written by
Zoë Edington

Harvard University Essay Guide 2019-2020

Essay Guides 5 min read
The Harry Elkins Widener Memorial Library, Harvard's showcase library.

The oldest university in the United States and one of the most renowned higher education institutions in the world, Harvard is a private research university in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a few miles west of Boston. Harvard College is the university’s undergraduate school with a student body of approximately 6,700 students. The College’s acceptance rate for the Class of 2023 was 4.5% of applicants. Throughout this essay guide, we will give tips for applicants to best express themselves in their personal statements as prospective Harvard students. For more guidance on personal essays and the college application process in general, sign up for a monthly plan to work with an admissions coach 1-on-1.

*For the 2020-2021 Harvard University Essay Guide, click here.

Life as a Harvard Undergrad

At Harvard College, students are offered a liberal arts and sciences education. The liberal arts program is flexible and allows students to shape their own academic experience. All students complete the interdisciplinary General Education curriculum and choose their own concentration to explore in more depth from 50 undergraduate fields of study. Harvard College students may also cross-register for courses offered by any of the Harvard University graduate schools including Harvard Law School and Harvard Business School. Students have complete access to the Harvard Library which boasts the largest private and academic library system in the world, as well as its own edition of the Gutenberg Bible!

Harvard’s tight-knit undergraduate community follows in the gilded footsteps of many notable alumni by partaking in centuries-old student traditions like the annual Harvard-Yale football game in the fall and Housing Day in the spring. Freshmen live in Harvard Yard, the heart of this historic campus. From their sophomore year onwards, students move into one of twelve residential houses nestled alongside the Charles River or in Radcliffe Quadrangle.

In summary, Harvard College offers successful applicants an enriching and prestigious academic experience and membership of a vibrant undergraduate community, alongside access to a multitude of life-changing opportunities and networks. The Harvard College Admissions Office is highly selective and the first step towards getting an offer is making your application stand out. The Admissions Office looks for candidates who are open-minded and intellectually curious with interesting stories to share about themselves. The supplementary essays provide the opportunity to demonstrate that you possess all of these qualities.

Prompt 1: Please briefly elaborate on one of your extracurricular activities or work experiences (150 words and mandatory)

The Admissions Office asks this question because they want to know that you will contribute to the college community and add value outside of academics. In your response, they mostly want to see that you are passionate about something outside of your studies and have committed time and effort towards that passion.

It is worth thinking carefully about which activity or experience you choose to talk about. If you are involved in multiple extracurricular activities, consider writing about the activity that is most significant to you or the activity you are most likely to continue pursuing in college. Of course, if you are admitted there is no expectation that you will continue that activity at Harvard; the admissions office understands that students may change their minds after they arrive. Alternatively, talking about work experience is a good idea if you can explain how that work experience has inspired you to pursue a certain career path or has made you interested in exploring a specific academic field.

In your response, you only have 150 words to play with so be sure to write with focus and concision. When describing your chosen experience or extracurricular, be sure to explain exactly what it is and how you participated. In addition, you might want to explain what you personally took away from engaging in this activity or experience. If you’ve chosen an extracurricular activity, you can describe why you love doing it and what it has taught you. Perhaps you love being a member of a sports team because you’ve developed self-discipline and you enjoy working towards a goal with your friends. If you’ve chosen a work experience, you can describe what you learned from that job and how it has shaped your perspective of your future career or studies. For example, an internship with your local government might have stimulated your interest in politics, or working as a camp counselor might have made you passionate about teaching and education. Let your personality and interests shine through in your response to this prompt!

Prompt for International Students only: What specific plan do you have, if any, for using the education you hope to receive?

Harvard has a large and flourishing international student body. Therefore, in response to this question you’re not trying to convince the Admissions Office that you are more deserving of a place than a domestic student. Rather, they want to know a bit more about why you’ve chosen Harvard and why you’ve chosen to move to another country for your undergraduate degree. In your response, you want to convey that you’ve seriously thought about how an undergraduate experience at Harvard, rather than at the equivalent top institution in your own country, fits more broadly into your plans.

It’s fine if you’re not sure exactly what you want to do after you graduate. You can say this while indicating that studying at an internationally renowned university will not limit your aspirations or options; on the contrary, it will open more doors for you. If you do have some idea of what you want to do after graduation, then awesome! Make sure you add a sentence or two that explains how you think a Harvard education will help you achieve these specific goals.

It is important to remember that this isn't a trick question and it’s okay to be honest if you’re not certain of your career aspirations, or even if you don’t know which country you want to be in after college. In fact, you could indicate that Harvard is where you hope to figure out a lot of this stuff!

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This essay guide was written by Miranda Sadler, Harvard Class of 2019. If you want to get help writing your Harvard application essays from Miranda or other Bullseye Admissions advisors, click here to schedule a free call.

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