If you're a high school student looking to apply to an Ivy League school, then you're probably already very familiar with how competitive it is. Students who dream about going to a school like Harvard spend many years preparing. They'll take high-level courses in high school, join many different extracurricular activities, get involved in community organizations and study hard to do their very best on the SAT or ACT.

However, for Harvard applicants, this is only the tip of the iceberg. This is because you're competing against applicants who likely have a very similar application in terms of academics. Harvard admissions wants to see that you've worked hard to stand out among the other applicants. One way you can do this is by nailing your Harvard essay.

What Are the Admissions Requirements for Harvard?

Before you even think about what you're going to write for your Harvard essay, you'll want to make sure you've met the application requirements. Most students who want to go to college will need to work hard to maintain a good GPA, earn high scores on the ACT or SAT and show their commitment to their academics or a certain activity. However, those who want to apply to Ivy League schools, especially Harvard, will need to meet very specific admissions requirements that ultimately require you to be at the very top of your class:

  • A GPA requirement of 4.18

  • A transcript that shows you've taken the highest-level courses, like AP and IB classes and exams

  • An average SAT score of 1520

  • An average ACT score of 34

  • Two SAT subject tests (recommended but not required, especially for students with financial hardships) in the high 700s

How Competitive Is Harvard?

The admissions requirements for Harvard are, in general, what the school looks at when considering whether or not a student may be eligible before looking at the rest of the application. However, there is some wiggle room. For instance, if your GPA isn't quite a 4.18, then you can supplement that with a higher SAT or ACT score.

Harvard is an extremely competitive school, and it's been that way since its inception. If you're wondering just how competitive it is, the admission rate at Harvard is 5.2 percent. That means that only five students will get admitted out of every 100 who apply. Therefore, the decision to pursue an academic lifestyle in high school that would put your chances of getting into Harvard that much higher is not one to be taken lightly.

What to Include in Your Harvard Application

Once you're clear on the admissions requirements, you will have to submit your application. Like any college application, it can be a bit of a headache in making sure you've submitted all the materials by the deadline.

Even though you can use the Common App to apply to Harvard – as well as the Universal College Application and the Coalition Application – you'll want to double check that you have everything you need:

  • Your application itself along with the supplemental requirements

  • ACT or SAT scores (writing and essay sections are optional)

  • Two SAT subject tests (optional)

  • AP, IB or other exam results (optional)

  • Two teacher evaluations

  • A secondary school report (which is a counselor recommendation)

  • Mid-year reports

  • Final school report

  • Your supplemental Harvard essay (optional)

  • Your application fee of $75

What Is Harvard's Supplemental Essay?

Like many other colleges, Harvard gives students the option to write an essay. Within your application, you will be required to write two small essays to elaborate on your extracurricular activities as well as your additional intellectual experiences. You will also need to write a personal statement depending on which application platform you're utilizing. For example, the Common App requires users to write one personal essay that they can submit to all of their college choices.

These essays are mandatory and are included right on the actual application. However, it's important to keep in mind that Harvard has two essays – the short, mandatory essays/writing sections as well as a supplemental essay that is entirely optional.

Some people argue that the supplemental essay should definitely be submitted with your application, while others believe that if you have strong credentials and your mandatory essay is solid, then the supplemental essay is completely unnecessary. The general consensus is that the essay can only help your application, especially if your other credentials aren't quite where they could be.

Choosing Your Harvard Essay Topic

If you've decided to go ahead with it, the first step in writing your Harvard supplemental essay is to choose a topic about which to write. The application states that you can either write your own topic or choose from one of their suggested topics:

  •  Unusual circumstances in your life

  • Travel or living experiences in other countries

  • 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 12 months

  • The Harvard College Honor Code declares that they “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 for society. What would you do to contribute to the lives of your classmates in advancing this mission? 

Don't choose a topic about which you don't have much to say, even if you think it might make you stand out more than another topic. Choose something that really speaks to you and also shows "important information about yourself or your accomplishments that you feel your college application forms do not convey." This is how the Harvard website describes the essay topics.

How Do You Write a Harvard Essay?

Once you know the topic about which you want to write, it will be easier for you to decide what you want to specifically discuss and then create your outline. Though each topic is different, you can apply this writing technique and process to whichever topic you choose. Consider one of the prompts – travel or living experiences in other countries – to demonstrate how you can write your Harvard essay.

  • First, decide which travel or living abroad experience had a significant impact on you. Do not just choose any travel experience but one that perhaps changed you as a person or made you see things in a way you didn't see them before. This can help you think about your introduction and how it will lead into the rest of your essay and ultimately your conclusion.

  • Second, think about why this trip had a significant impact on you. What did you learn exactly, and how can you apply what you've learned or experienced to your college education and future? For example, if you spent time living in a developing country interacting with less-fortunate children, how has this changed what you'd like to do as an adult? Do this through use of a mind map or outline.

  • Third, start writing your rough draft. Be creative and show what you experienced through details and anecdotes instead of just a list.

  • Finally, make sure to proofread and edit your essay several times. Give it to someone else to read over so that you can incorporate any feedback. 

Tips on Writing a Harvard Essay

There's really no wrong or right way to write your supplemental essay, as there aren't really any guidelines. The important thing is to shed light on yourself and your experiences and why that makes you a good candidate. It's your chance to talk to admissions and highlight yourself as a student. There are some tips to help you have a little more direction:

  • Give yourself plenty of time to write the essay. The college application process takes a long time, and you don't want to be rushing to write your essay.

  • Be yourself. This essay can and should be written in the first person and should let the admissions counselor know who you really are.

  • Make sure it's interesting to read. To you, the story might not be that interesting because you've lived it and thought about it countless times. Is it interesting to others? Does it grab their attention from the beginning and make them want to continue reading?

  • The essay instructions do not stipulate word count, but you should aim to stay around 500 words, as that's typically the standard. 

Things to Avoid When Writing Your Harvard Essay

Though there's no wrong way to go about your essay – especially because this is a supplementary essay – there are still some things that you should try to avoid so that your essay doesn't end up doing the opposite of what you've intended:

  • Be careful with how you talk about yourself. Although this is about you, there's a fine line between sounding humbled and sounding arrogant.

  • Use politically correct terminology.

  • Don't use the names of people without their permission.

  • Avoid adding too much fluff. Stick to your story and the important details and points and leave out the rest. 

Other Tips for Getting Into Harvard

Although the supplemental essay can be an important part of your application, it's not the only thing at which admissions counselors are looking. Many times, especially in the case of Ivy League schools, your test scores and GPA matter a lot as well as the classes you've taken and your involvement in extracurriculars. Though the essay can certainly help you if your other credentials aren't as competitive, you'll still need to work hard to make sure the rest of your application is strong.

  •  Start early. By 10th and 11th grade, it may be too late to suddenly take AP classes. Though freshman year is a good time to start showing your academic strengths so that you can get placed in higher-level classes, sometimes this needs to start as early as middle school.

  • Though you should get involved in several different extracurricular activities, it's good to have one or two that you stick with throughout high school and in which you perhaps hold leadership positions. This shows colleges your level of commitment and dedication.

  • Volunteer and do community service consistently and not just to boost your college applications.

  • Consider getting a tutor or joining a prep course for the SAT or ACT to help you get the highest grade possible. Take the practice exams and give yourself a strict study schedule.

  • Consider scheduling an interview with a representative. This can give you another chance to share who you are with admissions counselors.

  • Don't put all your eggs in one basket. Even if it is your dream to go to Harvard, you should apply to other schools just in case. 

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About the Author

Hana LaRock is a freelance content writer from New York, currently living in Mexico. She has spent the last 5 years traveling the world and living abroad and has lived in South Korea and Israel. Before becoming a writer, Hana worked as a teacher for several years in the U.S. and around the world. She has her teaching certification in Elementary Education and Special Education, as well as a TESOL certification. Hana spent a semester studying abroad at Tel Aviv University during her undergraduate years at the University of Hartford. She hopes to use her experience to help inform others. Please visit her website, www.hanalarockwriting.com, to learn more.