How to Write the Harvard Supplement 2019-2020

Harvard is a small, relatively unknown, liberal arts school “just outside of Boston.”

Harvard is regularly listed as one of the best universities not just in the United States, but in the world. They excel in every single field, offer superior financial support for their students, and a Harvard degree is seen as a stamp of excellence, as anyone who has attended Harvard will quickly tell you. Harvard receives over 40,000 applications each year for only 1,650 spots in the freshman class. The acceptance rate is a measly 4.5%, and nearly everyone who gets in chooses to go. BEST OF LUCK TO YOU. 

The supplement for Harvard can be a bit intimidating. It isn’t particularly long or complicated, but it is for Harvard, which itself is a bit nerve-wracking. As you work on it, try to remember that it is just like any other supplement.

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)

This question is tucked into the academic’s section of Harvard’s general questions, not in the designated supplement area. It may sound harsh, but if you do not have anything to put here, you shouldn’t be applying to Harvard. Harvard expects students to be pursuing intellectual endeavors inside and outside of the classroom.

The activities you choose to write about should be ongoing or previously long-term, involve independence or a leadership role, and result in an outcome. By outcome, we mean that there should be something that you accomplished that you can point to and say, “I did that.” It may only be a small piece of a bigger project, but it’s critical that you highlight your contributions. For each activity, you must include your position, your role, the time you committed or are currently committing to it, and why you chose to pursue it.  

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

This supplement is hidden in the activities section of the general questions. It should be obvious that you cannot write about anything here that you also wrote about in the previous supplement. You only have a limited amount of space, so redundancy is your enemy.

For this supplement, we like to focus on a job, a quirky passion, or a long-term commitment to a local organization — in that order. One-third of the applicants Harvard accepted last year expressed a desire to take part in community service, so we know that Harvard prioritizes care for our community. However, writing about community service is not a good idea unless you have exhibited the same or greater commitment (time, energy, etc.) to the service you take part in as you do for your other activities, like sports or clubs. One-off experiences or short-term placements do not work. Voluntourism is an absolute 100% no-go. If you aren’t sure why, Harvard publications have recently published multiple stories against voluntourism.

For an example of good volunteering to write about, one of our writers coached Special Olympics ski racing while in high school, staying late after her own ski team practice to work with developmentally different athletes. This is an ok type of thing to write about, but we would still prefer that you write working as a waitress or your love of making Claymation movies than volunteering for this supplement.

Official Question – essay upload, keep under 650

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: 

This question is not optional. You do, in fact, wish you include an additional essay. There is no getting out of or around it. In addition, it must be under 650 words. That means that you max out at 649 — no exceptions. Finally, it needs to be in a simple font and a readable size. We like Times New Roman or Cambria in size 12.  

Now that the quantitative aspects are out of the way, onto the essay!

You can write anything you want here, and we always encourage our students to go off-book. Full disclosure: we don’t use these prompts with our clients. However, if you are going on the college application journey solo, we recommend using one of the prompts below to guide you as you start. As you go, remember that inspiration can take you in a different direction from the one they propose. Once you have your path, commit, and see it through.

Unusual circumstances in your life

If you have responsibilities that go beyond the typical teenager and that have limited your involvement in extracurriculars, this can be a good place to tell that story. Some students have to care for a younger sibling or a grandparent, for example, which means that they can’t stay late after school for club meetings. If you fall into this category, it is critical that you don’t write an essay that looks for pity. Be proud of where you are from and of the responsibilities you hold. Consider focusing on a particular afternoon or moment in a day that can serve as an encapsulation of your normal routine.

Travel, living, or working experiences in your own or other communities

We feel you itching toward it, but do not write about volunteering here. Please. We don’t like writing about vacations either. Your application readers will likely be reading this while you are on vacation — Thanksgiving or Christmas — and they wish they were on vacation too. So writing about a vacation is a little cruel and says very little about you unless you paid for it.

What we do like about this prompt is that it offers the opportunity to talk about living in other communities, which does not necessarily mean other countries. If you lived in another country for a significant period of time and it shaped your worldview or academic interests, that’s a great place to start. Same goes for if you lived in a different community within your home nation that has a culture that is drastically different from your native culture.  

This can also be a good question if you have moved frequently, and so have had an education punctuated by interruptions. If so, we suggest trying to focus on three or four places with a short anecdote for each, woven together with a common thread.  

What you would want your future college roommate to know about you?

This can be a very fun question, but it’s only a good option if you plan on going into the humanities and are a stellar writer. By “stellar writer,” we mean by real-world standards. This is very similar to Stanford’s question. This prompt demands a story and doesn’t give much room for sharing accomplishments, so the piece itself needs to be an accomplishment. If you pick this prompt, you are basically saying that you are a strong enough writer that how you write this is proof of your qualifications for Harvard. If you feel you fit this bill, you should still be careful with humor. Humor is hard to land right, while earnestness is much easier to sell. But if you’re a great writer, please be funny. Humor seems to work best in this process.

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

This question is best if you have done work outside of school on the subject or piece you would be zooming in on. If nothing instantly pops into your head when you read this question, it isn’t right for you. If something does, let yourself obsess. Go for it, dive in completely, and don’t apologize for your passion. Harvard wants students who strive towards great things, and this is a good place to show that you are already doing that.  

How you hope to use your college education

We don’t love this prompt. Because we don’t love it, we advise avoiding eschewing it for the one above if you want to explore how you already have pursued an area of interest and how you intend to continue to pursue it outside of college.  

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

Skip, please! If you want to write about books, take on the “intellectual experience” prompt.  

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. 

This question can be tough because it’s very easy to come off as self-important or as if you think you are a savior. We prefer to avoid.

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? 

This is another question with savior-language potential. We recommend skipping this question unless it strikes a spark.  

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? 

We love gap years. We wish more of our students would take gap years. If you are planning to take a gap year, this could be a great prompt for you to take on. Remember, though, that you aren’t limited to talking about the future. Set the scene by describing a passion you have now that is driving you towards a gap year before you begin exploring what you intend to do. However, if you intend to go backpacking in Europe, please don’t say that here. This prompt lends itself best to people who plan on pursuing research, an internship, or a job in a field they are passionate about.

For example, one of our writers spent her gap year as a full-time Fellow for the Jane Goodall Institute. She traveled internationally speaking on behalf of the organization, trained teachers, and appeared alongside Dr. Jane at events. It was not a normal gap year, but kids who get into Harvard are, by definition, abnormal. She didn’t apply to Harvard, but it would have been a great experience to write about here. 

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. 

This is an interesting question because it requires an examination of what kind of diversity is worth highlighting for Harvard. For example, one of the first things people think of when they hear “diversity” is race. Over 25% of admitted students last year were Asian. So, while Asians are a minority group in the US, being Asian isn’t exactly unique at Harvard. By comparison, only 1.8% of admitted students were Native American. An essay about Native American identity, culture, and heritage are much more likely to stand out — but only if this actually applies to you. Being 1% Lakota and growing up on the Upper East Side of NYC isn’t exactly impactful. Similarly, only 2% of accepted applicants were from the Central US. If you live on a ranch in Wyoming, that is interesting because it is an outlier for Harvard.

Before committing to this question, though, remember the second half. They want to know how you would bring this piece of yourself to Harvard. If you are writing about your life at home, be sure not to constrict it to home. What you explore should be a piece of you that you carry always, and that would be with you throughout your time at Harvard.

A note on this blog post: you’ll notice we said to skip a number of prompts. This isn’t because we’re lazy and didn’t want to write our opinions, it’s because we spend all of our time talking to teenagers. We know how they think and we know how they write. And those prompts are traps for most teenagers. We believe that the people who came up with these prompts (and many of the other supplement prompts) don’t understand their audience. We’ve come up with a number of excellent questions we would like to give away to schools like Harvard. We think these questions would get at the crux of what the colleges are looking for AND be easy for teenagers to answer. So, admissions professionals: hit us up if you want to improve your questions.

And kids applying to Harvard: good luck. 

If you are aiming high with your college list, you may want to enlist some help. Contact us for expert guidance and superior coaching from a team that has excelled in the Ivy League.