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20 SEPT 2021
Of course, Harvard wants to see that you’re a winner who has achieved great things, and your resume should demonstrate this. However, your supplementary essays allow you to show your maturity, drive, and interests and how these passions will benefit the larger Harvard community.
As you review the prompts below, keep in mind three primary goals of the Harvard supplements:
By making you write about yourself, Harvard allows you to demonstrate any “red flags” about you that wouldn’t otherwise come out in the application. That is, you want to avoid:
Harvard wants to admit people who will stay up all night debating public policy or rehearsing for their play, rather than students who sleep in, watch Netflix, and play video games.
There will be tens of thousands of applicants to Harvard with perfect GPAs and SATs and thousands who have won state championships in sports or made real discoveries in research labs. But only a select few applicants can match this profile and write a coherent, engaging essay where they discuss a difficult subject and demonstrate their ability to gain insight from their experiences.
Harvard requires two 150 word essays and one non-required third essay. There is also a 50-word supplement for international students.
Please briefly elaborate on one of your extracurricular activities or work experiences. (50-150 words).
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).
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.
What specific plan do you have, if any, for using the education you hope to receive? (0-50 words).
In this relatively simple essay, Harvard wants to assess whether you’re able to (1) coherently describe something you’ve done and (2) demonstrate you learned something from it.
It’s probably best to start with one of the top activities on your Common App extracurricular list. You only have 150 words, so try to hit these four points:
Give the reader a sense of what the activity is and how dedicated you are to it. For example, if it’s a part-time job - is this every evening, or only on the weekends?
Try to get specific here. For example, if your activity is playing a sport, it’s not enough to say you “learned the value of hard work.” Instead, you could write about how despite learning that many academic subjects warrant alternative outcomes to posed problems, you had to put aside this knowledge to benefit your team by following the coach’s strict direction for a successful outcome. Though you only have 150 words, that is plenty to demonstrate that you’re a deep thinker and learner.
What has been the most difficult or surprising part of this activity? And what made you realize this?
Give an honest (but humble!) assessment of your success at this activity. Maybe you won the state robotics championships - but what are you still struggling with? Maybe your basketball team never won a single game - but what did you do well?
Remember, focus on giving the reader lots of your impressions, rather than descriptions of the activity. An easy way to assess how you’re doing at this is to look at the verbs you’re using.
If your essay is full of the former, try to institute more of the latter.
Here Harvard is directly asking you to show us that you are an interesting person outside of what your school/parents demand you to be. Note that these are “intellectual activities,” so learning a new trick on your skateboard doesn’t count.
Format: don’t worry about writing beautiful prose here, as long as your grammar is strong. Just use the 150-word limit to get all your thoughts down. Even bullet points with a short description should be fine.
I’ve recently become passionate about community recycling and write a bi-weekly column for our city newspaper about the impact of recycling on our local environment.
Saturday mornings, a group of friends and I meet in Duboce Park and practice writing short stories. Some other local passersby have started joining as well, and it’s become a 20-30 person weekly event. Once a month, we do readings at the public library.
I'm working on coding a computer program that varies the motor speed of my blender depending on ingredients. It's the perfect combination of my love for coding and cooking. You can see my working code here on GitHub (link).
These activities are all intellectual and demonstrate initiative (going out and doing things independently). Finally, they're all a little bit fun and quirky, giving the reader the sense that you are a fun person.
Let’s get this out of the way first: this essay claims to be optional, but you should certainly consider it mandatory! Remember, this is Harvard - you need to take any opportunity you can to stand out from other applicants with similar profiles to you.
Here’s how you should think about this essay: generally, you can only express yourself as much as the application prompts allow you in the college admissions process. But here, Harvard is telling you to use this space to help them get to know even more about you.
Choosing a topic: First, take a look through the example options Harvard provided you. If one of them jumps out at you - “oh, that will be a great opportunity for me to express myself / show how I’m different from other applicants” - then go for it.
Let’s consider two of the example options Harvard has provided.
Here’s an excellent opportunity for you to describe (if applicable) anything Harvard might want to know about your upbringing, your family, or your abilities. Maybe you grew up in a family where you couldn’t participate in extracurricular activities because you had to earn money at your job. Or perhaps you had a hard time focusing on school because you spent time taking care of a loved one. In any case, if you think Harvard should have some more context on the hard facts of your application - here’s where you can share that.
Is there something distinct about your hometown, or a place you’ve been, that will allow you to demonstrate your maturity and perspective?
One of the best ways to show your maturity in an essay is to describe a group of people (respectfully and thoughtfully!) and how you are similar to/different from them. Maybe everyone in your hometown has a unique identity, background, or perspective on life. What is it, and how are you similar to/different from this?
Is there somewhere you’ve traveled that stuck with you? If you have travel experiences that helped you understand something about yourself or your community, feel free to share them. You should avoid sounding privileged or being too general here. For example, let’s say you visited your grandparents’ hometown in rural China. Seeing the relative poverty they live in, you realize how lucky you are to live with so much comfort and so many possessions in life.
As you write, consider that every other applicant who visits that town probably thinks the same thing! So it’s probably not very interesting for Harvard to read this. Instead, try thinking about what you do have in common with this town - do you see yourself or your parents reflected in your grandparents’ life? Are the pains and joys of life they experience similar to yours? Go a level deeper in describing your travels than you would in a Facebook post or Instagram caption.
This question is pretty straightforward; however, show your introspection and thought process when you answer it. Although you have only 50 words, try to focus on the unique aspects of your plan and be as specific as possible.
As you consider these or the other optional essay topics, remember to avoid the “red flags” and put your best foot forward to Harvard. Try writing about something that means a lot to you, and be honest with yourself: is this something that everyone else applying would probably write, too?