How to answer Harvard supplemental essay prompts 2019-2020

Posted a month ago

So - you’re thinking about applying to Harvard, arguably the most prestigious university in the world. Last year, the acceptance rate was less than 5%, but you won’t get in with luck alone.

To get into Harvard, you’re going to need more than stellar grades, test scores, and extracurricular achievements. You’ll have to demonstrate, in your essays, that you are the kind of mature, driven, interesting person that would thrive on a campus like Harvard’s. Sure, Harvard wants to see that you’re a winner who has achieved great things. Your resume should demonstrate this. But these essays are your opportunity to show the admissions committee who you are at a deeper level - how you think about the world, how you think about yourself, and what you actually like to do.

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Also applying to Princeton? Check out how we answered the supplemental essay prompts for the 2019-2020 application round!

As you review the below prompts, keep in mind three primary goals of the Harvard supplements:

  • Pass the “red flags” test - by making you write about yourself, Harvard is giving you the opportunity to demonstrate any “red flags” about you that wouldn’t otherwise come out in the application. That is, you want to avoid...

    • Sounding too privileged or out of touch (i.e. “And when my parents bought me a second Ferrari, then I finally understood…”)
    • Seeming condescending to your peers (i.e. “being the smartest person in the class is actually really hard.”)
    • Showing low attention to detail or effort (i.e. spelling/grammar errors)
  • Demonstrate mature, intellectual interests - Harvard wants to admit people who will stay up all night debating public policy or rehearsing for their play, rather than students who will sleep in, watch Netflix, and play video games

  • Differentiate yourself from applicants with the same resume - let’s face it, there will be tens of thousands of applicants to Harvard with perfect GPAs and SATs, and thousands who also 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 insight about themself

With that being said - let’s dive into the prompts:

Essay 1

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)

Here Harvard is directly asking you to address point (2) above - 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. Here are a couple examples:

  • Letters to the editor - 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
  • Duboce Prose - 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.
  • Java Juice - 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).

What do all these have in common? These activities are all intellectual, demonstrate initiative (going out and doing things independently) rather than just doing as you’re told, and finally, they’re all a little bit fun and quirky, giving the reader the sense that you are a fun person.

Ultimately, this essay should demonstrate that your intellectual curiosity cannot be satiated through normal schooling.

Let’s take a look at essay 2.

Essay 2

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

This is a fairly simple essay, where Harvard merely 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:

  • Describe your commitment - 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 the weekends?
  • What you’ve learned from the experience - 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.” Try something more specific - for example, that you learned to put aside the skepticism you were taught in the classroom for a temporary but all-encompassing obedeince to your coach critical to the success of the team. Though you only have 150 words, that is plenty to demonstrate that you’re a deep thinker and learner.
  • Where you’ve struggled - what has been the most difficult or surprising part of this activity? And what made you realize this?
  • Where have you been more or less successful - 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?

...and 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. Are you using lots of “be” verbs - e.g., “choir is fun,” “dance classes are a good learning experience?” Or are you using lots of impression verbs - e.g., “choir seemed to me the best avenue through which I could nerd out on classical music,” or “dance classes endowed me with a renewed sense of what my body can do.” If your essay is full of the former, try to institute more of the latter.

Now, let’s discuss essay 3.

Optional Harvard Supplement Instruction

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)

- 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 the 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.

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, in the college admissions process, you can only express yourself as much as the application prompts allow you. But here, Harvard is telling you - whatever else you haven’t been able to tell us, that will let us get to know you, use this space.

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.

  • An unusual circumstance in your life - here’s a good 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 maybe 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.
  • Travel, living, or working experiences in your own or other communities - is there something distinct about your hometown, or a place you’ve been, that will allow you to demonstrate your maturity and perspective?
    • If your hometown - 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? 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.
    • If other communities - is there somewhere you’ve traveled that really stuck with you? If you have travel experiences that helped you understand something about your own self or community, feel free to share them. You should avoid sounding privileged or general here. For example, let’s say you visited your grandparets’ hometown in rural China. Seeing the relative poverty they live in, you realized 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.

As you consider these or the other optional essay topics, remember to avoid the “red flags,” and to 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?

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