What Does it Really Take to Get into Harvard? (From a Harvard Grad)

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Founded in 1636, Harvard is the oldest university throughout the U.S. as well as one of the most prestigious. But with a 4% acceptance rate, precious few applicants get to pull up into the Yard on move-in day.


Keep reading to learn our time-tested recommendations for perfecting your Harvard application. As a Harvard alumna myself, I wish I had read this kind of article before I applied. While very few candidates are a shoo-in, these tips will set you up for success.


Want to know your chances at Harvard? Calculate your chances right now.


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.


Overview of Harvard Admissions


Location: Cambridge, Massachusetts

Undergrad Enrollment: 9,900

Acceptance Rate: 4.01%

Middle 50% SAT: 1460-1570

Middle 50% ACT: 33-35


Harvard Acceptance Rate: How Difficult Is It to Get In?


Harvard is one of the most selective schools in the nation, with an admissions rate of 4%. Of 57,786 applicants, only 2,320 were admitted into the class of 2025. Four percent may sound like an intimidating number, yet it is important to remember that the strength of your profile has a lot of influence over whether your probability of being accepted is much higher or lower than that.


How to Get Into Harvard



Harvard itself publishes the core values it holds for evaluating student applications on the What We Look For section of the website. The core quality of a competitive Harvard application is that it demonstrates a zeal for life and learning.


Here are some concrete steps you can take to improve your chances.


1. Meet academic thresholds. 


It should come as no surprise that a large part of your potential boils down to your past academic performance. The 25-75th percentile of Harvard admitted freshmen last cycle earned SAT scores of 1460-1580. For the ACT, those numbers were 33-35. The average GPA of admitted students was 4.18.


The best way to improve your chances of acceptance is to have strong academics. Selective schools like Harvard use the Academic Index (AI) to weed out unqualified applicants. This is a single score that represents the strength of your test scores, course GPA, and class rank (if your school ranks). If your AI isn’t up to par, Harvard admissions officers may not even read the rest of your application. 


2. Engage in impressive extracurriculars.


For selective institutions like Harvard, extracurricular activities can play a large role in admission decisions. Up to 25% of an admissions decision can be determined by a student’s activities outside of the classroom. While it’s true that there is no such thing as a bad extracurricular activity, some extracurricular activities are more impressive than others. 


Admissions officers evaluate extracurriculars using four tiers, with one being the most exceptional and four being the most common. For example, a nationally ranked student athlete or individual who attended a top (merit-based) summer program might fall into tier 1. The second most prestigious group, Tier 2, includes activities that showcase students’ larger achievements, such as being elected student body president or making it to the state tennis tournament. Tier 3 activities include smaller achievements, such as being editor of the school paper or treasurer of the history club. Finally, Tier 4 activities include general membership in student clubs and sports teams, as well as other casual hobbies.


Aspiring Harvard students should aim for at least a couple Tier 1-2 activities. It doesn’t matter the area of interest; Harvard just wants to see you achieve success in your passion, as this indicates to them that you’re likely to be successful in the future. Rather than do a bunch of unrelated activities at a mediocre level, try to hone in on one or two interests and develop a “spike.”


3. Wow them with your essay. 


Harvard has plenty of applicants with stellar profiles. Use your essay to demonstrate a unique voice and character. If the admissions officer can’t get you out of their mind, they are much more likely to advocate for you when it comes time to make difficult decisions between equally qualified candidates. Read CollegeVine’s post on How to Write the Harvard University Supplemental Essays 2020-2021 for more advice.


4. Discuss your application theme with recommenders. 


If you want to shoot for Harvard, it’s important to put your very best foot forward. Your grades, essay, test scores, and letters of recommendation all come together to paint a picture of who you are. Like any good painter, you want to be in control of the whole work. There are compliments and aspects of your personality that only your recommenders can share, so make sure you talk to them first about what you would put in that letter if you were the one writing it.


5. Consider your contribution to the Harvard Community. 


Some of this is outside your control. Harvard builds a diverse class each year, both in terms of interests and backgrounds. If you bring an under-represented personal history, you are more likely to secure a favorable decision. However, this value has more to do with what you will do on campus than who you will be, so take time to cast a vision for your admissions officers. How do you see yourself improving the lives of classmates, professors, and the broader Harvard network?


What Are Your Chances of Acceptance?


While Harvard’s acceptance rate is incredibly low, your personal chances of acceptance may actually be higher or lower. If your academic profile is weak, Harvard may not look at the rest of your application at all. On the flip side, if your grades and test scores are strong, and you have outstanding extracurriculars, you may have a better shot of getting in.


To better understand your chances at Harvard, we recommend using our free admissions calculator. Using your grades, test scores, and extracurriculars, we’ll estimate your odds of acceptance, and give you tips on improving your profile.


You can also search for best-fit schools based on your chances, and on other factors like size, location, majors and more. This tool will make it a lot easier to create a strategy for your college application process.



How to Apply to Harvard


You may apply through one of three portals: the Common Application, the Universal College Application, or the Coalition Application. For most applicants, we recommend the Common App. Learn more about the process in our Guide to the Common App.


Apply Early Action by November 1 or Regular Decision by January 1. If you’re unsure about whether or not you should apply early, read our post, Early Decision vs. Early Action vs. Restrictive Early Action.


To apply, be sure to send in all of the following:


  • A general university application
  • Complete Harvard’s supplemental essays
  • SAT, ACT, or SAT Subject Test scores (optional)
  • Any AP, IB, or other scores from standardized exams you have taken (optional)
  • Two letters of recommendation from teachers
  • A school report and letter of recommendation from your counselor
  • High School Transcript
  • $75 application fee or fee waiver
  • A midyear report


Transfer applicants and visiting undergraduate applicants have different deadlines and requirements. You can find more information for these applicants by visiting Harvard’s Application Requirements page.


Due to COVID-19, Harvard will be test-optional for the 2021-2022 application cycle. Find out more about test-optional policies.


What If You Get Rejected?


Don’t be too hard on yourself, Harvard is a reach for everyone. Even top applicants are not guaranteed a slot at Harvard. Speaking as a graduate myself, I guarantee you that hard work, talent, and a little bit of business savvy will secure the same opportunities as someone with an Ivy League degree. The world is still your oyster.


Harvard does not accept admissions appeals due to their long list of qualified applicants on the waitlist. We do not recommend petitioning your decision. Some students transfer into Harvard, but the transfer admissions rate is extremely low and requires a lot of extra work. However, students who maintain a strong academic and extracurricular profile will always have a shot.


You can reapply after taking a gap year, but this path is riskier than simply committing to another school and requesting to take a gap year there.


If Harvard closes its doors to you, we recommend moving on. College is what you make of it, after all, and a lot of successful people went to schools you may not have heard of.


Keep in mind that the large majority of Harvard applicants will face rejection. If you want a similar experience to Harvard, we recommend applying to some northeastern liberal arts colleges with higher acceptance rates, like the NESCAC. Check out these “Little Ivies”:



Many of these schools are also selective, so it’s important to apply to a healthy mix of reach, target, and safety schools to ensure you have a good chance of getting into at least one school.


If you already know your target industry, consider attending a top-ranked university for that field. Geographic proximity to where you want to work also helps. Again, speaking as a Harvard grad, when I go toe-to-toe with students who graduated from other schools, the ones with the greatest strategic advantage are those who already have roots in my field.


For more resources on Harvard and other Ivies, check out these CollegeVine posts:



At CollegeVine, we’re passionate about making college guidance accessible to all. That’s why we took the guidance that’s helped 100,000 students and made it free. On our college applications platform, you can use our chancing engine, build a best-fit school list, and learn how to improve your profile—all for free. Sign up for your CollegeVine account today to get a boost on your college journey.

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Short Bio
Veronica is an alumna of Harvard College, where she earned her A.B. in History and Classics. After graduating, she joined CollegeVine serving as the Curriculum Development Manager. She currently lives in Cambridge, MA and is writing her debut novel.

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