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How To Write The Harvard University Supplemental Essays (2019-2020)

***Interested in reading our Harvard supplemental essay guide for the 2020-2021 application cycle? Click here!***

Welcome to the Harvard supplementals for the 2019-2020 application cycle. Buckle up—there are a ton of questions. The good news is you don’t have to write about them all: question three gives you a zillion prompts to choose from. Question three is also optional. In fact, Harvard only has one obligatory prompt, which is very straightforward. But before you breathe a sigh of relief, you should know that when Harvard calls their prompts “optional,” this is a trap. Think about it: why are they asking these questions if they don’t really care whether or not you respond? Harvard is one of those schools where no one is a shoe-in (unless you’re Malia Obama or something). Take every opportunity you can to make an impression. In other words, you’re going to want to take Harvard up on the chance to write “optional” essays.

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

Get straight to the point with this one, since you need to be brief. Pick your most meaningful activity—the one you’ve dedicated serious time and energy to, and the one that’s allowed you to demonstrate significant leadership. Go beyond the simple facts of your accomplishments. (The basics are already there on your activities list). Tell us why this endeavor was important to you, why it was personal. Remember that the idea here isn’t to exaggerate or brag. Also avoid false modesty (“I have helped dozens of people, but in the end, they did more for me than I did for them”). Be straightforward and matter-of-fact.

As a side note, the fact that Harvard (and other incredibly selective schools like Stanford and Princeton) include this obligatory question gives you a hint as to what they’re looking for in applicants. They’re looking for kids who have done one really notable thing. They want pointy students.

Additional Intellectual Experiences: 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. (Optional. 150 words)

Unlike the extracurricular question, this one is optional, probably since not everyone is able to answer it. Again, this gives you a big hint as to what Harvard is looking for in a successful applicant: they want to see a true love for learning—one that extends beyond the classroom.

If you haven’t undertaken intellectual projects outside the classroom which aren’t already listed on your application, there isn’t much you can do to answer this question. Better to leave this one blank than to repeat yourself, or to list one or two books you read for fun.

Hopefully, though, you will have something to say here. Be specific about what you did. It needs to be a truly independent project that you decided to undertake. It can’t already be listed somewhere. There needs to be some kind of quantifiable outcome you can point to. A great response would be about how you wrote a novel, got it published, and have sold a meaningful number of copies, or how you developed an app that is now available in the Apple App Store and has a substantial number of downloads and reviews (good ones, hopefully). If achievements like these sound intimidating, just remember: this is Harvard. This is what they’re looking for.

Additional essay. You may wish to include an additional essay if you feel 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. (Optional)

Before I go through all the topics that Harvard proposes, I’ll tell you what I tell all my students when it comes to choosing a topic for the Common Application essay. The last choice on the Common App is always “any topic of your choice.” Harvard is doing the same thing here: “You may write on a topic of your choice.” Choosing to write about anything you want is just fine—this isn’t a trick option they’re giving you. Think of the choices here as a number of possible topics among infinite others. You should not let yourself feel constrained by these questions. You can write about anything you like. In fact, in most cases this is what I recommend. Think of it as a second Common App essay. (And, as with the Common App, I would recommend aiming for no more than 650 words.) Tell a compelling story with a beginning, middle, and end. Tell us something about you we don’t already know.

  • Unusual circumstances in your life

The most obvious candidates to choose this response are students who have lived in six different cities in the past six years, students who worked every day after school and during the weekends on the family farm, students who had enormous family responsibilities, such as taking care of a sibling or parent, and so on. Not only do stories like these show something unique about who you are, they also provide perspective on your activities list, which, if you’re one of these students, may not be that long. As always, the idea is not to come across as a victim of your circumstances. Tell a story, rather than “explaining” your unusual circumstances: if, for example, you struggled with a serious illness during your sophomore year, tell a specific story about a moment during that time. Show us (rather than tell us) what that was like through an anecdote.

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

First off, be careful when talking about travel. While you may have extraordinary stories from the month you spent with your family in Monaco last summer, these kinds of tales will simply make you look like a rich kid—someone admissions officers have a hard time relating to. Similarly, best to avoid stories from expensive summer study abroad programs.

You probably also want to avoid talking about service trips. Admissions officers read too many of these, and everyone does community service in high school. Many students are in fact required to. On a similar note, please don’t write about how twice a week you leave your private school in Manhattan to go and help “the poor and underserved students” at a public high school in the Bronx. Once again, these stories highlight your own privilege, and very few high school students who grew up comfortably have the perspective and maturity to talk about the experiences of others with any real perspective or self-awareness, especially across social class gaps. No offense meant—there are, of course, exceptions to this rule.

On the other hand, if you and your family recently moved from, say, Montana to Chicago, or from Paris to Cleveland, that could be an interesting story.

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

I’m a big fan of prompts like these, since they allow students to show lots of creativity and personality. A serious warning, however: topics like this one are very difficult to pull off. You need exceptional self-awareness and writing abilities to execute this one. Do not use this as a chance to brag, e.g. “I would want my future roommate to know that I logged over 400 community service hours last year.” Harvard will be as put off as your future roommate. Beyond this, you can talk about any of your quirks and eccentricities, provided that you do so in a truly brilliant way. No pressure.

  • 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

You might consider tackling this one if you left the question about “Additional Intellectual Experiences” blank. Maybe you did something really impressive and meaningful that didn’t exactly qualify as an independent project, or that is listed on your transcript. At some high schools, for instance, seniors are required to undertake a senior project. These may be “done as school work,” and so don’t qualify for the “Additional Intellectual Experiences” prompt. But if you’ve done a project like this, and went way beyond the minimum requirements, it might be worth discussing here. Go ahead and nerd out.

  • How you hope to use your college education

I don’t have much to say about this prompt, except that if you choose to answer it:

  1. You risk sounding a bit pompous (“With my Harvard Diploma in hand, I will set out to change the world”);

  2. You will be talking about things you haven’t actually done, and anyone can make him- or herself sound great when describing an imaginary future that includes a Harvard degree. It’s always better to discuss what you have done than what you hope to do.

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

I’m convinced this question is a trap. They tell you they want an additional essay, and then one of the prompts asks you for a list?

If you’re reading this 12 minutes before your Harvard application is due, and this is the only prompt you have time to respond to, you better hope you have a very long list of very unusual books, some of which you read in the original Sanskrit. Don’t bother listing any required reading.

  • 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.

Well, for starters, you probably don’t want to write about someone else’s ethical dilemma, especially if you were the one who came to the rescue and provided guidance, setting your poor, confused friend back on the righteous path. You’ll just look sanctimonious. And if you think this goes without saying, you’d be surprised.

If you choose to write about your own experience, you run into a similar problem: do you discuss a time when you made the hard choice to do what was right and risk looking holier-than-thou? Or do you write about a time when you failed to do what was right and look like a jerk? The second option is probably preferable, frankly, but even talking about a failure usually leads folks to conclude on some predictable moral platitude about what they learned.

I wouldn’t recommend this prompt to most students, but there are always exceptions to the rule.

  • 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?

See my comments on “How do you hope to use your college education.” It’s very difficult to talk about what you hope to do in the future in a convincing way. Most people would promise to do just about anything in exchange for an acceptance letter from Harvard. Better to focus on what you have done.

  • Each year a substantial number of students admitted to Harvard defer their admission for one year or take time off during college. If you decide in the future to choose either option, what would you like to do?

Don’t choose this one unless you’ve already thought about it. If this is something you have given serious thought to, as always, you want to focus on what you have done, not what you hope one day to do. I know I’m repeating myself, but anyone can write something like, “After my sophomore year at Harvard, I plan to take a year off and selflessly serve in the Peace Corps.”

Your response to this prompt will be most effective if you’ve already got something lined up for a gap year after high school. Maybe you’ve already been offered a job by a shipbuilder in Maine, and you plan to take it and work for a year before you start college. Very cool.

Whether or not you have something concrete in place, you’ll want to talk about your past experiences and how they inform your decision to take time off. Maybe you’re applying to work as a stage manager at a couple local theaters so you can continue to pursue a passion you’ve been developing since you were ten. Great—that’s compelling.

You may be wondering if taking a gap year is a bad thing to do in Harvard’s opinion. It definitely isn’t, unless you’re taking time off simply because you’re burned out, and are looking forward to another year living at home with someone cooking for you and doing your laundry. A gap year during which you plan to buy an RV with your friends and drive to Argentina also may not impress Harvard. (For the record, I would definitely endorse this plan, but don’t mention it on your application.)

  • 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.

As always, the point of these essays is to stand out and differentiate yourself. So think about how your background differs from most students’ at Harvard, and how that background will contribute to Harvard’s community.

There’s an elephant in the room here that should be addressed. Since 2014, Harvard has been embroiled in an affirmative action lawsuit, which has revealed biases against Asian American applicants on the part of Harvard University in the admissions process. (At the end of the linked article, the question of writing about being of East Asian descent on college applications is addressed explicitly.) This year, Harvard accepted a record number of Asian American students, and is clearly doing its best to show that it is not judging any group unfairly in the admissions process. Nevertheless, if you are Asian American and planning on applying to Harvard, this question may not be the best for you. Even if Harvard has changed its ways, and has made the admissions process fairer for Asian Americans, over a quarter of the accepted class last year was made up of Asian Americans. All other ethnic groups (except caucasians), and also first-generation college students, are far less represented. You can find statistics on the Harvard Admissions website.

In any event, remember that for your “optional” essay for Harvard, you can always choose to write about whatever you like. In most cases, this is the best approach.

If you’re unsure of what to write about or simply want to be sure your essays are the best they can be, our Ivy League consultants are here to help.

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