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Master the Five-Paragraph Essay

harvard college essay advisors

The five-paragraph essay is one of the most common composition assignments out there, whether for high school or college students. It is a classic assignment because it presents an arena in which writers can demonstrate their command of language and punctuation, as well as their logic and rhetorical skills. These skills are useful not only for classroom assignments and college application essays, but even in the business world, as employees have to write memorandums and reports, which draw on the same skills.

Mastering the five-paragraph essay is doable, and here are some tips.

Components of a Good Essay

The five-paragraph essay lives up to its name, because is has five paragraphs, as follows: an introductory paragraph that includes a thesis, three body paragraphs, each which includes support and development, and one concluding paragraph.

Its structure sometimes generates other names for the same essay, including three-tier essay, one-three-one, or a hamburger essay. Whether you are writing a cause-and-effect essay, a persuasive essay, an argumentative essay or a compare-and-contrast essay, you should use this same structure and the following specifics.

Keys to Introductory Paragraphs

Any introductory paragraph contains from three to five sentences and sets up the tone and structure for the whole essay. The first sentence should be a so-called hook sentence and grabs the reader. Examples of hook sentences include a quote, a joke, a rhetorical question or a shocking fact. This is the sentence that will keep your readers reading. Draw them in.

What Makes a Thesis Statement

The last sentence should be your thesis statement, which is the argument you are going to make in the essay. It is the sentence that contains the main point of the essay, or what you are trying to prove. It should be your strongest claim in the whole essay, telling the reader what the paper is about. You should be able to look back at it to keep your argument focused. The other sentences in this paragraph should be general information that links the first sentence and the thesis.

Content of Supporting Paragraphs

Each of the next three paragraphs follows the same general structure of the introductory paragraph. That is, they have one introduction sentence, evidence and arguments in three to five sentences, and a conclusion. Each one of them should define and defend your thesis sentence in the introduction.

The first body paragraph should be dedicated to proving your most powerful point. The second body paragraph can contain your weakest point, because the third body paragraph can, and should, support another strong argument.

Concluding Paragraph Tips

Your concluding paragraph is important, and can be difficult. Ideally, you can begin by restating your thesis. Then you can recall or restate all three to five of your supporting arguments. You should summarize each main point. If you have made similar arguments multiple times, join those together in one sentence.

Essentially, in the concluding or fifth paragraph, you should restate what your preceding paragraphs were about and draw a conclusion. It should answer the question: So what? Even if the answer seems obvious to you, write it down so that your reader can continue to easily follow your thinking process, and hopefully, agree with you.

A Note on Compare and Contrast

Let’s look a little more closely at the compare-and-contrast essay, which is a very common assignment. It can be a confusing one due to the terms used. Comparing two items is to show how they are alike. Contrasting two items is to show how they are different. One way to approach this essay is to make a grid for yourself that compares or contrasts two items before you start writing. Then, write about those characteristics. Do not try to write about both. The name of the essay is actually misleading.

Keep these pointers in mind when you need to write a five-paragraph essay, and your end result will be clear in its argument, leading your reader to the right conclusion. Often, that conclusion is to agree with you, and who doesn’t like to be right?


harvard college essay advisors


Harvard University 2023-24 Supplemental Essay Prompt Guide

Early Action: 

Harvard University 2023-24 Application Essay Question Explanations

The Requirements: Five essays of 200 words or fewer

Supplemental Essay Type(s): Diversity , Activity , Oddball

Harvard is asking 2023-24 applicants to pen five short essays in response to the following prompts:

Harvard has long recognized the importance of enrolling a diverse student body. how will the life experiences that shape who you are today enable you to contribute to harvard* (200 words).

Admissions wants to know what has made you into the person you are today and how those experiences will affect the way you engage with and contribute to the Harvard community. So, tell a story about an experience that has shaped you and connect the lessons you learned to the ways in which you will contribute to diversity on campus next fall. Start by thinking about the kinds of experiences you’ve had in the communities you’ve been a part of thus far. Then, once you’ve identified the life experience(s) that have shaped you, think ahead to how those will impact your time at Harvard. Admissions wants to know what your area of influence will look like on campus—whether that be applying the leadership skills you developed in your community theater troupe to the drama productions at Farkas Hall, celebrating intersectional identities with other members of the queer Jewish community with BAGELS , or connecting and networking with your peers through Harvard Black Students Association . Whatever you write about, make sure your response to this prompt shows that you have put some serious thought into the things that have shaped you and how you will apply those lessons and experiences to your time at Harvard next fall. 

Briefly describe an intellectual experience that was important to you.* (200 words)

It’s no surprise that Harvard is hoping to invite students to campus who are excited about learning, so take this opportunity to geek out about an awesome learning experience you had recently. Maybe you find marine life to be absolutely fascinating, so you’ve been reading up on the most dangerous creatures in the deep dark sea (and their preferred prey, of course). Perhaps you had the opportunity to take a class or seminar with a thought leader you really admire or you went on a reading retreat that expanded your horizons. Whatever it may be, this is the perfect opportunity to show admissions your passion for pursuing knowledge and reflect on the impact it had on you.

Briefly describe any of your extracurricular activities, employment experience, travel, or family responsibilities that have shaped who you are.* (200 words)

Next up is a fun twist on the classic activity essay, which asks you to expand on an extracurricular endeavor that has shaped who you are. Our advice is to focus on one or two activities that have made the biggest impact on you. Although we usually urge students to write about items that haven’t appeared elsewhere on their application, the activity essay is an exception since it specifically asks you to address an item on your resume. The trick here is to  pick something with meat! Maybe your trip to visit your extended family members in Thailand opened your eyes to how limited your world had been in your small Midwestern town. Perhaps four years of debate club have nurtured your communication skills and ability to speak up for yourself. Whatever activity you choose to write about, be sure to pick one that has been fundamental to your understanding of who you are.

How do you hope to use your Harvard education in the future?* (200 words)

Admissions already knows a bit about what makes you you; now they want to know why Harvard is the obvious next step in the trajectory of your life. Take some time to meditate on what you hope your life will look like after Harvard—we’re talking ten, twenty years in the future. Once you have an idea of what you hope for that person to be like or do on an average day, invite admissions into your vision and show them how a Harvard education is a pivotal step (or three) on the ladder of success to get there. Regardless of your vision, your response should cite programs, activities, and organizations that Harvard offers. Anyone can say they hope to become a renowned doctor or an attorney for the people, but not everyone is going to do their homework to show admissions that they’ve thought through exactly how they want to get there. Of course, admissions isn’t going to hold you to your blueprint, but they do want to see that you’ve given not only your decision to apply to Harvard some serious thought, but your life post-graduation as well.

Top 3 things your roommates might like to know about you.* (200 words)

With this prompt, admissions is hoping to see a different side of you, perhaps one that is less intellectual (unless that’s just who you are, in which case, rock on with your nerdy self) and a little more casual. Start by making a list. Write down everything that comes to mind. You can edit and revise later—no idea is too silly to jot down! Maybe you think your roommates should know that you just can’t not sing while in the shower (we’re talking Celine Dion, Adele, Whitney Houston) or that you make the meanest plate of rice and beans in your pressure cooker (and you love to share). Once you’ve narrowed your list down to three (3) things, see if you can weave together a narrative that gives admissions a little taste of what it would be like to hang out in the dorms with you. How do you connect with your peers? What most excites you about residential life? What are the quirks that make you you ? By the time admissions puts down your application, they should feel like your personality is jumping off the page.

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We're here to help

To apply for admission as a first-year or transfer student at Harvard, you will start with the Application. Fill out the Common Application  or the Coalition Application, Powered by Scoir (choose one, we have no preference), followed by the supplement to help us get a better sense of who you are. Not sure where to start? We've gathered some helpful tips on how to fill out the main application and the Harvard supplement.

Screenshot of Profile section of Common App

The Profile section is a place where you'll share detailed information about yourself, including contact information, demographics, and fee waiver request. It's always a good idea to review the information here and update any details, if necessary. Please note that none of the demographic questions in this section are required. 

Profile Section

Personal information: legal name.

Please fill out your name exactly as it will show up on all materials we receive for your application. Your teachers, college counselors and others should also use your legal name just as it will appear on your financial aid forms, official test score reports, etc. Use of a nickname can cause your application to be incomplete if we cannot match your materials to your application.


Citizenship does not in any way affect your chances of admission or eligibility for financial aid at Harvard. There is no admissions advantage or disadvantage in being a US citizen. This is not the case at all institutions.

For students who need a visa to study in the United States, this question is of critical importance: we begin to prepare the forms that qualify you for a visa immediately after acceptance. Any delay in this process can jeopardize your chances of arriving in Cambridge in time to begin the fall semester.

U.S. Social Security Number

Your U.S. Social Security number is kept strictly confidential and is used solely to match up your admissions and financial aid data if you are applying for aid.

Demographics: Religious Preference

This is an optional question on the Common Application used by some colleges with a religious affiliation. We do not download this field from your application – and we do not maintain records of religious affiliation. Religious preference in no way affects chances for admission. If you spend a good deal of time on religious activities you should feel free to tell us about such activities in the activities section of the Harvard questions, write about them in the essay, or use the short answer in the writing supplement.

U.S. Armed Forces Status

The applications of veterans are most welcome and your service is a positive factor in our admissions process. We’re proud to help veterans continue their education by participating in the Yellow Ribbon Program and Service to School’s VetLink program. Learn more about applying as a veteran here .

Screenshot of Common App fee waiver question

Application Fee Waiver

The application fee covers a very small portion of the administrative costs of processing applications. However, if the fee presents a hardship for you or your family, it will be waived. Each applicant applying with a fee waiver should select an option for a need-based fee waiver. Do not let the application fee stand in the way of applying! 

How to Request an Application Fee Waiver

Do not let the admissions application fee prevent you from applying! In the spirit of our  honor code , if the admissions application fee presents a hardship for you or your family, the fee will be waived. Please follow the steps below to request a fee waiver:

Common Application

  • Select “Yes” when asked “Do you feel that your financial circumstances might qualify you for an application fee waiver?” Confirm that you meet at least one of the indicators of economic need.
  • If you do not meet one of the indicators of economic need, select “You can provide a supporting statement from a school official, college access counselor, financial aid officer, or community leader.”  Harvard will not ask you to provide a supporting statement and your application will not be penalized if you select this option.

Coalition Application

  • Confirm that you meet at least one of the indicators of economic need listed in the Fee Waiver section of your Profile.
  • If you do not meet one of the indicators of economic need, you may enter the Harvard-specific fee waiver code on the payment page: JH3S5Q2LX9

Transfer Applicants

  • Please send an email to  [email protected]  to request a transfer application fee waiver.

Screenshot of Common App family questions

In the family section, you'll share information about your household, your parents, and any siblings. Most colleges collect this information for demographic purposes. Even if you're an adult or an emancipated minor, you'll need to fill out this section.

Unknown Parent

Answer the questions as honestly and fully as you can, but don’t worry if you and your parent/guardian do not know all of the details about your family.

Family Information

Part of an admissions officer’s job in reading your application is to understand your background and how these circumstances have affected your upbringing, the opportunities available to you, academic preparation, and other factors relevant to the college admissions process.

Family life is an important factor in helping us to learn more about the circumstances and conditions in which you were raised, and how you have made the most of the opportunities provided by your family. We want to understand where you’re coming from, not only in school, but at home as well.

Parent Education

Parents almost always have a significant effect on students’ lives. Information about parents may indicate challenges you have faced – and overcome. In your essay you might elaborate on your family experiences in a wide variety of ways that can illuminate your character and personal qualities, including the positive aspects of your family life.

Screenshot of Common App education questions

In the Education section is where you will share information about your current school or coursework, academic honors, and future education plans. Here are some tips on commonly asked questions.

Interruption in Education

It is not uncommon for students to change schools or take time off during high school. While this information will most likely appear on your transcript, hearing directly from you about any interruption in schooling will help us to fill in any gaps.

We always defer to the secondary school report for information about grades. If yours is not provided by the counselor or school, we will take into consideration what is self-reported, making sure to confirm with your school officials.

Current or Most Recent Year Courses

Please list the courses you are currently taking and/or are planning on taking before you graduate. If your schedule changes after you have submitted your application, please keep us updated by submitting additional materials in the Applicant Portal.

Honors & Level(s) of Recognition

This is a place to highlight any achievements or awards you have received. If you receive any significant honors or awards after submitting the application, you may notify us by submitting additional materials in the Applicant Portal and we will include this information with your application materials.

Future Plans & Career Interest

You do not need to have a ten year plan, but getting a sense of what kinds of professions you have considered gives us insight into your current plans. Don’t fret about it: put a few ideas down and move on with your application.

Since there are some students who do have a developed career interest already established while they are in high school, this question provides an opportunity to indicate such a plan.

Screenshot of Common App testing questions

Standardized test scores are optional for the College Classes of 2027-2030 . The Testing section is where you'll enter your self-reported scores for any standardized tests that you've taken and wish to report to colleges. However, remember that if you self-report your test scores and you are admitted and choose to enroll at Harvard, you'll be required to submit your official score reports. View more information on our standardized testing requirements on our Application Requirements page .

Tests Taken

Test scores.

We have always looked at the best scores applicants choose to submit. If you haven’t yet taken the tests and you intend to submit standardized tests, please indicate which tests you are taking and when.

The TOEFL is not required for Harvard, but if you are taking it for another college, you may elect to submit it as part of your Harvard application. Your score can be one more piece of evidence regarding your English language proficiency, so you may choose to submit it if you feel it provides additional helpful information. 

AP/IB Tests

These exam scores are additional pieces of academic information which can help us as we think about your preparation and potential for college level work. Sometimes AP or IB scores can demonstrate a wide range of academic accomplishments.

If you have the opportunity to take AP and IB exams, the results may also be helpful for academic placement, should you be accepted and choose to enroll at Harvard. 

Why can't I view my standardized test scores in the Common Application?

Since Harvard College is not requiring applicants to submit standardized test scores for the 2022-2026 application cycles , your standardized scores will not display in the Common Application PDF preview, even if you have chosen to submit them. However, if you entered your test score information and would like it to be considered, that data will still be transmitted to us with your application and we will review it. You can verify this by viewing the Application Checklist in your Applicant Portal. You will see a green check mark if we have received your standardized test scores.

Screenshot of Common App activities questions

The activities section gives you the opportunity to tell schools more about who you are and activities you're involved with outside the classroom. You'll have the opportunity to list up to ten activities, but that doesn't mean you need to enter all ten.

How we use extracurricular activities and work experience in the admissions process

We are much more interested in the quality of students’ activities than their quantity so do not feel you need to fill in the entire grid! Contributions students make to the well-being of their secondary schools, communities and families are of great interest to us. So indicate for us the time you spend and the nature of the contribution to extracurricular activities, the local community, work experiences and help provided to your family. Activities you undertake need not be exotic but rather might show a commitment to excellence regardless of the activity. Such a commitment can apply to any activity in your life and may reflect underlying character and personal qualities.

For example, a student can gain a great deal from helping his or her family with babysitting or other household responsibilities or working in a restaurant to help with family or personal expenses. Such experiences are important “extracurricular” activities and can be detailed in the extracurricular section and discussed in essays.

Some students list only activities they feel will appear significant to the admissions office, while others endeavor to list every single thing they have ever done. Neither approach is right for everyone. Rather, you should think about the activities (in-school, at home, or elsewhere) that you care most about and devote most of your time doing, and list those.

We realize that extracurricular and athletic opportunities are either unavailable or limited at many high schools. We also know that limited economic resources in many families can affect a student’s chances for participation on the school teams, travel teams, or even prevent participation at all due to the costs of the equipment or the logistical requirements of some sports and activities. You should not feel that your chances for admission to college are hindered by the lack of extracurricular opportunities. Rather, our admissions committee will look at the various kinds of opportunities you have had in your lifetime and try to assess how well you have taken advantage of those opportunities.

For additional thoughts on extracurricular activities, please refer to this 2009 article in the New York Times:  Guidance Office: Answers From Harvard’s Dean, Part 3 .

Positions held, honors won, letters earned, or employer

In this section, please describe the activity and your level of participation. Please note that your description should be concise, or it may be cut off by the Common Application.

Participation Grade Level

The grades during which you have participated are important because they help us to understand the depth of your involvement in that activity and your changing interests over time. Not all extracurricular activities must be a four-year commitment for our applicants.

Approximate Time Spent

We are interested to know how you manage your time and to understand how you balance your life outside of the classroom. Some students dedicate their time to one or two activities, while others spread their time among many.

When did you participate

We know that students are often active both during the school year and the summer – working, babysitting siblings, enrolling in courses, traveling, playing sports, holding internships, etc. Distinguishing school-year activities from summer activities helps us understand how you have spent your time and taken advantage of opportunities available to you.

Plans to participate in college?

Harvard is a residential institution, and our students are actively engaged in college life. This section helps us to understand how you might contribute at Harvard. Some students who were involved in several activities during high school choose to narrow their focus in college and/or to try new activities not previously available.

What if there's not enough space?

Filling out the grid is an act of prioritization: your responses tell us what activities or work experiences are most meaningful to you. And there’s quite a bit of space there, too; almost everyone should be able to convey the breadth and depth of out-of-class commitments on the application. Conversely, please do not feel a need to fill every line!

Screenshot of Common App writing questions

The first section is the personal essay. Harvard requires the submission of the personal essay with your application. We also offer an opportunity to add an additional information.

Personal Essay

The Common Application essay topics are broad. Please note that Coalition essay questions may differ. While this might seem daunting at first, look at it as an opportunity to write about something you care about, rather than what you think the Admissions Committee wants to hear. The point of the personal statement is for you to have the chance to share whatever you would like with us. Remember, your topic does not have to be exotic to be compelling.

Essay topics include:

Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.

The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?

Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?

Describe a problem you've solved or a problem you'd like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma-anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.

Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.

Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?

Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you've already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.

Disciplinary History

It is critically important for you to be honest with colleges as you start what could be a long- term association. Please read this section carefully. How a student deals with a disciplinary incident, reflects on it, and changes future behavior is as important as details of the event itself.

Additional Information

Do not feel obligated to fill this space, but some students have used this opportunity to tell us about challenging circumstances in their lives such as illness or other difficulties that may have affected their grades. Any information that can tell us more about the person behind the test scores and grades can be helpful.

Screenshot of Common App - Harvard Questions

Harvard Questions

Each college or university that is a member of the Common Application and/or the Coalition Application - Powered by Scoir has an opportunity to ask applicants a series of school-specific questions separate from the common part of the application. The Harvard supplement contains a series of questions that help us learn more about your academic, extracurricular, and personal interests. You application is not considered complete until you submit the supplement. 

General: Applying for Financial Aid

Harvard has a need-blind admissions process and applying for aid is never detrimental to your admissions decision. We ask this question because we want to be able to calculate your financial need in advance of our April notification date so that we can send your admission letter and financial aid offer at the same time. One thing to note – not all institutions have such policies.

General: Submitting Supplementary Materials

Supplementary materials (art slides, music recordings, research papers, etc.) help when they reveal unusual talent. You absolutely do not have to include anything supplementary to gain acceptance to Harvard, and the vast majority of admitted students do not submit supplementary materials with their applications. You can submit art and media files through Slideroom  and any documents or articles directly in the Applicant Portal with an uploader tool.

Academics: Fields of Study

When you check one of these fields, you give us a sense of the direction you may choose when it comes time for you to choose a concentration at Harvard in your sophomore year.

While we realize that this question is quite similar to the one asked on the Common Application, our own format allows us to fit this information into data fields that Harvard has been collecting for many years. While we know students might well change their minds once they are in college, it is helpful for us to get a sense of their current interests and those academic areas in which they have already spent time and effort.

We do not admit students into specific academic programs, and we have no quotas or targets for academic fields.

Academics: Future Plans

As a liberal arts institution with fifty academic concentrations and more than 450 extracurricular organizations, we expect and encourage our students to explore new opportunities. We understand that as you answer these questions, you may not be entirely sure of your plans, but this information helps us to understand how you might use Harvard.

One of the principal ways students meet and educate each other during college is through extracurricular activities. Your answer to this question gives us a better sense of the interests you might bring to college and how definite your academic, vocational, extracurricular or athletic interests might be. This information helps us understand better how you might use Harvard. Of course, one of the best things about a liberal arts education is that plans may change. There is no “right” answer to these questions.

If you have applied to Harvard before, we want to include your previous application with your current one. We also want to have a record of any other involvement at Harvard you may have had, including the Summer School and the Extension School and associated transcripts. This information adds to the context of your present application. It can be helpful for us to note changes in your application—perhaps areas where you have strengthened the academic and/or extracurricular aspects of your candidacy.

Screenshot of common app supplement questions

Writing Supplement

The supplement includes five required short-answer questions, each with a 200 word limit. We want to ensure that every student has the same opportunity to reflect on and share how their life experiences and academic and extracurricular activities shaped them, how they will engage with others at Harvard, and their aspirations for the future. Our continued focus is on considering the whole student in the admissions process and how they have interacted with the world.

Required Short Answer Questions

Each question has a 200 word limit. 

Related Guides

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Financial Aid Fact Sheet

Get the facts about Harvard College's revolutionary financial aid program.

Guide to Preparing for College

Find information about selecting high school courses that best prepare you for liberal arts colleges with high academic demographic such as Harvard.


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50 Successful Harvard Essays

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Fifty all-new essays that got their authors into Harvard - with updated statistics, analysis, and complete student profiles - showing what worked, what didn’t, and how you can do it, too.

With talented applicants coming from top high schools as well as the pressure to succeed from family and friends, it’s no wonder that writing college application essays is one of the most stressful tasks high schoolers face. To help, this edition of 50 Successful Harvard Application Essays, edited by the staff of the Harvard Crimson, gives readers the most inspiring approaches, both conventional and creative, that won over admissions officers at Harvard University, the nation’s top-ranked college.

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Harvard University Supplemental Essays Guide: 2021-2022

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Not sure how to approach the Harvard essay prompts? With tips from a Harvard graduate,’s guide to the Harvard supplemental essays will show you exactly how to write engaging Harvard essays and maximize your chances of admission.

If you need help crafting your Harvard supplemental essays,  create your free account  or  schedule a no-cost advising consultation  by calling (844) 505-4682.

Harvard  Essay Guide Quick Facts:

  • Harvard has an acceptance rate of 4.6%— U.S. News ranks Harvard as a  highly competitive  school .
  • We recommend answering all Harvard supplemental essays—optional Harvard essay prompts included—comprehensively and thoughtfully.

Does Harvard have supplemental essays?

Yes. In addition to the main essay prompt that you’ll encounter in the  Common App  or  Coalition App , you’ll also have to answer shorter Harvard essays as well as longer Harvard essay prompts.

Need some help writing your Common App essay? Get great tips from our  Common App essay guide .

What are Harvard’s supplemental essays?

The Harvard supplemental essay prompts for 2021-2022 are on the  Common App site . You can also visit the  main Harvard site  for a full list of application requirements.

How many essays does Harvard require?

Harvard has  three  school-specific essays in the 2021-2022 Common App. As you look at each Harvard application essay, you’ll notice that several are listed as optional. While you aren’t required to complete the optional Harvard essays, if you’re hoping to be admitted, you should complete every essay to make your application as cohesive and engaging as possible.

Harvard essay prompts and how to write them:

We have provided the prompts for the 2021-2022 Harvard supplemental essays below. You’ll find a breakdown of how to approach each Harvard application essay as well as tips for creating an application narrative that will stand out in admissions.

Harvard Supplemental Essays – Question 1 (Optional):

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 max.)

Harvard supplemental essays are crafted to help identify students who are academically driven, intellectually engaged, and highly self-motivated. This prompt allows you to express your intellectual engagements as they manifest outside of your academic work. These engagements do not need to fit into any structure—whether you’ve taken online courses, taught yourself Portuguese, taken up studio art, or anything in between, this prompt should allow you to talk about your “intellectual life” in the broadest terms.

This Harvard essay asks you to think about how your intellectual engagements inform your daily life. How do you spend your free time? How might these additional activities supplement your application narrative?

Since you only have 150 words, you’ll want to be concise. Don’t just write a list of things that you like to do and leave it at that. Instead, you’ll want to add a few descriptive words to each intellectual activity. Be specific about what you’ve accomplished, providing details about what you did, when and where you did it, why you chose to do it, and what it meant to you. After you’ve described your list, look at it critically to see if it reflects your sense of identity and relationship with the world around you.

Remember, you’re also being asked to discuss activities not detailed elsewhere in your application. It’s helpful to write a list of the topics, activities, and projects that you plan to cover in other Harvard essays to make sure that there’s no overlap between those essay prompts and this Harvard application essay.

Another keyword to pay attention to is “detailed.” While you may have mentioned an activity or interest in passing elsewhere in your application, you can still expound on that particular intellectual pursuit here.

In the shorter Harvard supplemental essays, it’s important not to get lost in the descriptive language of your activity. Don’t spend so much time describing the classroom where you took Portuguese language classes that you don’t give yourself the space necessary to talk about what the activity meant to you. Beautiful language is just the icing on the cake in Harvard essays.

Harvard Essay Draft Key Questions:

  • Does your draft clearly communicate what you accomplished?
  • Is it clear that the activity you describe is intellectual in nature?
  • Does your supplement provide information not present in the rest of your application?
  • Do you articulate why your chosen activity matters to you and how it has influenced your broader identity?

Harvard Supplemental Essays – Question 2 (Required):

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

Harvard supplemental essays should provide insight into your identity in a way that is not represented in the rest of your application. In this essay prompt, as you choose which activity to discuss, consider the story that your application tells. Which extracurricular experience contributes most effectively to this story?

Use your 150-word limit on this Harvard application essay wisely. Once you’ve chosen an activity, start with the specifics. What did you do? Why did you do it? How did this experience contribute to your sense of yourself and the world around you? What are the connections between this activity and your overall application narrative? While your response may not answer all these questions, it’s important to keep them in mind to ensure that your supplement accurately and effectively represents your interests and accomplishments.

As you write, be careful to talk about yourself as much as about the work you’ve done. This isn’t your resume—instead, it’s your time to discuss who you are in the context of your activities and interests.

  • Does your response add nuance, meaning, or additional interest to the other components of your application?
  • Do you reference concrete details about what you accomplished and why it mattered?
  • Does your response teach the reader something new about you?

Harvard Supplemental Essays – Question 3 (optional):

Harvard supplemental essays are numerous, but their goal is to give you ample opportunities to show Admissions Officers what makes you special.  The final Harvard essay is long-form. You’ll be able to choose one of the following topics:

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 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. (2000 words max.)

Having trouble deciding which of these Harvard essays to write? Start with a  writing exercise . Pick 3-4 of the Harvard essay prompts that you most connect with and set a timer. Then, write about each topic for no more than 10 minutes. Were there any topics that you couldn’t stop writing about? Make that your essay topic.

When structuring your Harvard application essay, make sure that it’s clear to your reader which prompt you’ve chosen early on. Maybe you’re a voracious reader who finishes over 100 books each year. You might choose to submit a list of books you’ve read in the last 12 months, allowing your self-directed intellectual engagements to speak for themselves. Remember to weave the books together into a larger reflection of how you see the world, and/or how the books you’ve read have changed your worldview. Or maybe you’re interested in taking a gap year to explore the globe — you might choose to answer that prompt and tell Harvard what travel means to your identity as a student and world citizen. Whatever you choose, it should help you stand out and add nuance to your application narrative.

  • Does your response reveal what makes you unique?
  • Will your response make the reader want to learn more about you?
  • Does your response supplement and/or complicate the other aspects of your application?

How much does Harvard care about essays?

Short answer: a lot. Last year,  over 50,000 students applied to Harvard . Most applicants have impressive GPAs, test scores, and extracurricular profiles. Admissions officers look to the Harvard essay prompts to help them identify students who “…will be the best educators of one another and their professors — individuals who will inspire those around them during College years and beyond.” In other words, your Harvard application essays should tell a story of your growth as a person up until this point. Each essay should play a part in showing that you are curious about the world, a reflective person of character, and an individual who brings something unique to each community they inhabit. For a deep dive into what this looks like, visit Harvard’s  “What We Look For” page .

Additional tips for writing your Harvard Supplemental Essays

  • Start early: Harvard has a  few admission options . Your application may be due in  November  or  January . Begin gathering application materials early—at least 5 or 6 months in advance. You should write your first Harvard essay drafts the summer before you apply.
  • Essay checklist: create an essay checklist for each Harvard essay prompt. Check your initial draft against the checklist: are you answering every part of the prompt? Are your answers unique, but authentic to who you are? Do your prompts tell a story?
  • Edits: It’s always good to have a second (and sometimes a third) set of eyes on your Harvard essays. An outside reader can scan for grammatical errors as well as clarity and tone. Remember: a good editor is going to push you towards YOUR best writing, not towards their own.

To see examples of essays written by our advisors who were admitted to Harvard,  check out this article .

Harvard Supplemental Essays: Final Thoughts

Completing the Harvard supplemental essays can seem daunting, but don’t let them discourage you from applying. Instead, view these Harvard essays as an opportunity to introduce yourself to the admissions team. Maybe you’re applying with a  lower than average SAT score . A well-written set of Harvard essay prompts can work in your favor. Use this Harvard supplemental essays 2021 guide to help you approach each Harvard application essay with a solid strategy and a clear timeline. Good luck!

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This 2021-2022 essay guide for Harvard University was written by Abbie Sage, Harvard ‘21. For more resources on Harvard,  click here . Want help crafting your Harvard supplemental essays?  Create your free account  or  schedule a no-cost advising consultation  by calling (844) 505-4682.

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Harvard Supplemental Essays 2023-24 – Prompts and Advice

August 17, 2023

Harvard supplemental essays

A 3.4% acceptance for the Class of 2027 gives you a pretty informative introduction to the ultra-competitive admissions process at Harvard University. To dive deeper, Harvard rejects the majority of valedictorians who apply each year as well as a sizable chunk of those who bring 1600 SAT/36 ACT scores to the table. Further, more than one-third of current Crimson undergrads are legacy students (their parents and/or other close relatives are alumni) and recruited athletes make up around 20% of each incoming freshman class. Therefore, it is reasonable to assume that, if you fall outside of those categories, your chances of getting into Harvard are less than 3%. This brings us to the topic of this blog – the Harvard supplemental essays.

 Want to learn more about How to Get Into Harvard University? Visit our blog entitled:  How to Get Into Harvard University: Admissions Data and Strategies  for all of the most recent admissions data as well as tips for gaining acceptance.

Yet, this sobering and realistic assessment of the facts on the ground should not discourage those with an extremely strong record of accomplishment—both inside and outside of the classroom—from applying.  Rather, we present this information to highlight one glaring truth: the essays are  one of the best opportunities  you will have to make your Harvard application shine brighter than your competition.

For the 2023-24 admissions cycle, there are five Harvard supplemental essays. Unlike previous years, all essays are required.

2023-24 Harvard Supplemental Essays 

Harvard has long recognized the importance of enrolling a diverse student body. how will the life experiences that shape who you are today enable you to contribute to harvard (200 words).

This prompt asks you to not only share a particular life experience but also describe why that experience will enable you to contribute to Harvard in general. Essentially, it’s asking you to take your essay’s reflection one step further—you’ll need to share why the experience you’ve chosen has impacted you as well as why/how you believe it will allow you to positively impact the Harvard community.

First, choose a key aspect of your experiences or background that reveals something deep and meaningful about you. (Although you could choose more than one, we’d advise against it, given that you only have 200 words in which to respond.) As you brainstorm, consider the following avenues:

  • Your role in your family.
  • Your role in your social group.
  • A challenge you’ve faced.
  • A formative experience or realization.
  • Core values and beliefs.
  • Important aspects of your upbringing.
  • Cultural, religious, community influence.

Harvard supplemental essays Continued)

Second, you’ll need to describe both personal and future impact. Make sure that your answer reveals something about how you will live out Harvard’s values or contribute to an academic/social community. For the latter angle, you could name a specific  course ,  research opportunity , or extracurricular club , to name a few—perhaps living in a beach town has heavily contributed to your passion for the world’s oceans, and you seek to bring that perspective to the biology department’s research opportunities. Alternatively, you could discuss something more intangible—perhaps Harvard’s mission to encourage intellectual transformation resonates with you, and you hope to bring your experience of moving frequently for your dad’s job—and the open-mindedness and resilience you cultivated as a result—to classroom discussions about sensitive topics.

Briefly describe an intellectual experience that was important to you. (200 words)

In short, admissions officers want to see evidence of your drive, passion, and intellectual ambition. You may have taken over a dozen AP courses, but so did most of your competition. Did you pursue independent research or a more formalized research experience at a university? Did you spend your summer pursuing your academic interests to the best extent that was financially feasible (e.g., expensive summer programs are not accessible to everyone)? What were the fruits of your labor? Does your name appear on published research? Did you present at a conference? Did you independently pursue CS certifications, mastering multiple programming languages? Or did you learn a foreign language outside of school hours? Translate a work of literature into another language? In addition to describing the experience, you’ll also need to share why it was important to you.

Ideally, whatever example you cite will be closely aligned with your future academic area of interest.

Harvard supplemental essays (Continued)

Briefly describe any of your extracurricular activities, employment experience, travel, or family responsibilities that have shaped who you are..

Harvard is not necessarily asking you to write about the activity where you earned the most prestigious awards. Nor does it have to be the one where you held the highest position of leadership. The university is going to see all of your activities in that section of the Common App. As such, you want to ask yourself—which of your entries is crying out for more explanation and detail? Which one is closest to your heart and most representative of your unique passions?

For example, you may be a volunteer EMT and have compelling experiences to share that have significantly impacted your perspective, or contributed to your desire to be a physician, or developed your empathy (or perhaps all of the above). Alternatively, you may have worked in a local restaurant and learned more about the lives of your undocumented coworkers, which shaped and contributed to your advocacy work in that area.

An activity or experience that “shaped who you are” is a big ask, but as long as you can demonstrate how it impacted and influenced you in a significant way, the activity you choose can be something you’ve been doing for ten years or two months.

How do you hope to use your Harvard education in the future? (200 words)

This prompt differs from your quintessential “Why Us?” essay in a small but important way—Harvard isn’t asking why you want to attend but how you hope to utilize the education you receive. This might seem like a rather nebulous proposition—you are seventeen years old, after all—but think about what your goals, passions, and aspirations are right now . You’ll then need to do some projecting, even if generalized. For example, some students can feel in their bones that they’re bound for the law school track while others only have a vague sense of what the future might hold for them but know that—right now—they’re most drawn to psychology. That’s where your research will come into play—spend some time investigating:

  • Specific courses  offered in your current discipline(s) of interest at Harvard.
  • Harvard professors whose work/research/writings you find fascinating.
  • Academically-focused  student organizations  at Harvard.
  • Undergraduate research opportunities  in the summer or during the school year as well as independent research you would like to conduct under faculty supervision.

Now, merge the two—based on your current goals and what Harvard has to offer, how can you see yourself putting your education to good future use? In short, how will Harvard’s resources prepare you for the real world?

Top 3 things your roommates might like to know about you. (200 words)

Applicants can utilize this response to give greater insight into the little details about themselves that may not appear elsewhere in the application. Keep the old adage “you don’t truly know a person until you live with them” in mind. Think about what your future roommate will learn about your daily habits, hobbies, quirks, passions, and preferences. What music do you like to listen to? What activities do you like to do (that, ideally, have not yet been communicated elsewhere)? Talk about your typical routine.

Once you make a list of potential inclusions, think about what each item communicates about you as a person. For example, if you can seldom be found without a novel in hand or spend an hour every morning practicing yoga, why is that important for us to know? That said, at least one detail could be comical or light-hearted (perhaps you can’t survive without a large supply of lime seltzer or always eat salt & vinegar chips when you’re up late studying). In the grand scheme of things, this is a genuine chance to reveal more about your character, unique personality, and also—sometimes— how to get along with others.

How important are the Harvard supplemental essays?

The Harvard supplemental essays are in the “considered” bucket. They are placed in the same category as factors such as test scores, GPA, and recommendations.

Want personalized essay assistance with your Harvard supplemental essays?

If you are interested in working with one of College Transitions’ experienced and knowledgeable essay coaches as you craft your Harvard supplemental essays, we encourage you to  get a quote  today.

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How to Write the Harvard University Supplemental Essays 2022-2023

Harvard University, perhaps the most prestigious and well-known institution in the world, is the nation’s oldest higher learning establishment with a founding date of 1636. Boasting an impressive alumni network from Sheryl Sandberg to Al Gore, it’s no surprise that Harvard recruits some of the top talents in the world.

It’s no wonder that students are often intimidated by Harvard’s extremely open-ended supplemental essays. However, CollegeVine is here to help and offer our guide on how to tackle Harvard’s supplemental essays. 

Read this Harvard essay example to inspire your own writing.

How to Write the Harvard University Supplemental Essays

Prompt 1 (optional): 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)

Prompt 2 (required): Please briefly elaborate on one of your extracurricular activities or work experiences. (50-150 words)

Prompt 3 (optional): 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:

(1) Unusual circumstances in your life

(2) travel, living, or working experiences in your own or other communities, (3) what you would want your future college roommate to know about you, (4) 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, (5) how you hope to use your college education, (6) a list of books you have read during the past twelve months.

(7) 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 .

(8) 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?

(9) 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, (10) 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., if none of these options appeal to you, you have to option to write on a topic of your choice., all applicants—prompt 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. (optional – 150 words).

While you don’t have to complete this essay, we at CollegeVine recommend completing any essay that could potentially give Harvard a deeper insight into your personality.  Here, Harvard is simply asking for a list of the activities you participate in outside of school. However, note that you don’t want to repeat anything you may have mentioned when listing your extracurriculars elsewhere on your application.

For example, if you took an online course on Python, this would be an appropriate place to list that. Or perhaps you designed an app on your own time that couldn’t be classified as an extracurricular or an academic responsibility; here would also be the place to list that.

If this question does not apply to your experiences, however, feel free to skip it. There’s no need to dwell on not completing this question, as it won’t make or break your application.

All Applicants—Prompt 2 

Please briefly elaborate on one of your extracurricular activities or work experiences. (required, 50-150 words).

This is the classic Extracurricular Activity essay prompt. Since this essay is only 150 words, there’s no need to add any gimmicks or overthink your response, though you can consider adding one short anecdote. The purpose of this question is essentially to give you the opportunity to further describe one of your activities, as Harvard can’t see these details from your extracurricular list.

When picking the topic, it’s definitely best to pick the activity/work experience that is the most significant to you, since this is likely to have played a larger role in your life. You also should pick an activity that was central to your personal growth. For instance, if you choose to discuss Model United Nations, you can briefly describe your role on the team and how it taught you to think on your feet (you were once asked to switch positions just hours before the simulation). If you were involved in research, you could describe the subject you stu died, what you learned, and why it inspired you to study science.

Take care to view your essays as a portfolio, however. If you already discussed one activity in your Common App essay, don’t talk about it again for this essay. Pick something else that shows a different side of you, or emphasizes a personal quality you really want to drive home.

Despite the limited word count, try to be as detailed as possible and avoid adding unnecessary “fluff” to your response. Every sentence should reveal something new about the experience and give Harvard a clearer sense of the ways in which you involved yourself outside of academics.

All Applicants—Prompt 3

Optional: 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:.

Before we jump in, note that this essay is optional. However, we highly recommend that you complete the essay, as it can only help your application by revealing another side to yourself. So far, the main source that Harvard can use to perceive your personality is your Common Application essay; this supplemental essay, however, gives you another opportunity to do so.

Although you are free to choose any topic you please, Harvard lists the above topics as jumping points for your writing. No matter what topic you choose, keep in mind the high-level principles that Harvard abides by: leadership, community, and intellectualism . Students who demonstrate selflessness through charity work or leadership in their communities are generally preferred to those with just a perfect academic record. Furthermore, Harvard also values unique and interesting academic interests, such as partaking in anthropology research, as this demonstrates going beyond your academic requirements.

The ideal length for your essay is about 500 words, any longer and your essay will be hard to read; if it’s too short, it will feel a little incomplete. With all of the above being said, let’s analyze each of the following topics in more depth.

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The most common mistake when writing this essay is choosing a topic that is unique in your immediate circumstances but not unique among the tens of thousands of Harvard applicants. You may want to avoid common topics, such as writing about a learning challenge such as ADHD; while there are ways to effectively write about such a topic, here is not the appropriate circumstance for that.  

A better way to approach this prompt would be to analyze an interest that is truly niche such as a specific anime fandom or restoring a brand of cars from the 1960s. If you write about restoring cars, for example, you could discuss how this interest has impacted your life and personality. Perhaps it has connected you with a small, but like minded group of individuals and has allowed you to find your inner circle.

Another example could be discussing any health issues you may have encountered in your life, especially those that are not very common. For instance, if you have a vision disorder that, if left untreated, progressively causes you to go blind, you could discuss your thoughts around this experience. Perhaps you sought treatment and were able to completely regain sight and want to discuss the ability of being able to see for the first time in years. This, unlike a more common challenge such as ADHD (although also justifiably challenging), is definitely more rare and unusual and would allow you to stand out among applicants.

Consider experiences that would distinguish you among a crowd of people. Although growing up in an immigrant family is a circumstance that may have affected several aspects of your life, this is not all that “unusual.” If you’re going to discuss racial or ethnic background, try to go one layer deeper into a highly specific issue that affected you. Examples might be colorism in the South Asian community or immigration’s impact on the Hispanic community. In addition, while it is perfectly acceptable to discuss struggles, you want to end your essay with some optimism or positivity to avoid having your essay feel like a rant.

If you choose to take this route, try to brainstorm a topic that a majority of people likely would not have experienced or encountered. However, if you’re struggling with this, there’s no need to worry because there is an endless number of other routes you could take with this essay. Not everyone has an unusual circumstance, so perhaps the next few topics will be a better fit.

Beware of falling into the cliche of writing about being a high school kid conducting service in other countries. It’s great if you’re involved in community service work, but these topics are often overdone and tend not to offer as unique of a perspective as other experiences, since many others may share the same experiences.

However, the inverse of this story works well, such as being a waiter serving people of higher socioeconomic classes. While this prompt is not the place for writing about assisting those less fortunate, as this is likely the topic that many applicants jump to, it could be a great place to discuss working with those with more privilege, as this would provide a unique perspective.

If you’re writing about travel by itself, make sure it involves a broader purpose than you simply becoming more worldly or culturally aware. For example, traveling to Peru and tasting Peruvian chicken and contemplating its flavors can connect back to your passion for history and cooking. You could discuss the history of Peruvian society and how the cooking methods are driven by Incan and Spanish elements. Decoding this origin of flavors can further connect back to your love of problem solving.

If you lived in another country for a few years, you could discuss learning the local language and how being in a foreign environment impacted your life as a whole. If there is a stark contrast between this country and the previous country you lived in, you could compare and contrast the two environments and discuss why this was significant.

Similar to the previous example, perhaps this experience heightened your passion for history and created a newfound love for linguistics, as you began to notice both the subtle and drastic differences between languages. Perhaps the overlap between history and linguistics is now a discipline you wish to pursue in the future.

T his essay allows you to be a bit more casual, as you don’t necessarily have to sound overly academic. As you begin, make sure you don’t want list every single one of your strengths or accomplishments, as this will read like a resume and come off a little too dry.

You want to strike a balance between indicating your strengths and humanizing yourself. Listing all positives will seem insincere, while focusing on negatives will cause Harvard to do the same. Sprinkling in a few of your fears and insecurities (without revealing anything that might cause you trouble on campus) is a great way to show honesty and make you more personable. Perhaps you could say something along the lines of “if you hear me screaming at the top of my lungs alone at my desk, don’t worry I probably just saw a spider.” A bit of humor can help your personality shine.

Another approach is crafting an inner monologue that discusses your initial struggle to make new friends or find your inner circle, reflects on your emotional maturation across high school, or contemplates the moment when you confronted your biggest fear.  For example, if you struggled with transitioning into your new high school, you could trace back your thought process and reflect on the emotions you experienced during your first week of school. Perhaps you were afraid of approaching new people, or you were worried that you wouldn’t fit into this new environment. You could frame it as if you’re having a conversation with yourself by documenting the reactions you had to specific moments. This would show a different side to you by revealing the ways in which you think and how these thoughts translate into action.

With that being said, however, keep in mind who’s reading your essay. Although this is a “letter to your future roommate,” your roommate actually won’t be reading this. The only people who will be reading your essay are those on the admissions committee, so while you should be a little more casual, you still want to be appropriate.

An excellent way to ensure that you’re remaining true to yourself is to have a close friend or family member read your essay to see if the essay screams you . Students often fall into the trap of trying too hard to be someone they’re not, when in reality your most honest self is your true self. Harvard simply wants greater insight into who you are as a person so don’t be afraid to show some personality!

We read through an example answering this essay prompt in the video below:

This is the perfect prompt to show your intellectual vitality and illustrate the ways in which you exercise your passions. For instance, if a simple robotics project was what ignited your love for engineering, here would be a great place to discuss that.

If you recently read an intriguing neuroscience paper, you could retrace your thought process when analyzing the paper and depict your curiosity in the topic. Perhaps this was the most meaningful to you because it allowed you to explore a new facet of science that you previously had not considered. Perhaps you used this paper as motivation to pursue neuroscience research in an outside lab, influencing your current passion of studying the complex workings of the brain.

You could also discuss a passion that is outside of your primary discipline in order to show Harvard the diverse range of interests you may have. Perhaps while you’re primarily passionate about medicine, you became interested in philosophy and ethics after having a debate in one of your high school courses. You could highlight how these two disciplines, while seemingly different, overlap and create a need for a deeper emphasis in medical ethics. By connecting your main passion with another topic, you can provide greater depth on your intellectual vitality.

This is a great prompt to discuss your intellectual passion and apply this to your vision of the world. A mistake that students commonly make is discussing their future dreams without connecting it back to their present experiences and passions. Make sure to draw the connection between the two and fuse the present with the future to avoid making this error.

While students often have large visions for tackling major problems such as global warming or curing cancer, these are often overdone since admissions committees see too many of these essays. Rather than focusing your essay on such a broad topic, try to narrow it down into something more specific that is equally impactful but may often be overlooked.

An example of this could be a student pursuing urban studies wanting to convert more rural and suburban intersections into roundabouts. While this may seem insignificant, such a change could save tens of thousands of lives over a time span of 20 years.

If you’re passionate about the environment, rather than discussing something broad like recycling or renewable energy, you could discuss the impact of fast fashion. Perhaps you hope to create an initiative at Harvard to have a free closet where students can donate and get new-to-them clothing without buying something new. Through this, you hope to take a role in improving Harvard’s campus sustainability for decades to come.

Students often approach this prompt too similarly to a resume, making their essays sound dry and a little boastful. Rather than attempting to show off every aspect of your life, dive deep into your academic or extracurricular passions, or add an element of personality to your list.

One way to successfully execute this essay is to order the titles in such a way that shows your progression through a topic. For example, you could begin with Freakonomics, then an AP Economics textbook, followed by the Wealth of Nations, the General Theory of Employment, Interest in Money, and ending with a book on market monetarism.

With the previous example, the key is to show why you found each title compelling and how it further contributed to your passion for economics. Make sure to discuss the changes that occurred between each transition and how this impacted your perspective of the topic. Why were you intrigued by each of these books and why did it allow you to fall in love with the subject?

The same structure goes with any other discipline. If you’re passionate about women’s literature, you could compare and contrast your observations from reading books written by various female authors written in different time periods. If you were involved in Science Olympiad, you could chronicle your journey through different discoveries based on the scientific novels you read.

However you could also simply list a series of books that you’ve read that do not necessarily have relationships to one another. Here are a few snippets from a student who chronicled her love for reading with her extensive book list:

“1. The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway (I wish my writing was as precise and powerful as his. This novel sparked my interest in the expatriates of the Lost Generation and influenced several of my other book choices on this list.)”

“7. Big Girl Small by Rachel DeWoskin (I love to judge books by their covers; this one looked like the book-equivalent of a “chick flick” and turned out to be dark, lousy fiction.)”

“11. Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller (I find that things haven’t changed much since the fifties: we face the same expectations, perpetuate the same stereotypes, and strive for the same goals that these characters do. A depressing take, I know.)”

“43. Walden by Henry David Thoreau (I have vowed to revisit this in a few years; I trudged through it, but I’m determined to enjoy it next time.)”

This student added an immense amount of personality into what initially appears to just be a list of books. However, the student expresses humor in book #7, shows an ability to analyze in #11, and connects a book to her passions in #1. In doing so, the student transforms what’s fundamentally a list of titles into something that is quite revealing and enjoyable to read. This is an extremely strong example and is a great template to follow if you choose to execute this prompt.

(7) 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 goal for this prompt is to write about something that is both insightful, yet won’t make you appear like a problem to Harvard. For instance, you would not want to discuss anything illegal that you’ve done or anything morally questionable. You should therefore look for a topic that has severe consequences but is also appropriate to discuss in a college application.

An example of this could be if you were the editor in chief of your school newspaper and had to handle a plagiarism issue. However, the lines became blurred when you discovered the individual under suspicion was one of your friends, making it more difficult for you to make a concrete decision. Perhaps, though, you realized that you must be a role model as the editor and uphold the moral standard that the role entails, ultimately causing you to terminate your friends membership on the team. Although you feared risking your friendship, your conscious proved to be the stronger force in the situation.

Other examples could be challenging your friends in other ways, such as ending friendships over sexist, racist, or homophobic comments or actions. Here, the consequences are severe in the sense that you lost a friend and risked being criticized for a lack of loyalty, but appropriate in that the law was not involved.

Harvard does not want you to preach the value of honesty and integrity since this is already given. Rather, they want to see that you recognize the implications of certain actions and how integrity plays a role into the choices you make.

Due to this, it is acceptable to tell a story of a time where you acted dishonestly but suffered consequences from your action, causing you to mature from your mistakes. The strongest essays are those involving situations where the lines between moral and immoral are blurred, making it all the more challenging to reach an appropriate conclusion.

This essay is similar to the prompt asking how you hope to use your college education, but eliminates the need to discuss pure academic interests. The same guidelines follow for this prompt, but with more focus on the leadership aspect.

For instance, the aforementioned example about creating a free closet at the school can also be applicable to this prompt. However, rather than discussing your goals to promote sustainability, you could instead analyze the topic from the perspective of educating your peers on how to participate in fashion without consumption. Perhaps you want to encourage fellow students to be leaders by hosting their own clothing swaps on campus. While true that you initiated the campaign, educating your peers allows them too to be leaders for future environmental change.

As in prompt 5, it’s preferable to choose a topic that’s underrated rather than a broad well-known issue. Perhaps you are passionate about a niche, but equally important, social issue and want to create an organization dedicated to its advancement. This would be a great place to discuss your goals surrounding this and how your leadership skills would apply.

If this applies to you, this would be an excellent opportunity for you to show a non-academic passion and how you plan to pursue it in your gap year. Make sure you discuss this topic in a constructive way that conveys a sense of passion and highlights your skill.

For instance, if you have a passion for gaming, perhaps you want to take a year off to pursue eSports or intern at a video game company in order further advance your passion in ways that an academic environment may not allow you to do so.

Another option for those business-minded applicants could be taking time off to pursue your own startup or gaining work experience at a company. Perhaps you feel that this experience would supplement your education and allow you to apply your skill set to real world applications.

You want to make sure that you use any potential time off in a meaningful way. For instance, if you want to take a year off to travel the world, make sure you make this time off significant to justify you leaving school. Perhaps you have extended family that cannot travel due to health or age and you had never had the opportunity to visit them. This would make your time off more meaningful since the usage has personal weight.

This is a challenging essay to write because it is difficult to be unique among tens of thousands of applicants. While some students from immigrant backgrounds might focus on stories about their heritage, this has become less unique over the years, since many students have similar stories.

An exception to this is if you grew up in poverty or a low socioeconomic background, as these will convey the same honesty as immigrant stories with the added benefit of being a little more uncommon. Your perspective on this issue would be greatly valued as it is one that likely will not be shared by a significant proportion of applications.

Another suggestion would be to consider different definitions of diversity as opposed to the obvious definition of diversity. This could be something like a physical attribute such as weight. Perhaps you are a strong advocate for body positivity and want to comment on the ways in which your body type has impacted you. Or perhaps you have been mistreated based on your physical experience and want to discuss the ways in which you overcame this.

Beyond physical traits, however, you could discuss cognitive diversity. For instance, if you worked on a team conducting a project, you could discuss the diverse ways in which each person approached a problem and how combining these differences fostered greater productivity. You can then discuss your own perspectives and your personal approaches to problem solving and how you think this will positively contribute to Harvard’s student body.

An independent topic, if done correctly, can be much more powerful than any of the above options. However, beware of trying too hard to be creative, as this can feel disingenuous and will be blatantly obvious to admission readers.

If you have a unique perspective on a truly innovative or interesting topic, such as why the 90’s is and forever will be the best decade, this is the place to discuss that. You want to write about something unconventional that would grasp the reader’s attention, yet it should be something that you are truly interested or involved in.

Another example could be chronicling your life in a comedic story by discussing major events with a lighthearted and fairytale-like tone. You could add humor and wit to both the positive and negative elements of your experiences to make the admissions officers feel as if they’re reading a story rather than an essay.

However, the possibilities are endless here. Only attempt this essay if you are confident in your innovative writing abilities and have gained approval from many reliable sources. An unconventional essay executed poorly could harm your application more than it helps it. Exercise good judgement, but don’t be afraid to be a little creative.

We hope this guide was helpful and has allowed you to tackle Harvard’s application with the utmost confidence. Happy writing!

Where to Get Your Harvard Essays Edited

Do you want feedback on your Harvard essays? After rereading your essays countless times, it can be difficult to evaluate your writing objectively. That’s why we created our free Peer Essay Review tool , where you can get a free review of your essay from another student. You can also improve your own writing skills by reviewing other students’ essays. 

If you want a college admissions expert to review your essay, advisors on CollegeVine have helped students refine their writing and submit successful applications to top schools.  Find the right advisor for you  to improve your chances of getting into your dream school!

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Harvard University

Essay requirements.

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Successful Application

All first-year applicants will complete five Harvard-specific short answer questions.


Short Answer Questions

All questions have to be answered.

Harvard has long recognized the importance of enrolling a diverse student body. How will the life experiences that shape who you are today enable you to contribute to Harvard?

Briefly describe an intellectual experience that was important to you. 

Briefly describe any of your extracurricular activities, employment experience, travel, or family responsibilities that have shaped who you are.

How do you hope to use your Harvard education in the future?

Top 3 things your roommates might like to know about you. 

Helpful Resources


How To Answer The “Why This College” Essay Prompt

We’ll go over the best ways to approach the 'Why This College" essay and provide helpful tips to help you write an effective essay that impresses admission officers.

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How To Format & Structure Your College Application Essay

Your essays are a chance for admissions officers to get to know you beyond your grades, test scores, and ECLs. But how do you craft essays that reflect who you are AND impress the admissions officers?


Everything You Need To Know About The Supplemental Essays

Supplemental essays are required by many highly selective institutions in addition to the personal essay included in your Common Application. You can learn all about what they are and why they’re important here.

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