The Ultimate Guide to Applying to Harvard

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When members of the general public think about what constitutes a great college, Harvard University is often the first school to come to mind. Harvard dates its founding back to the year 1636, making it the oldest institution of higher education in what is now the United States, and now ranks among the most highly regarded universities in the entire world. In short, Harvard is a household name.


With its great prestige and low acceptance rates, Harvard can be a pretty intimidating place to apply to college. However, if you’re accepted, the rewards can be great. A Harvard undergraduate education will open doors to you that you may not have even known existed. Read on for an overview of what to expect from the Harvard application process — and what that process will expect from you.


Want to learn what Harvard University will actually cost you based on your income? And how long your application to the school should take? Here’s what every student considering Harvard University needs to know.


Introducing Harvard


Harvard University is located in Cambridge, Massachusetts, just outside of Boston. As you probably know, it’s one of the eight member schools that make up the prestigious Ivy League. Currently, the U.S. News and World Report rankings place Harvard as the #2 ranked college in the National Universities category.


The university is comprised of twelve different degree-granting programs plus the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, which altogether enroll around 20,000 students each year. The undergraduate program at Harvard, known as Harvard College, is home to around 6,700 students total in a given year. These students come from over eighty different countries to take advantage of Harvard’s historical excellence, exceptional resources, and accomplished faculty. For the most part, students live on campus within a residential house system.


Students at Harvard study a wide range of subjects and can take advantage of almost 3,900 course offerings, including over 80 different ancient and modern languages alone. In addition to the General Education curriculum, which requires all students to take courses in a number of specific subject areas, each student must choose a primary field of study known as a concentration. This is comparable to a major at other schools.


There are currently 49 existing concentrations to choose from, and with permission, Harvard students can also combine two concentrations or develop a custom concentration of their own. The most popular category for concentrations at Harvard is the social sciences, with Economics and Government usually being the most popular specific concentrations.


Honors tracks are typically available within concentrations, which may involve writing a thesis or conducting research during the student’s senior year. Students can also designate a secondary field, comparable to a minor at other schools, but this is not required.


It’s impossible to sum up here the breadth and depth of intellectual inquiry that goes on at Harvard, and exploring the vast Harvard University website is a must. As a student, cutting-edge research is all around you, the extensive library system overflows with material to study, and your fellow students are a rare group of individuals who will go on to great things. To be at Harvard is to be simultaneously embedded in a deep historical tradition of academic excellence, and on the front lines of new ideas about how the world works— and how you could change it.


Outside of class, Harvard College student participate in hundreds of different student activities, from athletics to community service to musical groups to clubs that are simply for fun. You’ll likely be able to find activities both to bolster your educational and career ambitions, and to make your time at Harvard social and enjoyable. You can learn more about Harvard’s student activities on their website, found here. The opportunities are almost endless.


Harvard Admissions Statistics


Harvard’s admissions process is exceptionally selective. During the 2015-2016 application season, 39,041 students applied to Harvard College in total. 2,106 applicants were accepted, for an acceptance rate of approximately 5.4%. 75 more students were later accepted off the waitlist. 1,667 accepted students ended up matriculating at Harvard in the fall of 2016, for a yield of 79.2%.


While Harvard College does have a transfer application process, transfer acceptance rates are considerably lower even than first-year acceptance rates. In recent years, around 12 transfer students have been accepted each year out of over 1,600 transfer applicants, for an acceptance rate of well under 1%.


Harvard’s admissions process is holistic, and attempts to evaluate each applicant as a person rather than a collection of numbers. A high level of academic achievement in high school is of course an important factor, but it’s not the only thing that the admissions office will consider; they’ll want to see evidence of whatever makes you stand out from the crowd. You can learn more about the Harvard application process here.


Paying for Harvard


For the 2016-2017 school year, tuition at Harvard College will cost $43,280. When fees, room and board, and other costs are added in, the estimated cost of total attendance for 2016-2017 ranges from $66,900 to $72,100, depending on how much it will cost for the student to travel to and from Harvard.


The admissions process at Harvard is need-blind. According to Harvard’s financial aid website, 70% of students at Harvard College receive financial aid, which is strictly need-based. Using the information about your family’s income and assets which you’ll provide through the FAFSA and CSS Profile, Harvard will determine your level of need and create a financial-aid package to meet that need. No merit scholarships are awarded as part of Harvard College financial aid packages.


Harvard College guarantees to meet 100% of each student’s demonstrated financial need. Students at Harvard College are not required to take out any loans as part of their financial aid packages, though supplemental loans are available under certain circumstances. The need-based aid policy and 100%-need-met policy apply to international students as well as domestic students, and transfer students as well as first-year applicants.


At present, Harvard College’s financial aid policy states that students whose families have an income of less than $65,000 per year will have an expected family contribution of zero. Under this policy, over 20% of Harvard undergraduates and their families pay nothing to attend Harvard.


For families with incomes of between $65,000 and $150,000 per year, the expected family contribution usually ranges between zero and 10% of the family’s yearly income, depending on the individual family’s circumstances. Families making more than $150,000 per year may be asked to contribute a higher percentage of their income depending on their circumstances, but families at this income level are still eligible for aid.


Harvard provides a Net Price Calculator tool on its website which allows students to estimate how much it will actually cost them to attend Harvard. However, this tool only provides an estimate, and is not binding in any way.


For Early Action applicants, an initial financial aid application through the CSS Profile, completed using estimates, is due along with the application itself on November 1st. Applicants who are accepted Early Action and have submitted this initial aid application will receive an estimate of their financial aid award with their acceptance letter in mid-December. Students and families must later update the financial aid application when tax information for the year becomes available.


For Regular Decision applicants, the CSS profile is due on February 1st. The FAFSA and additional documentation requirements should be submitted by March 1st. Applicants who meet these deadlines and are accepted will receive their financial aid award along with their acceptance. While it’s possible to apply late for financial aid due to extenuating circumstances, the later you apply, the later you’ll hear back about your finalized aid award.


The Harvard Application


When you apply to Harvard College, you’ll choose one of the two application options: the Common Application, known as the Common App, and the Universal College Application, known as the UCA. Both application options are treated equally by the admissions office. The Common App is the more popular of the two, but we’ll briefly go over both options below.


Harvard has announced that they plan to begin accepting the Coalition Application as well, but as of August 1, 2016, this option has not yet been made available.


The application timelines for the Common App and the UCA are the same. You can choose to apply either on the Regular Decision timeline or on the Restrictive Early Action timeline through either application. (To learn more about what Restrictive Early Action means and which timeline is best for you, take a look at this CollegeVine blog post regarding different early application options.)


For Restrictive Early Action, the application deadline for all materials is November 1st, though the Admissions Office prefers that you submit your application by October 15th if at all possible. (You won’t be penalized if you miss the October 15th preferred deadline.) You may submit standardized test scores from test sittings through November.


For Regular Decision, the application deadline for all materials is January 1st, though the Admissions Office prefers that you submit your application by December 15th if at all possible. (You won’t be penalized if you miss the December 15th preferred deadline.) You may submit SAT scores from test sittings through January, and ACT scores from test sittings through February.


Common App


To apply to Harvard College through the Common App, you’ll first fill out the general questions that the Common App asks of all applicants. For more information on how to fill out the Common App, you can check out our CollegeVine blog post, A User’s Guide to the Common App, as well as our other blog posts about how to fill out the various sections of the application, including education, activities, honors, citizenship, and family questions.


The Harvard College supplement to the Common App will not ask you any additional multiple-choice or short-answer questions, but it will give you the opportunity to submit an additional essay. While this essay is technically not required, there is no reason not to submit another essay and give yourself another chance to wow the admissions committee, and it’s in your best interests to treat this section of the application just as seriously as the rest.


Harvard’s supplemental essay prompt on the Common App for the 2016-2017 application season is shown in the screenshot below from our sample student’s account. The text of the essay prompt follows the screenshot.

harvard supplement


“You may wish to include an additional essay if you feel that the college application forms do not provide sufficient opportunity to convey important information about yourself or your accomplishments. You may write on a topic of your choice, or you may choose from one of the following topics:


  • Unusual circumstances in your life
  • Travel or living experiences in other countries
  • What you would want your future college roommate to know about you
  • An intellectual experience (course, project, book, discussion, paper, poetry, or research topic in engineering, mathematics, science or other modes of inquiry) 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
  • The Harvard College Honor code declares that we “hold honesty as the foundation of our community.” As you consider entering this community that is committed to honesty, please reflect on a time when you or someone you observed had to make a choice about whether to act with integrity and honesty.
  • The mission of Harvard College is to educate our students to be citizens and citizen-leaders for society. What would you do to contribute to the lives of your classmates in advancing this mission?”



Obviously, this prompt is extremely open. The freedom to write about any topic you wish can be overwhelming, and it’s hard to know which topic will give you the best opportunity to impress the admissions committee. Fortunately, CollegeVine has you covered with some guidance on how to respond to this prompt. Visit our blog post on “How to Write the Harvard University Application Essays 2016-2017” for a detailed breakdown of how to craft your supplemental essay and how it should compare to the essay you’ve already written for the Common App.


To submit your application to Harvard College, you’ll need to follow the instructions found in our User’s Guide to the Common App. Remember, you must review and submit your Common App before you can submit your supplement. The additional documents required for your application, such as your School Report and recommendations, will not be released to Harvard until you have completed the Common App submission process.




To apply to Harvard College through the UCA, you’ll follow a procedure relatively similar to that of the Common App. Instructions for applying to Harvard College via the UCA can be found here. You’ll create an account on the UCA website, search for and add Harvard College to your “My Colleges” list, and answer all the questions you’re prompted to answer. Just as on the Common App, you’ll fill out a basic application form and then a supplement specific to Harvard.  


The questions you’ll encounter on the UCA for Harvard College are very similar to the questions you’d encounter on the Common App. For the most part, Harvard wants to know the same information about you regardless of which application path you choose. As noted above, Harvard does not prefer either the Common App or the UCA in the admissions process- both are treated equally, and it’s up to you to choose which application works better for you.


The Harvard Interview Process


Most Harvard applicants interview for Harvard through the alumni interview system. Once you’ve submitted your application to Harvard College, whether through the Early Action process or the Regular Decision process, you’ll generally have the opportunity to interview with a Harvard alum in your area. How exactly this works depends on where you live.


If you live in the United States, an alumni interviewer will contact you about arranging an interview, using the contact information provided in your application. Once you’ve found a mutually agreeable time, you’ll typically meet in a coffee shop or other public place for a conversation that’s meant to reveal more about who you are as a person than your application can show. To learn more about what to expect from your interview experience, check out our additional posts on the CollegeVine blog about how to prepare for your interview, what to do (and not do) in your interview, and how much interviews matter in the college admissions process.


If you live outside the United States, your interview options are dependent on the number of Harvard alums available to conduct interviews in your area. If you live in the UK or Canada, an interviewer will contact you to make arrangements, just as in the United States. If you live in another country, you may need to email Harvard and initiate contact with an interviewer yourself, or you may only be contacted for an interview if Harvard’s admissions office specifically requests more information about you. It depends upon your individual country, but a list by country is available here.


In some areas of the world, interviews are not possible for applicants due to a lack of interviewers. If you are not able to participate in an interview due to geography or other factors, you will not be penalized when your application is reviewed, but you should make every effort to arrange an interview if possible. You can visit the Harvard College admissions website or contact their admissions office for more information.


A small number of applicants can be accommodated for on-campus interviews at Harvard during the period from September through November. However, these interview slots are in very high demand, and Harvard recommends that you wait for a local interview with an alum instead. If you have your heart set on interviewing on the Harvard campus, and you either live near Harvard or can easily travel to Cambridge, contact the admissions office as early as possible to discuss whether an on-campus interview might be an option for you.


Other Harvard Application Requirements


In addition to your Common App or UCA and your Harvard supplement for either application, Harvard will require you to submit the following:



As with all colleges, it’s important to be honest on your Harvard application; if you misrepresent yourself, you risk having your application rescinded.


If you find that you have made a mistake on your application, or if you need to make corrections or updates on your application for any reason, do not resubmit your application. Instead, you can send updates or additional information through Harvard’s Applicant Status Portal.


Hearing Back from Harvard


If you have applied through Harvard College’s Early Action program, you’ll hear back about your admissions decision by mid-December. At this point, you may be accepted, rejected, or deferred to the Regular Decision applicant pool.


If you’re accepted as an Early Action applicant, congratulations! However, your college application process is not necessarily over yet. Since Harvard’s early application program is a non-binding Early Action program rather than an Early Decision program, you are not obligated to attend Harvard if you are accepted in the Early Action round.


Applicants who are accepted in the Early Action round in December have until the following May 1st to decide whether they would like to attend Harvard College in the fall. This gives you the opportunity to apply to other schools, compare financial aid offers, and simply change your mind. However, you’re welcome to accept Harvard’s offer earlier than that if you wish. You will not be required to put down a deposit in order to secure your place in the matriculating class.


If your application is rejected in the Early Action round, unfortunately, you’ve reached the end of the path; you are not permitted to reapply during the Regular Decision round. You may be able to apply to Harvard as a transfer student in the future.


If you are deferred in the Early Action round, however, your application will be reconsidered with the Regular Decision applications, and you’ll have the opportunity to update your application with any new information about your qualifications and achievements. We’ll go over more details of what being deferred at Harvard means for you below.


If you’re a Regular Decision applicant to Harvard College, or if you applied Early Action and were initially deferred, you’ll hear back about your admissions decision in late March. Harvard participates in an agreement among the colleges of the Ivy League to release admissions decisions on the same day, frequently known as Ivy Day. If you’ve also applied to other Ivy League schools, then, you should hear back from all of them on the same date.


On Ivy Day, you may be either accepted, rejected, or waitlisted by Harvard College. We’ll go over a bit more about what being on the waitlist at Harvard means for you below.


If you are accepted to Harvard College through the Regular Decision process, congratulations! You’ll need to respond to Harvard by May 1st to confirm whether you’ll be attending in the fall. Again, Harvard does not require you to put down a deposit to secure your place in the matriculating class.


Deferrals and the Waitlist


Since Harvard College offers an Early Action application process, some students are inevitably deferred to the Regular Decision applicant pool. These students’ applications will be reconsidered along with the rest of the Regular Decision applications, and final admissions decisions for deferred students will be released in late March, on Ivy Day.


If you’re deferred from Harvard in the Early Action round, you still have a chance at being admitted, and you’re welcome to submit any new or updated information that you feel will improve your application. You might also decide to retake standardized tests in order to seek higher scores. 


Being waitlisted at Harvard is somewhat similar. As we mentioned above, Harvard does typically admit some students from their waitlist. In the 2015-2016 application season, 75 waitlisted students were eventually accepted. However, as you would expect at Harvard, acceptance rates for waitlisted students are quite low.


If you’re waitlisted, you should definitely begin moving forward with one of your other college options, but you can still submit updates and additional information to indicate that you remain interested in Harvard. If you are accepted to Harvard College off the waitlist, you’ll find out past the May 1st enrollment deadline.


To learn more about the Harvard experience, you can explore the Harvard University website, attend an information session and tour on Harvard’s campus, or if visiting Harvard in person is not an option, you can take the admissions office’s Virtual Tour.  While the status and glamour of Harvard’s name can be intimidating for college applicants, Harvard is also a real place where real students like you live, work, and learn. If you decide that Harvard would be a great choice for you, best of luck on your application!


CollegeVine is no stranger to covering Harvard admissions. Check out the CollegeVine blog for additional posts about applying to Harvard, from writing a great Harvard essay to acing the Harvard interview to comparing Harvard to other schools in and out of the Ivy League.


Curious about your chances of acceptance to your dream school? Our free chancing engine takes into account your GPA, test scores, extracurriculars, and other data to predict your odds of acceptance at over 500 colleges across the U.S. We’ll also let you know how you stack up against other applicants and how you can improve your profile. Sign up for your free CollegeVine account today to get started!

Monikah Schuschu
Senior Blogger at CollegeVine
Short bio
Monikah Schuschu is an alumna of Brown University and Harvard University. As a graduate student, she took a job at the Harvard College Office of Financial Aid and Admissions, and discovered the satisfaction of helping students and parents with the often-baffling college admissions process. She also enjoys fiber art, murder mysteries, and amateur entomology.