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MAR 14, 2020 • 11 min read
Harvard Essay Prompts
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 words)
Please briefly elaborate on one of your extracurricular activities or work experiences. (150 words)
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: (no word limit)
[same] Unusual circumstances in your life
[updated] Travel, living, or working experiences in your own or other communities
[same] What you would want your future college roommate to know about you
[same] 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
[same] How you hope to use your college education
[same] A list of the books you have read during the past twelve months
[same] 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.
[same] 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?
[new] 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?
[new] 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.
The primary purpose of supplemental essays in your application to Harvard is to expand on personal, sometimes intangible aspects of your qualifications and education that you may not have had a chance to demonstrate in other, less direct areas of the application. While your Common App essay is undoubtedly a central piece of your application (and should be prepared for thoroughly!), these additional pieces of writing can allow you to demonstrate many facets of your experience that may not have been relevant to the topic for your main essay. Expressing these insights will enable your evaluators both to understand how your interests could be enriched and furthered by four years at Harvard, and also to come to a more complete understanding of your potential contributions to the Harvard community.
In these essays, Harvard evaluators are looking for applicants to demonstrate exceptional intellectual curiosity in multiple, non-scholastic avenues. These can be as formal as extracurricular pursuits that have led to CV-worthy accomplishments or awards, or as informal as particularly well-expressed pieces of emotional growth or maturation as a result of circumstance. Regardless of topic, however, many successful applications use these supplemental essays as a way to display a higher degree of personal depth. To this end, you should absolutely prepare an essay in response to the optional prompt as a component of a successful application. The more information you can provide to make you sound like a well-rounded, complete applicant, the better.
In the sections below, you will find a rough guide for several of the Harvard supplemental questions, including some of the optional prompts. The information will range from ideas to guide topic generation, to essential pillars of writing it may be crucial to keep in mind for specific prompts.
This prompt, in its own gesture towards topic generation, is a clear indicator that a variety of experiences could be considered as helpful or enriching background information for an application. If you've taken extensive outside classes in a subject that interests you, that could be a viable topic--so could a less formal experience with an intellectual mentor. In any case (and especially in the case of the former), your essay should stem from a genuine intellectual curiosity that exceeded the limitations of your educational environment. If you can't think of a reason for extra classes that you take other than your parents' desire for you to excel or a long-proven aptitude in the subject, you don't need to write about it. Successful essays will show the moment an area of intellectual curiosity was realized, and how an applicant strove actively to create a framework through which to deepen their knowledge in that area.
Talk about the genesis of your interest or experience in robust and vivid detail. Then, consider the ways that your experience deepened your knowledge, acknowledging both your enterprising desire to do so as well as the support you received. How did this knowledge change how you thought about your work in school, or about the world? Finally, spare a thought as to how this experience would make you a better member of the Harvard community--would Harvard allow for this area of intellectual interest to grow? Would its pursuit at Harvard help enrich the experience of other community members?
Finally, concision, as always, is crucial. The word limit for the essay is very short, so make sure at every stage to carefully control your writing. Pare down anecdotal writing to its strongest fragments for the introduction. Later in the essay, focus on active, descriptive verbs and concisely phrased analytical insights.
This essay should form a strong synthesis with the most critical extracurricular information you have provided on your application thus far, especially if that experience does not relate centrally to the topic for your Common App essay. Evaluators will be able to form a much more complete picture of you as an applicant if they can hear you talk about extracurricular experiences that figure centrally into your development. Again, write from a place of genuine interest--while a job or work experience may be an especially good topic if the work inspired or was inspired by genuine interest, avoid writing about an experience that you were forced into and may not have enjoyed (unless it brought about serious growth and change). What activities have you engaged in substantively and out of interest, applying determination to passion? Depending on the experience you pick, how one writes this essay can vary. Consider what drew you to your extracurricular activity of choice in the first place. Talking about setbacks overcome or struggles coped with in pursuing your extracurricular interest can add depth, as can talking about eventual successes while maintaining a humble voice. Assess what you have learned from your experience without making conclusions that are too grandiose. Finally, make sure also to consider how your extracurricular experience could be continued or fostered at Harvard. As with the first prompt, concision is vital. Again, put anecdotal writing at the beginning as explanatory material, and focus the ending around analytical insights. Make sure to eliminate inactive language and filler words. Prioritize writing about how the experience affected you over furnishing evaluators with unnecessary background information.
Again, any information that paints a fuller picture of you as a candidate is invaluable to your application. To quell any last doubts, you must prepare this essay as part of your application. There are several different prompts to choose from, but the purpose of writing this essay is singular--a successful essay will demonstrate an applicant's genuine desire to engage with and contribute to a transformational, educative community. Regardless of chosen prompt, writing this essay is an opportunity to further demonstrate you are not just mindlessly filling out applications to gain entry to the most prestigious institution possible, but that you want to engage with an undergraduate experience that will change you and challenge you. Whatever you write about should be a testament to how education and experience can genuinely impact someone or an examination of strong core values shared with the institution. If you choose to write about "unusual circumstances" in your life, they need not be an exposure to a once-in-a-million hardship. Avoid overplaying the severity of topics. The chosen experience could, however, show a dedication to not letting one's limitations be defined by circumstances. Alternatively, it could explain the pursuit of a passion or interest at the expense of traditional structures. Whatever the choice, the response to this prompt should utilize anecdotal evidence liberally but intentionally, explaining circumstance in order to demonstrate how said circumstance has shaped your values or experiences, making them more sincere or meaningful. In writing about a meaningful intellectual experience, adopt much of the same strategy. Providing a few key details of the topic of your intellectual pursuit can help vivify the way you render the discovery of your interest. However, continuing to acknowledge both the guidance you received in this experience as well as the novel or unforeseen insights it may have encouraged is crucial in building the case that this pursuit was significant. How did you first become aware of this intellectual area? Is it relevant to your community, or to the world at large in some way? Did it make you realize something about the way you live your life? And finally, is it a pursuit that could be broadened or deepened by four years at Harvard? Many of these generative questions should also be helpful for those looking to write how they might hope to use their college education. Betraying an uncomplicated desire to pursue prestige or an advantageous alumni network will not do you much good in answering this prompt. Nor should your answer be entirely speculative or aspirational in a career-oriented sense (though these can be important components of a good response). Instead, focus on how the things you know about Harvard and the programs that Harvard offers can help you. Would Harvard allow you to realize an academic or career goal in a way you feel would be unattainable at any other school? Would a Harvard education allow you to improve a community or create change in a way you find meaningful? Do Harvard's statements of values align with your aspirations for personal growth? All these topics (and more) can help vivify an application, and this prompt can be an opportunity to address them. The prompt dealing with deferred admission or gap year prospects is an opportunity to touch on much of the same. Through this prompt, you can show that you feel passionately about translating learned experience into the world outside school, and about applying scholastic insights to communities to effect change. This prompt could be an opportunity to highlight reasons why you believe the academic offerings at Harvard are especially poised to help the world in other contexts. It could be an opportunity to highlight your entrepreneurial spirit and predisposition to learn through experience. It could instead be a way to show that you believe Harvard is just one piece of your aspirations for your education and growth. These thoughts should provide a starting point for generating a supplemental essay. Whatever prompt you choose, this essay should do several things. Firstly, it should enrich the picture evaluators receive of you as a candidate, filling in crucial experience or interests you have not addressed substantively in other parts of your application. Then, it should demonstrate your core values, and a genuine desire to learn and grow. Finally, it should confront the uniqueness and transformative power of a Harvard education. All the essays you will write as part of your Harvard supplement are an attempt to more fully and successfully present yourself to evaluators, and to demonstrate a clear and strong motivation to attend Harvard.