What Should I Write About For The Optional Harvard supplement?

Harvard is fancy. If you didn’t know that already...well, that’s mildly (read deeply) concerning. Their admissions rate is one of the lowest in the world at just above 5% and they are notoriously finicky. If you want to get into Harvard, you have to be at the very very top in everything you do. You should have top grades, top scores, be a leader in your school and in your broader community, and (and this is where most people trip up) you need to have something interesting to say about all of that. You can’t be a damp rag when it comes to talking about yourself and sharing your work because the admissions officials are looking for just about any reason to toss an application.

Part of the Harvard application is what they call the ‘Optional Supplement’. When you see the word optional, you may think to yourself “Oh! Optional! That means I have a choice!” FALSE. You have no choice. There are no such things as optional supplements. We go deeper into why you have no choice in another post, but the TL;DR version is - nope, no choice, sorry.

Supplements are another opportunity for you to show who you are, and you should be taking every opportunity to show who you are - even if you’re a strong candidate for admission and especially if you’re in the 25-50th percentile aka the ‘maybe, but probably no’ range.

So, what is the ‘Optional’ Supplement and how should you tackle it? First, let’s take a look at the prompt:

Harvard’s ‘Optional’ Supplement 2017-2018

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:

  • 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 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?
  • You may write on a topic of your choice.

The first thing you probably noticed is that this prompt is annoyingly open-ended. The second thing you probably noticed, or that you are still scanning the prompt on the hunt for, is that there is no word count. Both of these things are very frustrating. Focused prompts help guide students at least 50% of the way to a good answer. Instead, Harvard has decided to not only not guide you anywhere, but to confuse you even more by giving you nine pseudo-topics that aren’t limiting and that cover everything from foreign adventures to what you read on rainy days when the cable isn’t working.

Before you get overwhelmed, though, there are some things that you can do to make this ridiculous situation more manageable.

First, throw out any idea of riffing on any aspect of your Common App essay. This supplement needs to be completely different from your Common App essay in both style and content. If your essay is about your obsession with alpacas, your supplement shouldn’t even mention farms, let alone those adorable creatures. If your essay is about the three weeks you spent studying the Palace of Boukoleon (look it up, it’s cool), your supplement should have nothing to do with being a history nerd.

As far as form, you know that we like to break with what’s expected and to play with form. You’re taught that every essay, paper, and story needs to have a beginning, middle, and an end. While we absolutely demand narrative from our students, we prefer to discard the notion that every story requires a perfect narrative arc - and our favorite (and most successful) essays of all time eschew the traditional arc altogether. BUT if you wrote your college essay in rhyming verse, don’t do that again in your supplement. You need to do something different, even if that means ending up somewhere more traditional than your Common App essay.

So what should you write about?

The first place to find inspiration is in the prompt itself. It’s a long list, so start by x-ing out at least half of the options. Then, go back to your early Common App essay drafts and brainstorms (further evidence for why you should keep your messy early drafts) and see if there is an idea that you didn’t use, but that you’re still passionate about. Maybe it seemed too quirky or weird? Perfect. We like quirky and weird. If you don’t have anything in the archives, check out some of our pieces about how to write your supplements for inspiration. Also, take a look at what we say you should absolutely not write about, and maybe even consider breaking one of our rules. Sometimes the best ideas come from pushing back against guidelines or expectations.

Finally, back to word count. The prompt doesn’t give a word limit, but consider giving yourself one. If you find that you have trouble building details into your pieces and spend too much time telling rather than showing, try to write your idea in 300 words and then add in details to get it to 600 words. If you struggle with being concise, cap yourself at 800 and then challenge yourself to tighten it up to 550. The application readers don’t have time to read your experimental novel about moonwalking bunnies, so please don’t send it. You could, however, write about your writing of a novel about moonwalking bunnies because that sounds fascinating.

More than anything else, remember that this is about you. You need to take advantage of every opportunity that you have present yourself, so don’t make it about someone else. Be yourself, have some fun, show a piece of yourself that isn’t highlighted elsewhere in your application, and you’ll end up with a stellar ‘Optional’ Harvard Supplement.

If you’re still struggling, or you just need some support, we’d love to help you out. We’re really good at getting great kids into their perfect fit.