How to Write the Harvard Application Supplemental Essays (2017-18)

What can we say about Harvard that hasn't already been said? Harvard is an academic powerhouse that's been producing accomplished alumni for centuries. Harvard employs some of the world's most brilliant minds and provides its students with an abundance of spectacular academic resources. It’s unquestionably one of the best academic institutions in the world.   

"Yeah, sure, Harvard rocks," you're thinking, "but how on earth am I going to get in?"

Here's something to keep in mind: Harvard may be a leader in the field of rocket science, but it doesn't take a rocket scientist to get in (ba-dum tss).  Instead, the admissions officers are looking for applicants who will make the most of Harvard’s resources and contribute meaningfully to the campus community. They try to admit a group of students with wide-ranging interests and talents from a wide variety of backgrounds who “will be the best educators of one another and their professors—individuals who will inspire those around them during their College years and beyond.”

The best, most effective place to demonstrate these qualities is your supplemental essay. In this post, we'll analyze the Harvard supplemental essay prompts and explain the best strategies for acing each one.

harvard campus

The "Optional" Essay

Is the Harvard essay really optional?

Here's what Harvard says: “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.”

Here’s what Harvard means: “Please include an additional essay. By taking the time to write an additional essay, you demonstrate that you put as much time and care into writing your application as we put into reading it. We know you are a complex and multi-faceted person and there is no conceivable way that your Common Application essay says every single important thing about you. TELL US MORE.”

So, no, the Harvard essay is not really optional.

What’s the word limit for the Harvard essay?

The Harvard application doesn’t provide a minimum or maximum word count for the required essay. Except in rare circumstances, we recommend sticking to the standard Common App range of 250 – 650 words. Imposing this word limit on yourself will prevent your essay from filling up with digressions or getting overly wordy.

Optional Essay Prompts

1. Unusual circumstances in your life.

This prompt asks you to explain unusual circumstances in your life, but the admissions officers are actually looking for more than that. What they hope you’ll do is show how those circumstances made you the person you are today. After all, your circumstances alone say very little about who you are, but how you grew from those circumstances says a great deal.

So, if you choose this prompt, make sure you can explain specific ways that the circumstances shaped you. For example, let’s say you were your younger sibling’s primary caretaker during high school. Don’t just write an essay about how difficult the experience was. Describe the challenging circumstances, but focus on how they influenced you – and be specific. If you say that the experience changed your outlook on life, tell us how and why. What was your original outlook on life? What is your new outlook? How have you changed as a result of that new outlook? Illustrate that change with anecdotal evidence.  

Many applicants have to overcome incredible odds to apply to Harvard. The admissions officers will appreciate the fact that you fought hard to get to this point. They will be impressed by your grit, determination, and drive. While it’s important to share the story of your struggle, make sure you don’t dwell on the negatives or on things that happened to you. Instead, write an essay that shows your strength of character and determination, and make sure it touches on things you made happen.

2. Travel or living experiences in other countries.

First, let’s get the elephant out of the room: this essay is not the place to talk about how much you love Paris or that time you went skiing in the Alps. This prompt is designed for students with significant and personally meaningful experiences in other countries. How did your experience abroad contribute to your personal growth? What did you learn and how did it change you?

Students who have volunteered abroad often end up writing essays about these experiences. Tread carefully. “Voluntourism” essays are an admissions cliché, and only in rare circumstances do they enhance an application. These essays often sound condescending and naïve (“I showed up for two days and changed a bunch of kids’ lives!” they seem to suggest).  Plus, they rarely end up saying much about the applicants themselves. Unless you have a uniquely significant experience volunteering abroad, or you feel you can reflect on the experience in a uniquely mature and thoughtful way, avoid the topic.

The best travel/living experiences essays will show how the experience triggered personal growth. Don’t just describe where you went and what you saw. Show us that it opened your mind, altered your perceptions, or spurred you to action. Provide vivid descriptions not just of the place itself, but of the specific moments that led to your growth. Ultimately, this is a personal essay, not a travelogue, so the essay should center around you.

3. What you would want your future college roommate to know about you.

The Harvard admissions team wants to get to know you. Your roommate essay should sound like you – not some fictional ideal Harvard student. In fact, it should sound so much like you that a friend or family member could read twelve different roommate essays and easily pick out which one is yours.

Don’t just list things you like – show us how those things make you you. For example, there are infinite reasons why you might love knitting. Maybe you love knitting because it reminds you of your grandmother, who you lived with for the first 10 years of your life and who taught you how to knit, sew, cook, and care for yourself. Or maybe you love knitting because you’re a fiction writer and the methodical knitting process helps you come up with your best ideas. Isn’t it amazing how many distinct, vivid details can emerge from the simple fact of liking to knit? These are the kinds of details that will help your future roommate (and the admissions officers) get to know you.

Consider using a unique structure to get your point across in a memorable, engaging way. For example, if you’re a filmmaker, you could write this essay in the style of a movie trailer voiceover. Don’t be afraid of stylistic experimentation, especially if that experimentation showcases something important about who you are. As long as this essay conveys meaningful information about you, you’ve accomplished the goal of the prompt.

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.

“Intellectual curiosity” is probably one of the admissions phrases you’ve heard the most. The Harvard admissions officers want to admit students who genuinely relish the search for knowledge. After all, Harvard has some of the best academic resources in the world, and it’s important that admitted students are eager to take advantage of them. In addition to intellectual curiosity, the admissions team also hopes to see that you are committed to and passionate about your chosen field.

In this essay, you have an opportunity to demonstrate your intellectual curiosity and commitment. Can you think of a particular experience you’ve had in your field that left you feeling thrilled and inspired? If so, this prompt is probably for you.

The essay should focus on your intellectual growth, so think about questions like these as you prepare to write: How did the experience influence your intellectual development? What new perspectives did you gain about your field? How did the experience change your approach to tricky intellectual problems? What about the experience inspired you to pursue the field more deeply?

Make sure the essay is engaging and narrative-driven. If you’re writing about working as a research assistant in a biology lab, it’s appropriate to mention the goal of the research and explain the kind of work you were doing. However, don’t forget that this is a personal essay, not an abstract. Instead of describing your work in a removed, detached manner, bring the readers into the lab with you. Use vivid details to make them feel your enthusiasm.

This essay will work best if you hone in on a particular anecdote. Take the reader with you as you face an unexpected intellectual challenge or work to solve a complicated problem.  Use that anecdote to illustrate the intellectual growth process. Don’t just tell us you gained a new perspective – write a scene that demonstrates your shift in perspective. 

5. How you hope to use your college education.

Right now, your main focus is probably getting into college. That’s perfectly reasonable, but admissions officers are already thinking about what you’ll do once you get out of college. They want to know how you’ll represent the university after graduation. What will you contribute to society? Will Harvard be proud to call you an alumnus?

In this essay, you will explain how your Harvard education will help you achieve your post-graduation goals. The key here is to provide as much detail and specificity as possible. Harvard knows how great their school is, so you can skip the generalizations (“I know I will benefit from attending a prestigious institution such as Harvard”) and go straight to the specifics.

Start by creating a one-sentence career goal elevator pitch. Your career goal elevator pitch should be more than “I want to be a museum curator.” That’s great, but it doesn’t say anything about what you hope to accomplish in the field. “I want to be a museum curator in order to showcase the artwork of little-known women artists of color” is specific and concrete. So is “I want to be a clinical psychologist, working to improve the lives of children and parents of children with mood disorders.”

Once you have your pitch, it’s time to identify particular programs/opportunities that will facilitate your pursuit of that goal.  Let’s take a closer look at the museum curator example.  If you’re an aspiring curator, you probably want to concentrate in History of Art & Architecture. Head to the department website and read as much as you can about the program. Read the official description of the concentration, browse the course listings, check out professors’ research projects, etc. Look for specific opportunities – classes, research opportunities, teaching styles, etc. – that connect directly to your career goal elevator pitch.

Now, you have everything you need to write this essay. Focus on making clear connections between your goals and Harvard’s programs. Explain what you will gain thanks to Harvard’s programs, and how you will parlay those personal/intellectual gains into professional success.

Remember: no generalizations (“I will learn so much at Harvard thanks to the many wonderful professors”) and no laundry lists (“Classes such as Biology 101, Biology 102, Chemistry 103, and Chemistry 104 will prepare me for my career as a doctor”). Focus on showing admissions officers that you’ll make the most of Harvard’s resources and become a graduate they can be proud of.

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

At first glance, this prompt might look undesirable. It seems to suggest you have to write a straight-up list – no context allowed. Who wants to be judged on a list of books with no context? Perhaps the most voracious, exploratory readers…but not many others.

Don’t let the prompt mislead you. You’re free to add commentary to ensure that this prompt maximally benefits your application. And, in most cases, the book list will better serve your application if you provide context.

Let’s talk strategy. If you think your reading list says a lot about who you are, consider the following options for writing this essay: 

  1. DEPTH: Does your application center around your interest in a specific field? Do you read extensively and consider yourself fairly knowledgeable in that field (especially for a high school student)?  If so, the book list is a clever way to demonstrate the depth of your knowledge. Feel free to select books that relate directly or indirectly to your area of interest. Then, provide brief explanations of how each book influenced you and your work in your area of interest. Don’t be afraid to offer real opinions here. If a book convinced you to study environmental science, say so!  If another book infuriated you with its weak argument against the existence of climate change, say that too!  If executed well, the “depth” book list will demonstrate genuine excitement and enthusiasm for your field.
  2. BREADTH: On the other hand, this prompt also gives you lots of space to talk about your multiple passions and interests – including the ones you haven't had room to mention elsewhere. Are you a future biology major who loves reading poetry? Show off both sides of yourself here.
  3. NARRATIVE: Another way to tackle this prompt is by using a highly structured, narrative approach. Allow the books you choose to tell a story about you, your life, your interests, or your goals. For example: you might divide your list into four sections, each representing a season from the past year. Then, you would select one book for each season and write briefly about how that book related to you in that specific season in your life.  This type of structured approach will work best if you really do have a story that can be told through book titles. Don’t try to squeeze your book list into a narrative-sized hole if it doesn’t fit – the result will sound awkward and forced.

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. 

In your answer to this prompt, the admissions team is hoping to see that you understand the value of honesty and integrity.  Clearly, however, it’s not enough to simply pontificate. They want you to reflect on a particular experience and thus demonstrate real world insight – not just abstract ideas.

The strength of your essay depends upon the strength of your story. We’ve all been in situations that tested our honesty, but not every situation warrants a reflective essay. Sneaking out past curfew, getting caught, and deciding never to sneak out again certainly demonstrates that you made a choice about honesty and learned from your mistakes, but it doesn’t make a meaningful statement about your character. On the other hand, if you mounted a protest against corruption in local politics despite being underestimated because of your young age, you have a compelling story to tell about honesty and integrity. Some of the best responses to this prompt focus on how the applicant fought dishonesty, even in the face of major obstacles or resistance. These types of stories show remarkable strength of character and conviction, and admissions officers love students who stand firmly by their principles.

Remember: morally ambiguous situations are fair game, but you should never wade into murky legal waters by discussing offenses like illicit drug use or academic dishonesty. Even if you learned from the situation, admissions officers may start to doubt your suitability for the honesty-centric Harvard community.

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?

Harvard cares a great deal about the contributions of its students: on- and off-campus, before and after graduation. Admissions officers want to fill Harvard’s dorms and classrooms with engaged students who support one another and enhance the quality of campus life. And, naturally, they want to admit students who will serve as positive Harvard representatives long after graduation. Every university is a brand, and although Harvard’s brand is strong, they rely on their students to maintain that impressive image.

With that said, let’s break down this prompt. The prompt first states that Harvard places great importance on creating “citizens and citizen-leaders” for society. All this means is that Harvard hopes each of its graduates becomes an engaged community member and creator of positive change. It also means that the Harvard admissions team is looking for students who already show signs of these qualities. The prompt then asks how you will contribute “to the lives of your classmates in advancing this mission.” In other words, demonstrate that you are already an engaged citizen and citizen-leader, then tell us how you will bring those qualities to Harvard’s campus and beyond.   

Think about the leadership roles you have held. Can you pinpoint a specific instance in which you used your leadership skills to create positive change? For example, maybe your conflict resolution and mediation skills helped turn a dysfunctional student government into an effective group of young leaders. Give specific details of what leadership skills you used and what kind of change you created.

Of course, being a good citizen and citizen-leader doesn’t always mean being in an official leadership role. If you have a story of successfully taking action to make a difference in your community, you can tell that story here.

Remember that the prompt ultimately asks you to envision how you will advance the mission of educating Harvard’s students to be citizens and citizen-leaders for society. After you tell your story, reflect on the skills and qualities that the story illustrates, and how you will bring those qualities to Harvard’s campus.

9. A topic of your choice.

You have the option of writing on the topic of your choice. If there's a story you want to tell that doesn't fit any of the provided prompts, here's your option. Make sure your essay tells a compelling narrative, includes vivid detail, and demonstrates meaningful personal growth and/or qualities. Consider what Harvard already knows about you from the rest of your application and think about what else you'd like them to know. Are you a brainy researcher who loves to host karaoke nights for your friends? If you can write a karaoke story that includes meaningful personal insight, that topic could be a perfect way to showcase a totally different side of yourself. 


As you write your Harvard supplemental essay, remember that this is an opportunity to showcase your personality, your strengths, and the unique qualities you'll bring to the Harvard campus. Take a deep breath. You can do this!

Make sure to check out our guide to writing the Yale supplemental essays. Stay tuned for our upcoming essay guides for Princeton, Stanford, and MIT!

Looking for personalized assistance with your Harvard application and essays? Learn more about our Admissions Advising Program and Essay Coaching services. 

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