Harvard needs no introduction. It is a private university in Cambridge, Massachusetts with an undergraduate student body of approximately 6,700 students. The acceptance rate for the class of 2022 was just 4.59%, the lowest of any Ivy League school.
Harvard is that school you learned about when you were a kid before you even knew what college was. They say their writing supplement is optional, but if you've been reading our blog for a minute, you know that’s simply not the case. There were almost 43,000 applicants last year (under 2,000 got in) so if you’re serious about applying, you need to take advantage of every single opportunity you have to differentiate yourself from the ever-increasing pool of applicants.
We’ve written about what the insanely low acceptance rate means for aspiring Harvard undergrads, but trust that if you’ve made it this far you still want to give it a shot. We’ll start by looking at the prompt.
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, living, or working experiences in your own or other communities
- 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?
- 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?
- 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.
You’ve essentially been given an extremely confusing and very long list of ideas that probably makes you sigh audibly and wonder if it’s even worth applying. We get it. Before you throw your computer out of the window, look at the list again and cross off all of the ideas that absolutely won’t work. It’ll be easier to consider the options Harvard provides if you aren’t looking ten line items that stress you out. You might end up with a few viable options, or you might end with nothing.
You might be looking at the prompt that asks for a list of books you’ve read during the past twelve months. “A list? No problem.” Or the prompt that asks how you plan to use your college education. “Maybe I can piece something together from other applications…” STOP RIGHT THERE. You would be cheating yourself of the opportunity to show something unique, and it’s safe to say that someone out there is tapping away on their keyboard writing the exact same thing. We aren’t necessarily trying to dissuade you from writing about one the given prompts if one of them really calls to you, but it’s important to note that someone else might be writing a very similar essay. And that’s not good. Remember the outrageous number of applicants we mentioned before? Don’t risk it. You want an admissions officer to finish reading your essay and think they’ve never read anything like that before.
So, we suggest you do what we do with our students: start from 0. The best way to write something brand new is to write on a topic of your choosing. Don’t be intimidated because it’s Harvard; you need to stand out in order to get in. So yes, we suggest that you write a second common app essay. It's what we do, and it works.
Start by looking at your application and figure out what’s missing. If you could only use five words to describe yourself to a stranger (in this case, a stranger of your dreams because it’s Harvard), you would never use the same word twice. So don’t double down on the fact that you love English or want to be a civil engineer. What characteristic have you not been able to show yet? It’s a good starting point because you need to keep that trait in mind as you decide on a topic/story.
For this essay, don’t be afraid to write something quirky or weird. In fact, if what you write is not quirky or weird you should probably start over. You’re on the hunt for something small. You’re not writing about the fact that you’re funny/adventurous/empathetic, you’re writing a story that shows it. If for some reason you’ve decided to write a list of books you’ve read in the last twelve months (you know how we feel about that...), the list of books should say something about the characteristic you’re trying to highlight.
Regarding length, you’re aiming for 650 words but don’t add in fluff to hit that number exactly. Write your first draft, identify what’s missing, then revise. Quality > Quantity.
- Avoid cliches (at all costs)
- Play with form
- Brainstorm with friends (sometimes we call it crowdsourcing)
- Write, rewrite, edit, rewrite, revise
- Showcase extraordinary moments in everyday life
- Write about anything you’ve written about before
- Consult college confidential for topics (or really anything)
- Write about family members (your essay is about YOU)
We know how overwhelming this process can be, but we’re happy to help.