How to Write Harvard's Supplemental Essays

Harvard's supplement requires 2 short essays and 1 long essay. Here are some tips to optimize your supplemental essays for Harvard:


Short Essay #1: Your intellectual life may extend beyond the academic requirements of your particular school. Please use the space below to list additional intellectual activities that you have not mentioned or detailed elsewhere in your application. These could include, but are not limited to, supervised or self-directed projects not done as school work, training experiences, online courses not run by your school, or summer academic or research programs not described elsewhere. (150 words max)


Harvard wants to see that you are a curious scholar who takes initiative for her own learning. That is, you go above and beyond the minimum requirements of school. Even if you tend to be a student who just does the bare minimum to get good grades in school, think broadly as you answer this prompt. You don't necessarily have to write about research experiences you've had at some fancy laboratory under the guidance and mentorship of a university professor. If you've had those experiences, great; write about those excellent opportunities that you have taken. But if you haven't, don't worry. I would still recommend taking this opportunity to shed light on your intellectual experiences and growth. Seize every given opportunity to provide more information about yourself to your reader.


Have you ever worked with a teacher outside of the normal hours of school? Maybe you were really inspired about a subject and wanted to dig deeper. Maybe you wanted to embark upon an independent research project with the assistance of your teacher. But on the other hand, maybe you just needed some assistance grasping difficult concepts, and your teacher was willing to put in the extra time to help you. Show your reader that you are unafraid to tackle subjects that challenge you and that you are willing to put in the time and energy to master subjects.


Have you started or participated in a club or extracurricular activity based on an intellectual interest? Have you tutored younger students or peers in subject areas that you have mastered? Have you visited libraries or other community centers to learn subjects more deeply or apply them practically? Have you toured museums or galleries that have provided inspiration to your intellectual interests? Have you read books just for fun because you were curious and wanted to learn more? Once you start thinking broadly in this way, you should definitely have something to write about that will be both revealing and interesting--shedding light on your intellectual vitality.


Because this is a very short essay, you should minimize the storytelling and focus more on providing straightforward information about yourself and your intellectual experiences to your reader. You don't have much space to play around--get to the point and highlight the most important information for your reader.


Short Essay #2: Please briefly elaborate on one of your extracurricular activities or work experiences. (150 words max)


This short essay is a version of an essay that used to be required on the Common Application. When the Common Application eliminated this short essay requirement, many colleges including Harvard began including a version of the essay in their supplements. How do you pick a good topic for this short essay? I would recommend taking a close look at your Activity List on the Common Application. There, you probably listed 10 or so activities that represent the most meaningful extracurricular experiences of your high school career. This essay should take one of those experiences (preferably one in the top 5) and elaborate on that experience. You should definitely avoid picking an activity that you already discussed in another essay.


Like I mentioned above, because this is also a very short essay, you need to minimize the storytelling and focus more on packing lots of information into a condensed space. Don't just describe what the activity or experience is. Elaborate also on why and how you are involved in that activity or experience. Why did you pursue this? Why is it meaningful to you? How have you participated? How has the activity or experience changed you or made you grow? What have you ultimately put into this activity or experience, and what have you taken away? Remember that each piece of your application should provide more insight and information about you, and if there is a piece of your application that you have not yet been able to highlight sufficiently, this is your opportunity to explain its significance to your reader.


Long Essay #1: 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: - 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.


This is really not an optional essay if you are serious about applying to Harvard. In fact, I recommend that you view this essay as your second main Common Application essay. If you write a good essay for this prompt, you will be able to recycle it for many other school supplements, so make sure that you put in the time, energy, effort, and creativity to write a dazzling essay.


Even though there is no specific word limit for this essay, I recommend that you aim for approximately 500-650 words, just like you should for your main Common Application essay. Moreover, the style of your essay should be more like that of your main Common Application essay rather than that of your more straightforward and information-packed short essays. That is, there should be a good balance between (1) storytelling and (2) reflection and analysis (the showing and the telling). I would, however, recommend that you try to vary the tone of this essay if possible and if appropriate. For example, if your main Common Application essay was very serious and scholarly, try to take a more lighthearted and humorous approach to this essay. Showcase different sides of your personality to your reader, and let them see and experience the depth and the breadth of your writing.


So what should you ultimately write about? Harvard really leaves it open-ended for you because they want to see the judgment that you exercise in choosing your essay topic. What essential aspect about yourself have you not yet communicated or explored sufficiently in your application? Avoid redundancies in your essay. This is a long essay, so choose wisely a fruitful topic. Many of my tips for tackling the free choice prompt of the main Common Application essay are relevant for tackling this open-ended Harvard essay prompt.


Even though this essay is very open-ended, there are some implicit questions that you should be thinking about as you tackle this essay. First, why are you interested in Harvard specifically? Second, why should Harvard admit you specifically? Your essay definitely does not need to answer those two questions explicitly; however, a good essay will find a way to make a strong impression on the reader regarding those two issues. Keep those two implicit questions in the back of your mind as you brainstorm and write your essay.


If you do choose to recycle another long essay you have written (e.g., your long essay for Princeton), please do not just copy and paste. Adapt it and change it to fit Harvard--even if it's only minor modifications. You don't want to reveal that you just recycled another school's essay, even if that's what you ultimately did. Be tactful and subtle. Give the impression to your reader that Harvard is your top choice and that you spent time and energy customizing an essay for Harvard.

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