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The Ultimate Guide to Applying to Harvard

Harvard is one of the top universities in the country, and is renowned across the entire world. We’re going to try and keep it light, since the mere mention of “Harvard” is enough to trigger all sorts of anxiety and pressure. With its prestige, history of “good ol’ boys” admissions, and low acceptance rate of 5%, Harvard can be an intimidating place to apply to college. 


But you have us! We’re here to 1) compile all sorts of stats and insight on Harvard, and 2) inject a little humor and reassurance along the way. 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 more about Harvard University? Check out one of our popular recorded live streams on this topic.


Harvard Students and Setting 


In this section, we’ll help you get an idea of Harvard as a location and a culture. You can use this to weigh how much you want to attend, what life there is like, and whether it’s a good fit.




While it’s nestled in the misty groves of Cambridge, Massachusetts, Harvard is a fairly large school, with a total of 36,000 students and 16,000 staff/faculty members. However, within that group, each undergraduate class is fairly small: Harvard College is home to around 6,700 students total in a given year. Class sizes are extremely small, with a median size of 12 students. 




Students come from over eighty different countries to take advantage of Harvard’s resources. Harvard has recently worked to increase its admissions percentages of minorities, and you can parse through the data with a great, detailed article from WBUR, the NPR station in Boston. However, as WBUR points out, increases in diversity have also been accompanied by the ongoing legal question as to whether or not Harvard discriminates against certain applicants, particularly Asian students, in order to preserve its ideal percentages. 


Economic Status 


It should be noted that Harvard’s student body is statistically wealthier than most Americans: 70% of its students come from the top economic 20%, and the “1%” make up a staggering 15% of Harvard’s population. 




For the most part, students live on campus within a residential house system. However, the economic disclaimer above obviously applies. Students living in the dorms can expect to pay about $11k/year for housing. University apartments can cost upwards of $2000/month for a studio.


Cambridge, Massachusetts


Cambridge is a cool, often-rainy place (especially in winter) attached to Boston, Massachusetts. You can take advantage of the wealth of historical sites, like the “Freedom Trail,” which passes significant sites from the American Revolution. Other attractions range from the Museum of Fine Arts to Fenway Park. Harvard also provides a 50% subsidy for public-transportation passes.


Campus is relatively safe, but unfortunately is subject to frequent crimes, especially theft, as is common in most college areas. Like most colleges, Harvard employs blue-light beacons on common paths, equipped with buttons and phones to call police and report incidents.


Harvard Admissions Statistics


Acceptance rates


Harvard’s admissions process is exceptionally selective, as you can see in data compiled by Harvard itself. During the last year’s application season (2019-2020), Harvard had an acceptance rate of 5% (2,015 admissions out of 40,248 applicants). 


Hard times globally = slightly easier admissions. The 5% acceptance rate is higher than it has been in most recent years (Harvard has usually hovered between about 4.5-4.7%).  Harvard’s Dean of Admissions has stated that the higher likelihood of acceptance is due to several global factors, including “economic issues,” natural disasters, school closures, and global uncertainty. So keep in mind that 5% is a bit of a fluke: the acceptance rate is probably going to fall back into the 4% range once the world recovers from the turmoil of the COVID-19 pandemic. 


Early Action vs. Regular Decision


Also, keep in mind that this 5% statistic is an average of two application periods – Early Action and Regular Decision – with drastically different acceptance rates. Which means…


It’s better to apply Early Action at Harvard. Last year, Harvard accepted 13.9% of Early Action applicants. (Here’s a refresher of what “Early Action” means.) So if we reverse the math, that means the Regular Decision process at Harvard has a real acceptance rate of 3%. That’s nuts! A few months’ difference means that your chances of getting into Harvard fall from over 1:10 to virtually impossible. So naturally, we recommend applying Early Action if you’re set on attending Harvard. Start planning early to accommodate that deadline. 


Harvard Accepted Student Scores


Harvard has announced that it will not require standardized test scores this year (2020-2021 applications season) due to COVID-19 health concerns. 


The following stats come from our handy statistics page on Harvard that looks at data from the 2019-2020 applications season (i.e. this past year). It uses the percentile measures to give you a good idea of where the middling 50% of students tend to score. 


ACT Middle 50%: 33-35


SAT Middle 50%: 1460-1580


GPA and Class Rank:

  • Average GPA: 4.18. 70.6% of freshmen had a 4.0 unweighted GPA. 92.8% had a 3.75 or above.
  • Class Rank: 95% of Harvard admitted students were in the top 25% of their graduating high school classes. 


(If you don’t know your GPA, you can find it using our free GPA calculator.)


Always remember that stats and test scores alone won’t guarantee you a spot. However, they should at least get your application noticed. Harvard applications readers tend to skip over applications with less impressive numerical scores, unless you’re an under-represented minority, legacy, or recruited athlete. This is because it uses the Academic Index as a screening tool.


Waitlist and Transfers


Getting off the Harvard waitlist is rare.  Out of the 2,015 students admitted, only 34 were applicants from EA who were deferred through the waitlist. Harvard also tells us that “in some years, we have admitted no one from the waitlist.” 


It’s tough to transfer into Harvard. 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%.



  • Average Harvard acceptance rate: 5%
  • Harvard Early Action acceptance rate: 13.9%
  • Harvard Regular Decision acceptance rate: <3%
  • Harvard transfer acceptance rate: 1%
  • Harvard waitlist chances: very slim

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Harvard Admissions Process 


How do Harvard admissions work? Harvard’s admissions process is holistic, which means that Harvard professes to evaluate each applicant as a “person” rather than a collection of numbers. (Which is pretty funny, considering that Harvard rates these “intangible” qualities along a numerical metric anyway, as the first step of their admissions process.) As if 10/10 academics wasn’t hard enough to achieve, they also want 10/10 personality, 10/10 extracurriculars, 10/10 achievements, etc. 


The Harvard Crimson has an excellent graphic breakdown of newly public details about Harvard’s admissions process. 


Step One: Breakdown and Scoring. Admissions officials pick apart your profile and quantify your achievements, scoring you in categories of academics, extracurriculars, athletics, personality, and how your recommendation letters talk about you. You can score from 6-1, with 1 being Top Priority. A score of “1” usually denotes nationally-ranked or already-famous achievements (for example, if you get a 1 in athletics, you’re probably preparing for – or have already attended – the Olympics). Your interviewer will also be rating you in terms of these numbers.


Step Two: Committee Vote. If you average anything less than a “2” across all your categories, you’re probably out, although admissions has been known to make exceptions for some “3” students. If you have a “2,” your application will proceed to a committee, who will vote on whether you should have a spot at Harvard. A majority “Yes” means you’ll be getting an acceptance letter. 


Consolation: Admissions is Largely Out of Your Control


You can sweat through high school, achieve great things, and still get rejected from Harvard. You might even see peers with comparable achievements to yours get accepted. How? It can be a baffling, frustrating experience. But don’t feel discouraged if it doesn’t work out – it’s probably not your fault. 


Harvard admissions is the holy grail of colleges – kept exclusive and elite by artificial shortages (only 2,000 slots) and mass demand. What’s more, many factors may be out of your control. Rejections can be arbitrary (“we don’t need any more math majors”) or based on geography (Harvard has started to really prefer rural candidates). You may not have the right “look,” or sport, or personality they want.  (Want proof? These court documents show Harvard rejected a candidate for seeming “withdrawn” and possibly having “insecurity.”) And, lest we forget, until the recent lawsuit, Asian applicants had to score higher than white applicants on the SAT to move forward in admissions.


For one thing, you might not be an athlete. While athletes are (literally) 1% of Harvard’s applicant pool, they make up 10% of accepted students, and their chances of getting in are insanely high – the Crimson found that being an athlete increases your chances over other applicants by a factor of ONE THOUSAND. 


And affluence has a lot to do with it, too: one study even found that “26% of recruited athlete respondents came from families earning more than $500,000 in income per year” (Arcidiacano et. al., 2020). Legacy students, particularly white legacy students from the East Coast, have a higher chance of getting into Harvard than more-qualified non-legacy students. Emails from the Dean of Admissions, shown in the New York Times, even show him pushing for the admission of a student whose parents had “already committed to [funding] a building.” Talk to your parents about that one for your next birthday, kids.


And get this: Harvard may have already counted you out – or at least counted someone else in. Harvard starts planning its admitted classes years in advance, often recruiting students from certain areas, sports, schools, and families since before high school. 


Harvard also looks to reject applicants without a “hook”: i.e. students who are still figuring out their professional interests, who may have been involved in a breadth of clubs vs. a singular niche. You need a “special academic or extracurricular talent,” as one admissions official wrote of an otherwise “appealing” student. So you may actually be rejected for exploring a diversity of interests whilst growing up as a person. 


Bottom line is: don’t get down on yourself, or shame yourself. As you’re applying, you should keep in mind that there may be applicants who sail on to (relatively) easier admissions assessments while the rest of the applicant pool is left to duke it out with each other, and hope to fit into the remaining slots according to the tastes and feelings of admissions officers. 


Cost of Harvard


In this section, we’ll break down how much (a lot) it costs to attend Harvard. However, you should always remember that the “sticker price” of any college is often highly variable depending on your financial profile, government aid, and other factors. This information comes from Harvard’s webpages here and here. Costs are for a single year.


  • Tuition: $49,653
  • Housing: $11,364
  • Board (Meal Plan): $7,025
  • Health Insurance: $3,922
  • Health Fee: $1,206 (on-campus), $602 (off-campus)
  • Total cost without financial aid: $72,391
  • Average cost with financial aid: $12,000


Need-Blind Admissions


The admissions process at Harvard is need-blind. According to Harvard’s financial aid website, 55% of students at Harvard College receive financial aid, which is strictly need-based (no merit scholarships). 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. 


Harvard College guarantees to meet 100% of each student’s demonstrated financial need. This 100%-need-met policy applies to international students as well as domestic students, and transfer students as well as first-year applicants. 


Harvard also has resources to cover unforeseen emergencies, computer costs, summer programs, and travel abroad. 


Cost vs. Income


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 ranges between zero and 10% of the family’s yearly income, depending on circumstances. Families making more than $150,000 per year may be asked to contribute a higher percentage of their income, but are still eligible for aid. Harvard also may expect students to contribute their own savings and work on campus to make up the cost. 


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.


Financial Aid Deadlines 


For Early Action applicants, an financial aid application through CSS Profile is due with the application on November 1st, 2020. Applicants who are accepted through 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.


Harvard Application Deadlines


You can apply to Harvard using three applications platforms: the Common App, the Coalition App, and the Universal College App. The application timelines are the same for all. 


And as we mentioned, you can apply either on the Regular Decision timeline or on the Early Action timeline. (CollegeVine compares EA vs. ED vs. REA in this post, though we recommend Early Action for Harvard.)


  • Early Action Deadline: November 1st
  • EA Test Score Deadline: You can submit standardized test scores from test sittings through November
  • Decision By: mid-December


  • Regular Decision Deadline: January 1st
  • RD Test Score Deadline: SAT scores from test sittings through January, and ACT scores from test sittings through February
  • Decision By: late March


All Parts of the Harvard Application 


As per Harvard’s website, you’ll need to submit the following as part of your application.



  • Common App (or other platform) materials
  • Harvard written prompts through Common App (or other platform)
  • $75 fee (online app or check), or fee waiver
  • Midyear school report
  • High school transcript
  • 2 teacher letters of recommendation



  • Standardized Test (ACT, SAT)
  • 2 SAT Subject Tests
  • AP Results


Note: If you made a mistake on your application, or if you need to make corrections or updates, do not resubmit. Instead, send updates or additional information through Harvard’s Applicant Status Portal.


Harvard Essay Prompts


CollegeVine has a complete guide for Harvard’s 2020-2021 essays for you to peruse! It includes breakdowns of each prompt and tips on how to structure your writing.


We recommend leaving a lot of time to tackle the Harvard prompts, as there are three essay options, and we recommend completing all of them. 


Also, if you already have drafts, you can get free essay feedback from other students using our Peer Essay Review tool.


Harvard Interviews


Most Harvard applicants interview for Harvard through the alumni interview system. Once you’ve submitted your application, you’ll generally have the opportunity to interview with a Harvard alum in your area. 


Given the current circumstances, your interview is probably going to be over Zoom or phone call. 


If you live in the United States, an alumni interviewer will contact you about arranging an in-person interview if you so choose. Once you’ve found an agreeable time, you’ll typically meet in a coffee shop or other public place.


If you live outside the United States, your in-person interview options are dependent on the number of Harvard alums available 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. A list of processes by country is available here.


In some areas of the world, face-to-face interviews are not possible for applicants due to a lack of interviewers. Instead, you should pursue Zoom or telephone as an option. You can visit the Harvard College admissions website or contact their admissions office for more information.


Harvard usually holds on-campus interviews during the period from September through November. Recently, however, their website has ceased to mention these, probably due to COVID precautions. If you have your heart set on interviewing on the Harvard campus, contact the admissions office as early as possible to discuss whether an on-campus interview might be an option for you.


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.


Hearing Back from Harvard


Applicants accepted in the Early Action round in December have until the following May 1st to decide whether they’ll attend Harvard in the fall. This gives you the opportunity to apply elsewhere, compare financial aid, or change your mind. 


If your application is rejected in the Early Action round, you are not permitted to reapply during the Regular Decision round. 


If you’re a Regular Decision applicant, or if you were waitlisted from EA, you’ll hear back on March 31st, 2020, on 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 can be either accepted, rejected, or waitlisted.


  • Accepted: Congrats! Respond by May 1st.
  • Rejected: See the previous section, “Consolation” for how admissions is probably out of your control.
  • Waitlisted: If you are accepted to Harvard from the waitlist, you’ll find out past the May 1st enrollment deadline. So start looking into your other schools.


What Are Your Chances of Getting Into Harvard?


CollegeVine has covered Harvard admissions extensively, and we’re proud to claim Cambridge, Mass. as our birthplace. Many of our staff are Harvard grads and are happy to share their experiences and expertise. 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? Our free chancing engine uses 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!

Short Bio
Maya St. Clair is a freelance writer and Renaissance historian from Illinois. She loves "writing about writing" and helping others achieve the best results with their own prose. She graduated from Washington University in St. Louis.