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 4.6% acceptance rate, precious few applicants get to pull up into the Yard on move-in day.


Every year, CollegeVine helps hundreds of applicants perfect their Harvard applications, and students who work with CollegeVine are three times as likely to secure admission to top schools when compared with students who have similar academic profiles.


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 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.


Applying to Harvard: A Quick Review


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 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 or ACT test scores, with or without writing
  • Two SAT Subject Tests, unless cost is a barrier
  • Any AP, IB, or other scores from standardized exams you have taken
    • This is optional but highly recommended
  • 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 2020-2021 application cycle. To learn more about test-optional policies, visit our blog post.


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 4.6%. Of 43,330 applicants last year, only 2,009 were admitted. Ultimately 1,650 students chose to attend Harvard, giving the school a yield of 82.1%.


4.6% 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.


There is a lot of advice floating around about how to get into Harvard, but not everything you hear is worth its salt. Some of it will even decrease your chances of acceptance. We strongly recommend consulting people who have been through the Harvard admissions process successfully in the past, either through your local community or with a third-party college counseling group like CollegeVine.

So, How Does One Get Into Harvard?


Harvard itself publishes the core values it holds for evaluating student applications at What We Look For. We’ll break down their categories in a moment, but the core quality of a competitive Harvard application is that it demonstrates a zeal for life and learning.


Growth and Potential. 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 1470-1570. For the ACT, those numbers were 33-35. The average GPA of admitted students was 4.18.


But growth indicates that there is more to your profile than just academic success. Harvard wants to see that you are on your way to ever increasing heights. Your essays, letters of recommendation, and even a positive grade trend (higher grades in your later years of schooling) all demonstrate that you have a desire and willingness to improve.


Interests and Activities. Harvard does not have strong opinions on the direction in which your passion leads you. All they want to see is gobs of it, applicants dripping with the drive to make an impact in a domain they love.


The officer evaluating your application will ask, “What did this person do with the time and resources at hand?” So lead when you have the chance, look for high-impact opportunities in the fields that you love, and in particular keep your eye out for the things that need doing which no one else seems interested in tackling.


Character and Personality. Thankfully, there is not one correct character to display on your application. Demonstrating initiative is key, and avoiding negative signaling is also crucial (no one wants to share their community with a jerk). Beyond that, being specific is more important than what you say. So do some soul searching and ask loved ones to figure out exactly who you are, then introduce that person to the selection committee in your unique way.


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?


How to Make Your Application Stand Out


A lot of the students who come to us dreaming of Harvard have a hard time believing that they, of all people, really will stand out to an admissions committee. In our experience, there is a lot you can do to persuade Harvard that you have the drive needed to thrive on campus.


Showcase your excellence. Address all of your greatest academic, extracurricular, and personal accomplishments in the most favorable light possible. This may sound like bragging, but in reality you simply are introducing the school to your professional self. If you can quantify your success (e.g. “raised $30,000 for UNICEF” instead of “hosted UNICEF fundraiser”), that’s ideal. If concrete numbers are not within reach, use your words to help admissions officers understand exactly how you have enriched your community (e.g. “created video series to foster global awareness at my school” instead of “took a cinematography class”).


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 2018-2019 for more advice.


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.


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.



What If You Get Rejected?


Don’t be too hard on yourself. 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. To see if a gap year is right for you, visit our posts, What Are the Pros of Taking a Gap Year? and What You Need To Know When Applying to Colleges After a Gap Year.


If Harvard closes its doors to you, we recommend moving on. Perhaps you want to find a similar school, and if so another Ivy League institution will likely provide very similar resources and opportunities.


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 help adjusting to a different dream, read our post, Envisioning a New Future: Preparing for Life at Your Second-Choice (or Third, or Fourth) School.


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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Veronica Wickline
Blogger at CollegeVine
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.