How to Write the Harvard Transfer Application

So you want to transfer to Harvard. Welcome to a very large number group, with a very low success rate. By very low, we mean minuscule. Harvard accepts less than 1% of transfer applicants on average, and some years they don’t accept anyone. Seriously. That’s a 0-1% acceptance rate. Does that mean you shouldn’t try? Not at all. We’re all about beating slim odds, but first, you have to accept that no matter how hard you work, or how great your grades are, or how many times you’ve walked on the moon, or how many Disney shows you starred in, you’re not getting in. Accept it, embrace it, and then try anyways.

The most frustrating part of the Harvard transfer process isn’t even the tiny number of acceptances—it’s the ridiculously long supplement. There are five essays; each capped at 500 words. Do you have to write 500? Not necessarily, but it’s like those “optional” supplements that we’ve told you a billion times aren’t really optional. 500 may be the max, but you should see 450 as your minimum. So that’s five essays, 450-500 words each, that have to be stunningly perfect.

Before we crack open each of the essays, a few overarching pointers:

  1. Start early. If you haven’t started already, start now.
  2. Be strategic. Map each answer out before drafting anything.
  3. Understand that while the essays need to be perfect, you shouldn’t try to be. Perfect is boring. Perfect makes admissions officers yawn. Do you need perfect grades? Yes. Do you need perfect recommendations? Yes. Do you need to be a perfect pretty princess without an ounce of nuance? Please no.

But now to the essays:

Briefly, please indicate the most influential factors in your original decision to attend your present college, such as location, cost, size of student body, only option, special program offered, Early Decision plan, etc. (500 words)

This question is full of traps. Trap 1: Thinking that you’ve already said everything in your Common App essay, so regurgitating it here. Trap 2: Not being honest. Trap 3: Stating facts without any structure, storytelling, or artistry.

You can bypass those traps by refusing to fall into them. Build on what you presented in your Common App essay, do so in a way that is full of story and scene, and be brutally honest. If you needed to get your grades up, you probably aren’t a good candidate for Harvard, but you need to admit that. They will be receiving your high school transcript, so better to address it than to try to hide something they’ll have on their desk alongside this supplement.

Don’t spend the whole time (or any time) bad-mouthing your school. Be specific, be precise, and don’t get defensive. More than anything, don’t be embarrassed. If you’re at your current school because you needed to save up money, say that. It makes you human.

What alternatives to transferring to Harvard are you considering? (500 words)

Harvard, if you’re listening, please consider removing this one. It just isn’t nice. In our opinion, this question is manipulative and mean. Any kid who sees it is going to:

  1. Not want to admit that they are applying to other places,
  2. But also not want to be melodramatic, because it’s not really life or death.

So you need to frame your answer completely in terms of Harvard. Harvard is where you want to be. It has the program you want, but if you absolutely had to, you try to go to a school that offers a similar, although incomparable, program. Name 1-2 other programs you are applying to, note their similarities and differences from Harvard’s offerings, and don’t say it’s this or nothing.

Please indicate your field of specialization and briefly outline your academic plans at Harvard College. (500 words)

If you are transferring, you’ve had enough time at college that you should be able to do this. You should also be applying to Harvard with the intention of pursuing a specific program, so this should be easy. We say ‘should’ because many people just apply for the name and, surprise, they don’t get it.

Harvard wants students that they are certain will graduate on time, so this is your place to map out your next X years. What will you major in, what courses are you going to take, and what professors are you going to work with? If you’ve followed our advice, this is the easiest question of the lot.

What are your current postgraduate/career plans? (500 words)

You may think you want to be a professor, a scientist, or a historian, but you’re still trying to figure out your long-term life, that’s why you’re applying to transfer! This one can feel uncomfortable, but it’s not another trap. Rather, it’s a place to have some fun.

Choose something that is a logical offshoot of what you are intending to study (so, no, don’t write historian if you’re planning on majoring in biology) and really sell it. Write a story that drops the reader into a moment at work ten years down the road, include scene setting, dialogue, and language that conveys an expertise in the subject matter.

Briefly discuss one book that has strongly influenced you. (500 words)

This one isn’t the easiest question, but it is our favorite. While the rest of the questions are pragmatic, this is where you get to have some fun. It’s also where they actually get to know YOU—not the student you, not buttoned-up you, not ‘present myself perfectly’ (which you shouldn’t have been doing anyway) you, but you.

That said, unless you are applying for English or Creative Writing-centric programs DO NOT discuss a ‘classic.’ That means no Beat poets, no Catcher in the Rye, no Jane Austen, and no Dickens. If it’s available in the “classic” section of a bookstore, it’s a no. There shall also be no Ayn Rand (no, you’re not unique for having strong opinions on her work), nothing you were assigned in school, and absolutely no Harry Potter.

What should you choose and how should you choose it? Before picking a book, think about the ‘why’ and ‘how.’ This question is much less about impressing Harvard with a sophisticated book choice than it is about understanding you in a deeper way.

Once you know what you want to say, create a short list of books that you can build off of. YES, we know this is a sort of backward method of answering the question, but it results in much better stories. After all, this is an essay, not a book report.

If you’re totally stumped because you read so much, or because you don’t read (In which case, what are you doing applying to Harvard), go to a bookstore, pick out a book that was released at least two years ago and got great reviews, and read it.

Feeling a little overwhelmed? We’d love to help you out.