Have you ever heard the phrase “just because you can doesn’t mean you should?” Your preschool teacher probably said it to you after you coated your hair in fingerpaint, or after you decided it was easier to pee in the playground than to waste precious time going inside. If neither of those things happened, you probably heard it from a parent or grandmother, or concerned aunt. It’s a classic, and it’s a classic for a reason.
We’ll get back to that in a second. For now, let’s talk Harvard. Harvard received 42,749 applications for the class of 2022. Of those, just 1,962 were accepted. That is a jaw-dropping 4.59% acceptance rate. Since the rate of admission for Early Action was significantly higher, a still astonishing but relatively reasonable 14.5%, the actual rate of acceptance for Regular Decision barely was over half the average rate. Only 2.43% of Regular Decision applicants, including those deferred from Early Action, were accepted.
This was the lowest acceptance rate in the history of the college, and it is not an anomaly. It’s been dropping like this for four years straight. And Harvard isn’t alone in this—it’s a trend across the Ivy League and other top colleges. Applicant numbers are spiking, and admissions rates are plummeting.
Why is this happening and what does it mean for aspiring Harvard students?
Fact #1: More people are applying to US colleges, both domestically and internationally.
Fact #2: The ‘cachet’ of the Ivy League, and especially Harvard, is holding strong. Despite the cultural pushback against traditional norms and expectations, an Ivy League degree is still a coveted card in any young person’s hand.
Fact #3: Harvard is using Fact #2 to boost Fact #1 by making it easier to apply. An easier application process means more people think “hey, why not?” They throw their hat into the ring, further engorging their applicant pool.
The result is that it is easier than ever to apply to Harvard, but it’s harder than ever to get in. While the simplicity of the application makes it look accessible, the stats scream otherwise.
Now back to the “just because you can doesn’t mean you should,” line.
Our biggest tip for those considering applying to Harvard is to mull over that line for a while. Just because you can fill out the application doesn’t mean you necessarily should.
If you really want to go to Harvard, you better be able to smoothly articulate why without mentioning Cambridge, Boston, the social life, the status, or that Natalie Portman went there. Applying because you can or because “it’s fancy” are not good enough reasons to waste your time (yes, it’s wasting it) on an application that is going to be discarded in a matter of minutes. You need the grades, you need the scores, and you need to have a reason.
Get specific — what exactly draws you to Harvard? Why do you need to be there to follow your dream? If you can’t say a specific program, then it makes no sense to apply. They want specialists with clear direction, not generalists who are going to figure it out as they go along. What you do once you get into Harvard is all up to you, but, at least in your application, there needs to be specificity, precision, and, again, direction.
In the end, the strongest argument for seriously considering whether you should apply to Harvard is simple—it’s time. Applying to college takes money, and it takes time. Both of these things are in limited supply. For many people, the number of colleges they apply to is limited by the cost of doing so. Applying to a school “just because” isn’t an option when you’re working with a short list. But while money isn’t a constraining factor for every student, time is. You only have so much of it and every minute you spend on an application for a school that you have a less than 5% chance of getting into is time you could have been spending on an application for a school with an academic program that is just as good for what you want to study.
You came here looking for tips on how to apply to Harvard and were probably expecting an encouraging checklist that featured things like “stand out!” and “sound smart!” We could have done that. Writing those lists is easy and generic, but they don’t tell you the truth of college admissions. We don’t believe in being anything but straightforward and the biggest tip we can give for applying to Harvard is to rethink it. Ask yourself why you want to and consider whether that holds up. Remember that sending an application in on a whim has a downside; it steals time from your other applications and feeds a system that rewards exclusivity over actual value.
If you still want to apply and you can give a thoughtful reason for why you need to be at Harvard, take a stab at it.
And if you want an expert in your corner, we’re here to help. We offer caution, but our track record for helping kids getting into top schools shows what can be done when there’s a guiding hand.