What Does It Take to Get Into Harvard?
Harvard University holds a special place in the academic and popular culture of the United States. The university’s instant name recognition and venerable reputation give it a unique cachet even among other elite colleges, and its prestige is reflected in its incredibly competitive undergraduate application process.
Getting into Harvard may seem like a near-impossible dream, and truthfully, it is very difficult. There are quite a few applicants competing for a limited number of spots, and the applicant pool is remarkably strong. However, it can be done: every year, over 2,000 students receive that coveted acceptance letter.
How do they do it — and how can you improve your own chances of being accepted to Harvard? Read on for some expert advice from CollegeVine. (Learn more on how to get an edge on your Ivy League applications.)
Applying to Harvard: A Quick Review
Unsurprisingly, Harvard’s admissions process has made appearances on the CollegeVine blog in the past. We’ve previously described the Harvard application in detail in our Ultimate Guide to Applying to Harvard. Here, to give context to our discussion of what it takes to get into Harvard, we’ll provide a refresher course on Harvard’s basic procedures and requirements.
As we cover in our Ultimate Guide, Harvard accepts applications through your choice of three application systems: the Common Application, the Coalition Application, or the Universal Application. The school has no preference among these options, so you can choose whichever one works best for you.
You also have a choice of when to apply. Along with its Regular Decision application timeline, which has a January 1st deadline, Harvard has a Restrictive Early Action program with a November 1st deadline. For more information on applying early and what Restrictive Early Action means for you, take a look at our blog post on Early Decision versus Early Action versus Restrictive Early Action.
Whichever options you choose, you’ll need to fill out all the standard application questions that colleges ask — check out our User’s Guide to the Common Application for details. You’ll also answer Harvard’s own supplemental questions, including an additional essay question. (This essay is technically optional, but as we cover in our post Should You Send the Harvard Optional Supplement Essay?, it’s generally in your best interest to complete it.)
Along with your application, you’ll submit your transcript and school report, two teacher recommendations, and an application fee of $75 (or a fee waiver). In terms of standardized tests, Harvard requires the ACT or SAT with writing, as well as two SAT II subject tests. An interview, generally with a local Harvard alumnus, is also typically part of the application process.
You might notice that Harvard’s application is not as lengthy or complex as applications to some other colleges, which might have many additional questions and essay requirements. This doesn’t mean that applying to Harvard is easy. As we’ll explain below, regardless of how straightforward the application seems, there’s a lot that you need to know about how your application will be evaluated.
How difficult is it to get into Harvard?
It’s well known that Harvard’s admissions process is very competitive. Currently, Harvard is the second most selective college in the United States — only Stanford University has a lower acceptance rate. This is, of course, part of why a Harvard acceptance is such a coveted and celebrated accomplishment; the vast majority of people who want to attend Harvard aren’t able to do so.
According to its official Admission Statistics page, Harvard received 39,041 applications for the class entering in the fall of 2016, members of which will generally graduate in the spring of 2020. Of these applicants, a total of 2,106 were accepted, making Harvard’s overall acceptance rate for that year approximately 5.4%.
1,667 accepted applicants chose to attend Harvard in 2016, giving Harvard a yield of about 79.2%. This indicates that a solid majority of people who are accepted to Harvard will end up attending Harvard. Harvard, of course, knows this fact, and that’s part of why its acceptance rates are so low — the school can be sure that most accepted applicants will attend.
If Harvard’s overall acceptance rate is 5.4%, what are your personal chances of getting admitted to Harvard? It’s hard to say, and only Harvard’s admissions committee can make the final decision. As with all highly competitive colleges, there’s always some element of chance at play in who is accepted and who is not.
There are certainly things you can do to strengthen your applicant profile and put your best foot forward for Harvard, and we’ll go into that below. If you have the qualities that Harvard values most, you’re more likely to get accepted than some other applicants. Given the sheer pressure of numbers, however, there are no guarantees.
The bottom line is that getting into Harvard is very difficult, even for top students. With such a large and impressive applicant pool, it’s simply impossible for Harvard to accept all qualified applicants. Inevitably, some applicants who put a great deal of work and effort into their applications are going to end up disappointed.
How does one get into Harvard, then?
Reading these facts and figures, it may seem like getting into Harvard is well-nigh impossible. Clearly, though, some applicants do get accepted. So how do they do it? What’s so special about successful Harvard applicants? The key to answering this question lies in understanding what Harvard is looking for.
Harvard isn’t shy about telling its applicants what sort of students they’re seeking. For instance, you can find a detailed list of the questions that the Harvard admissions committee will ask about your application on their What We Look For page. Here, we’ll go over the highlights of Harvard’s stated criteria for admission.
First of all, in reviewing your application, Harvard considers the obvious markers of high school performance, such as grades, test scores, and awards that you’ve received. Doing well by these measures is necessary in order to be a competitive applicant to Harvard, but this type of success alone is not sufficient.
Beyond these scores and awards, there are a number of particular characteristics that Harvard is seeking in its future students. You won’t necessarily find questions on the application that directly ask about these factors. Rather, Harvard’s admissions office gleans their understanding of your personal qualities from application components like your essays, your extracurricular commitments, and your recommendations.
One very important factor is that successful Harvard applicants stand out. Showing off something special and interesting about yourself will pique and hold the interest of the admissions committee. You don’t have to be an Olympic athlete or a national debate champion, but you do have to be memorable in a way that sets you apart from the thousands of other qualified applicants.
The ideal Harvard applicant, in the eyes of the admissions office, is someone who has not only succeeded in high school, but has taken on challenges and risen to the occasion. That applicant is someone who has potential for further growth as well as a strong history of achievement, intellectual curiosity, and dedication to their interests and goals.
Harvard’s admissions office wants to know that you’ll be a positive addition to the campus community. They’re interested not only in what you’ll get out of attending Harvard, but how your presence will enrich Harvard, which can manifest itself in a variety of different ways.
The opportunities that Harvard offers are best suited to those who actively seek out new challenges, work well with others, and can manage the pressures and freedoms of college life successfully. In the end, Harvard wants to admit students who will actively continue the process of strengthening and building this venerable institution.
Getting accepted to Harvard isn’t just about how many achievements you can list on your resume; more often, it comes down to what the admissions committee thinks of you as a student, a person, and a member of your communities. You have to convince them that you’ll use your time at Harvard well, take advantage of the opportunities Harvard offers, and make the campus better and more interesting in your own particular way.
A final note on this topic concerns a concept you’ve probably heard a lot about when learning about college applications: fit. Finding a college that’s a great fit for you is not synonymous with attending the most prestigious college possible, and there are plenty of things about Harvard that might make it a less-than-great choice for a particular student, no matter how smart or successful they are.
If the admissions committee discerns that Harvard is not a good fit for you in whichever way — practical, academic, social, and so on — they’ll likely decide not to accept you. Remember, Harvard’s admissions committee isn’t assessing your worth as a student or a person — they’re trying to determine whether you are well suited for this specific community.
Taking Your Best Shot at the Harvard Application
As we’ve covered, getting accepted to Harvard is difficult, but it’s definitely not impossible. If you’ve decided that you’re willing to accept these odds and compete for one of those much-desired spots at Harvard, your next step will be to compose an application that allows you to put your best foot forward.
CollegeVine is no stranger to the demands of elite college applications, and much of our general guidance for your applications applies to Harvard as well as other competitive schools. You can find our advice in the CollegeVine blog’s College Admissions category. Additional tips from members of the Harvard admissions committee are available on the Harvard admissions office’s Application Tips page.
Below, we go over a few tips that are particularly important to consider when applying to an intensely competitive school like Harvard:
- Start early and budget enough time. Being able to reread and edit your responses can lead to a much stronger application. Harvard’s application isn’t terribly long, but that’s no reason to be hasty in filling it out.
- Don’t be afraid to show off all your best features. This is not the time to downplay your accomplishments. Self-promotion can be hard, but it’s necessary. Remember, you’re competing against applicants who feel no need to be modest.
- Make clear what you’ve learned from your experiences. A long list of your accomplishments may look impressive on paper, but by itself, it doesn’t provide depth. Harvard will be better able to assess your personal qualities if they know why you took certain actions and how your experiences have changed you.
- Get another set of eyes on your application. Being immersed in the application process can make it difficult for you to envision how an admissions officer will view your application. An outsider’s perspective is invaluable for spotting omissions, correcting errors, and assessing your tone, especially within your essay responses.
- Consider applying through Harvard’s Restrictive Early Action program. REA has some risks, but it’s an important part of many students’ application strategies. If Harvard is your first choice, applying early may be to your benefit. You can learn more on Harvard’s Early Action page.
- Remember to be genuinely yourself. Harvard is looking for interesting, motivated individuals, not just textbook examples of good students. Don’t be afraid to let your personality shine in your application — it will make you more memorable.
What if I get rejected from Harvard?
Part of applying to Harvard — or to any other highly competitive college — is facing the reality of extremely low acceptance rates. As we describe in our post Why Are Acceptance Rates So Low?, given the large number of well-prepared students applying to long lists of top colleges, there simply isn’t enough room for these colleges to accept all qualified applicants.
If you’re one of the many students who doesn’t receive that coveted Harvard acceptance letter, the disappointment can be hard to bear. However, getting rejected by Harvard shouldn’t be taken as a statement of your worth or potential. It’s a matter of numbers, and with an elite school, there’s always an element of chance.
One thing that you definitely shouldn’t do is to try to challenge your rejection. Harvard, like the other schools of the Ivy League, doesn’t accept appeals. Even at schools that do accept appeals, they’re very rarely successful, as we describe in our post How Do I Appeal My Admission Decision?
It’s possible that you could take a gap year and reapply to Harvard in the next application cycle, but this path can be risky. Taking a gap year means a major change in your plans, and having something interesting and enriching to do during that year “off” is a necessity, as colleges will expect that you used that time wisely.
It’s also possible that you could attend another college and reapply to Harvard as a transfer applicant. If you’re considering this option, you should know that Harvard’s transfer acceptance rate is very low — in recent years, only around twelve transfer applicants have been accepted, representing less than 1% of transfer applicants.
Your other option, of course, is to put Harvard behind you, enroll at another college, and make the best of the opportunities you’ve been offered somewhere else. This is what most rejected applicants do, and most of them go on to have perfectly enjoyable careers at colleges that are often a better fit for their personalities, interests, and skills.
For our advice on adjusting to life at a college that wasn’t your first choice, read our post Envisioning a New Future: Preparing for Life at Your Second-Choice (or Third, or Fourth) School. This experience can certainly be very disappointing and discouraging, but there are still many great options and opportunities out there for you.
While Harvard is certainly a great college in many ways, it’s not the only great college out there, and its particular culture isn’t for everyone. You want to find a place where you personally will flourish best, and each school has its own unique environment that may or may not suit you. Even if Harvard was your dream school, it’s fully possible that another school will end up being an even better fit for you.
Check out the CollegeVine Elite Universities Application Assistance page for information on our targeted services for applicants to top colleges.
For more information, check out these CollegeVine blogs:
- Colleges That Are Great Beyond the Famous Eight: How Success and Achievement Exist Outside the Ivy League, Too
Looking for assistance in crafting a great college application for Harvard or other top-tier schools? CollegeVine’s experienced admissions advisors are here to help you manage the application process. We also offer SAT and ACT tutoring, essay editing, and mentorship services that can help with deciding which academic path is best for you.
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