How to Get Into Harvard: Strategies and Essays That Worked

How hard is it to get into Harvard? Learn Harvard’s admissions requirements and study successful Harvard essays to improve your odds of getting in

Getting into Harvard is possible by taking a strategic approach to grades, test scores, extracurricular activities, and college essays

Getting into Harvard is possible by taking a strategic approach to grades, test scores, extracurricular activities, and college essays

Introduction

If your child is a competitive applicant for Ivy League and Ivy Plus schools (e.g., Stanford, Duke), you’re probably encouraging them to consider applying to perhaps the most famous, prestigious, historical, and globally admired of the Ivies: Harvard. There’s nothing quite like the Harvard name, and it’s difficult to overstate how life-altering the chance to attend this renowned university in Cambridge can be. 

From years of advising students, we’ve assembled some crucial information for you and your child about how to get into Harvard.

At Harvard, your child can research in the lab of a cutting-edge cancer scientist, study literature or history with a New Yorker writer, collaborate with musicians through the New England Conservatory or Berklee College of Music, or immerse in the complexities of international trade under the guidance of a legendary economist.

They can spend their summers taking advantage of the enormous network and funding opportunities available. Perhaps they’ll head to France to pursue an independent study on culinary history, or to Chile to write for an English-language newspaper. They might grab an internship in the White House, on Wall Street, or at a major tech company—at such positions, they’ll be actively courted and recruited. 

And after Harvard? Graduates teach, travel, earn Rhodes Scholarships, start companies, write books, make films, set up art installations—more than you can possibly imagine, all with the help of enormous financial support, drawing on the wide and prestigious network that includes Nobel and Fields and Pulitzer winners. 

Harvard University ranking

Harvard is routinely at or near the top of Ivy League rankings:

  • Forbes: 1

  • Niche: 4

  • US News & World Report: 2

  • Wall Street Journal: 1

Where is Harvard?

Harvard is located in Cambridge, MA—a few public transit stops away from Boston proper. Population: ~100,000—a small city that can often feel like its own bubble apart from Boston (population of Greater Boston is over 4 million).

Setting

Semi-urban. Cambridge has its own life, with cafés, shops, bookstores, hotels, theaters, and more.

Undergrad population

6,699

Grad and professional school population

13,120

Harvard acceptance rate

4.50% overall (Early action: 13.44% | Regular decision: 2.79%)

(Suggested reading: Ivy League Acceptance Rates)

Cost of attendance per year (i.e., tuition, room, board, and fees)

$68,000

Average financial aid award

Over $53,000

Who gets into Harvard? 

  • Harvard students tend to rank among the top 10-15% of their graduating classes, and the vast majority self-report ranking in the top 2% of their graduating class.

  • Average GPA: Harvard doesn’t publish its average admitted student GPA, but its student newspaper conducts a useful class profile survey. The average unweighted GPA for the class of 2022 was 3.90/4.0.

  • Test scores: Harvard publishes its average ACT and SAT scores

    • Havard average ACT score: 34

      • 25th percentile: 33

      • 75th percentile: 35

    • Harvard average SAT score: 1520

      • 25th percentile: 1470

      • 75th percentile: 1570

  • International students: 12%

  • Asian Americans make up the largest percentage of Harvard’s population—about a quarter. 

  • About a quarter of Harvard students plan to major in the social sciences (economics is the largest concentration). Over half plan to major in a STEM field.

Harvard admission requirements

Like most of its counterparts in the Ivy League and Ivy Plus cohort, Harvard is seeking excellence and passion from its students. 

Excellence can show up in grades and test scores, but that isn’t enough. Extracurricular activities, and, perhaps most importantly, commitment and enthusiasm for a small number of clubs, teams, or other organizations, also demonstrates excellence. 

Admissions officers will tell you they expect your child to have made the most of the opportunities that were given to them. That means if your daughter’s school offers three APs, Harvard will be happy to see your daughter took advantage of all three courses, and perhaps enrolled in community college classes and tried a summer program at Stanford, too.

Here’s the nitty gritty.

Harvard accepts the Common Application, which means your child will need the following to apply:

  • Common App Essay

  • ACT or SAT test scores, with or without writing. Harvard does not superscore but will review your highest test scores in each SAT section and your best ACT score.

  • Recommended: two SAT subject test scores

  • Optional: A-level, IB or AP test results

  • 2-3 teacher evaluations

  • 1 counselor letter of recommendation (from the school college or guidance counselor)

  • Coursework: Harvard doesn’t have a specific set of expectations for what you’ve studied in secondary school, but the Harvard admissions website recommends the following course load: “four years of English, with extensive practice in writing; four years of math; four years of science: biology, chemistry, physics, and an advanced course in one of these subjects; three years of history, including American and European history; and four years of one foreign language.”

Harvard also accepts the Coalition Application and the Universal College Application.

Applying to Harvard early action vs. regular decision

Your child can apply early to Harvard by November 1 and receive a decision of either accepted, deferred, or denied, by December 15th. 

Harvard follows the restrictive early action (as opposed to early decision) model, which means your child need not commit to attending Harvard if accepted; they can still apply to other universities and make their choice in April. Defer means your child will be re-entered into the pool and will hear back by the end of March, and may be accepted, wait-listed, or rejected then. 

Your child can also apply regular decision, by December 31.

How do you know if your child should apply to Harvard early? 

Early action might be the right choice for your child:

Harvard, like many schools, lets in a significant portion of its class early—as much as half—but it’s important to remember that this discrepancy is likely due in large part to the fact that many highly prepared students choose early action. These are top candidates who make a great case for themselves to attend Harvard, whose grades and scores are ready, and who know what they want. 

Most importantly: Harvard doesn’t offer preference to those who apply early.

2019-2020 Harvard supplemental essays (examples included)

(Note: The following students and their essays are composites of students we've worked with over 15+ years of advising college applicants.)

Acing the supplemental essays is a crucial part of your child’s strategy to get into Harvard. In addition to the Common App Personal Statement, Harvard’s essays, like other Ivy League essays, help admissions officers get a fuller qualitative sense of your child’s personality, goals, passions, analytical capacity, and creative expression. 

Harvard Supplemental Essay #1

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. (150 words — optional)

This essay prompt is an invitation to show off a few qualities:

  • Intellectual—including artistic or scientific—curiosity

  • Personal passion projects

  • Self-direction

Your child should always ask themselves this: What does the university want to know about me? Why are they asking this question? 

Most strong applicants can find a way to address this question, because most strong applicants are always learning something. Here are a few examples of how some students chose to address this prompt.

  • Maneesha has been teaching herself to code since she was in middle school. At first she never thought of it as computer science—only fiddling with HTML on personal websites. But after a summer course at Georgia Tech, she got inspired to build an environmental awareness app for fun. 

  • Dave got into photography as a kid simply by taking pictures on his parents’ iPhones. When he went to visit his grandparents in Nigeria the summer after his sophomore year, he bought an old school camera, took many rolls of film, and shot everything he could. Back in the U.S., he learned how to develop the film. This is nowhere on his resumé, but he’s interested in minoring in art, despite the fact that he has no other “proof,” academically or extracurricularly, of this interest. 

  • Phoebe is a star debater, but in private, she writes screenplays. Like Omar, she doesn’t have anything to “show” for this interest—no accolades or awards or even coursework. But she once spent her summer job money on a master class in screenwriting and wrote a 30-minute short film script about a lonely librarian who starts to see literary characters coming to life. 

  • Daniel’s uncle is a physician who helped him get set up to spend a summer volunteering and studying in a hospital. Daniel spent four weeks the summer after junior year volunteering with a “food as medicine” program meant to help patients contain diabetes, hypertension, and other heart-related diseases.

Here’s how Maneesha answered this prompt:

How much water have you used today? I used to see this sign in my summer camp bathroom. Our counselors wanted us to save water by taking quick showers. But water was hard to “count!” How could I know how much I’d used, or wasted? 

After pursuing computer programming through a program at Georgia Tech, I decided to build an app to help people figure out how much water they’d used each day. The app asks what vegetables, dairy, or meats you’ve eaten, how long of a shower you took, and other relevant details. It isn’t meant to shame people, only to give them the information they need to inspire them to use less. I’ve had a chance to dream up this small way to address the climate crisis. We’ll have to be creative to undo all the damage we’ve done in years to come.

Here’s what Maneesha does well in tackling this Harvard supplemental essay:

  • She tells a story, with a hook, a sense of growth and change, and a forward-looking conclusion.

    Even in 150 words, Maneesha grabbed us with an interesting question calling back to her summer camp bathroom, then showed us how she began to answer that question in an unconventional sense. 

  • She shows off her independent thinking.

    The mere jump from summer camp to her own app speaks to the spirit of Harvard’s essay prompt: they’re asking how you learn on your own, on your own terms. By charting her own thought process—rather than one mandated by her teacher—Maneesha shows Harvard that she can think for herself. She has an inner life full of urgent questions, and she was driven to answer one of them on her own.

  • She doesn’t summarize her resumé. 

Maneesha doesn’t simply say: “I took a computer programming class at Georgia Tech, which gave me a chance to learn a skill I couldn’t study in school.” That explains that she did something extracurricular, but it doesn’t demonstrate that she got anything out of the activity, or that she’s much of an independent thinker. 

Again, by telling a story, she’s addressing not just the substance of the question but also its spirit.

Harvard Supplemental Essay #2

Please briefly elaborate on one of your extracurricular activities or work experiences. (150 words — required)

Daniel wants a chance to discuss his hospital experience here.

Whenever someone entered the Pantry, you could see their eyes light up, and even imagine their mouths starting to water. But the Pantry wasn’t stocked with candy or cookies or cakes, despite its name. The Pantry had everything I never wanted to eat when I was a kid: lettuce, carrots, whole wheat bread, cans of lentils, and tons of fruit. 

The summer I volunteered with the Pantry’s food-as-medicine program, I worked alongside doctors who help patients manage diabetes, hypertension, and chronic heart disease. I’d always been interested in becoming a doctor, but I’d never understood before how much medicine contains. Every day I handed a patient a fresh sandwich or a bag of produce, I felt like a pharmacist. And every night when I went home, I sat down in front of the hot, healthy meal my parents had made, and I felt grateful.

Here’s what Daniel does well in tackling this supplemental essay:

  • He sets a scene.

    While Daniel doesn’t tell a story the way Maneesha does in <150 words, he does give us images of the food, and connects us to the physical reality of the room where he worked. 

  • He demonstrates an internal change.

Just like Maneesha, Daniel points to a small personal change—a tiny epiphany —which is authentic because it’s so personal. He doesn’t end the short answer by swearing he’s going to become a doctor, though he really wants to be one. Instead, he brings it home, noticing instead that he’s likelier to eat his mother’s spinach now that he’s relating to food differently.

  • He goes beyond the basics.

Perhaps most importantly, Daniel takes seriously the word “elaborate” in the prompt. He tells Harvard something they could not already know based on his resumé. He demonstrates the space the activity occupies for him personally, rather than just on paper.

Harvard Supplemental Essay #3

You may wish to include an additional essay if you feel that 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:

(1) Unusual circumstances in your life

(2) Travel, living, or working experiences in your own or other communities

(3) What you would want your future college roommate to know about you

(4) 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

(5) How you hope to use your college education

(6) A list of books you have read during the past twelve months

(7) 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.

(8) 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?

(9) 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?

(10) 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.

If none of these options appeal to you, you have to option to write on a topic of your choice.

(no word limit, but about 400-550 is ideal. Optional, but highly recommended that you write this essay)

These prompts are almost as broad and wide ranging as the Common App prompts. Some of them overlap with other top schools’ questions. You might, for instance, reuse a version of your Stanford roommate essay to tackle prompt #3. You might also draw on any number of schools’ “diversity” prompts to answer #10. (One of our favorite essays involved a student identifying as a Hufflepuff as a way to demonstrate the importance of diversity in a school—she wasn’t a flashy, brave Gryffindor, or an ambitious Slytherin, but a loyal, heads-down badger.)

Here’s how Phoebe answered #6, a tricky question because it’s deceptively simple.

My bookcase is a mess. Every year, I try to organize it alphabetically by author’s last name, or by genre. But it takes me just weeks to tangle it up again. I can’t separate my favorite young adult novels—The Fault in Our Stars, The Hate U Give—from my favorite so-called “grown up” novels—Giovanni’s Room, The Moviegoer. Reading Wendell Berry’s essays and poems, recommended to me by my English teacher, made me reach for Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction. Mixed up on the shelf (next to one of my childhood favorites, From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler) are the many books I have to use for my research in policy debate—the topic this year was criminal justice reform: Giorgio Agamben’s State of Exception; Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow.

What have I read in the past twelve months? I’ll give you a list as sprawling as my bookshelf.

  1. Tender is the Night, F. Scott Fitzgerald

  2. Norwegian Wood, Haruki Murakami

  3. Just Mercy, Bryan Stevenson

  4. What Happened, Hillary Clinton

  5. Sabbath Poems, Wendell Berry

  6. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard

  7. The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula Le Guin

  8. There, There, Tommy Orange

  9. Americanah, Chimamanda Adichie

  10. Originals, Adam Grant

Phoebe used the prompt as a chance to show off her personality—she’s messy, she’s passionate, and she loves to draw connections between unlikely texts. The most obvious thing she did, of course, is treat the “list” prompt loosely, instead telling a story of herself, and treating the numbered list as secondary. She also doesn’t use up too much space, because she manages to convey her message in just 200 words.

Dave chose prompt #7:

I was elected to my school’s Honor Council when I was a sophomore. It’s a student organization that hands off much of the disciplinary action surrounding wrongdoing to our peers, rather than authority figures. I’d joined because I generally believed in the mission: it was important for students to trust one another, work hard in class, and avoid lying, cheating, and stealing. It seemed simple enough. 

But a few months into my time on the Council, I was at lunch when I heard a good friend discussing a list the high school varsity soccer team kept. The list tracked freshmen girls, and noted who wore particularly short skirts on what day, who went out to what parties, and more. 

Normally, the Honor Council only takes on cases that come up through a standard reporting structure. Another student, or, more often, a teacher, must register a complaint or file a charge against another member of the community. The Council then meets to discuss it. No one had complained about the soccer team’s list. I didn’t have to do anything about it. 

And, to be honest, I didn’t want to, at first. About half of my best friends were on the team; I’d been on JV soccer as a freshman and sophomore and only quit because of scheduling reasons as a junior. Those guys were my community. They’d seen me through my parents’ divorce, and been the crowd I chilled with for years. We’d had serious talks and casual talks alike. 

It would be heroic to say that I immediately reported the list to the Council. I actually took about three weeks to report it—weeks during which the team might have been adding even more female students to the list. But the whole thing gnawed at me. I kept thinking about what I would say if I were in the room when the list was being made. I would have tried to shut it down, wouldn’t I? 

I went back to the friend who’d mentioned the list casually, and told him I thought he needed to end it. When he pushed back, I asked him to sleep on it and get back to me the next day. He started to avoid me in the hallways. I tried his approach with a few of my other friends, most of whom told me to relax, insisting it was no big deal. In the end, I decided to report it. 

“Honor” and “integrity” had always seemed like qualities I wore easily. They were part of how I saw myself. But facing the soccer team—and losing several friends from my actions—showed me how much work these qualities require, and reminded me that honor is a practice, not a blind habit.

Dave tackled an essay rife with possibilities for cliché but nonetheless made the topic his own. He told a story and made himself a character—that is, he didn’t paint himself as a total hero—which allowed him to demonstrate growth and change. 

He also did something quite difficult: he wrote about a prestigious activity at his school that might have otherwise looked just like any old National Merit Finalist or AP Scholar distinction. By elaborating on something that might have only seemed like a fancy title, he lent new angles to his application. 

Conclusion

You already know that getting into Harvard is no easy task. It’s a reach school for everyone, no matter how talented. With its matriculating class demonstrating such high test scores and grades, Harvard is clearly looking for something more than excellence. By cultivating intellectual and extracurricular passions, your child can become as strong a candidate as possible.