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Harvard University’s 2023-24 Essay Prompts

Diversity short response.

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?

Intellectual Experience Short Response

Briefly describe an intellectual experience that was important to you.

Extracurricular Short Response

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

Future Goals Short Response

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

Roommate Short Response

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

Common App Personal Essay

The essay demonstrates your ability to write clearly and concisely on a selected topic and helps you distinguish yourself in your own voice. What do you want the readers of your application to know about you apart from courses, grades, and test scores? Choose the option that best helps you answer that question and write an essay of no more than 650 words, using the prompt to inspire and structure your response. Remember: 650 words is your limit, not your goal. Use the full range if you need it, but don‘t feel obligated to do so.

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?

Reflect on something that someone has done for you that has made you happy or thankful in a surprising way. How has this gratitude affected or motivated you?

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.

What will first-time readers think of your college essay?

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How To Answer Harvard's 2023/24 Supplemental Essays: Tips & Insights

How To Answer Harvard's 2023/24 Supplemental Essays: Tips & Insights

What's New in 2023/24

What are Harvard's Essay Prompts?

How to Answer Harvard's Essay Prompts

General Guidelines

Explore the changes in Harvard's supplemental essay prompts for 2023/24, understand the nuances of each question, and gain insights on crafting compelling responses with our detailed guide, complete with expert tips and links to successful Harvard essay examples.

Harvard's 2023/24 Supplemental Essay Updates: What's Changed?

Gaining admission to Harvard is no small feat, with acceptance rates sometimes plummeting as low as 3% . In such a competitive environment, every component of your application, especially your essay, becomes a crucial tool to stand out to admissions officers.

Every year, top-tier universities like Harvard fine-tune their application process to get a deeper understanding of their applicants. For the 2023/24 admissions cycle, Harvard University has made notable modifications to its supplemental essay questions .

Last year, applicants had a mix of required and optional prompts, with varying word limits, ranging from 50 to 150 words. These prompts touched on extracurricular activities, intellectual experiences, personal backgrounds, and more.

This year, Harvard has streamlined the process, requiring all applicants to answer five questions, each with a strict 200-word limit . The questions emphasize the importance of diversity, intellectual experiences, extracurricular activities, the utilization of a Harvard education, and personal insights for potential roommates.

This shift indicates a desire for more concise, focused responses from applicants, allowing the admissions committee to gain a clearer, more uniform understanding of each student's background, aspirations, and personality.

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What Are Harvard’s Supplemental Essay Prompts for 2023/24?

For the 2023/24 application cycle, Harvard University has outlined specific supplemental essay prompts to understand applicants better in addition to the Common App or Coalition App questions. These questions delve into your experiences, intellectual pursuits, and personal insights. Students are required to answer each Harvard-specific question in under 200 words. Here's a breakdown of the prompts:

  • Diversity and Contribution : Harvard values a diverse student body. Reflect on your life experiences and explain how they have shaped you and how you plan to contribute to Harvard. (200 words)
  • Intellectual Experience : Discuss an intellectual experience that has had a significant impact on you. (200 words)
  • Personal Shaping Experiences : Elaborate on extracurricular activities, employment, travel, or family responsibilities that have played a pivotal role in defining who you are. (200 words)
  • Future Aspirations : Describe how you envision utilizing your Harvard education in the future. (200 words)
  • Getting to Know You : List three things your future roommates should know about you. (200 words)

These prompts offer applicants a chance to showcase their personalities, aspirations, and experiences, providing a holistic view of their candidacy.

Looking for inspiration? Dive into these Harvard essay examples to see what successful applications look like!

How to Answer Harvard’s Supplemental Essay Questions?

This guide aims to help you craft a compelling response that showcases your unique journey and potential contributions to Harvard's diverse community.

As you begin planning responses to each individual prompt, be sure to consider what experiences, reflections, and qualities you want to showcase once you’ve responded to all the prompts:

  • Ensure you won’t leave out any important experiences, reflections, and qualities you want Harvard to know about.
  • Be sure you’ll avoid repeating the same experiences, reflections, or qualities in the other prompts.

Answering Prompt 1

Harvard values a diverse student body. reflect on your life experiences and explain how they have shaped you and how you plan to contribute to harvard., - 200 words or fewer, 1. understand the question.

Harvard is not merely asking for a list of experiences. They want to understand the depth of your experiences , how they've molded your character, and how you'll use that growth to contribute to the Harvard community.

Since Harvard is telling you they value diversity, consider emphasizing unique experiences or circumstances that highlight the most personal and profound aspects of your personality, values, and perspectives.

2. Reflect on Your Unique Experiences

Consider moments in your life that have had a significant impact on your worldview:

  • Have you lived in multiple countries, exposing you to various cultures?
  • Did you overcome challenges that forced you to view the world differently?
  • Were there pivotal moments in your upbringing that shaped your identity?
  • How did interactions with diverse individuals or groups influence your perspectives?

3. Dive Deep into Personal Growth

Discuss the evolution of your perspectives, values, or aspirations.

  • How did these experiences challenge your beliefs or expand your understanding?
  • What lessons did you derive, and how have they influenced your subsequent actions or decisions?
  • What experiences or reflections shape your deepest beliefs and values? — or, shape some deep questions or doubts you wrestle with?

4. Connect to Harvard

Consider how your unique perspective will enrich Harvard's community .

  • Will you introduce new viewpoints in classroom discussions or help teams work together more successfully?
  • Will you contribute to or initiate student organizations or community projects?
  • Will you exemplify certain traits that enhance a vibrant, curious, and inclusive learning environment?

5. Be Concise and Authentic

With a 200-word limit, precision is key. Ensure your narrative is genuine, making your essay resonate with the reader. Avoid generic statements; instead, provide specific examples that showcase your journey.

Harvard's first supplemental essay is an opportunity to showcase the depth of your experiences and how they've shaped you . Reflecting on significant moments, emphasizing personal growth, and connecting your unique perspective to how you'll contribute to Harvard is essential. Remember to be concise, authentic, and ensure your essay is polished to perfection.

Answering Prompt 2

Discuss an intellectual experience that has had a significant impact on you..

This question aims to help you articulate the depth and significance of an intellectual experience and its profound impact on your academic and personal journey.

1. Define "Intellectual Experience"

Before diving in, understand that an intellectual experience isn't limited to classroom learning . It could be:

  • A book that changed your perspective
  • A conversation that challenged your beliefs
  • An experience that triggered a profound insight or understanding
  • Or even a personal project or research endeavor

2. Choose a Meaningful Experience

Reflect on experiences that genuinely transformed your thinking:

  • Was there a particular course or project that ignited a passion?
  • Did a specific book, article, or documentary challenge your pre-existing beliefs?
  • Have you attended seminars, workshops, or lectures that introduced you to new ideas?

3. Delve into the "Why"

Discuss why this experience was transformative:

  • What preconceptions or beliefs did it challenge?
  • How did it expand or deepen your understanding of a particular subject or idea?
  • Did it inspire further exploration or study into the topic?

4. Highlight Personal Growth

Describe how this intellectual experience influenced your academic and personal journey:

  • Did it guide your academic pursuits or career aspirations?
  • How did it shape your values, beliefs, or worldview?

5. Be Authentic and Reflective

Your genuine curiosity and passion should shine through. Avoid using jargon or overly complex language. Instead, focus on genuine reflection and personal growth .

Harvard's second supplemental essay seeks to understand your intellectual journey . It's an opportunity to showcase your curiosity, passion, and the transformative power of learning. By reflecting on a significant intellectual experience and its impact on you, you can demonstrate your academic depth, your own intellectual processes and aptitudes, and intellectual growth.

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Answering Prompt 3

Elaborate on extracurricular activities, employment, travel, or family responsibilities that have played a pivotal role in defining who you are..

This question is designed to help you articulate the significance of experiences outside the classroom and their profound impact on your personal journey.

1. Prioritize Depth Over Quantity

While you might have multiple experiences, focus on one or two that have had the most profound impact on you . This allows you to delve deeper and provide a more insightful reflection.

2. Choose a Defining Experience

Reflect on moments that genuinely shaped your character:

  • Was there an extracurricular activity that taught you leadership, teamwork, or dedication?
  • Did a job teach you responsibility, time management, or the value of hard work?
  • Has travel exposed you to diverse cultures, broadening your perspectives?
  • Were there family responsibilities that instilled in you a sense of maturity, empathy, or resilience?

3. Describe the Experience

Briefly set the scene. Whether it's the bustling environment of a part-time job, the challenges of a leadership role in a club, or the nuances of a family responsibility, paint a picture for the reader.

4. Reflect on the Impact

Discuss how this experience influenced your personal growth:

  • What challenges did you face, and how did you overcome them?
  • What skills or values did you acquire or strengthen?
  • How did this experience shape your aspirations, perspectives, or values?

5. Connect to the Present

Highlight how this experience continues to influence you:

  • How do the lessons you learned guide your current decisions or actions?
  • How has it influenced your academic interests or future aspirations?

Harvard's third supplemental essay is an opportunity to showcase experiences outside the classroom that have significantly influenced your personal growth . Reflecting on these pivotal moments and their lasting impact can provide a holistic picture of your character, values, and aspirations.

Answering Prompt 4

Describe how you envision utilizing your harvard education in the future..

This question aims to help you articulate how a Harvard education aligns with your future goals and the impact you aim to make in your chosen field or community.

1. Reflect on Your Goals

Begin by identifying your long-term aspirations . Have a clear vision in mind, whether it's a specific career, a desire to address a global challenge, or a passion you wish to pursue further.

2. Highlight Harvard's Unique Offerings

Research specific programs, courses, or opportunities at Harvard that align with your goals. This could be a particular academic program, research opportunities, or extracurricular activities.

3. Draw a Connection

Discuss how these unique offerings will equip you with the skills, knowledge, or experiences needed to achieve your future aspirations . Make it evident that Harvard is the ideal place for you to realize these goals.

4. Go Beyond the Obvious

While Harvard's academic excellence is a given, delve into the broader Harvard experience. Consider the influence of its diverse community, its culture of innovation, or its commitment to leadership and service.

5. Discuss the Broader Impact

Expand on how you plan to use your Harvard education to make a difference . Whether it's in your community, in a particular field, or on a global scale, showcase your commitment to creating positive change.

6. Stay Authentic

Ensure your response is genuine and reflects your true aspirations. Admissions officers can discern genuine passion and commitment from generic responses.

Harvard's fourth supplemental essay is an opportunity to showcase your forward-thinking approach and how you plan to leverage Harvard's resources to achieve your future goals. By drawing a clear connection between what Harvard offers and your aspirations, you demonstrate a purposeful approach to your education.

Answering Prompt 5

List three things your future roommates should know about you..

This question aims to help you present a genuine and well-rounded picture of yourself, offering insights into your personality, habits, and values.

1. Reflect on Your Personality

This prompt is an invitation to share more about your personal side. Think about the quirks, habits, or values that define you. What are the things that make you, well, you?

2. Balance Seriousness with Lightness

While one point could be a deep reflection of your values or beliefs, another could be a fun fact or a unique hobby. This mix gives a rounded picture of who you are.

3. Be Genuine

Avoid coming up with things you believe the admissions committee wants to hear. This is your chance to let your true self shine through.

4. Consider Your Daily Life

Think about your habits or routines, the music you listen to, or the books you read. These can offer insights into your personality and preferences.

5. Reflect on Past Living Experiences

Have you shared a space with someone before — roommate, sibling, family members, fellow campers?… Think about what made the experience harmonious. Were there particular habits, routines, or guiding principles you followed that were appreciated by those you were sharing space with?

Harvard's fifth supplemental essay is a chance to showcase your personality beyond academics and extracurriculars . By sharing genuine aspects of yourself related to day-to-day living and the many small ways you interact with those around you in more personal spaces, you give a glimpse into your life outside the classroom and what it might be like to share a living space with you.

5 Tips for the "Why This School?" Essay

General Guidelines for Crafting Stellar Harvard Supplemental Essays

1. Understand the Question: Before you start writing, ensure you fully understand what the prompt is asking. Break it down and consider its nuances. This will help you stay on track and address all aspects of the question.

2. Be Authentic: Harvard isn't just looking for high achievers; they're looking for genuine individuals. Your essay should reflect your true self, not what you think the admissions committee wants to hear.

3. Show, Don't Tell: Instead of just stating facts or beliefs, use anecdotes, experiences, or stories to convey your points. This makes your essay more engaging and paints a clearer picture of who you are.

4. Stay Within the Word Limit: While it might be tempting to write more, respect the word limits. It shows that you can convey your thoughts concisely and respect guidelines.

5. Proofread and Edit: Always review your essay multiple times for clarity, coherence, and grammar. Consider also asking a teacher, mentor, or friend to review it.

6. Connect to Harvard: While the prompts might not explicitly ask for it, subtly showing why your experiences, values, or aspirations align with Harvard's culture or offerings can be a plus.

7. Reflect on Growth: Colleges love to see personal growth. Reflect on how experiences have shaped you, lessons learned, and how you've evolved.

8. Avoid Repetition: Ensure that your supplemental essays present new information and don't repeat what's already in your Common App essay or other parts of your application.

9. Be Forward-Looking: While it's essential to reflect on past experiences, also touch on how these experiences prepare you for future endeavors, especially at Harvard.

10. Start Early: Give yourself ample time to brainstorm, draft, and revise. Starting early reduces stress and allows you to approach the essay with a clear mind.

Remember, the supplemental essays are an opportunity to showcase aspects of yourself that aren't evident in other parts of your application . Use them wisely to provide a holistic picture of yourself and why you'd be a great fit for Harvard.

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Final Thoughts

The journey to Harvard is more than just academic prowess; it's about crafting a narrative that resonates deeply with the admissions committee. Your supplemental essays provide a unique window into your personality, aspirations, and the distinct perspectives you'll bring to the Harvard community.

Every Harvard aspirant has a story waiting to be told. This is your moment to share yours. Approach your essays with authenticity, introspection, and a genuine passion for your narrative.

If you're wondering whether your essay truly captures your essence or if it stands out from the multitude of applications, our essay review service is here to help. Our team of experts will meticulously review and provide feedback to refine your essay, ensuring it resonates with admissions officers. For further inspiration, delve into our ebook , which showcases essays from students who clinched spots at top universities. And if Harvard is your dream, these successful Harvard essay examples will provide invaluable insights.

For those just starting their college application journey, consider booking a free consultation with our seasoned college counselors. We're dedicated to guiding you in creating an application that significantly enhances your chances of donning the Crimson colors. Harvard is within reach, and we're here to help you every step of the way.

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What Makes Crimson Different

Key Resources & Further Reading

  • Everything you need to know about US Application Supplemental Essays
  • Acing your College Application Essay: 5 Expert Tips to Make it Stand Out from the Rest
  • How to Tackle Every Type of Supplemental Essay
  • 2023-24 Common App Essay Prompts
  • What are the Most Unusual US College Supplemental Essay Prompts?

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Harvard University 2023-24 Supplemental Essay Prompt Guide

Regular Decision Deadline: Jan 1

You Have: 

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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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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August 10, 2023

2023-2024 Harvard Supplemental Essay Prompts

A hall at Harvard University shaded by trees

Harvard University has released its supplemental essays for the 2023-2024 college admissions cycle. The Ivy League institution, which defended the practice of Affirmative Action for all American universities and was defeated in a late June 2023 ruling of the United States Supreme Court, is arguably being watched more closely than any other university with respect to its response to the outlawing of the consideration of race in admissions. So how did Harvard change its supplemental essays?

Over the last few admissions cycles, in addition to The Common Application essay(s), Harvard asked applicants one long essay prompt, a short prompt, and a list. This year, the long prompt and list are gone. In their place are five — that’s right — five 200-word essays. The essay questions are new as well. It’s as though Harvard did a refresh. So let’s dive into the language of the Harvard essay prompts for applicants to the Class of 2028 !

2023-2024 Harvard Essay Topics and Questions

1. 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?

This prompt is Harvard’s most overt response to the Supreme Court’s ruling. While the Supreme Court struck down the legality of Affirmative Action, Chief Justice John Roberts, in his majority opinion ruling against Harvard, wrote, ““At the same time, as all parties agree, nothing in this opinion should be construed as prohibiting universities from considering an applicant’s discussion of how race affected his or her life, be it through discrimination, inspiration, or otherwise.”

This essay prompt is the manifestation of the loophole Chief Justice Roberts penned in the majority opinion. In response to the Supreme Court’s decision , Harvard President-elect Claudine Gay said, “The Supreme Court’s decision on college and university admissions will change how we pursue the educational benefits of diversity. But our commitment to that work remains steadfast.”

Oh yes, it does — as evidenced by this Harvard essay prompt in which applicants are required to thoughtfully reflect on the diversity — in all of its forms — that they hope to bring to Harvard’s community. And, remember, it doesn’t have to be racial diversity. It can be religious diversity. It can be diversity of thought. The question is intentionally open-ended.

2. Briefly describe an intellectual experience that was important to you.

Ideally, applicants will write about an intellectual experience that relates to their hook so they showcase a singular angle rather than well-roundedness on their Harvard application. As such, if a student is an astrophysicist, writing about an intellectual experience beneath the night’s sky has the potential to wow Harvard’s admissions committee.

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

Harvard has long asked for students to write about one of their extracurricular pursuits. Applicants should just make sure not to repeat an activity here that they wrote about in any other essay that Harvard’s admissions officers will see. The activity should also be included within the activities section on The Common Application .

And while so many Harvard applicants do love to brag in response to this essay prompt by, for instance, writing about how much money they raised for a charity, Ivy Coach’s students applying to Harvard would never make such a mistake. After all, a big reason Ivy Coach’s students so often earn admission to Harvard — as every one of them has in 26 of the last 30 Early cycles — is that they present as entirely likable. Admissions officers want to root for our students.

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

In past years, international applicants to Harvard were presented this essay prompt but, this year, it’s being asked of  all  Harvard applicants. It’s an opportunity to showcase precisely how a student hopes to change the world in one super specific way — through the hook they’ve ideally presented in their activities and storytelling.

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

It seems Harvard has taken a page from Stanford University with this latest essay prompt. Stanford has asked applicants to write a note to their future roommate for many years.

For this essay, it’s vital that all three things applicants share demonstrate intellectual curiosity and/or kindness. The responses can’t just be silly. Too many applicants are inclined to answer this question with answers that offer no insight into how they think or wish to change the world. And that’s a wasted opportunity.

Ivy Coach’s Assistance with Harvard Essays

If you’re interested in Ivy Coach ’s help optimizing your case for admission to Harvard by presenting the most powerful storytelling possible, fill out our consultation form , and we’ll be in touch to outline our college counseling services for seniors .

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How to Respond to the 2023/2024 Harvard Supplemental Essay Prompts

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Cece Gilmore is a Content Writer at Scholarships360. Cece earned her undergraduate degree in Journalism and Mass Communications from Arizona State University. While at ASU, she was the education editor as well as a published staff reporter at Downtown Devil. Cece was also the co-host of her own radio show on Blaze Radio ASU.

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How to Respond to the 2023/2024 Harvard Supplemental Essay Prompts

Chances are, you have heard of Harvard University, a private Ivy League research university located in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Known as the oldest university in the United States, Harvard attracts students from all over the world. With an acceptance rate of around 4% , your application needs to stand out. One of the best ways to show who you are is through your very own writing. Keep reading our guide for how to ace the Harvard supplemental essay questions! 

Before answering the essay questions 

All Harvard University applicants are required to respond to five 200 word supplemental Harvard essay questions. 

All of the Harvard supplemental essay questions have a 200 word limit. Remember, 200 words is not a lot of words to express yourself. Therefore, you will need to be short, sweet, and direct with your answers. The goal is to share your unique personality on the page–do not drag on or use filler words! Just remember to be yourself in your response. 

Essay question #1

“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 max) 

Ultimately, this question wants to hear about what makes you unique and diverse. Try to brainstorm main aspects of your identity that you want to be highlighted to Harvard. Some examples could include your ethnicity, your hometown, a club you are a part of and more. Most importantly, you should be thinking about life experiences you have had that have shaped you. 

For example, if your Asian heritage is an important part of your identity you should detail a time in which you attended an Asian festival as a child and realized how proud you are to be Asian. Telling a narrative and life experience you have had rather than just stating a piece of your identity will give you a leg up on the competition. 

Once you have told a story about the life experience you have chosen to talk about, now you have to detail how you will contribute to Harvard. Remember, Harvard prides itself on having a diverse student body, so use this to your advantage! Discuss how this important part of your identity and life experience can be brought to the Harvard community. Perhaps you want to join or even start a club on campus or you hope to do something in your dorm related to your identity. Whatever you hope to bring to the Harvard community, make sure you are discussing it in this response! Make sure that it connects back to the life experience you wrote about earlier in the essay. 

Questions to consider

  • What is an important part of your identity? 
  • What experiences have you had that have shaped you? 
  • How will you help contribute to the Harvard community? What hopes do you have for attending Harvard? 

Essay question #2

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

Harvard wants to admit applicants that are intellectually curious and driven. These engagements do not need to fit into any structure. For example, you can write about an online French class you took, an art camp you attended, or a research project you worked on. All are relevant as long as you write about what has special meaning to you.

Ultimately, in your response you should be revealing to the Harvard admissions officers how you critically think. Begin by detailing a narrative about this intellectual experience, make sure you are describing rather than just simply stating. Next, you should reflect on this experience. What did you learn from this experience? Would you do anything differently next time? Then, you should connect back to Harvard. Discuss what characteristics you now possess from this experience that would make you a great addition to the Harvard community. 

  • What is an intellectual experience you have had? 
  • How does this experience make you prepared for Harvard? 
  • What reflections do you have regarding this intellectual experience? 

Essay question #3 

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

This is such a great place to expand on the activities you described on your Common App activity list. Once you’ve picked an extracurricular activity or a few that you are heavily involved in, be sure to then mention specifics.

Be sure to provide context and valuable information regarding your extracurricular activities/work experience. Whoever is reading your response should gain a better understanding of the activities and work experience you have. 

Lastly, connect to how these experiences have shaped who you are today. Think about any life lessons or characteristics you have gained from these activities. 

Questions to consider:  

  • What do you do during your involvement? 
  • What is your role in this activity or place of work?
  • Why did you choose to participate in this activity or work? 

Essay question #4

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

This is your opportunity to describe your long-term goals! Make sure you are not only describing your future goals but also how Harvard will help you reach them. 

To begin, describe any future aspirations you may have. This could include your intended major, career and life goals. In fact, both small and large goals can be described in this response. However, you should be extremely specific about these goals as something like “I want world peace” may cause your Harvard essay to become muddied. 

Then, connect back to Harvard! What specific student organizations, classes, professors and extracurricular activities that Harvard offers will help you achieve your goals? You need to be emphasizing how Harvard will be able to help you better reach your goals than any other education offered. 

Questions to consider: 

  • What life goals do you have for yourself? 
  • How will Harvard help you achieve your goals? 
  • Why do you want a degree from Harvard? 

Essay question #5

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

This last prompt is a lighter response! It’s a chance for you to take a more casual approach on a Harvard essay. 

To begin you should brainstorm some ideas! Try to think about hobbies, music taste, extracurriculars, siblings or any fun facts you may have! You can also discuss your living habits and maybe some unique things about your bedtime routine. 

Whatever three things you choose, make sure your list has some variety to it! It should not be 3 things you do every morning after you wake up but rather an assortment of fun facts about yourself. 

Additionally, you can play around with the formatting of this essay! Since it is asking you to list the top three things your roommates might like to know about you, you can make a bulleted list. Or, you can even format it as a text or letter to your future roommate. Whatever format you choose, just be creative and authentic! 

  • What are some unique fun facts about yourself? 
  • How are you as a roommate? 
  • What activities would you like to do with your roommate? 

Next steps after applying to Harvard University

Congratulations! It is time to submit your perfect application to Harvard. Take a breather and acknowledge all the hard work you just completed!  Continue to show interest in Harvard so they know you are committed and prioritizing their school. 

This can be done by:

  • following their social media accounts
  • reaching out to admissions officers
  • scheduling an in-person or virtual tour
  • reading up on what you want to get involved in on campus 

Additional resources

For students applying to colleges, there are an abundance of things to consider during the process. The most important thing is understanding what colleges to apply for to ensure you have good options to choose from. Check out our guides on how to find safety, reach, and match schools .

In addition, check out our guide on whether to send test scores to test-optional schools . Make sure that you are putting your best “you” on the page! 

Lastly, funding college can be a challenge. So, check out our t o help fund your education! 

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Aiming for the world-renowned Harvard University? As part of the application to this prestigious Ivy League school , you'll have the option to submit a supplemental essay. But what should you write about for your Harvard essay? What are the different Harvard essay prompts to choose from, and how should you answer one so you can give yourself your best shot at getting in?

In this guide, we give you advice for each Harvard essay prompt as well as tips on whether you should choose a particular prompt. But before we look at the prompts, let's go over what Harvard actually requires in terms of essays.

Feature Image: Gregor Smith /Flickr

What Essays Do You Need to Submit to Harvard?

Those applying for admission to Harvard must submit an application through either the Common Application , the Coalition Application , or the Universal College Application (UCA) . For your Harvard application, you'll need to write a personal essay in response to one of the prompts provided by the Common App, Coalition App, or UCA (depending on the system you're applying through).

This essay is required for all applicants and should typically be about 500-550 words long (and must be less than 650 words). To learn more about this essay, check out the current prompts for the Common App , Coalition App , and UCA on their official websites.

In addition to this required essay, you have the option of submitting another essay as part of the Harvard supplement. The Harvard supplement essay, as it's known, is completely optional—you may, but do not need to, write this essay and submit it with your application.

Also, this essay also has no word limit, though if you do write it, it's best to stick to a typical college essay length (i.e., somewhere around 500 words).

Harvard advises applicants to submit this supplemental essay "if [they] feel that the college application forms do not provide sufficient opportunity to convey important information about [themselves] or [their] accomplishments."

Options for essay topics are very open ended, and you have a total of 10 topics from which you can choose (11 if you include the fact that you may also "write on a topic of your choice").

Here are the 2022-2023 Harvard supplement essay prompts :

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.

As you can see, some of these topics are more specific and focused, while others are more broad and open ended. When it comes down to it, though, should you write the Harvard supplement essay, or should you skip it altogether?

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Should You Do the Harvard Supplement Essay?

You're already required to submit a personal essay for your Harvard application—so do you really need to submit an extra essay? In reality, opinions are mixed on whether you should write the Harvard supplement essay or not.

While some people are under the impression that this essay is basically mandatory and that your chances of getting into Harvard without it are slim. Others believe that submitting it (especially if you don't have anything particularly impressive or interesting to write about) is simply a waste of time.

So which is it? In general, if you have the opportunity to submit something that you think will only strengthen your college application, definitely do it. By doing this essay, you'll add more flavor to your application and showcase a different side of your personality.

Indeed, in his review of his successful Harvard application , PrepScholar co-founder and Harvard alum Allen Cheng strongly recommends writing this extra essay. He also notes that it's likely that most Harvard applicants do , in fact, submit the supplemental essay (as he himself did).

But it's worth stating again: this essay is not required for admission to Harvard. Whether you submit a Harvard supplement essay is entirely up to you—though I highly recommend doing it!

If you're really struggling to decide whether to do the extra Harvard essay or not, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Do you consider yourself a strong writer? Are there people you trust who could edit and proofread your essay for you?
  • Are you worried about other parts of your Harvard application that could negatively affect your chance of admission , such as below-average SAT/ACT scores, a low GPA, etc.?
  • Do you feel that you didn't get to write about something you really wanted to for the required essay?
  • Is there something you believe the admissions committee should know about you that you haven't gotten a chance to write about yet?
  • Do you have enough time to dedicate to writing and polishing another essay?
  • Do you think your overall Harvard application is too one-sided or too focused on one aspect of your personality and/or interests? Could your application benefit from more diversity and balance?

Hopefully, by answering these questions, you'll start to have a clearer idea as to whether you will write the Harvard supplement essay or not.

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How to Write the Harvard Essay: Every Prompt Analyzed

In this section, we go through the 10 possible Harvard supplement essay prompts and offer you tips on how to write an effective, powerful essay, regardless of which prompt you choose.

Prompt 1: Unusual Circumstances

This essay prompt is all about highlighting an unusual situation or event in your life and what kind of impact it ultimately had on you. Harvard asks for this in case applicants want to discuss anything significant that has happened to them and has had a major influence on their academic accomplishments, future goals, perspectives, etc.

This is also an opportunity for applicants to discuss any major struggles they have had (that most students their age haven't had) and the way these experiences have personally affected their lives. 

Should You Choose This Prompt?

If you grew up with an uncommon lifestyle or had an uncommon experience that you believe had a strong effect on you, this is a good prompt to choose for your essay. For example, perhaps you grew up speaking four languages fluently, or you were the youngest of fourteen children.

This is also an ideal prompt to choose if you want to provide more background information for a weak point in your application. For instance, say you contracted a serious illness during your sophomore year, and your many absences caused your GPA to drop. You could then write about how you approached this problem head-on, and how working with a tutor every day after school to raise your GPA ultimately revealed to you an inner strength you never knew you had.

Tips for Answering This Prompt

  • Choose an experience or situation that is actually uncommon. This doesn't mean that no one else in the world could have it, but try to focus on something that's unique and has had a big impact on your personal growth. As an example, although many teenagers were raised by a single parent, only you grew up with your parent, so concentrate on how this person as well as the overall situation helped to shape your personality and goals.
  • If you're writing about something that was challenging for you, don't just conclude that the experience was difficult. What specifically have you learned or taken away from it? Why is it important for the Harvard admissions committee to know this? For instance, say you had to move six times in just two years. You could write that although it was difficult adjusting to a new school each time you moved, you eventually started to enjoy meeting people and getting to explore new places. As a result of these experiences, you now have a lot more confidence when it comes to adapting to unfamiliar situations.

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Prompt 2: Travel, Living, or Work Experiences

This prompt is asking you to discuss experiences you've had that involved traveling, living, and/or working in a specific community (either your own or another) and what kind of effect that experience has had on you.

Here are examples of experiences you could talk about for this essay:

  • Living or traveling abroad
  • Moving to a new place or living in multiple places
  • Working a part-time job
  • Working a temporary job or internship somewhere outside your own community

If you've had an experience that fits or mostly fits one of the examples above and it's had a big impact on how you see and define yourself as a person, this is a solid prompt for you.

On the other hand, do not choose this prompt if you've never had a significant experience while traveling or working/living somewhere.

  • Choose a truly significant experience to talk about. Although your experience doesn't need to be life-changing, it should have had a noteworthy impact on you and who you've become. If, for example, you traveled to Mexico with your family but didn't really enjoy or learn much from the trip, it's better to avoid writing about this experience (and might be better to choose a different prompt altogether!).
  • Make sure to talk about how this travel/living/work experience has affected you. For example, say you spent a couple of summers in high school visiting relatives in South Africa. You could write about how these trips helped you develop a stronger sense of independence and self-sufficiency—traits which have made you more assertive, especially when it comes to leading group projects and giving speeches.
  • Don't be afraid to get creative with this essay. For instance, if you lived in a country where you at first didn't understand the local language, you could open your Harvard essay with an anecdote, such as a conversation you overheard or a funny miscommunication.

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Prompt 3: Your Future College Roommate

Unlike some of the other more traditional Harvard essay prompts on this list, this prompt is a little more casual and really lends itself to a creative approach.

For this prompt, you're writing an essay that's more of a letter to your future college roommate (remember, however, that it's actually being read by the Harvard admissions committee!). You'll introduce who you are by going over the key traits and characteristics that make you you —in other words, personality traits, eccentricities, flaws, or strengths that you believe are critical for someone (i.e., Harvard) to know about you.

This Harvard essay prompt is all about creativity and describing yourself—not a specific event or circumstance—so it's well suited for those who are skilled at clearly and creatively expressing themselves through writing.

  • Focus on your unique attributes. Since you're describing yourself in this essay, you'll need to concentrate on introducing the most unique and interesting aspects about yourself (that you also think a roommate would want or need to know). What's your daily routine? Do you have any funny or strange habits or quirks? How did you develop these characteristics?
  • Be true to your voice and don't pretend to be someone you're not. Don't say that you're always telling jokes if you're normally a very serious person. Describe yourself honestly, but don't feel as though you must tell every little detail about yourself, either.
  • Strike a balance: don't focus only on the positives or negatives. You want to come across as a strong applicant, but you also want to be realistic and authentic (you're human, after all!). Therefore, try to find balance by writing about not only your strengths and positive attributes but also your quirks and flaws. For instance, you could mention how you always used to run late when meeting up with friends, but how you've recently started working on getting better at this by setting an alarm on your iPhone.

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Prompt 4: An Intellectual Experience

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.

With this prompt, Harvard wants you to focus on an intellectual or learning experience that's had a big impact on you in terms of your personal growth, your academic/intellectual interests and passions, the field of study you want to pursue, etc.

This intellectual experience could be anything that's intellectually stimulating, such as an essay or book you read, a poem you analyzed, or a research project you conducted.

Note that this experience does not need to be limited to something you did for school —if you've done anything in your spare time or for an extracurricular activity that you think fits this prompt, feel free to write about that.

Should You Choose This Topic?

This is a good prompt to choose if a certain intellectual experience motivated you or triggered an interest in something you really want to study at Harvard.

For example, you could write about how you found an old copy of Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species at a garage sale, and how reading this prompted you to develop an interest in biology, which you now intend to major in and eventually make a career out of.

This is also an ideal prompt to pick if you want to highlight a particular interest or passion you have that differs from the academic field you want to study in college.

For instance, perhaps you're applying for admission as a computer science major, but you're also a huge fan of poetry and often take part in local poetry readings. Writing about a poem you recently read and analyzed could illuminate to the admissions committees a different, less prominent side of your personality and intellectual interests, ultimately showing that you're open minded and invested in gaining both new skills and experiences.

  • Choose an experience that had a significant impact on you. Don't talk about how reading Romeo and Juliet in eighth grade made you realize how much you enjoyed writing plays if you were already writing plays way before then! If you can't think of any memorable intellectual experience to write about, then it's best to opt for a different prompt.
  • Be specific about the intellectual experience you had and clearly relate it back to your strengths and interests. In other words, what kind of impact did this experience have on you? Your academic goals? Your future plans? For example, instead of writing about how a scientific paper on climate change made you think more deeply about the environment, you could talk about how this paper prompted you to form a recycling program at your school, take a class on marine biology, and so forth.

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Prompt 5: Your Future Goals

This Harvard essay prompt is pretty self-explanatory: it wants you to discuss how you intend to use your education at Harvard after you graduate —so in a future job or career, in grad school, in a particular research field, etc.

Basically, how will your college education help you achieve your future goals (whatever those may be)?

If you have a pretty clear vision for your future goals during and after college, this is a perfect prompt to choose for your Harvard essay.

If, on the other hand, you're still undecided about the field(s) you want to study or how you intend to use your major, you might want to choose a different prompt that's less focused on your future and more concentrated on how past events and experiences have shaped you as a person.

  • Be careful when talking about your future goals. You don't want to come off too idealistic, but you also don't want to sound too broad or you'll come across unfocused and ambivalent. Try to strike a balance in how you discuss your future dreams so that they're both attainable and specific.
  • Clearly connect your goals back to your current self and what you've accomplished up until this point. You want to make it clear that your goals are actually attainable, specifically with a Harvard education. If you say you hope to start your own interior design business after graduation but are planning to major in biology, you're only going to confuse the admissions committee!
  • Emphasize any ways Harvard specifically will help you attain your academic goals. For example, is there a club you hope to join that could connect you with other students? Or is there a particular professor you want to work with? Don't just throw in names of clubs and people but specifically explain how these resources will help you reach your goals. In short, show Harvard that what they can offer you is exactly what you need to succeed.

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Prompt 6: List of Books

Of all Harvard essay prompts, this one is by far the most unique.

Here, you're asked to simply list the books you've read in the past year. This essay is more than just a list, though—it's a brief overview of where your intellectual interests lie. These books may include works of fiction or nonfiction, essays, collections of poetry, etc.

Have you read a lot of diverse and interesting books in the past year? Are you an avid reader who loves dissecting books and essays? Do you enjoy a creative approach to college essays? If you answered yes to these questions, then this prompt is a perfect fit for you.

Even if you haven't read a ton of books this past year, if you were especially intrigued by some or all of what you did read, you could certainly use this prompt for your essay.

  • Instead of just listing the titles of books you've read, you might want to include a short sentence or two commenting on your reaction to the book, your analysis of it, why you enjoyed or didn't enjoy it, etc., after each title. Be sure to vary up your comments so that you're highlighting different aspects of your personality. Also, don't just regurgitate analyses you've read online or that your teacher has said—try to come up with your own thoughts and interpretations.
  • Don't feel the need to stick to only the most "impressive" books you read. The Harvard admissions committee wants to see your personality, not that of a pretentious applicant who claims to have only read Jane Austen and Ernest Hemingway. Be honest: if you read Twilight in a day, why not make a short joke about how addictive it was?
  • Go beyond a chronological list of books. It'll be far more interesting if you list the books you read in a more unique way. For example, you could organize titles by theme or in the order of how much you enjoyed them.

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Prompt 7: Honesty

As you can see with this quotation, Harvard strongly values honesty and integrity. Therefore, if you go with this prompt, you're essentially telling Harvard that you, too, embody a powerful sense of morality and honesty.

  • Was there a specific time in your life when you had to make a difficult choice to be honest about something with someone?
  • Could this incident be considered morally ambiguous? In other words, was the "right thing to do" somewhat of a gray area?
  • If you didn't make the "right" choice at the time, how did you come to terms with or learn from this decision? What were the consequences, and what did this experience teach you about your own morals and how you value honesty?
  • Be wary of the topic you choose to write about. Don't discuss a situation in which you did something obviously unethical or, worse, illegal. These types of situations are very black and white and therefore don't pose much of a moral dilemma. Additionally, talking about such an experience might make you seem dishonest and immoral, which you absolutely do not want Harvard to think about you!
  • Try to find a topic that isn't black and white. Choosing "gray" incidents will help emphasize why the choice was so difficult for you and also why it's affected you in this way. For example, say your friend calls you crying right before you have to leave to take the SAT. Do you skip the test to comfort your friend, or do you hang up and leave? This kind of situation does not have an evident "right" answer, making it an ideal one to use for this essay.
  • You could also discuss a time when you did not make the "right" choice—and what you learned from that mistake. As long as you look closely at why you made the "wrong" choice and what this incident taught you about integrity, your essay will be interesting and relevant.

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Prompt 8: Citizens and Citizen-Leaders

This prompt might sound a little vague, but all it wants to know is how you'll have a positive impact on both your classmates and on other people after graduation. Put simply, what kind of leader/citizen will you be at Harvard? After you graduate from college and enter the real world?

This prompt is similar to Prompt 5 in that it wants to know what kind of person you'll become after you leave college and how you'll positively influence society.

If you're a natural-born leader and have had at least a few significant experiences with leading or facilitating things such as club activities, field trips, volunteer efforts, and so on, then this Harvard essay prompt would be a great fit for you.

  • Focus on a time when you led others and it resulted in a positive outcome. For instance, you could write about your position as team captain on your school's soccer team and how you would gather your teammates before each game to offer words of encouragement and advice on how to improve. You could then describe how your team began to perform better in games due to clearer communication and a stronger sense of sportsmanship. Make sure to answer the critical question: how did you lead and what ultimately made your leadership style successful?
  • Discuss what kind of role your leadership skills will have at both Harvard and after you graduate. The prompt is asking about your classmates, so you must specifically address how your leadership skills will contribute to the lives of your peers. How will your past experiences with leading help you approach group projects, for example? Or clubs you join?
  • Make sure to mention how you'll be a good citizen, too. By "citizen," Harvard essentially means a productive member of both the school and society in general. Basically, how have you contributed to the betterment of society? This is a good place to talk about experiences in which you played a crucial supporting role; for instance, maybe you helped out with a local volunteer initiative to feed the homeless, or maybe you joined a community project to build a new park in your town.

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Prompt 9: Taking Time Off

Here, you're being asked what you plan to do with your time if you decide to defer your admission to Harvard or take time off during college. For example, will you travel the world? Work a full-time job? Do an internship? Take care of a sick relative?

Obviously, Harvard doesn't want to read that all you're going to do is relax and play video games all day, so make sure to think carefully about what your actual plans are and, more importantly, how these plans will benefit you as a person and as a student.

Only choose this Harvard essay prompt if you're pretty certain you'll be taking time off from college at some point (either before or during) and you have a relatively concrete idea of what you want to do during that time.

  • Be specific and honest about your plans. While many students like to take time off to travel the world, you don't just want to write, "I plan to backpack Europe and learn about cultures." Think critically about your desires: why do you want to do this and how will this experience help you grow as a person? Don't just reiterate what you think Harvard wants to hear—be transparent about why you feel you need this time off from school to accomplish this goal.
  • Be clear about why you must do this at this particular time. In other words, why do you think this (i.e., before or during college) is the right time to do whatever it is you plan to do? Is it something you can (or must) do at this exact time, such as a one-time internship that won't be offered again?

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Prompt 10: Diversity

This final Harvard essay prompt is all about what you can bring to campus that will positively contribute to student diversity. Though we tend to think of race/ethnicity when using the word "diversity," you can actually interpret this word in a number of ways.

As a large and prestigious institution, Harvard strongly values students who have different and unique backgrounds and experiences, so it's important for them to admit students who embody these values as well.

This prompt is essentially a version of the diversity essay , which we talk about in more detail in our guide.

The main question to ask yourself before choosing this prompt is this: do you have a unique background or interest you can write about?

Here are some key types of diversity you can discuss (note that this is not an exhaustive list!):

  • Your ethnicity or race
  • A unique interest, passion, hobby, or skill you have
  • Your family or socioeconomic background
  • Your religion
  • Your cultural group
  • Your sex or gender/gender identity
  • Your opinions or values
  • Your sexual orientation

If any of these topics stand out to you and you can easily come up with a specific characteristic or experience to discuss for your essay, then this is a solid prompt to consider answering.

  • Choose a personal characteristic that's had a large impact on your identity. Don't talk about your family's religion if it's had little or no impact on how you see and define yourself. Instead, concentrate on the most significant experiences or skills in your life. If you play the theremin every day and have a passion for music because of it, this would be a great skill to write about in your essay.
  • Be clear about how your unique characteristic has affected your life and growth. You don't just want to introduce the experience/skill and leave it at that. How has it molded you into the person you are today? How has it influenced your ambitions and goals?
  • Be sure to tie this characteristic back to the diversity at Harvard. Basically, how will your experience/skill/trait positively influence the Harvard student body? For example, if you come from a specific cultural group, how do you believe this will positively impact other students?

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A Real Harvard Essay Example

Our resident full SAT / ACT scorer and co-founder of PrepScholar, Allen Cheng , applied to, got into, and attended Harvard—and he's posted his own Harvard supplement essay for you to look at. You can read all about Allen's essay in his analysis of his successful Harvard application .

Allen describes his essay as "probably neutral to [his Harvard] application, not a strong net positive or net negative," so it's important to note that this Harvard essay example is not representative of exactly what you should do in your own Harvard supplement essay. Rather, we're showing it to you to give you a taste of how you could approach the Harvard essay and to demonstrate the kinds of simple mistakes you should avoid.

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Writing a Memorable Harvard Essay: 3 Tips

To wrap up, here are three tips to keep in mind as you write your Harvard supplement essay.

#1: Use an Authentic Voice

Having a clear, unique, and authentic voice is the key to making yourself stand apart from other applicants in your Harvard application—and to ensuring you're leaving a long-lasting impression on the admissions committee.

Therefore, write your essay in the way that comes most naturally to you, and talk about the things that actually matter to you. For example, if you love puns, throwing one or two puns into your essay will emphasize your goofier, non-academic side.

Using your voice here is important because it humanizes your application. The essay is the only chance you get to show the admissions committee who you are and what you actually sound like, so don't pretend to be someone you're not!

The only thing to look out for is using too much slang or sounding too casual. In the end, this is still a college essay, so you don't want to come off sounding rude, disrespectful, or immature.

In addition, don't exaggerate any experiences or emotions. The Harvard admissions committee is pretty good at their job—they read thousands of applications each year!—so they'll definitely be able to tell if you're making a bigger deal out of something than you should be. Skip the hyperbole and stick to what you know.

Ultimately, your goal should be to strike a balance so that you're being true to yourself while also showcasing your intelligence and talents.

#2: Get Creative

Harvard is one of the most difficult schools to get into (it only has about a 4% acceptance rate! ), so you'll need to make sure your essay is really, really attention-grabbing. In short, get creative with it!

As you write your personal essay, recall the classic saying: show, don't tell. This means that you should rely more on description and imagery than on explanation.

For example, instead of writing, "I became more confident after participating in the debate club," you might write, "The next time I went onstage for a debate, my shoulders didn't shake as much; my lips didn't quiver; and my heart only beat 100 times instead of 120 times per minute."

Remember that your essay is a story about yourself, so make sure it's interesting to read and will ultimately be memorable to your readers.

#3: Edit and Proofread a Lot

My final tip is to polish your essay by editing and proofreading it a lot. This means you should look it over not once, not twice, but several times.

Here's the trick to editing it: once you've got a rough draft of your essay finished, put it away for a few days or a week or two. Don't look at it all during this time —you want to give yourself some distance so that you can look at your essay later with a fresh perspective.

After you've waited, read over your essay again, noting any mistakes in spelling, grammar, and/or punctuation. Take care to also note any awkward wording, unclear areas, or irrelevant ideas. Ask yourself: is there anything you should add? Delete? Expand?

Once you've done this step several times and have a (nearly) final draft ready to turn in, give your essay to someone you can trust, such as a teacher, parent, or mentor. Have them look it over and offer feedback on tone, voice, theme, style, etc. In addition, make sure that they check for any glaring grammatical or technical errors.

Once all of this is done, you'll have a well-written, polished Harvard essay ready to go— one that'll hopefully get you accepted!

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What's Next?

If you've got questions about other parts of the Harvard application, check out our top guide to learn what you'll need to submit to get into the prestigious Ivy League school .

How tough is it to get into Harvard? To other selective universities ? For answers, read our expert guide on how to get into Harvard and the Ivy League , written by an actual Harvard alum!

What's the average SAT score of admitted Harvard applicants? The average ACT score? The average GPA? Learn all this and more by visiting our Harvard admissions requirements page .

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Your dedicated PrepScholar Admissions counselor will craft your perfect college essay, from the ground up. We'll learn your background and interests, brainstorm essay topics, and walk you through the essay drafting process, step-by-step. At the end, you'll have a unique essay that you'll proudly submit to your top choice colleges.

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Hannah received her MA in Japanese Studies from the University of Michigan and holds a bachelor's degree from the University of Southern California. From 2013 to 2015, she taught English in Japan via the JET Program. She is passionate about education, writing, and travel.

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How To Write Harvard’s Additional Essay

This article was written based on the information and opinions presented by Elias Miller in a CollegeVine livestream. You can watch the full livestream for more info. 

What’s Covered:

An overview of the prompt, breaking down the suggested prompts, writing an unconventional essay.

In this post, we’ll look at Harvard University ’s third supplemental essay prompt, break down the suggested topics for this essay, and discuss how to tackle the prompt in an unconventional way. For more information about Harvard, check out our article on how to get into Harvard and to read more about Harvard’s supplemental essays, check out our article on how to write the Harvard supplemental essays . 

Harvard’s third essay prompt reads:

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 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 12 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. 

If none of these options appeal to you, you have the option to write on a topic of your choice.

Although this prompt is optional, we highly recommend completing this essay as it can only help your application. This prompt provides another opportunity for Harvard to get to know who you are, so you should make sure to choose a topic that highlights your personality and how you align with Harvard’s principles of leadership, community, and intellectualism.

Unusual Circumstances Prompt

In answering this prompt, remember that just because an experience seems unique to you does not mean it will be unique within the context of Harvard’s applicant pool. 

For example, writing about dealing with a learning challenge, such as attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), may not be as effective without proper reflection. Many people have learning disabilities and other challenges, and a lot of people will choose to write about them. That doesn’t mean you should avoid the topic of ADHD. It means you should write about it in a way that is very specific to you, maybe by talking about a specific aspect of your diagnosis or experience and how it’s impacted your life in ways you didn’t expect. Your goal with any essay is to make yourself stand out and, with this prompt especially, to make sure that what you’re discussing is truly unique.

Similarly, writing about the general experience of growing up in an immigrant family will also not be as effective without highlighting your specific personal experiences and reflections. There are also many Harvard applicants who are immigrants or the child of immigrants, so if you choose to write on this topic, you need to make sure that the narrative you craft is unique to you and shows how your experiences have defined a part of your personality.

Not everyone has faced unique or unusual circumstances, and that’s fine. Most people who answer this prompt will discuss challenges or struggles. You could discuss an obscure or rare health challenge from which you suffer, or you could write about a highly specific issue you’ve encountered due to your gender, race, ethnicity, religion, or nationality. Regardless of the topic you choose, make sure your essay isn’t too dark and, ideally, end it on an uplifting or positive note. 

Travel, Living, Working Prompt

If you answer this prompt, you want to avoid the cliche of traveling to a low-income part of the world and learning from people who are less privileged than you. Writing about service work at home or abroad is overdone in general. If you do go this route, again, be specific. Pick a unique topic and write it so that it only applies to you and your experience.

If you’re going to talk about traveling, make sure you describe a more compelling and specific purpose than just becoming more culturally aware or more worldly. “I went to France because I wanted to be more worldly” is not a great essay topic here. A better example is a discussion of how you learned about your own heritage by traveling back to the country in which your parents were born and temporarily embedding yourself in the community there. Again, make it specific to you with plenty of personal details.

Future Roommate Prompt

In answering this prompt, you’ll want to strike a balance between positive attributes and humanizing, self-deprecating ones. Obviously, you’re not just going to list your positive attributes. This will sound boastful and pretentious. But you’re not doing this to list your negative attributes, either. If you do that, the Harvard admissions officers probably won’t have the best opinion of you in the end. Even a funny, self-deprecating essay that paints you as a bad roommate will not help you get into Harvard. 

It can be effective to mention a couple of your fears or insecurities, as long as you don’t make them sound too serious. Don’t be afraid to use humor or show some personality. Feel free to talk about some quirks you may have or some unique hobbies. Be genuine. You’re allowed to be a little more casual here than in a normal essay but, of course, remember that the audience is admissions officers, not potential roommates.

Finally, make sure you don’t say anything offensive or inappropriate. This advice applies to every essay. 

Intellectual Experience Prompt

In answering this prompt, try to zero in on an intellectual pursuit, possibly the major you’re considering, and tell the story of how you found that passion. For example, a future computer science major talking about how a simple robotics project ignited their love for programming. Similarly, a future philosophy major could talk about how they developed an interest in philosophy and ethics through a high school speech and debate experience. 

Another interesting approach could be discussing your least favorite or most challenging subject and how you grew to appreciate it, despite your initial struggles. Harvard highly values intellectualism and highlighting your curiosity for all subjects is a great way to show admissions officers that you are a good fit for the school.

Using Your Education Prompt

Although this prompt asks how you hope to use your college education, you should be thinking about it as how you hope to use your college education to create positive change in the world.

Large, frequently discussed missions like reversing climate change or curing cancer are overdone and a little too ambitious. Narrow down your goals to something a little more attainable, and don’t just discuss your future goals in a vacuum. Make sure you’re connecting them back to your current experiences, knowledge, and interests.

For example, let’s say you’re deeply committed to sustainability and environmental advocacy. Maybe your dream is to solve the world’s plastic problem, but you’re trying to make rather more attainable plans. For now, you’re currently working on an initiative that will help educate people on the dangers associated with plastic accumulation, and you’re seeking to ban certain single-use, nonbiodegradable plastics locally. You look forward to proposing a plastic straw ban at Harvard when you become a student there and using Harvard connections to expand your projects’ reach after you graduate. 

Book List Prompt

This prompt is generally more effective to answer if you have read many books. If you haven’t read much in the last 12 months, you shouldn’t answer this prompt. If you read books for fun, you can list those. If you read books for school, even textbooks, you can list those as well.

Keep in mind, this is not just a list. Technically, you have unlimited space to respond, so make sure you explain why each book was meaningful or special to you. Maybe the book helped you develop new interests. Maybe it helped you expand your mind in new ways or maybe it helped you change your personal philosophy.

Don’t use this space to simply brag about all the difficult and important books you read. Use the reading list as a chance to dive deep into your intellectual interest and passion. Don’t be afraid to include some lighter reading you may have done for fun.

Keep in mind that it’s OK to include a negative book review. Make sure that you’re not reviewing the entire list negatively. Here is an excerpt from a student’s response to this prompt:

“‘Big Girl Small’ by Rachel DeWoskin ― I love to judge books by their covers; this one looked the book equivalent of a ‘chick flick’ and turned out to be dark, lousy fiction.

‘The Sun Also Rises’ by Ernest Hemingway ― I wish my writing were as precise and powerful as his. The novel sparked my interest in the expatriates of the Lost Generation and influenced several of my other book choices on this list.” 

This applicant has given perceptive reviews. One is negative and one is positive. One is kind of humorous while the other is more sincere. These answers also tell the admissions committee about the applicant’s academic interests. 

Honor Code Prompt

If you answer this prompt, avoid preaching the importance of honesty and integrity. Anybody reading this essay already agrees that integrity and honesty are important and valuable, so you can jump right into your answer.

It’s OK to discuss a time you acted in a dishonest or reprehensible way as long as you ultimately learn from your mistakes. Avoid talking about any illegal or otherwise extremely troubling behavior in which you’ve engaged.

The strongest essays involve some situations in which lines are blurred and profound thought is required to make an informed decision. For example, let’s say you have a leadership position in Key Club. You’re helping tutor elementary school students in a predominantly minority and or low-income area. You overhear a close friend of yours who also volunteers at the Key Club making offensive comments about the students who you tutor. Instead of ignoring the comments, although you consider ignoring them because you’re afraid of risking your friend losing their position, you do decide to confront your friend and try to help educate them. If your friend ignores you and continues to make ignorant statements, your plan is to end the friendship or at least inform the other key club leaders of the problem but, of course, you’re committed to trying to help them figure out why what they’re doing was wrong and offensive. If you choose this approach, you need to strike a delicate balance of arguing both sides, but when done thoughtfully these essays can be very powerful. 

Harvard Mission Prompt

This prompt is very similar to prompt five, which asks how you hope to use your college education to better the world. In this case, we’re focusing specifically on your classmates’ lives. Again, it’s better to focus on somewhat niche issues that aren’t frequently discussed.

Using the same plastic straw example from Using Your Education Prompt, an answer to this prompt might focus on how you’d introduce your classmates to your environmental advocacy efforts and ultimately build a coalition with your peers. Harvard highly values leadership and community, so it is important that your response shows that you share these values and are committed to contributing to the Harvard community.

Deferring Admission Prompt

If you’re not planning to take time off, don’t write this essay. If you’re planning to take time off to pursue an academic or even nonacademic area, go for it. The topic should highlight a genuine passion and or skill of yours. 

Some topics that might work well include: 

  • Taking time off to travel abroad, specifically to spend time with an older or unwell relative 
  • Designing and pitching a video game to a video game producer 
  • Trying to qualify for the Olympics
  • Writing or producing a play, screenplay, novel, app, or opera 

Make sure your reason for taking time off has a larger focus and accomplishment attached to it. You should avoid topics that might not sound like worthwhile ventures to admissions officers. For example, “I’m taking a year off to visit France because I’ve always wanted to be in France,” is not a compelling essay. You could just go to France after you graduate or even study abroad there. 

Diversity Prompt

This is a very difficult essay to write. Harvard’s campus has become increasingly diverse, and the more diverse it’s become, the more difficult it is to have a unique background. Of course, you’ll want to make this discussion deeply personal. Make sure it doesn’t also apply to anyone else who grew up under similar circumstances.

One important note is that you can have many different interpretations of the word diversity. Of course, it’s fine to read diversity in terms of racial, ethnic, or religious diversity, but you can also take a different approach to the idea of diversity, such as growing up in a low-income household or seeking to become a first-generation college student. 

These examples focus on socioeconomic diversity. Because there are many first-gen applicants and students at Harvard, you’ll still need to make your discussion very personal to you, for example by discussing the expectations that were put on you, the resources that you had or didn’t have at your disposal, how you created opportunities, and how you’ll continue doing that in college.

As a final option for your topic of this essay, the prompt states: “If none of these options appeal to you, you have the option to write on a topic of your choice.” If you want to create an essay that’s creative or unconventional, this is your chance. 

Avoid picking an essay written for a different school and simply copy-pasting it because you don’t want to write another essay for Harvard. The admissions officers will know, and it will show that you haven’t done your homework. Any essay you submit should positively contribute to your profile as the ideal Harvard candidate and should highlight why you are a good fit for Harvard

One more thing to keep in mind is that a poorly executed unconventional essay may detract significantly from your application. Unconventional essays are what we call high risk, high reward. A bad one can reflect negatively on a candidate, but a great one can be even better than the best conventional essay. A discussion of something very specific, like why eighties punk rock is the most compelling form of music of the last century, would be fitting for an unconventional topic this prompt. However, anything that an admissions officer may find offensive or inappropriate should be avoided.

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How to Answer the Harvard Supplemental Essay Prompts (2023-2024)

How to write the harvard supplemental essays (2023-2024).

Bonus Material: PrepMaven’s 50+ Real Supplemental Essays for Ivy+ Schools

Last year, Harvard admitted just 3.2% of applicants, meaning that if you want a shot at an admission for the 2023-2024 cycle, your application has to be just about perfect. 

One element of the Harvard application that many students struggle with is the Harvard writing supplement. It’s tricky to know exactly how to approach these supplemental essays: what can you write to stand out from the thousands of other applicants? What exactly are Harvard admissions officers looking for?

Fortunately, at PrepMaven, we’ve helped thousands of students craft compelling college application essays. It doesn’t hurt that many of our expert tutors have been admitted to Harvard themselves, and so they know exactly what works. 

In this guide, we’ll break down the 2023-2024 Harvard writing supplement, explaining exactly what you need to do to maximize your chances at a Harvard acceptance. To check out our overall guide that covers everything you need to do to get into Harvard in 2024, click here.

As you read on, check out our free resource linked below: it contains real, successful examples of supplemental essays written for Harvard and other top schools. 

Download 50+ Real Supplemental Essays for Ivy+ Schools

Jump to section:

  • Harvard 2023-2024 supplemental essay prompts 
  • How to write Harvard’s first essay
  • How to write Harvard’s second essay
  • How to write Harvard’s third essay
  • How to write Harvard’s fourth essay
  • How to write Harvard’s fifth essay

Harvard’s 2023-2024 supplemental essays 

This year, Harvard has a fairly intense set of supplemental essays: you’ll have to write 5 essays, each with a maximum word count of 200 words.

The supplemental essays prompts are below: 

harvard essay questions

Prompt 1 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?  Prompt 2 Briefly describe an intellectual experience that was important to you.  Prompt 3 Briefly describe any of your extracurricular activities, employment experience, travel, or family responsibilities that have shaped who you are.  Prompt 4 How do you hope to use your Harvard education in the future?  Prompt 5 Top 3 things your roommates might like to know about you.

The first thing to notice is that several of these essays fall into well-known categories of the college essay. 

How to write Harvard’s first essay: Diversity/Community

If you haven’t already, you’ll soon come to recognize this essay prompt. At heart, this kind of prompt is asking you to discuss how–based on specific elements of your life–you view your role as a potential member of Harvard’s diverse community. 

We call this the Diversity/community essay, because those are really always two sides of the same coin. 

With the Harvard Diversity/community essay, there are 2 basic options for structuring your response:

  • Discuss community through the lens of your identity. 
  • Discuss community through the lens of other events/activities/pursuits in your life. 

Which path you take will actually be easy to decide: 

harvard essay questions

If your identity (racial, ethnic, gender, sexual, religious, etc.) has significantly influenced your worldview or experiences, go with option 1. 

In other words, if you know you have something meaningful to say about how your identity has shaped you, that should structure your response. This might mean writing an essay about how discrimination or systemic biases have affected you or your family; it could just as well, however, mean writing about specific experiences you’ve cherished as a member of a particular culture. 

A few great examples from recent essays we’ve worked on: 

  • An essay that focuses on a student’s biracial background and how she learned to use others’ ignorant/racist comments as opportunities for starting difficult conversations. 
  • An essay exploring how a first-generation immigrant served as a translator for his parents. 
  • An essay from a young woman exploring how she navigated the contradictions between her feminist views and the emphasis on tradition within her religion. 

If your identity has not significantly experienced how you view the world, go with option 2. 

If you don’t feel particularly connected to a specific identity, or if you can’t think of specific ways that your identity has affected you, you should instead focus on other elements of your life that have shaped your view of community. 

Think about what you want out of a community: then, think about what aspect of your life (an extracurricular, a hobby, a social circle) has shaped that desire. Tell that story. It may sound a bit tough to thread that needle, but it really isn’t so bad: here are a few really successful topics from recent students in response to this kind of prompt:

harvard essay questions

  • An essay about how a student’s participation in yearly music recitals with strangers shaped how he views community as a place for everyone to share their gifts/talents. 
  • An essay from an avid hiker about how his experiences maintaining hiking trails taught him to think of community as a shared, daily effort in the service of others. 
  • An essay from a student who moved countries multiple times reflecting on what in each place contributed to creating a cohesive community. 

All the examples are different, but share one thing in common: using your personal experiences to reflect on your role in a diverse community. 

For successful examples of Diversity/community essays, check out the first Princeton essay and the first three UMich essays in the free collection below!

How to write Harvard’s second essay: Intellectual Experience

Here’s the second supplemental prompt:

Briefly describe an intellectual experience that was important to you. 

You can really think of this question as being a simpler version of the “Why Major?” question that colleges often ask (and on which we’ve written a guide here ). 

With a simple “Intellectual experience” prompt, you don’t have to go into the nitty-gritty of how Harvard’s programs will help you pursue your interests. Instead, you’ll just tell the Harvard admissions committee how a particular experience you’ve had sharpened your curiosity, raised new questions, or affected your academic goals. 

Think of the “Intellectual Experience” essay as having two parts:

  • Describe the experience itself
  • Show how it affected you or what you learned

What kinds of things count as intellectual experiences? Well, it really is a very broad category, and you’re likely the best judge. Particularly good ideas include things like:

harvard essay questions

  • Independent research
  • Internships with professors or universities
  • Advanced summer programs at universities
  • Academically-focused extracurriculars 

If you don’t have any of the above to talk about, you can also make this essay about:

  • A provocative book, article, etc. that you’ve engaged with
  • A particularly memorable moment in class (a specific lab, assignment, or lecture)
  • Any other learning experience, formal or not, that had a profound effect on you

The key is that, regardless of what the topic of your essay is, you do the following:

  • Describe it in vivid, specific detail
  • Convey your passion for whatever you’re describing
  • Explore its effect on you

Never underestimate the power of simply showing Harvard admissions officers that you’re the kind of person who spends time thinking about your interests. That’s really all they want here, and that’s why it’s so important that you’re specific and passionate. 

At the same time, Harvard admissions committees want to see that this intellectual experience has shaped you in some way, that you’ve meaningfully engaged with it. That’s why it’s crucial that you spend some time discussing what new ideas or questions arose out of this experience. 

And that’s it! Do all of the above, and you’ll have the second of Harvard’s supplemental essays locked down tight–plus, you’ll have a great template for any other schools that ask the same question. 

Ready to get started? A great resource to begin with is our collection of real, successful supplemental essays, many of which answer similar prompts. For stellar examples of essays that discuss intellectual experiences, check out the last supplemental essay for Princeton, as well as the first sample essay for UPenn. 

How to write Harvard’s third essay: Extracurricular

Harvard’s third supplemental essay is a classic one: the Extracurricular essay. You’re pretty much guaranteed to see a version of this prompt for a few of your schools. For reference, the exact wording of Harvard’s is below:

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

These essays usually come quite naturally to students, since the Extracurricular prompt lets you get into more detail about something on your resume/activities sheet. 

Although you may be tempted to simply write about the most “impressive” thing on your resume, we’d encourage you to think a little bit differently: the question here, as with every essay, is about what the best story you can tell is. 

You should especially think about how much more your essay can add on to what the activities list already shows. For example, if your team won first place at a national Quizbowl competition, that’s definitely impressive. But is there a story there? More to the point: is the story you tell going to add something meaningful beyond the fact that you took home the first place trophy?

If not, then Quizbowl can stay on your activities list: the Harvard admissions committee will still know you got first place, and you’ll be able to use this supplemental essay to instead provide added detail and color to an activity that might otherwise seem less impressive. 

We’ve included a sample below from an essay in response to one of Princeton’s previous prompts. 

harvard essay questions

Over the pandemic, I tutored two middle school boys. Now, I love kids, but middle schoolers are not my number one favorites. They are often dismissive of authority and it’s very hard to hold their attention for longer than two minutes. So working with them on Zoom for an hour became my new challenge. I tried many tactics. When fun warm-ups, writing prompts, and Zoom games all failed, I was officially stumped. I couldn’t understand why they found me so uninteresting. I decided to pay closer attention to the passions they mentioned. Instead of imposing my own ideas, I listened to what they had to say. It turned out Lucian loved running. Getting him to read was like pulling teeth, but I found a Jason Reynolds book called Ghost, part of a series about a track team. We would spend ten or fifteen minutes at the beginning of each session reading it aloud to each other, and while he seemed to be engaged, I couldn’t tell exactly how much he was enjoying it. But when we finally finished, he asked me shyly, “What did you say the next one was called?” Sajiah proved to be tougher to please. He wasn’t swayed by any books I suggested to him, no matter the topic. He often hummed or rapped while working, which I found to be endlessly annoying, until I started listening to the actual words. I Googled the lyrics and noticed that he particularly enjoyed Grandmaster Flash and Afrika Bambaataa. So we began a project investigating the origins of hip hop, and created a website as the final product. He loved finding out more about the music he listened to every day, and I loved seeing him so happy with his work. I don’t pretend I saved the world by helping these boys, but I am proud of the creative way I found projects and topics they genuinely enjoyed investigating. I hope to continue working with children as a form of civic engagement throughout college and beyond; if I can help students like Sajiah and Lucian, it’ll be well worth it.

Notice that the extracurricular itself (tutoring two young students) isn’t inherently impressive, but the story is. If the author just left this on their activities sheet, it probably wouldn’t have caught admissions officers’ attention. 

But, because this applicant was able to tell a meaningful, reflective story about this extracurricular activity, it added a new depth and perspective to their application as a whole. 

The third Harvard supplemental essay doesn’t have to be difficult: stay honest, stay direct, and tell your story. 

To read other responses to this very prompt (and many other sample supplemental essays), download our collection below. And if you’d like the guidance of one of our expert tutors (some of whom wrote the very essays in that packet), just contact us . 

How to write Harvard’s fourth essay: Putting your education to use

Although this question may feel oddly specific, it’s really just another version of a commonly asked question: what are you going to do with what you learn? Most frequently, this is a question asked by religious universities, or universities with a particular focus on service. 

While the answer doesn’t have to present you as somebody who will spend their whole life volunteering, it’s a good idea to reflect a bit on what the purpose of education is for you, and how you might be able to present that in a socially-minded, positive way.

Below, check out the prompt and some advice on what Harvard admissions officers are looking for. 

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

harvard essay questions

There are probably some obvious answers you could give here that (even if they’re true) should probably stay off the page. Saying you want to use your Harvard education to make a ton of money on Wall Street or make elite political connections isn’t likely to win you any admiration from the admissions officers. 

That being said, don’t try too hard to pass yourself off as someone you’re not. If you really do have a passion for service or politics and plan to pursue a major related to those ideas, then this essay will be quite straightforward for you. Describe what drives you and how the tools Harvard provides will help you achieve those socially-minded goals. 

For example, if you’re motivated to address systemic inequities in education and plan to study something like sociology, you could simply discuss where this motivation comes from and how a Harvard sociology degree would help you in your goals. The strongest essays will always come from these kinds of stories. 

If, on the other hand, you don’t have those kinds of motivations or background, you’ll likely want to focus this essay more broadly on how you plan to pursue your post-grad life. Ideally, you’ll find some way to thread in ideas about community, giving back, and service into this essay. 

This can be a big-picture, or not. You might talk about how a Harvard education will help you support your family, or how it can help you give back to the local community you come from. As long as you keep your essay specific and honest without trying to overdo your charitable intentions, you’ll be fine. 

How to write Harvard’s fifth essay: Roommates 

Ah, a classic roommate essay! Although this might seem like an offbeat or wacky question, you’ll find there’s a few colleges that ask you to share something with your future roommates. Why?

Well, basically because they want to make sure you’re a fairly sociable person who’ll get along with people. 

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

You can and should have fun with these essays, and can even frame them as letters to your roommate. It’s an opportunity for you to share fun facts or quirks about yourself, sure, but more than anything these essays are a chance for you to show that you’re mindful of others. 

Whatever specific facts you include here, be sure to make some of them about you as a community member. For example, if you’re an engineering whiz, you can definitely talk about how you like to tinker and take stuff apart. But, to really make this land with Harvard’s admissions committee, you could also mention how that means you’ll always be ready to help your roommate fix a broken laptop. 

The key idea is to show that your quirks, whatever they are, will have some positive impact on the people around you. 

harvard essay questions

Be humble, be playful, but don’t forget what this is all about: you’re trying to convince Harvard you’d be a good person to have around for four years. First and foremost that means showing them that you’d be a conscientious roommate who’s mindful of others’ needs. 

If you’re applying to Harvard, the place to start is our comprehensive guide to the Harvard application for the 2023-2024 cycle, which you can find here. That guide doesn’t just cover what Harvard’s application requires of you: it uses the latest statistics and insights from our own Harvard undergraduate tutors to walk you through exactly what you’ll need to do to have a shot at Harvard.

Once you’re ready to start writing supplemental essays for Harvard and your other schools, we have two main pieces of advice. 

First: read real, successful sample supplemental essays that helped get students into Harvard and other hyper-selective schools. Most people don’t really know what schools like Harvard actually want from the supplemental essays, and the best solution is to spend lots of time reviewing sample essays. We’ve collected dozens of these essays in the free resource below. 

Second: get expert help. Whether you’re a brilliant writer or just an okay one, you’ll benefit tremendously from the advice of someone who’s already successfully navigated the college application process. Our college essay coaches aren’t just writing experts who can make your essay shine: they’re trained to know exactly what schools like Harvard expect to see . 

Check out the free sample essays below, and, when you’re ready to start writing, contact us to get paired with a college essay expert. 

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10 Successful Harvard Application Essays | 2021

Our new 2022 version is up now.

Our 2022 edition is sponsored by HS2 Academy—a premier college counseling company that has helped thousands of students gain admission into Ivy League-level universities across the world. Learn more at www.hs2academy.com . Also made possible by The Art of Applying, College Confidential, Crimson Education, Dan Lichterman, Key Education, MR. MBA®, Potomac Admissions, Prep Expert, and Prepory.

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Successful Harvard Essay

I had never seen houses floating down a river. Minutes before there had not even been a river. An immense wall of water was destroying everything in its wake, picking up fishing boats to smash them against buildings. It was the morning of March 11, 2011. Seeing the images of destruction wrought by the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, I felt as if something within myself was also being shaken, for I had just spent two of the happiest summers of my life there.

In the summer of my freshman year, I received the Kikkoman National Scholarship, which allowed me to travel to Japan to stay with a host family in Tokyo for ten weeks. I arrived just as the swine flu panic gripped the world, so I was not allowed to attend high school with my host brother, Yamato. Instead, I took Japanese language, judo, and karate classes and explored the confusing sprawl of the largest city in the world. I spent time with the old men of my neighborhood in the onsen, or hot spring, questioning them about the Japan of their youth. They laughed and told me that if I wanted to see for myself, I should work on a farm.

The next summer I returned to Japan, deciding to heed the old men’s advice and volunteer on a farm in Japan’s northernmost island, Hokkaido. I spent two weeks working more than fourteen hours a day. I held thirty-pound bags of garlic with one hand while trying to tie them to a rope hanging from the ceiling with the other, but couldn’t hold the bags in the air long enough. Other days were spent pulling up endless rows of daikon, or Japanese radish, which left rashes on my arms that itched for weeks. Completely exhausted, I stumbled back to the farmhouse, only to be greeted by the family’s young children who were eager to play. I passed out every night in a room too small for me to straighten my legs. One day, I overslept a lunch break by two hours. I awoke mortified, and hurried to the father. After I apologized in the most polite form of Japanese, his face broke into a broad grin. He patted me on the back and said, “You are a good worker, Anthony. There is no need to apologize.” This single exchange revealed the true spirit of the Japanese farmer. The family had lived for years in conditions that thoroughly wore me out in only a few days. I had missed two hours of work, yet they were still perpetually thankful to me. In their life of unbelievable hardship, they still found room for compassion.

In their life of unbelievable hardship, they still found room for compassion.

When I had first gone to Tokyo, I had sought the soul of the nation among its skyscrapers and urban hot springs. The next summer I spurned the beaten track in an attempt to discover the true spirit of Japan. While lugging enormously heavy bags of garlic and picking daikon, I found that spirit. The farmers worked harder than anyone I have ever met, but they still made room in their hearts for me. So when the tsunami threatened the people to whom I owed so much, I had to act. Remembering the lesson of compassion I learned from the farm family, I started a fund-raiser in my community called “One Thousand Cranes for Japan.” Little more than two weeks later, we had raised over $8,000 and a flock of one thousand cranes was on its way to Japan.

harvard essay questions

Professional Review by AcceptU

This essay is very clean and straightforward. Anthony wisely uses imagery from a well-known historic event, the 2011 tsunami, to set the scene for his story. He visited Japan for two summers and provides depth about what he learned: In his first summer, he explored Tokyo and studied the language and culture; in his second summer, he lived in rural Japan and worked long hours on a farm.

We like to see how applicants learn, grow or change from the beginning to the end - and Anthony rightfully spends more time describing the hard work and lifestyle of farming and what he learned from this experience.

The beauty of the essay actually lies in its simplicity. Admittedly, it is not a groundbreaking or original essay in the way he tells his story; instead, Anthony comes across as someone who is very interesting, hardworking, intellectually curious, dedicated, humble and likable - all traits that admissions officers are seeking in applicants.

We like to see how applicants learn, grow or change from the beginning to the end - and Anthony rightfully spends more time describing the hard work and lifestyle of farming and what he learned from this experience. Anthony concludes with a reference to his opening paragraph about the tsunami, and impresses the reader with his fundraising to help victims.

It is not necessarily missing, but perhaps a sentence or two could have been added to explain why Anthony was in Japan in the first place. What was his connection to the country, language or culture? Does it tie into an academic interest? If so, that would make his already strong essay even stronger in the eyes of admissions officers.

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I entered the surprisingly cool car. Since when is Beijing Line 13 air-conditioned? I’ll take it. At four o’clock in the afternoon only about twenty people were in the subway car. “At least it’s not crowded,” one might have thought. Wrong. The pressure of their eyes on me filled the car and smothered me. “看看!她是外国人!”(Look, look! She’s a foreigner!) An old man very loudly whispered to a child curled up in his lap. “Foreigner,” he called me. I hate that word, “foreigner.” It only explains my exterior. If only they could look inside.…

I want to keep reading because there is something she is saying about her identity--be it performative or actual--that I am curious about.

They would know that I actually speak Chinese—not just speak, but love. They would know that this love was born from my first love of Latin—the language that fostered my admiration of all languages. Latin lives in the words we speak around the world today. And translating this ancient language is like watching a play and performing in it at the same time. Each word is an adventure, and on the journey through Virgil’s Aeneid I found that I am more like Aeneas than any living, dead, or fictional hero I know. We share the intrinsic value of loyalty to friends, family, and society. We stand true to our own word, and we uphold others to theirs. Like Aeneas’s trek to find a new settlement for his collapsed Troy, with similar perseverance I, too, wander the seas for my own place in the world. Language has helped me do that.

If these subway passengers understood me, they would know that the very reason I sat beside them was because of Latin. Even before Aeneas and his tale, I met Caecilius and Grumio, characters in my first Latin textbook. In translations I learned grammar alongside Rome’s rich history. I realized how learning another language could expose me to other worlds and other people—something that has always excited me. I also realized that if I wanted to know more about the world and the people in it, I would have to learn a spoken language. Spanish, despite the seven years of study prior to Latin, did not stick with me. And the throatiness of French was not appealing. But Chinese, more than these other traditional languages, intrigued me. The doors to new worlds it could open seemed endless. Thus I chose Chinese.

If these subway passengers looked inside me, they would find that my knowledge of both Latin and Chinese makes me feel whole. It feels like the world of the past is flowing through me alongside the world of the future. Thanks to Latin, Chinese sticks in my mind like the Velcro on the little boy’s shoes in front of me. If this little boy and his family and friends could look inside, they would understand that Latin laid the foundation for my lifelong commitment to languages. Without words, thoughts and actions would be lost in the space between our ears. To them, I am a foreigner, “外国人” literally translated as “out-of-country person.” I feel, however, more like an advena, the Latin word for “foreigner,” translated as “(one who) comes to (this place).” I came to this place, and I came to this country to stay. Unfortunately, they will not know this until I speak. Then once I speak, the doors will open.

harvard essay questions

Professional Review by Bridge to College

Your college essay should serve two purposes: allow the reader to gain insights about you that they are not able to do in other parts of your application and provide an example of your writing abilities. To the former, you are hoping to demonstrate five soft skills that most colleges are at least implicitly interested in gleaning, those that indicate your capacity to be a good student at their institution.

Alex arrives at both goals in an interesting way. Without seeing the rest of her application, I can only assume that she is possibly interested in pursuing a major in a language (if she is pursuing a major in an applied math, this essay would be extremely interesting) and she has likely participated in some kind of team sport to demonstrate the soft skill of teamwork. To be honest, as someone who speaks five languages myself and studied Latin in undergrad, I don’t necessarily agree with her assessment of the languages. BUT I’m interested. I want to keep reading. She isn’t supposed to get everything right in this essay; she’s supposed to demonstrate a capacity for learning. And she does that.

I want to keep reading because there is something she is saying about her identity--be it performative or actual--that I am curious about. With our work in college access and admissions, we’ve only worked in underserved communities, be they students of color or girls interested in STEM or first-generation college students or more. People make an assumption that we are exploiting these identities into sob stories that admissions readers will immediately hang on to. We’re not doing that. We are encouraging students to write about something similar to what Alex did—describe how your identity has created a learning opportunity or a moment of resilience or determination. Alex seems like someone who is well resourced: her access to certain text; language curricula and the amount of time she spent studying those languages; even her sentence structure, gives that away. But her openness to adapt with humility is a critical skill that is so necessary to be a great student, and unfortunately a skill that many students miss.

For the second goal, she does a tremendous job of demonstrating her writing abilities. Her sentence structures are varied and there aren’t egregious mistakes in grammar and spelling. The last two sentences of the second paragraph sold me on her skill-level and personhood. I also really appreciated that she wasn’t shying away from what she has been able to access as far as her schooling. Alex is smart, witty, and well-traveled, and you’re going to know it. I love that.

The essay works as an introduction to who she is and her soft skills, as well as a demonstration of her writing abilities.

CEO and Founder of Bridge to College

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When I was a child, I begged my parents for my very own Brother PT-1400 P-Touch Handheld Label Maker to fulfill all of my labeling needs. Other kids had Nintendos and would spend their free time with Mario and Luigi. While they pummeled their video game controllers furiously, the pads of their thumbs dancing across their joysticks, I would type out labels on my industrial-standard P-Touch with just as much zeal. I labeled everything imaginable, dividing hundreds of pens into Ziploc bags by color, then rubber-banding them by point size. The finishing touch, of course, was always a glossy, three-eighths-inch-wide tag, freshly churned out from my handheld labeler and decisively pasted upon the numerous plastic bags I had successfully compiled.

Labeling became therapeutic for me; organizing my surroundings into specific groups to be labeled provides me with a sense of stability. I may not physically need the shiny color-coded label verifying the contents of a plastic bag as BLUE HIGHLIGHTERS—FAT, to identify them as such, but seeing these classifications so plainly allows me to appreciate the reliability of my categorizations. There are no exceptions when I label the top ledge of my bookshelf as containing works from ACHEBE, CHINUA TO CONRAD, JOSEPH. Each book is either filtered into that category or placed definitively into another one. Yet, such consistency only exists in these inanimate objects.

Thus, the break in my role as a labeler comes when I interact with people. Their lives are too complicated, their personalities too intricate for me to resolutely summarize in a few words or even with the 26.2 feet of laminated adhesive tape compatible with my label maker. I have learned that a thin line exists between labeling and just being judgmental when evaluating individuals. I can hardly superficially characterize others as simply as I do my material possessions because people refuse to be so cleanly separated and compartmentalized. My sister Joyce jokes freely and talks with me for hours about everything from the disturbing popularity of vampires in pop culture to cubic watermelons, yet those who don’t know her well usually think of her as timid and introverted. My mother is sometimes my biggest supporter, spouting words of encouragement and, at other instances, my most unrelenting critic. The overlap becomes too indistinct, the contradictions too apparent, even as I attempt to classify those people in the world whom I know best.

For all my love of order when it comes to my room, I don't want myself, or the people with whom I interact, to fit squarely into any one category.

Neither would I want others to be predictable enough for me to label. The real joy in human interaction lies in the excitement of the unknown. Overturning expectations can be necessary to preserving the vitality of relationships. If I were never surprised by the behaviors of those around me, my biggest source of entertainment would vanish. For all my love of order when it comes to my room, I don’t want myself, or the people with whom I interact, to fit squarely into any one category. I meticulously follow directions to the millimeter in the chemistry lab but measure ingredients by pinches and dashes in the comfort of my kitchen. I’m a self-proclaimed grammar Nazi, but I’ll admit e. e. cummings’s irreverence does appeal. I’ll chart my television show schedule on Excel, but I would never dream of confronting my chores with as much organization. I even call myself a labeler, but not when it comes to people. As Walt Whitman might put it, “Do I contradict myself? / Very well, then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.).”

I therefore refrain from the temptation to label—despite it being an act that makes me feel so fulfilled when applied to physical objects—when real people are the subjects. The consequences of premature labeling are too great, the risk of inaccuracy too high because, most of the time, not even the hundreds of alphanumeric digits and symbols available for entry on my P-Touch can effectively describe who an individual really is.

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Professional Review by Elite Prep

Amusing yet insightful, perhaps the most outstanding quality of Justine’s personal statement lies in the balance she strikes between anecdotal flourish and honest introspection. By integrating occasional humour and witty commentary into an otherwise lyrical and earnest self-reflection, Justine masterfully conveys an unfettered, sincere wisdom and maturity coveted by prestigious universities.

Justine breaks the ice by recalling a moment in her childhood that captures her fervent passion for labelling. When applying to selective academic institutions, idiosyncrasies and peculiar personal habits, however trivial, are always appreciated as indicators of individuality. Justine veers safely away from the temptation of “playing it safe” by exploring her dedication towards organizing all her possessions, a dedication that has followed her into adolescence.

She also writes from a place of raw honesty and emotion by offering the rationale behind her bizarre passion. Justine's reliance on labelling is underpinned by her yearning for a sense of stability and order in a messy world—an unaffected yearning that readers, to varying degrees, can sympathize with.

She also writes from a place of raw honesty and emotion by offering the rationale behind her bizarre passion. Justine’s reliance on labelling is underpinned by her yearning for a sense of stability and order in a messy world—an unaffected yearning that readers, to varying degrees, can sympathize with. She recognizes, however, it would be imprudent to navigate all facets of life with an unfaltering drive to compartmentalize everything and everyone she encounters.

In doing so, Justine seamlessly transitions to the latter, more pensive half of her personal statement. She extracts several insights by analyzing how, in staunch contrast with her neatly-organized pencil cases, the world is confusing, and rife with contradictions. Within each individual lies yet another world of complexity—as Justine reflects, people can’t be boiled down into “a few words,” and it’s impossible to capture their character, “even with the 26.2 feet of laminated adhesive tape compatible with [her] label maker.”

In concluding, Justine returns back to the premise that started it all, reminding the reader of her take on why compartmentalizing the world would be an ultimately unproductive effort. The most magical part of Justine’s personal statement? It reads easily, flows with imagery, and employs a simple concept—her labelling practices—to introduce a larger, thoughtful conversation.

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The best compliment I ever received was from my little brother: “My science teacher’s unbelievably good at telling stories,” he announced. “Nearly as good as you.” I thought about that, how I savor a good story the way some people savor last-minute touchdowns.

I learned in biology that I’m composed of 7 × 10 27 atoms, but that number didn’t mean anything to me until I read Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything. One sentence stayed with me for weeks: “Every atom you possess has almost certainly passed through several stars and been part of millions of organisms on its way to becoming you.” It estimates that each human has about 2 billion atoms of Shakespeare hanging around inside—quite a comfort, as I try to write this essay. I thought about every one of my atoms, wondering where they had been and what miracles they had witnessed.

My physical body is a string of atoms, but what of my inner self, my soul, my essence? I've come to the realization that my life has been a string as well, a string of stories.

My physical body is a string of atoms, but what of my inner self, my soul, my essence? I’ve come to the realization that my life has been a string as well, a string of stories. Every one of us is made of star stuff, forged through fires, and emerging as nicked as the surface of the moon. It frustrated me no end that I couldn’t sit down with all the people I met, interrogating them about their lives, identifying every last story that made them who they are.

I remember how magical it was the first time I read a fiction book: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. I was duly impressed with Quidditch and the Invisibility Cloak, of course, but I was absolutely spellbound by how much I could learn about Harry. The kippers he had for breakfast, the supplies he bought for Potions—the details everyone skimmed over were remarkable to me. Fiction was a revelation. Here, at last, was a window into another person’s string of stories!

Over the years, I’ve thought long and hard about that immortal question: What superpower would you choose? I considered the usual suspects—invisibility, superhuman strength, flying—but threw them out immediately. My superhero alter ego would be Story Girl. She wouldn’t run marathons, but she could walk for miles and miles in other people’s shoes. She’d know that all it takes for empathy and understanding is the right story.

Imagine my astonishment when I discovered Radiolab on NPR. Here was my imaginary superpower, embodied in real life! I had been struggling with AP Biology, seeing it as a class full of complicated processes and alien vocabulary. That changed radically when I listened, enthralled, as Radiolab traced the effects of dopamine on love and gambling. This was science, sure, but it was science as I’d never heard it before. It contained conflict and emotion and a narrative; it made me anxious to learn more. It wasn’t that I was obtuse for biology; I just hadn’t found the stories in it before.

I’m convinced that you can learn anything in the form of a story. The layperson often writes off concepts—entropy, the Maginot Line, anapestic meter—as too foreign to comprehend. But with the right framing, the world suddenly becomes an open book, enticing and ripe for exploration. I want to become a writer to find those stories, much like Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich from Radiolab, making intimidating subjects become familiar and inviting for everyone. I want to become Story Girl.

By combining her previous interest with her newfound love for biology, Carrie is able to highlight how her past experiences have assisted her in overcoming novel challenges. This portrays her as a resilient and resourceful problem-solver: traits that colleges value heavily in their students.

Carrie begins her essay with a fondly-remembered compliment from her brother, introducing her most passionate endeavor: storytelling. By recalling anecdotes related to her love of stories, she establishes herself as a deeply inquisitive and creative person; someone whose greatest virtue is their unfettered thirst for knowledge. Curiosity is greatly prized by colleges, and Carrie’s inclusion of this particular value encourages admissions officers to keep reading.

Going on to explore the intersections between stories and science, Carrie reveals her past difficulties with AP biology; that is, until she learnt about the amazing stories hidden within the subject. By combining her previous interest with her newfound love for biology, Carrie is able to highlight how her past experiences have assisted her in overcoming novel challenges. This portrays her as a resilient and resourceful problem-solver: traits that colleges value heavily in their students.

Carrie ends her essay with her belief that through stories, everything is possible. She expounds on her future ambitions in regards to storytelling, as well as her desire to make learning both fun and accessible to everyone via the power of stories. By comparing her goals to that of a superhero, Carrie is able to emphasise her enthusiasm for contributing to social change. Most importantly, Carrie’s ambitions show how she can contribute to the Harvard community positively, making her a strong applicant.

Dan Lichterman

As an admission essay specialist , Dan Lichterman has been empowering students to find their voice since 2004. He helps students stand out on paper, eliminating the unnecessary so the necessary may speak. Drawing upon his storytelling background, Dan guides applicants to craft authentic essays that leap off the page. He is available for online writing support within the US and internationally. To learn more and schedule a brief complimentary consultation visit danlichterman.com.

I have a fetish for writing.

I’m not talking about crafting prose or verses, or even sentences out of words. But simply constructing letters and characters from strokes of ink gives me immense satisfaction. It’s not quite calligraphy, as I don’t use calligraphic pens or Chinese writing brushes; I prefer it simple, spontaneous, and subconscious. I often find myself crafting characters in the margins of notebooks with a fifty-cent pencil, or tracing letters out of thin air with anything from chopsticks to fingertips.

"One's handwriting," said the ancient Chinese, "is a painting of one's mind." After all, when I practice my handwriting, I am crafting characters. My character.

The art of handwriting is a relic in the information era. Why write when one can type? Perhaps the Chinese had an answer before the advent of keyboards. “One’s handwriting,” said the ancient Chinese, “is a painting of one’s mind.” After all, when I practice my handwriting, I am crafting characters.

My character.

I particularly enjoy meticulously designing a character, stroke by stroke, and eventually building up, letter by letter, to a quote person­alized in my own voice. Every movement of the pen and every drop­let of ink all lead to something profound, as if the arches of every "m" are doorways to revelations. After all, characters are the build­ing blocks of language, and language is the only vehicle through which knowledge unfolds. Thus, in a way, these letters under my pen are themselves representations of knowledge, and the delicate beauty of every letter proves, visually, the intrinsic beauty of know­ing. I suppose handwriting reminds me of my conviction in this vi­sual manner: through learning answers are found, lives enriched, and societies bettered.

Moreover, perhaps this strange passion in polishing every single character of a word delineates my dedication to learning, testifies my zeal for my conviction, and sketches a crucial stroke of my character.

"We--must--know ... " the mathematician David Hilbert's voice echoes in resolute cursive at the tip of my pen, as he, addressing German scientists in 1930, propounds the goal of modern intellectu­als. My pen firmly nods in agreement with Hilbert, while my mind again fumbles for the path to knowledge.

The versatility of handwriting enthralls me. The Chinese devel­oped many styles -- called hands -- of writing. Fittingly, each hand seems to parallel one of my many academic interests. Characters of the Regular Hand (kai shu), a legible script, serve me well during many long hours when I scratch my head and try to prove a mathematical statement rigorously, as the legibility illuminates my logic on paper. Words of the Running Hand (xing shu), a semi-cursive script, are like the passionate words that I speak before a committee of Model United Nations delegates, propounding a decisive course of action: the words, both spoken and written, are swift and coherent but resolute and emphatic. And strokes of the Cursive Hand (cao shu) resemble those sudden artistic sparks when I deliver a line on stage: free spontaneous, but emphatic syllables travel through the lights like rivers of ink flowing on the page.

Yet the fact that the three distinctive hands cooperate so seamlessly, fusing together the glorious culture of writing, is perhaps a fable of learning, a testament that the many talents of the Renaissance Man could all be worthwhile for enriching human society. Such is my methodology: just like I organize my different hands into a neat personal style with my fetish for writing, I can unify my broad interests with my passion for learning.

“...We -- will -- know!” Hilbert finishes his adage, as I frantically slice an exclamation mark as the final stroke of this painting of my mind.

I must know: for knowing, like well-crafted letters, has an inherent beauty and an intrinsic value. I will know: for my versatile interests in academics will flow like my versatile styles of writing.

I must know and I will know: for my fetish for writing is a fetish for learning.

harvard essay questions

Professional Review by Dan Lichterman

We learn that he expresses his innermost self through an art that has become a relic within the information age. As we peer into his mind, we learn something essential about Jiafeng's character–that he is irrepressibly drawn to the intricate beauty of pure learning.

Jiafeng’s essay succeeds by using the metaphor of handwriting, and it’s immense physical satisfaction, to showcase the unbounded pleasure of pursuing knowledge. We can visualize spontaneously crafted letters filling his notebooks. We see him trace Chinese characters into air by chopstick and fingertip. We learn that he expresses his innermost self through an art that has become a relic within the information age. As we peer into his mind, we learn something essential about Jiafeng’s character–that he is irrepressibly drawn to the intricate beauty of pure learning.

Jiafeng goes on to reveal that his intellectual pursuit has been shaped by not one but three Chinese styles of handwriting, each reflecting a distinct element of his intellectual growth. We see Jiafeng’s logic when engaged in mathematical proof, rhetorical flair when speaking before Model United Nations, and improvisational spark when delivering lines on stage. He presents these polymath pursuits as united by writing, indicating to readers that his broad interests are all an expression of the same principle of discovery. By the time readers finish Jiafeng’s essay they have no doubts regarding the pleasure he derives from learning–they have experienced him enacting this celebration of thought throughout every line of this well-crafted personal statement.

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Crimson Education is the world’s most successful US/UK university admissions consultancy. A member of the NACAC and the IACAC, the company counts US News & World Report and Times Higher Education as its partners. Crimson's students work with expert tutors and mentors to gain admission to the Ivy League, Stanford, MIT, Caltech, Duke — as well as Oxford, Cambridge and other world leading institutions in the UK — at 4x the general applicant rate. Crimson’s unique model of support sees students work one-on-one with Ivy League and other top school graduates on every aspect of their application, from their academics to their extracurriculars, personal statements and supplemental essays. The company is led by co-founder and CEO Jamie Beaton, who at only 26, has completed an undergraduate dual degree at Harvard, an MBA at Stanford, is an Oxford Rhodes Scholar. In February 2022, Jamie will release his first book: “ACCEPTED! Secrets to Gaining Admission To The World's Top Universities.

“Ella, what did you think of Douglass’s view on Christianity?” I gulped. Increasingly powerful palpitations throbbed in my heart as my eyes darted around the classroom – searching for a profound response to Dr. Franklin’s question. I took a deep breath while reaching the most genuine answer I could conjure.

“Professor, I don’t know.”

Dr. Franklin stared at me blankly as he attempted to interpret the thoughts I didn’t voice. My lack of familiarity with the assigned text wasn’t a consideration that crossed his mind because he was familiar with my past contributions to class discussions. I was a fervent critic of the corrupted culture behind Christianity of the Puritans in Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown” and modern evangelicals involved in the puzzling divinity of Donald Trump. He arched his flummoxed brows as he began to open his mouth.

“Professor, what I mean is that I’m not sure whether or not I even have a say on Douglass’s statements on Christianity in his Narrative of the Life.”

In class, I often separated the culture of Christianity from the religion. To tie these immensely disparate concepts as one and coin it as Christianity would present fallacies that contradict with the Christianity I knew. Lack of tolerance and hostility were products of humans’ sinful nature – not the teachings of Christ. People were just using Christianity as an excuse to exalt themselves rather than the holy name of Jesus. These were the “facts.”

My greatest realization came when Douglass declared Christian slave-holders as the worst slave-holders he ever met because of their deceptive feign of piety and use of Christianity to justify the oppression of their slaves. I realized that I couldn’t bring myself to raise the same argument that I used to convince myself that my Christianity of love was the only true Christianity. To Douglass, Christianity was the opposite. I didn’t want to dismiss his story. People use this sacred religion to spread hatred, and to many, this is the only Christianity they know. Their experiences aren’t any bit falser than mine.

Christianity isn’t the only culture that harbors truth that transcends the “facts.” America’s less of a perfect amalgamation of different ethnic cultures and more of a society severed by tribal conflicts rooted in the long established political culture of the nation. Issues such as racism, white privilege, and gender disparity are highly salient topics of current political discussion. However, during a time when people can use online platforms with algorithms that provide content they want to see, we fail to acknowledge the truth in other people’s experiences and express empathy.

My protective nature drives my desire to connect with different people and build understanding. To do so, however, I step outside my Korean American Southern Baptist paradigm because my experiences do not constitute everyone else's.

As a Korean-American in the South, I am no stranger to intolerance. I remember the countless instances of people mocking my parents for their English pronunciation and my brother’s stutter. Because their words were less eloquent, people deemed their thoughts as less valuable as well. I protect my family and translate their words whenever they have a doctor’s appointment or need more ketchup at McDonald’s. My protective nature drives my desire to connect with different people and build understanding. To do so, however, I step outside my Korean American Southern Baptist paradigm because my experiences do not constitute everyone else’s.

Excluded from the Manichaean narrative of this country, I observe the turmoil in our nation through a separate lens - a blessing and a curse. Not only do I find myself awkwardly fixed in a black vs. white America, but I also fail to define my identity sandwiched between Korean and American. In the end, I find myself stuck amongst the conventional labels and binaries that divide America.

“You seem to work harder than most to understand other people’s points of view,” Dr. Franklin said after I shared these thoughts to the class.

“I find this easier because I spent my childhood assuming that my culture was always the exception,” I replied. As an anomaly, accepting different truths is second nature.

harvard essay questions

Professional Review by Crimson Education

At a time in which the Black Lives Matters movement was sweeping America and racial tension was at a high, Ella was able to offer a powerful and brave perspective: how she feels to be neither Black nor White. The true strength of this essay is its willingness to go where people rarely go in college essays: to race, to politics and to religion.

This is a trait that exists in a powerful independent thinker who could push all kinds of debates forwards - academic ones or otherwise.

Her dedication to her religion is evident - but so is her willingness to question the manipulation of the word ‘Christianty’ for less than genuine purposes. It requires intellectual bravery to ask the hard questions of your own religion as opposed to succumbing to cognitive dissonance. This is a trait that exists in a powerful independent thinker who could push all kinds of debates forwards - academic ones or otherwise.

Her word choice continues to emphasize bravery and strength. “I protect my family” inserts Ella as the shield between her family and the daily racism they experience in the south because of their accents and heritage. Her humorous quirks show the insidious racism. She even needs to shield her family from the humble request for some more Ketchup at McDonalds! Imagine if one is nervous to ask for some more Ketchup and even such a mundane activity becomes difficult through the friction of racial tension and misunderstanding. This is a powerful way to deliver a sobering commentary on the real state of society through Ellen’s lived experiences.

She demonstrates her intellectual prowess in her discussion of somewhat high-brow topics but also grounds herself in the descriptions of her daily acts of kindness.

She connects major societal debates (Trumpism for example) with daily experiences (her translations at the doctor’s office) with a gentle but powerful cadence. She demonstrates her intellectual prowess in her discussion of somewhat high-brow topics but also grounds herself in the descriptions of her daily acts of kindness.

Creatively Ella weaves numerous literary devices in and out of her story without them being overbearing. These include alliteration and the juxtaposition of longer sentences with shorter ones to make a point.

Her final dialogue is subtle but booming. “....my culture was the exception”. The reader is left genuinely sympathetic for her plight, challenges and bravery as she goes about her daily life.

Ella is a bold independent thinker with a clear social conscience and an ability to wade in the ambiguity and challenge of an imperfect world.

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"Paint this vase before you leave today," my teacher directed as she placed foreign brushes and paints in my hands. I looked at her blankly. Where were the charts of colors and books of techniques? Why was her smile so decidedly encouraging? The sudden expectations made no sense.

She smiled. "Don't worry, just paint."

In a daze, I assembled my supplies the way the older students did. I was scared. I knew everything but nothing. And even in those first blissful moments of experimentation, it hurt to realize that my painting was all wrong. The gleam of light. The distorted reflection. A thousand details taunted me with their refusal to melt into the glass. The vase was lifeless at best.

As the draining hours of work wore on, I began wearing reckless holes in my mixing plate. It was my fourth hour here. Why had I not received even a single piece of guidance?

At the peak of my frustration, she finally reentered the studio, yawning with excruciating casualness. I felt myself snap.

"I barely know how to hold a brush," I muttered almost aggressively, "how could I possibly have the technique to paint this?"

She looked at me with a shocked innocence that only heightened the feeling of abandonment. "What do you mean you don't have the technique?"

It was as though she failed to realize I was a complete beginner.

And then suddenly she broke into a pitch of urgent obviousness: "What are you doing! Don't you see those details?? There's orange from the wall and light brown from the floor. There's even dark green from that paint box over there. You have to look at the whole picture," she stole a glance at my face of bewilderment, and, sighing, grabbed my paint,stained hand. "Listen, it's not in here," she implored, shaking my captive limb. "It's here." The intensity with which she looked into my eyes was overwhelming.

I returned the gaze emptily. Never had I been so confused…

But over the years I did begin to see. The shades of red and blue in gray concrete, the tints of Phthalo in summer skies, and winter’s Currelean. It was beautiful and illogical. Black was darker with green and red, and white was never white.

I began to study animals. The proportions and fan brush techniques were certainly difficult, but they were the simple part. It was the strategic tints of light and bold color that created life. I would spend hours discovering the exact blue that would make a fish seem on the verge of tears and hours more shaping a deer’s ears to speak of serenity instead of danger.

As I run faster into the heart of art and my love for politics and law, I will learn to see the faces behind each page of cold policy text, the amazing innovation sketched in the tattered Constitution, and the progressiveness living in oak-paneled courts.

In return for probing into previously ignored details, my canvas and paints opened the world. I began to appreciate the pink kiss of ever-evolving sunsets and the even suppression of melancholy. When my father came home from a business trip, it was no longer a matter of simple happiness, but of fatigue and gladness' underlying shades. The personalities who had once seemed so annoyingly arrogant now turned soft with their complexities of doubt and inspiration. Each mundane scene is as deep and varied as the paint needed to capture it.

One day, I will learn to paint people. As I run faster into the heart of art and my love for politics and law, I will learn to see the faces behind each page of cold policy text, the amazing innovation sketched in the tattered Constitution, and the progressiveness living in oak-paneled courts.

It won’t be too far. I know that in a few years I will see a thousand more colors than I do today. Yet the most beautiful part about art is that there is no end. No matter how deep I penetrate its shimmering realms, the enigmatic caverns of wonder will stay.

harvard essay questions

Professional Review by College Confidential

My favorite college essays begin with one moment in time and end by tying that moment into a larger truth about the world. In this essay, Elizabeth uses this structure masterfully.

This essay is a great example of a create essay. It's real strength, however, lies in showing how the writer pursues her goal despite frustration and grapples with universal questions.

The essay opens with dialogue, placing the reader right in the middle of the action. She shares only the details that make the scene vivid, like the holes in her mixing plate and her teacher’s yawn. She skips backstory and explanations that can bore readers and bog down a short essay. The reader is left feeling as though we are sitting beside her, staring at an empty vase and a set of paints, with no idea how to begin.

The SPARC method of essay writing says that the best college essays show how a student can do one (or more) of these five things: Seize an opportunity, Pursue goals despite obstacles, Ask important questions, take smart Risks, or Create with limited resources. This essay is a great example of a “create” essay. It’s real strength, however, lies in showing how the writer pursues her goal despite frustration and grapples with universal questions.

As the essay transitions from the personal to the universal, her experience painting the vase becomes a metaphor for how she sees the world. Not only has painting helped her appreciate the subtle shades of color in the sunset, it has opened her up to understand that nothing in life is black and white. This parallel works especially well as a way to draw the connection between Elizabeth’s interest in political science and art.

Written by Joy Bullen, Senior Editor at College Confidential

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When I failed math in my sophomore year of high school, a bitter dispute engulfed my household -- “Nicolas Yan vs. Mathematics.” I was the plaintiff, appearing pro se, while my father represented the defendant (inanimate as it was). My brother and sister constituted a rather understaffed jury, and my mother presided over the case as judge.

In a frightening departure from racial stereotype, I charged Mathematics with the capital offences of being “too difficult” and “irrelevant to my aspirations," citing my recent shortcomings in the subject as evi. dence. My father entered a not guilty plea on the defendant's behalf, for he had always harbored hopes that I would follow in his entrepreneurial footsteps -- and who ever heard of a businessman who wasn't an accomplished mathematician? He argued that because I had fallen sick before my examination and had been unable to sit one of the papers, it would be a travesty of justice to blame my "Ungraded” mark on his client. The judge nodded sagely.

With heartrending pathos, I recalled how I had studied A-Level Mathematics with calculus a year before the rest of my cohort, bravely grappling with such perverse concepts as the poisson distribution to no avail. I decried the subject's lack of real-life utility and lamented my inability to reconcile further effort with any plausible success; so that to persist with Mathematics would be a Sisyphean endeavor. Since I had no interest in becoming the entrepreneur that my father envisioned, I petitioned the court for academic refuge in the humanities. The members of the jury exchanged sympathetic glances and put their heads together to deliberate.

Over the next year, however, new evidence that threw the court's initial verdict into question surfaced. Languishing on death row, Mathematics exercised its right to appeal, and so our quasi-court reconvened in the living room.

In hushed tones, they weighed the particulars of the case. Then, my sister announced their unanimous decision with magisterial gravity: "Nicolas shouldn't have to do math if he doesn't want to!" I was ecstatic; my father distraught. With a bang of her metaphorical gavel, the judge sentenced the defendant to "Death by Omission"-- and so I chose my subjects for 11th Grade sans Mathematics. To my father's disappointment, a future in business for me now seemed implausible.

Over the next year, however, new evidence that threw the court's initial verdict into question surfaced. Languishing on death row, Mathematics exercised its right to appeal, and so our quasi-court reconvened in the living room.

My father reiterated his client's innocence, maintaining that Mathematics was neither "irrelevant" nor "too difficult." He proudly recounted how just two months earlier, when my friends had convinced me to join them in creating a business case competition for high school students (clerical note: the loftily-titled New Zealand Secondary Schools Case Competition), I stood in front of the Board of a company and successfully pitched them to sponsor us-- was this not evidence that l could succeed in business? I think I saw a tear roll down his cheek as he implored me to give Mathematics another chance.

I considered the truth of his words. While writing a real-world business case for NZSSCC, l had been struck by how mathematical processes actually made sense when deployed in a practical context, and how numbers could tell a story just as vividly as words can. By reviewing business models and comparing financial projections to actual returns, one can read a company's story and identify areas of potential growth; whether the company then took advantage of these opportunities determined its success. It wasn't that my role in organizing NZSSCC had magically taught me to embrace all things mathematical or commercial -- I was still the same person -- but I recognized that no intellectual constraints prevented me from succeeding in Mathematics; I needed only the courage to seize an opportunity for personal growth.

I stood up and addressed my family: “I’ll do it.” Then, without waiting for the court’s final verdict, I crossed the room to embrace my father: and the rest, as they (seldom) say, was Mathematics.

harvard essay questions

Professional Review by KEY Education

For some, math concepts such as limits, logarithms, and derivatives can bring about feelings of apprehension or intimidation. So, Nicolas’s college essay reflecting on his personal conflict coming to terms with Mathematics offers a relatable, down-to-earth look at how he eventually came to realize and appreciate the importance of this once-dreaded subject. Not only does Nicolas’s statement use a unique, engaging approach to hook the reader in, but also he draws various connections from Mathematics to his relationship with his family, to his maturation process, and to his extracurricular involvement. A number of factors helped Nicolas’s statement add color to his application file, giving further insight into the person he is.

Nicolas’s choice of Mathematics as the focusing lens is effective for a number of reasons. Firstly, it is genuine and approachable. It is not about some grandiose idea, event, or achievement. Rather, it is about a topic to which many students—and people for that matter—can relate. And from this central theme, Nicolas draws insightful linkages to various aspects of his life. At the outset of his essay, Mathematics is presented as the antagonist, or as Nicolas skillfully portrays, the “defendant”. However, by the end of his piece, and as a demonstration of his growth, Nicolas has come to a resolution with the former defendant.

Adding to the various connections, Nicolas presents his case, literally, in an engaging manner in the form of a court scene, with Nicolas as the plaintiff charging the defendant, Mathematics, with being too difficult and irrelevant to his life.

Through Nicolas’s conflict over Mathematics, we gain a deeper understanding of his relationship with his father and the tension that exists in Nicolas fulfilling his father’s wishes of following in his entrepreneurial footsteps. His father’s initial attempts at reasoning with him are rebuffed, however Nicolas later acknowledges that he “considered the truth of his words” and eventually embraces his father, signifying their coming to a resolution with their shared understanding of each other. Furthermore, Nicolas connects his evolved understanding of Mathematics to his important organizational role in creating the business-focused New Zealand Secondary Schools Case Competition, acknowledging how “mathematical processes actually made sense when deployed in a practical context, and how numbers could tell a story just as vividly as words can.” As he states, “I needed only the courage to seize an opportunity for personal growth,” which he ultimately realizes.

Adding to the various connections, Nicolas presents his case, literally, in an engaging manner in the form of a court scene, with Nicolas as the plaintiff charging the defendant, Mathematics, with being too difficult and irrelevant to his life. Bearing in mind word count limitations, what would have been interesting to explore would be deeper insights into each of the connections that Nicolas drew and how he applied these various lessons to other parts of his life.

Nicolas employs a number of characteristics essential for a successful essay: a theme that allows for deeper introspection, an engaging hook or approach, and a number of linkages between his theme and various aspects of his life, providing insight into who he is and how he thinks.

harvard essay questions

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Successful Harvard Essay by Abigail Mack

Abigail gained national attention after reading her application essay on TikTok earlier this year, with over 19.9 million views on the first video. Her essay helped her to recieve a rare likely letter in the most competitive Harvard application cycle in history with a less than 4 percent acceptance rate, and now she uses her platform to help other college hopefuls navigate the application process. Watch her read the beginning of her essay here and check out her other writing tips on her TikTok .

I hate the letter S. Of the 164,777 words with S, I only grapple with one.

I hate the letter “S”. Of the 164,777 words with “S”, I only grapple with one. To condemn an entire letter because of its use 0.0006% of the time sounds statistically absurd, but that one case changed 100% of my life. I used to have two parents, but now I have one, and the “S” in “parents” isn’t going anywhere.

“S” follows me. I can’t get through a day without being reminded that while my friends went out to dinner with their parents, I ate with my parent. As I write this essay, there is a blue line under the word “parent” telling me to check my grammar; even Grammarly assumes that I should have parents, but cancer doesn’t listen to edit suggestions. I won’t claim that my situation is as unique as 1 in 164,777, but it is still an exception to the rule - an outlier. The world isn’t meant for this special case.

The world wouldn’t abandon “S” because of me, so I tried to abandon “S”. I could get away from “S” if I stayed busy; you can’t have dinner with your “parent” (thanks again, Grammarly) if you’re too busy to have family dinner. Any spare time that I had, I filled. I became known as the “busy kid”- the one that everyone always asks, “How do you have time?” Morning meetings, classes, after school meetings, volleyball practice, dance class, rehearsal in Boston, homework, sleep, repeat. Though my specific schedule has changed over time, the busyness has not. I couldn’t fill the loss that “S” left in my life, but I could at least make sure I didn’t have to think about it. There were so many things in my life that I couldn’t control, so I controlled what I could- my schedule. I never succumbed to the stress of potentially over-committing. I thrived. It became a challenge to juggle it all, but I’d soon find a rhythm. But rhythm wasn’t what I wanted. Rhythm may not have an “S”, but “S” sure liked to come by when I was idle. So, I added another ball, and another, and another. Soon I noticed that the same “color” balls kept falling into my hands- theater, academics, politics. I began to want to come into contact with these more and more, so I further narrowed the scope of my color wheel and increased the shades of my primary colors.

Life became easier to juggle, but for the first time, I didn’t add another ball. I found my rhythm, and I embraced it. I stopped running away from a single “S” and began chasing a double “S”- passion. Passion has given me purpose. I was shackled to “S” as I tried to escape the confines of the traditional familial structure. No matter how far I ran, “S” stayed behind me because I kept looking back. I’ve finally learned to move forward instead of away, and it is liberating. “S” got me moving, but it hasn’t kept me going.

I wish I could end here, triumphant and basking in my new inspiration, but life is more convoluted. Motivation is a double edged sword; it keeps me facing forward, but it also keeps me from having to look back. I want to claim that I showed courage in being able to turn from “S”, but I cannot. Motivation is what keeps “S” at bay. I am not perfectly healed, but I am perfect at navigating the best way to heal me. I don’t seek out sadness, so “S” must stay on the sidelines, and until I am completely ready, motivation is more than enough for me.

harvard essay questions

Professional Review by HS2 Academy

There's an honesty here as she reveals to the reader her attempts at filling this void in her life by constantly keeping busy. It's further satisfying to see these attempts at committing to various activities evolve into what she terms a double

Abigail’s essay navigates one of the most delicate sorts of topics in college applications: dealing with personal or family tragedy. Perhaps the most common pitfall is to take a tragic event and effuse it with too much pathos and sense of loss that the narrative fails to reveal much about the author’s own personality other than the loss itself. In short, a “sob story.” However, Abigail’s essay adeptly skirts this by utilizing wit and a framing device using the letter “S” to share a profoundly personal journey in a manner that is engaging and thought-provoking.

Rather than focus purely on the loss of one of her parents to cancer, Abigail reflects on her life and the adjustments she has had to make. It is particularly poignant how she expresses the sense that her life with only one remaining parent seems somehow anomalous, that the constant reminders of the completeness in the familial structures of others haunts her.

What also makes this essay all the more intriguing is how we get a glimpse into her internal life as she learns to cope with the loss. There’s an honesty here as she reveals to the reader her attempts at filling this void in her life by constantly keeping busy. It’s further satisfying to see these attempts at committing to various activities evolve into what she terms a “double S,” or “passion,” as she discovers things that she has become passionate about. Perhaps this essay could have been strengthened further by giving the reader a sense of what those passions might be, as we’re left to speculate based on the activities she had mentioned.

Lastly, we see a sense of realism and maturity in Abigail's closing reflection. It’s easy to end an essay like this with a sense of narrative perfection, but she wisely concedes that “life is more convoluted.” This poignant revelation gives us a window into her continuing struggles, but we are nonetheless left impressed by her growth and candor in this essay.

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collegeMission is an undergraduate admissions consulting firm focused solely on helping applicants craft their best admissions essays to gain acceptance at top academic institutions. collegeMission's elite admissions consultants have assisted thousands of applicants in successfully pursuing their educational dreams. As accomplished writers and graduates of prestigious universities, our consultants are uniquely qualified to guide you through brainstorming, outlining, and writing your college essays so that the admissions committees take notice. To learn more or schedule a free brainstorming session, visit www.collegemission.com or email [email protected].

I learned the definition of cancer at the age of fourteen. I was taking my chapter 7 biology test when I came upon the last question, “What is cancer?”, to which I answered: “The abnormal, unrestricted growth of cells.” After handing in the test, I moved on to chapter 8, oblivious then to how earth-shattering such a disease could be.

I learned the meaning of cancer two years later. A girl named Kiersten came into my family by way of my oldest brother who had fallen in love with her. I distinctly recall her hair catching the sea breeze as she walked with us along the Jersey shore, a blonde wave in my surrounding family's sea of brunette. Physically, she may have been different, but she redefined what family meant to me. She attended my concerts, went to my award ceremonies, and helped me study for tests. Whenever I needed support, she was there. Little did I know that our roles would be reversed, forever changing my outlook on life.

Kiersten was diagnosed with Stage II Hodgkin's lymphoma at the age of 22. Tears and hair fell alike after each of her 20 rounds of chemotherapy as we feared the worst. It was an unbearable tragedy watching someone so vivacious skirt the line between life and death. Her cancer was later classified as refractory, or resistant to treatment. Frustration and despair flooded my mind as I heard this news. And so I prayed. In what universe did this dynamic make any sense? I prayed to God and to even her cancer itself to just leave her alone. Eventually, Kiersten was able to leave the hospital to stay for six weeks at my home.

But the beauty that resulted from sympathizing as opposed to analyzing and putting aside my own worries and troubles for someone else was an enormous epiphany for me. My problems dissipated into thin air the moment I came home and dropped my books and bags to talk with Kiersten. The more I talked, laughed, smiled, and shared memories with her, the more I began to realize all that she taught me.

My family and I transformed the house into an antimicrobial sanctuary, protecting Kiersten from any outside illness. I watched TV with her, baked cookies for her, and observed her persistence as she regained strength and achieved remission. We beat biology, time, and death, all at the same time, with cookies, TV, and friendship. Yet I was so concerned with helping Kiersten that I had not realized how she helped me during her battle with cancer.

I had been so used to solving my problems intellectually that when it came time to emotionally support someone, I was afraid. I could define cancer, but what do I say to someone with it? There were days where I did not think I could be optimistic in the face of such adversity. But the beauty that resulted from sympathizing as opposed to analyzing and putting aside my own worries and troubles for someone else was an enormous epiphany for me. My problems dissipated into thin air the moment I came home and dropped my books and bags to talk with Kiersten. The more I talked, laughed, smiled, and shared memories with her, the more I began to realize all that she taught me. She influenced me in the fact that she demonstrated the power of loyalty, companionship, and optimism in the face of desperate, life-threatening situations. She showed me the importance of loving to live and living to love. Most of all, she gave me the insight necessary to fully help others not just with intellect and preparation, but with solidarity and compassion. In this way, I became able to help myself and others with not only my brain, but with my heart. And that, in the words of Robert Frost, “has made all the difference.”

harvard essay questions

Professional Review by collegeMission

Nikolas is candid, writing about how he could solve problems intellectually, but struggled to cope emotionally during Kiersten's diagnosis and treatment. Ultimately, he finds his way and gains a deeper perspective on life, and thus shares a story of overcoming and of complex intellectual and emotional growth.

Nikolas uses an unexpected approach in this essay, sharing a story of someone else’s struggle, as he highlights change within himself. The emotions and connection that he felt for Kiersten, his older brother’s girlfriend, are quite powerful, as is his recognition of his own attempt to navigate his way through the experience. Nikolas is candid, writing about how he could solve problems intellectually, but struggled to cope emotionally during Kiersten’s diagnosis and treatment. Ultimately, he finds his way and gains a deeper perspective on life, and thus shares a story of overcoming and of complex intellectual and emotional growth.

Nikolas’ use of imagery is terrific. We first see it in the essay when he describes one of his first impressions of Kiersten, with her blonde hair flowing in the wind by the Jersey Shore and how that contrasted with the dark hair of his family. That description then flows as we read the next paragraph, where he talks about the impact of her cancer. “Tears and hair fell alike after each of her 20 rounds of chemotherapy as we feared the worst.” Instead of explicitly sharing everyone’s heartbreak, through details that heartbreak becomes so very evident.

One missing piece here is an explanation of why Kiersten stayed with Nikolas’ family rather than returning home to her own family. Maybe a quick explanation would have helped the reader make sense of her location, and create an even stronger linkage with Nikolas and his family. Additionally, Nikolas might have taken one more step toward the end of the essay to connect this newfound emotion to other parts of his life. The final paragraph feels slightly repetitive, and a compelling route could have been to show how he went on to embrace the idea of “loving to live and living to love.” Nonetheless, Nikolas reveals that he is capable of growing through adversity, a character trait that this admissions committee clearly appreciated.

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  • If you are writing in a new discipline, you should always make sure to ask about conventions and expectations for introductions, just as you would for any other aspect of the essay. For example, while it may be acceptable to write a two-paragraph (or longer) introduction for your papers in some courses, instructors in other disciplines, such as those in some Government courses, may expect a shorter introduction that includes a preview of the argument that will follow.  
  • In some disciplines (Government, Economics, and others), it’s common to offer an overview in the introduction of what points you will make in your essay. In other disciplines, you will not be expected to provide this overview in your introduction.  
  • Avoid writing a very general opening sentence. While it may be true that “Since the dawn of time, people have been telling love stories,” it won’t help you explain what’s interesting about your topic.  
  • Avoid writing a “funnel” introduction in which you begin with a very broad statement about a topic and move to a narrow statement about that topic. Broad generalizations about a topic will not add to your readers’ understanding of your specific essay topic.  
  • Avoid beginning with a dictionary definition of a term or concept you will be writing about. If the concept is complicated or unfamiliar to your readers, you will need to define it in detail later in your essay. If it’s not complicated, you can assume your readers already know the definition.  
  • Avoid offering too much detail in your introduction that a reader could better understand later in the paper.
  • picture_as_pdf Introductions

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harvard essay questions

How to Write the Harvard Supplemental Essays 2023-2024

August 24, 2023

harvard essay questions

Harvard University is undeniably recognized as one of the most prestigious academic institutions. With a mere 3.2% acceptance rate, securing an acceptance letter requires facing fierce competition. Therefore, it is essential to utilize the Harvard supplemental essays 2023-2024 effectively because these essays can be your ticket to impressing the admissions officers and securing a spot at this elite institution.

To guide you through the prompts for this year, I have outlined each question and elaborated on the approaches you should take, along with my recommended strategies and tips. This guide will help maximize the potential of your Harvard supplemental essays 2023-2024 and increase your chances of a successful application.

Harvard Supplemental Essays 2023-2024: Required Short Answers

1. 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 (min: 10 / max: 200).

This is one of the most open-ended prompts among the Harvard supplemental essays.  There can be many different parts of your identity to choose from—your cultural background, your gender identity or sexual orientation, your socioeconomic class, or even an activity that you participate in that is unusual. Whether it’s learning languages or playing a little-known instrument, your essay should focus on one or two things that make you different so that you can dedicate more words to each of these qualities. 

Remember, don’t repeat anything you’ve already mentioned in your personal statement. Each component of your application is meant to add an extra layer to your profile. Tell admissions officers about an aspect(s) of your identity that you find valuable and can add to the diversity of the Harvard campus. Do you feel like you’re a part of a bigger community? How has your perspective been shaped by these components of yourself? Have you faced any challenges because of them?

2. Briefly describe an intellectual experience that was important to you. (Min: 10 / Max: 200)

Think about the many different books that you’ve enjoyed, courses that you’d take again, or discussions that you’ve participated in that you always play over in your head. Which of these have been the most meaningful and of course, why? Guide the reader through your journey of discovery of the material, any anecdotes associated with the impact it has had on you, or how it might have influenced what you’re passionate about. Name the experience, but mainly dedicate your essay to the “why.”

On another note, the topic doesn’t have to relate directly to your primary academic interest and can instead show that you are multifaceted. If there’s a deeper connection between your interests, that would also be interesting to write about here. Avoid common answers—dedicating your Harvard supplemental essays to common books like A Brief History of Time or the topic of Einstein’s theory will not help you stand out. When writing this essay, think about whether admissions officers will be convinced why the paper or book means more to you than any other.

3. Briefly describe any of your extracurricular activities, employment experience, travel, or family responsibilities that have shaped who you are. (Min: 10 / Max: 200)

This  prompt is the perfect opportunity for you to explore how you’ve chosen to interact with different communities around you. Carefully think about whether you want to write about the “travel,” “living” or “working” aspect. Or, you could have done all three during a study abroad experience that fits right into the theme as well. 

However, be very careful if you want to write about a community service experience or service trip abroad. This is an activity many students participate in, and will not reflect very uniquely on your part. In fact, it could actually end up seeming more like a display of your privilege if your essay solely talks about how you might have helped people in a third-world country. Instead, focus either on your own community, or a work experience that might have been more humbling. If you had an experience that helped solidify your interest in a culture or selecting your college major, that could also be a good angle.

Regardless of your topic, make sure you connect the experience back to yourself. How did the activity shape you? How has the event influenced your perspective? Are there lessons or values it taught you that you’ll carry with you throughout college?

Additionally, Harvard admissions want to know whether you’ve fully taken advantage of your extracurricular opportunities. They want to gauge how you might contribute to the Harvard community, so it would also be wise to choose an activity that you’re genuinely passionate about and can see yourself continuing after high school. Write about an activity that you haven’t mentioned in your personal statement, preferably one where you’ve demonstrated leadership and can highlight tangible achievements and quantitative progress. Talk about why the activity appeals to you, what it has taught you or if it has inspired growth in you in some way. Since you don’t have a lot of space, make sure to use your words carefully and elaborate on how your commitments have shaped who you are today.

4. How do you hope to use your Harvard education in the future? (Min: 10 / Max: 200)

This is another prompt where you can insert your knowledge of Harvard University. Connect your answer to a certain major or course that can prepare you to take on greater challenges. Think about your academic passions, where you ideally see yourself in ten years, and how specific Harvard concentrations such as “Folklore and Mythology” or “Developmental and Regenerative Biology” can help you reach those levels. 

Clichéd answers to avoid would be issues that are widely talked about such as finding the cure to cancer or ridding the world of poverty. While these are definitely worth the concern, you must think about issues on a more attainable scale that you hope to address in the near future. How can you use your Harvard education to make a significant impact? Your answer can be used to depict your dedication to your community, how you operate as a leader, and how you can take advantage of the resources and facilities of the prestigious Cambridge institution.

Remember, this question strictly asks about how you plan on using your Harvard education, so keep your focus narrowed. In order to impress the admissions officers, your strategy should lie in outlining a strong connection between your intended academic and extracurricular endeavors in college with the role they can play in your goals in the future.

5. Top 3 things your roommates might like to know about you. (Min: 10 / Max: 200)

Even though you could take a more straightforward “I would like my roommate to know XYZ” approach with this essay, it might be better if you frame your response in the form of a letter to your future roommate. Even though they actually won’t be reading it, this could be a more creative way of letting Harvard admissions officers know facts about yourself that don’t come up anywhere else in your application. 

Think about the impression you want to make on the reader. You might want to come across as someone who would be an accommodating roommate. Or you might want them to learn more about your goals, or how you spend your free time. Use your essay accordingly to talk about your hobbies, living habits, and plans for both your freshman year of college and life in general. Since there is no direct “Why Harvard” essay, you could also include what you’re most excited about the opportunity to attend the university. You could talk about a course you can’t wait to take or a club you’re planning to join to show that you’re aware of the unique opportunities Harvard offers. 

This prompt is a chance for you to show admissions officers how you function in your everyday life, so it could be one of the safer options to pick if you’re afraid that writing about bigger issues could put you in more of a controversial spot.

Further Tips for Writing the Harvard Supplemental Essays 2023-2024

  • Be as specific as possible - Not only are the Harvard supplemental essays 2023-2024  quite open-ended, there’s no strict word limit enforced either. It can be very easy for you to want to fit in as much information as you can in order to maximize your chances of admission. However, admissions officers don’t want to know every single thing about you. They’ve only got a limited amount of time to look through your essays so make sure your responses cover only what is necessary and keep the focus on yourself and how you would benefit from a Harvard education. This is not a place where you want to go off on tangents. Avoid general statements and stick to characteristics and experiences that make you unique.
  • Demonstrate the characteristics that Harvard is looking for - Harvard looks for students who demonstrate “maturity, character, leadership, self-confidence, sense of humor, energy, concern for others, and grace under pressure.” When choosing a topic, think about how you can bring these qualities forward in your essays. During your brainstorming process, ask yourself whether your topic depicts you as a mature individual, whether you’ve shown that you work well under pressure, and if there are any places you can sprinkle your sense of humor in without it sounding forced. Since a lot of students who apply to Harvard have strong numbers and extracurriculars, you need to further establish yourself as the perfect fit for the school when writing your supplemental essays.
  • Your choice of topic could make a difference - Let’s face it—you have no shortage of options when it comes to picking your topic for t he Harvard supplemental essays 2023-2024 . If you have a vague idea about what to answer for how you would use your gap year but feel much more comfortable talking about the books you’ve read in the past year, you should obviously choose the latter topic. If you feel like the essay you’ve written fits a prompt differently than the one you initially tackled, go ahead and select that prompt on the Common App. Don’t forget to adjust accordingly to specific requirements asked by the new question!

The reality is: it can be difficult to stand out among over 42,000 applicants. But if you avoid common answers in your Harvard supplemental essays 2023-2024 and show admissions officers that you possess the values that Harvard looks for, you’ll set yourself up for a chance at admission.

At InGenius Prep, we take pride in our record of helping students triple their chances of being accepted into a top 10 school. If you're seeking expert advice on how to effectively strategize your supplemental essays, sign up for a free consultation today with one of our college admissions experts.

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Students studying in Widener Library

A blank computer screen. That was what the summer before my senior year looked like.

Screenshot of blank Microsoft Word document with the title "Common Application Essay, August 2013"

A pretty familiar sight my senior summer...

The Common Application opened August 1, and in my summer schedule I’d left myself a whole four weeks to sit down and figure out what I was going to send to colleges.

Or so I thought. The reality of that August--beach trips, field hockey pre-season, and just generally anything I could do to avoid sitting in front of a blank computer screen with a document titled “Common Application Essay”--was a little different from the four weeks of writing, revising, and finishing my college essays that I’d planned out in May.

The college essay (officially your “personal statement,” at least at Harvard) was the most intimidating part of my application process--because, by the beginning of my senior year, it was the only thing I had any real control over. Think about it this way: by the time you hit the summer before you apply to college, most of your application is already complete. You probably have a pretty good idea of what your scores are going to look like, the majority of you high school grades have already been entered into your transcript, your recommending teachers already know you (I hope…), and you’ve already gotten involved in whatever school activities you’ve filled your last three years in high school with.

I thought of the Common App essay as my chance to have a voice in the committee room when [fill in college-of-choice here]’s admissions officers sat down to decide my fate--and that made a blank Word document utterly terrifying. I mean, what do you say to convince someone to let you into Harvard?

This week, I’ve been asked 14 (I counted…) questions about the essay component of the Harvard application, and most of them have started with the unassuming, “What did you write your application essay on?”

If you really want to know, after hours of debate over whether or not writing about my failures was really a good way to attempt to get into college, I picked the Common App essay prompt, “Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure,” and wrote about the two years in high school I spent generally making a mess of my time in a  Navy JROTC program--complete with exactly five terrible nautical puns.

But, if you ask me, I think you’re asking the wrong question.

The whole point of your application essay--and the reason Harvard calls it your “personal statement” instead--is that it’s personal. I wouldn’t recommend including my nautical puns in your writing to Harvard for a lot of reasons, but the most important is that they’re a part of my story, not yours.

I’m sitting in an office with four other students right now, and (after a brief poll) it turns out we wrote about everything from writer’s block to being a pastor’s kid to the U.S. Navy. So the answer to the all-important question, “What do you say to convince someone to let you into Harvard?” is that you talk about you .

You spend all day with yourself, but your admissions officers meet you for the first time the day they pick up your application. They meet you through your transcript and teacher recommendations and extracurricular resume, but mostly they meet you--the parts of you that don’t revolve around a list of leadership positions or your stellar (or not-so-stellar, in my case) math grades or how helpful you were in English class that one time--in what you write to them.

So write about you: what matters to you, how you spend your time, what makes you tick and keeps you up at night. Don’t try to write what you think Harvard wants to hear, whether that’s an essay about a love of mathematical theorems you don’t really have or your “life-changing” experience helping poor orphans in Indonesia that wasn’t really that life-changing at all. If you’re reading (or writing) your essay and it feels like you’re describing someone else, there’s a big problem.

So write about your grandmother. Or your gym teacher. Or your after-school job bagging groceries. Or math theorems, if they really are your favorite. Write in your voice, whatever that sounds like--whether you love dialogue or description or have a soft spot for terrible Navy puns. Come up with something that’s uniquely you--no matter how long it takes. I spent the first 27 days of those four August weeks trying to wrap my head around how I was even going to put an essay on that blank page at which I was staring. And on the 28th day, in a corner on the floor of my high school’s senior homeroom right before my last first day of school, something clicked, I grabbed my laptop, and I went from lamenting having nothing to say in my college essay to having 2,500 words of stuff to say that I spent the next eight weeks cutting down to 650.

Picture of messy lockers and hallway

My preferred essay-writing spot.

Colleges aren’t asking for your whole life story (please…) or a piece of art in which you expound upon your love of all things Harvard; they’re asking for a little more information about you, and you’re the one who gets to decide what you tell them. It’s a daunting task, but no one is better prepared to write about your life than you are.

No one’s college process is all smooth sailing, and that’s because figuring out what you’re all about and then trying to tell someone else about it is hard. As stupid as it can feel sometimes to write answers to canned prompts like, “Write about a person who has had an impact on you” and “Tell your story,” eventually you just have to conquer the blank page, test the waters, and come up with something--even if you end up throwing 2,499 of your initial 2,500 words overboard. 

After all, I used nautical puns in my college essay (and in this blog post...) and got in. How much crazier could a Harvard application essay get?!

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Why Some Companies Grow Amid Uncertainty — and Others Don’t

  • Simon Freakley
  • David Garfield

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A survey of 3,000 global executives suggests that it’s not strategic thinking that sets them apart. It’s their inclination to move quickly.

When you cannot base strategy on reasonably certain premises — or when those reasonable premises are undone by unforeseeable events — what is a company to do? You still have to make plans, allocate capital, and invest for the future. Some argue that agility is the key to thriving in disruptive times, but if all you do is pivot, you are just going around in circles. The annual AlixPartners Disruption Index surveys 3,000 global executives about what is knocking them sideways. Among other things, it shows that three out of five say that it is increasingly challenging to know which disruptive forces to prioritize. Amid all this, there is a group of companies doing very well: about one in five said their companies lead their industry in revenue growth. In this article, the authors dig into that 2024 data to find out what sets these companies apart, and what other companies can learn from them about setting growth strategy in an uncertain world.

Strategic planning plays a key role in helping companies anticipate and manage business cycles. But forces like emerging digital technologies, climate change, and deglobalization — not to mention “black swan” events like the Covid-19 pandemic and wars — have turned a rolling sea into a choppy one, where companies are beset by currents, crosscurrents, riptides, and squalls. This multiplicity of related, unrelated, and inter-related difficulties have one thing in common: They are unpredictable.

  • SF Simon Freakley is the Chief Executive Officer of AlixPartners, a post he has held since 2015. He is based in New York.
  • David Garfield is a Chicago-based partner and managing director of AlixPartners, and the global leader for the firm’s industry practices.

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Amna Khalid says institutions need to rethink DEI initiatives.

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Pushing back on DEI ‘orthodoxy’

Panelists support diversity efforts but worry that current model is too narrow, denying institutions the benefit of other voices, ideas

Nikki Rojas

Harvard Staff Writer

It’s time to take a harder look at the role of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in higher education.

That was the overall theme of a searing panel discussion at Smith Campus Center on Thursday. Titled “Academic Freedom, DEI, & the Future of Higher Education,” the event featured scholars specializing in law, history, politics, and diversity.

“The power of diversity for learning is irreplaceable,” said panelist Amna Khalid, associate professor of history at Carleton College in Minnesota. “It is incredible, and it is a value that I strongly believe in as someone who is the product of various educational systems.”

However, Khalid shared that she often finds herself at odds with the approach DEI practitioners take in higher education — an approach she termed “DEI Inc.”

Khalid wrote an opinion piece with Carlton colleague Jeffrey Aaron Snyder last year for the Chronicle of Higher Education. The essay, titled “ Yes, DEI Can Erode Academic Freedom. Let’s Not Pretend Otherwise ,” argues that under the logic of the prevailing DEI model, “Education is a product, students are consumers, and campus diversity is a customer-service issue that needs to be administered from the top down.”

All too often, Khalid said at the event, practitioners implement a “model underscored by a notion of harm and that students somehow need to be protected from harm.”

Jeannie Suk Gersen, John H. Watson, Jr. Professor of Law at Harvard Law School, agreed with that assessment and said that people who object to DEI do not often equate it to the idea of diversity.

“It’s, in fact, a set of ideas that have become very narrowed to one specific orthodoxy about what diversity means, what equity and inclusion mean, so that it shuts out a whole bunch of other ideas about what diversity, equity, and inclusion may be,” Suk Gersen said.

The lone voice to advocate for a professionalized and accountable DEI workforce was Stacy Hawkins, a Rutgers University law professor and scholar of DEI.

“Perhaps it’s simply just the introduction of diversity into our institutions that’s going to create discomfort — that’s going to make it harder to have the same conversations, to do the same things, to say and behave in the same ways that we used to,” said Hawkins, who underscored the challenge of welcoming diverse students without diverse faculty. “But that doesn’t mean that it’s not a worthwhile exercise to try.”

Panelists also fielded questions on academic freedom and free speech, and whether DEI infringes on those rights.

DEI is “almost always wrong in the sense that it subverts classical liberal principles of the academic mission of open inquiry, truth seeking, knowledge creation, research, and debating ideas,” responded panelist Ilya Shapiro, senior fellow and director of constitutional studies at the Manhattan Institute.

He went on to quote Hanna Holborn Gray, former president of the University of Chicago, who once said: “Education should not be intended to make people comfortable; it is meant to make them think.”

Shapiro proved the only panelist to argue for the total elimination of university DEI offices without replacing them with other structures designed to achieve diversity goals. Instead, he said that student affairs, compliance officers, and admissions should assume any responsibilities related to diversity.

Last week’s discussion was sponsored by the Faculty of Arts and Sciences’ Civil Discourse Initiative , the Harvard College Intellectual Vitality Initiative , and the Edmond & Lily Safra Center for Ethics .

Also discussed were social media and the distorted views it surfaces on DEI.

Hawkins noted that DEI takes a real beating on the platforms, all while cancel culture is the true driver behind most modern outrage. “There is this heightened sense of awareness,” she said. “There’s this heightened sense of accountability. There is this heightened sense of threat. And this heightened sense of punitive action, all surrounding a larger cultural phenomenon that has nothing to do with diversity, equity, and inclusion.”

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COMMENTS

  1. Harvard University's 2023-24 Essay Prompts

    Extracurricular Short Response. Required. 200 Words. Briefly describe any of your extracurricular activities, employment experience, travel, or family responsibilities that have shaped who you are. Read our essay guide to get started. Submit your essay for free peer review to refine and perfect it. Submit or review an essay.

  2. How To Ace Harvard's '23/24 Supplemental Essay Prompts

    For the 2023/24 application cycle, Harvard University has outlined specific supplemental essay prompts to understand applicants better in addition to the Common App or Coalition App questions. These questions delve into your experiences, intellectual pursuits, and personal insights. Students are required to answer each Harvard-specific question ...

  3. How to Write the Harvard University Essays 2023-2024

    First, identify one or two goals you have for the future—with just 200 words, you won't have space to elaborate on any more than that. Ideally, these should be relatively concrete. You don't have to have your whole life mapped out, but you do need to be a lot more specific than "Make a difference in the world.".

  4. Harvard University 2023-24 Supplemental Essay Prompt Guide

    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 ...

  5. Application Requirements

    Complete the Harvard Questions with the Common Application or Coalition Application, Powered by Scoir*. This includes the following five required short-answer questions, each with a 200 word limit. ... Subject Tests and the essay portion of the SAT have been terminated, except in certain special circumstances. Harvard admission officers review ...

  6. Application Tips

    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. ... Each question has a 200 word limit. Harvard has long recognized the importance of enrolling a diverse student body. How will the life experiences that shape who you are ...

  7. Harvard Supplemental Essays 2023-24

    He is a co-author of the books The Enlightened College Applicant (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016) and Colleges Worth Your Money (Rowman & Littlefield, 2020). We present the Harvard supplemental essays in 2023-24. The College Transitions team reviews the prompts and offers advice to applicants.

  8. Harvard University Essay Prompts

    Over the last few admissions cycles, in addition to The Common Application essay (s), Harvard asked applicants one long essay prompt, a short prompt, and a list. This year, the long prompt and list are gone. In their place are five — that's right — five 200-word essays. The essay questions are new as well. It's as though Harvard did a ...

  9. First-Year Applicants

    This includes subsets of questions, an activities list, and a personal essay (Common Application prompts, Coalition Application prompts) Harvard College Questions for the Common Application or Coalition Application Harvard supplement. There are five required short-answer questions with 200 word limits for each; $85 fee (or request a fee waiver)

  10. Harvard University Supplemental Essays Guide: 2021-2022

    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! This 2021-2022 essay guide for Harvard University was written by Abbie Sage, Harvard '21.

  11. How to Respond to the 2023/2024 Harvard Supplemental Essay Prompts

    All Harvard University applicants are required to respond to five 200 word supplemental Harvard essay questions. All of the Harvard supplemental essay questions have a 200 word limit. Remember, 200 words is not a lot of words to express yourself. Therefore, you will need to be short, sweet, and direct with your answers. The goal is to share ...

  12. How to Write the Perfect Harvard Essay: 3 Expert Tips

    A Real Harvard Essay Example. Our resident full SAT/ACT scorer and co-founder of PrepScholar, Allen Cheng, applied to, got into, and attended Harvard—and he's posted his own Harvard supplement essay for you to look at. You can read all about Allen's essay in his analysis of his successful Harvard application.. Allen describes his essay as "probably neutral to [his Harvard] application, not a ...

  13. How to Write the Harvard Supplemental Essay

    How to Write Harvard Supplemental Essay #2. Briefly describe an intellectual experience that was important to you. (10-200 words) For this short essay prompt, you'll aim to share a brief story that highlights your intellectual curiosity, growth, and maybe even a profound realization.

  14. How To Write Harvard's Additional Essay

    Harvard's third essay prompt reads: 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:

  15. How to Answer the Harvard Supplemental Essay Prompts (2023-2024)

    Bonus Material: PrepMaven's 50+ Real Supplemental Essays for Ivy+ Schools. Last year, Harvard admitted just 3.2% of applicants, meaning that if you want a shot at an admission for the 2023-2024 cycle, your application has to be just about perfect. One element of the Harvard application that many students struggle with is the Harvard writing ...

  16. Harvard Supplemental Essays

    The Harvard application essay questions are different this year. Be sure to check Harvard's website for the most up to date Harvard application requirements. This year, there are 5 Harvard supplemental essays. Each essay has a word limit of 200 words. When writing your essays: Be specific. Be true to yourself.

  17. Harvard University Essay Examples (And Why They Worked)

    Why this Harvard essay worked: From an ex-admissions officer. When responding to short essays or supplements, it can be difficult to know which info to include or omit. In this essay, the writer wastes no time and immediately captivates the reader. Not only are the descriptions vivid and compelling, but the second portion highlights what the ...

  18. Asking Analytical Questions

    A strong analytical question. speaks to a genuine dilemma presented by your sources. In other words, the question focuses on a real confusion, problem, ambiguity, or gray area, about which readers will conceivably have different reactions, opinions, or ideas. yields an answer that is not obvious. If you ask, "What did this author say about this ...

  19. Strategies for Essay Writing

    Tips for Reading an Assignment Prompt. Asking Analytical Questions. Thesis. Introductions. What Do Introductions Across the Disciplines Have in Common? Anatomy of a Body Paragraph. Transitions. Tips for Organizing Your Essay. Counterargument.

  20. 10 Successful Harvard Application Essays

    Successful Harvard Essay. When I was a child, I begged my parents for my very own Brother PT-1400 P-Touch Handheld Label Maker to fulfill all of my labeling needs. Other kids had Nintendos and ...

  21. Introductions

    In general, your introductions should contain the following elements: Orienting Information. When you're writing an essay, it's helpful to think about what your reader needs to know in order to follow your argument. Your introduction should include enough information so that readers can understand the context for your thesis.

  22. How to Write the Harvard Supplemental Essays 2023-2024

    Avoid common answers—dedicating your Harvard supplemental essays to common books like A Brief History of Time or the topic of Einstein's theory will not help you stand out. When writing this essay, think about whether admissions officers will be convinced why the paper or book means more to you than any other. 3.

  23. Commonly Asked Questions: College Essays?!

    The college essay (officially your "personal statement," at least at Harvard) was the most intimidating part of my application process--because, by the beginning of my senior year, it was the only thing I had any real control over. Think about it this way: by the time you hit the summer before you apply to college, most of your application ...

  24. Why Some Companies Grow Amid Uncertainty

    In this article, the authors dig into that 2024 data to find out what sets these companies apart, and what other companies can learn from them about setting growth strategy in an uncertain world ...

  25. Pushing back on DEI 'orthodoxy'

    It's time to take a harder look at the role of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in higher education. That was the overall theme of a searing panel discussion at Smith Campus Center on Thursday. Titled "Academic Freedom, DEI, & the Future of Higher Education," the event featured scholars specializing in law, history, politics, and diversity.