be blatantly obvious to admission readers.
If you have a unique perspective on a truly innovative or interesting topic, such as why the 90’s is and forever will be the best decade, this is the place to discuss that. You want to write about something unconventional that would grasp the reader’s attention, yet it should be something that you are truly interested or involved in.
Another example could be chronicling your life in a comedic story by discussing major events with a lighthearted and fairytale-like tone. You could add humor and wit to both the positive and negative elements of your experiences to make the admissions officers feel as if they’re reading a story rather than an essay.
However, the possibilities are endless here. Only attempt this essay if you are confident in your innovative writing abilities and have gained approval from many reliable sources. An unconventional essay executed poorly could harm your application more than it helps it. Exercise good judgement, but don’t be afraid to be a little creative.
We hope this guide was helpful and has allowed you to tackle Harvard’s application with the utmost confidence. Happy writing!
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