written by
Jesper Ke

Harvard University Essay Guide 2020-2021

Essay Guides 13 min read
Image courtesy of Harvard University

In this Harvard University Essay Guide, Bullseye advisors Jesper (Harvard ‘19), Julia (Harvard ‘21), and Miranda (Harvard ‘19) cover how to approach the 2020-2021 Harvard supplementary essays. 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.


Founded in 1636, Harvard University is a private university located in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It is widely recognized as one of the world’s most prestigious institutions of higher learning. Placing at #2 in U.S. News and World Report’s 2020 Best Colleges Rankings, Harvard’s acceptance rate of 4.63% in 2019 ranks it among the most selective colleges in the United States. Harvard has an undergraduate enrollment of 6,788 students, with a 6:1 faculty to student ratio.

Outside of academics, Harvard is a member of the Ivy League, a group of 8 private universities on the East Coast. Harvard students participate in a variety of extracurricular activities, ranging from the Harvard Radcliffe Orchestra to the Phillips Brooks House Association, a volunteering group. The school’s alumni include 8 former U.S. Presidents, actresses like Natalie Portman and Rashida Jones, and company founders like Bill Gates of Microsoft and Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook.

Prompt 1:

Please briefly elaborate on one of your extracurricular activities or work experiences (150 word limit, Mandatory)

What can you showcase in this prompt?

Miranda: This is an opportunity to describe how you can contribute to the college community and add value outside of academics, either through the insights you’ve gleaned from an activity or that activity itself. In your response, show that you are passionate about something outside of your studies and have committed time and effort towards that passion.

Jesper: Think 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; many of my peers and I ended up not spending much time in college on the activities we wrote about. You can also talk about work experience here.

I chose to write about piano, which was something I had studied since I was young, and the enjoyment I took from playing piano.

Julia: In this essay, try to convey how this activity has helped you grow, how it has led you to impact your community, and why it is important to you.

If you need help choosing a topic, consider these questions — is there an activity that you’re particularly proud of, or one that you’ve spent a lot of time and energy on? Have you had any notable leadership positions? Is your activity unusual or unique? Have you had to overcome a great challenge within this field? Are you a minority amongst the people who usually participate in this activity? Have you worked with someone that has influenced you greatly or completed an interesting research project?

If you can, try to pick an activity that isn’t already featured elsewhere on your application, or that shows another side to you. For example, most of my application centered around my passion for the arts, so for this essay, I wrote about serving as captain for my high school’s tennis team.

How can you approach writing this essay?

Miranda: In your response, you only have 150 words, 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, explain what you personally took away from engaging in this activity or experience. If you’ve chosen an extracurricular activity, 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.

Jesper: If you’ve chosen a work experience, you can describe what you learned from that job and how it has shaped your perspective or your future career or studies. For example, working as a cashier at a fast food restaurant may have provided new insights into how you interact with other people, 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.

Julia: I recommend starting with one or two short sentences (or more!) setting the scene to catch your reader’s eye — paint them a picture, place them in the moment, and show them how hard you’ve worked! Descriptive words and adjectives will help your essay exude passion. Even though it’s a short response, you should still try to make it engaging.

Prompt 2 (150 word limit, Optional):

Your intellectual life may extend beyond the academic requirements of your particular school. Please use the space below to list additional intellectual activities that you have not mentioned or detailed elsewhere in your application. These could include, but are not limited to, supervised or self-directed projects not done as school work, training experiences, online courses not run by your school, or summer academic or research programs not described elsewhere.

What can you showcase in this prompt?

Jesper: If you have meaningful intellectual pursuits that are not already captured in the Common Application Activities Section, this is a great place to highlight them for the admissions committee. For example, did you work on an independent literature study with a teacher or a lab research project outside of your school? Did you start an informal film discussion club with your peers? Did you work on new computer programs or mobile applications as a hobby? Sharing these activities here can help paint a fuller picture of you as an applicant to the admissions committee.

Julia: Even though it’s listed as optional, I highly recommend filling it out. Don’t pass up this opportunity to showcase your intellectual pursuits — Harvard University is seeking curious, unique, active individuals. In this essay, you can reveal not only that you love to learn, but also that you are driven enough to pursue knowledge outside the classroom.

How can you approach writing this essay?

Jesper: This does not appear to be an essay prompt, so it makes most sense here to list additional activities of interest, along with brief explanations of those activities, if needed. If there is more space, you can also highlight what you learned from these activities or accomplishments from them.

If there is only one activity you wanted to highlight, you may be able to turn that into a short essay. However, don’t feel obligated to do so and remember the purpose of this section is more to describe other intellectual activities you want to share with the admissions committee than showcase your creative writing skills.

Julia: Exactly what Jesper said. Also, “intellectual activities” is also a pretty broad category, so don’t be afraid to include something that doesn’t fall into one of the categories that Harvard listed in the prompt.

Prompt 3 (No word limit, Optional):

You may wish to include an additional essay if you feel the college application forms do not provide sufficient opportunity to convey important information about yourself or your accomplishments. You may write on a topic of your choice, or you may choose from one of the following topics:
  • Unusual circumstances in your life
  • Travel, living, or working experiences in your own or other communities
  • What you would want your future college roommate to know about you
  • An intellectual experience (course, project, book, discussion, paper, poetry, or research topic in engineering, mathematics, science, or other modes of inquiry) that has meant the most to you
  • How you hope to use your college education
  • A list of books you have read during the past twelve months
  • The Harvard College Honor Code declares that we “hold honesty as the foundation of our community.” As you consider entering this community that is committed to honesty, please reflect on a time when you or someone you observed had to make a choice about whether to act with integrity and honesty.
  • The mission of Harvard College is to educate our students to be citizens and citizen-leaders for society. What would you do to contribute to the lives of your classmates in advancing this mission?
  • Each year a substantial number of students admitted to Harvard defer their admission for one year or take time off during college. If you decided in the future to choose either option, what would you like to do?
  • Harvard has long recognized the importance of student body diversity of all kinds. We welcome you to write about distinctive aspects of your background, personal development or the intellectual interests you might bring to your Harvard classmates.

What can you showcase in this prompt?

Jesper: Although this essay is optional, you should take advantage of the opportunity to highlight an aspect of yourself not captured in other parts of your application. If you have personal circumstances, hobbies, interests, or experiences that you feel can contribute to the diverse Harvard student body, this is your chance to highlight that. You can write on diverse topics ranging from hobbies like card magic and car repairs, to your plan for using your Harvard education in the future, to unusual circumstances or challenges that have shaped your path.

Julia: Again, although this prompt appears to be optional, it’s not really optional. You should spend time carefully brainstorming, coming up with a topic, and crafting this one. Take every opportunity you can get to show the Admissions Officers what makes YOU special!

Jesper: For example, writing about the prompt on a “list of books you have read over the past twelve months” and providing commentary on what you learned from these books and why you chose them can shed new light into your interests and way of thinking.

How can you approach writing this essay?

Jesper: Whatever you choose to write about should be 1.) Complementary to what already exists in your application and 2.) Authentic to your identity.

If you chose to write the extracurricular activities essay about tennis, don’t write about tennis again here, unless you can cover a significantly different aspect of it. Each of your essays should contribute a new aspect or reinforce an existing one to Harvard’s understanding of you as an applicant.

If you’re struggling to think of a topic, feel free to refer to essays you may have already written for other colleges. Or, you can spend time writing down key experiences, interests, and background points in order to map out what ideas you can turn into essays.

The topic you choose to write about should feel authentic to you and show what you can bring to Harvard’s community. For example, don’t feel pressured to write a “Why Harvard” essay or select any of the Harvard-related prompts if you don’t feel it will showcase new aspects of yourself.

And keep in mind the offered prompts are not exhaustive: you can write on any topic of choice.

Julia: There’s no limit to the number of directions that you can go with this essay. Some of the prompts are very open-ended, such as “Unusual circumstances in your life” or the “student body diversity” question. For these questions, you can talk about anything, from your family background and your relationship with your grandfather, to your passion for bird-watching.

And although some of the questions are more straightforward — such as the “book list” or “taking time off” question — you should still try to use these to stand out. Like the main common app essay, this supplementary essay provides you with another opportunity to showcase your personality, quirks, passions, talents, and/or unique experiences. Basically, think of it as a second primary essay - another chance to demonstrate what makes you special.

So, now you might be saying, “Ok, got it - I can talk about anything. But how do I actually choose a topic that’ll make me stand out?” Everyone knows that an important part of the application process is creating a unique candidate profile. But most students struggle with finding something unique about their interests or background. Keep in mind - your topic doesn’t necessarily have to be a unique hobby, experience, or project. It’s your personality that makes you unique - the way that you learn, engage, dream, and grow - and that’s what this essay should reveal.

How have others approached this essay?

Jesper: I chose to write about my experience working with fellow students and administrators to improve my high school’s experience, which included efforts to create a coding class and help transition new transfer students into my high school’s community. I wrote about this topic because improving my community was a key part of my identity, and I felt that narrating the efforts I made to improve my high school over several years would best showcase this.

Julia: Admitted Harvard students have taken this in numerous directions. Some write about their experience interning in a bioengineering research lab, or about their dream to become a governor. Others might talk about their experience as an immigrant, the feeling of flying, or their hope to empower the voices of others through school journalism. One friend of mine even wrote about his strange sleeping habits for his supplementary essay.

I ended up going with option number four: “Describe an intellectual experience that has meant the most to you.” For my essay, I wrote about a musical composition project that I was working on. I began the essay with a line of song lyrics before diving into a descriptive paragraph detailing my songwriting process. After that, I explained the project, my motivation for writing it, and what I hoped to achieve by writing the musical. Harvard University is looking for students that will make a positive impact on the college’s community. I chose this topic because I was particularly passionate about it, and because I was interested in participating in theater in college.

Jesper: Finally, although there is no word limit to this essay, I would advise keeping your essay under 500 words, which is similar to the limit you will see on open-ended essays for other colleges. Please note that 500 words is not a hard cutoff, but rather a recommendation. If the essay is too long, then the admissions reader will be more likely to stop reading after a certain point, meaning that you won’t get to convey everything you wanted to in your essay.

Prompt 4 (50 word limit, Optional, For International Students Only): What specific plan do you have, if any, for using the education you hope to receive?

What can you showcase in this prompt?

Miranda: 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, it’s useful to demonstrate why you’ve chosen Harvard and why you’ve chosen to move to another country for your undergraduate degree. In your response, 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.

Jesper: Furthermore, the question is asking what plan you have for using your education. It’s fine if you’re not sure what you want to do after you graduate — many of my peers at Harvard were in that position even during college. However, if you do have some idea of what you want to do after graduation, then you should share a sentence or two about how a Harvard education will help you achieve those goals.

How can you approach writing this essay?

Jesper: With only 50 words, you should focus on the key details that respond to the points raised above. You likely won’t have space for verbal flourishes or lengthy anecdotes here.

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This Harvard University essay guide was written by Jesper Ke (Harvard ‘19), Julia Riew (Harvard ‘21), and Miranda Sadler (Harvard ‘19), both Harvard Class of 2019. If you want to get help writing your Harvard application essays from Jesper, Julia, Miranda or other Bullseye Admissions advisors, click here to schedule a free call.

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