Harvard University Supplemental Essay Tips

2020 – 2021 Harvard University Application Essay Tips

At Opus College Prep, we know that strong supplemental essays are the key to a competitive application. In this post, we will be sharing our best tips for student’s applying to Harvard University for the class of 2025. If you are interested in working with a college admissions expert on your responses to these prompts, schedule a free consultation with us here. We look forward to helping you stand out!

The Harvard application offers students the opportunity to respond to optional prompts. In most cases, students do choose to complete this section of the application. As this is a unique aspect of the Harvard application, our guidance will be focused on these optional prompts.

From the Harvard admissions website: “While academic accomplishment is important, the Admissions Committee considers many other factors—strong personal qualities, special talents or excellences of all kinds, perspectives formed by unusual personal circumstances, and the ability to take advantage of available resources and opportunities.”

Harvard University Optional Supplemental Prompt #1

Unusual circumstances in your life.
Many students think that they should explore a hardship when responding to this prompt. And for some, that would be an appropriate response to this prompt. But for most, it won’t be the best use of space. To determine if this is the right prompt for you, first consider if the story you want to tell is actually unusual. Harvard is using that word purposefully, so it is important to explore whether or not your story is actually unusual. If you are considering exploring a hardship here, think about the purpose of the story. Does the story unveil a new aspect of your candidacy? Does the story relate to why the admissions committee would want you as part of the freshman class. We hate giving this advice every year, but if you think you should respond to this prompt with a “sob story,” we urge you to consider another story and another prompt.

Now, if you had an actually unusual life experience that has led to an interest or aspect of your life that you have not discussed yet on your application, this would be a great prompt for you to respond to!

Optional Prompt #2

Travel, living or working experiences in your own or other communities.
This is another prompt that seems to bring up the same advice every year in the application process. Be wary of writing about a 1 or 2 week service trip here. It’s an over-told story in the college admissions world, and in most cases, just won’t strengthen your candidacy.

If you choose to respond to this prompt, you should focus on impact & growth. What impact have you had in your community, and how has it helped you grow? How has your perspective changed? What influence have these experiences had on your outlook/goals in college?

Optional Prompt #3

What would you want your future college roommate to know about you?

You could interpret this prompt as a “why Harvard University?” prompt, and also a place to explore more about your personality and interests if you haven’t discussed them much in other parts of the application. If you view it as a “why Harvard?” prompt, it could be a place to demonstrate your research and interest in Harvard-specific programs and experiences. If you choose to respond to this prompt, you could explore your hobbies and interests, and how you plan to continue them in college. Remember, anything on that topic should be Harvard-specific, so name specific professors, on-campus clubs etc.

In general, this isn’t the most compelling prompt out of the 10 you have to choose from. But, if you haven’t expressed Harvard-specific fit anywhere else on your application, this would be a safe and smart choice for you.

Optional Prompt #4

An intellectual experience (course, project, book, discussion, paper, poetry, or research topic in engineering, mathematics, science or other modes of inquiry) that has meant the most to you.
Harvard leads you to exactly what they’re looking for here with the phrase “has meant the most to you.” They truly are looking to learn more about what excites you, and why. With that phrase, they’re also giving permission to talk about an intellectual experience that may be completely unrelated to your intended major. They want to know what matters to you, so don’t fall down a hole here of writing about what you think they want to read. Most importantly, your essay should be focused on “why” this experience is so meaningful.

Optional Prompt #5

How you hope to use your college education.
Admissions committees admit students with the understanding that they will be alumni some day. They want to know that you have goals for yourself, and that you will represent Harvard well in the world. Now, this doesn’t mean to spend you have to only have grand plans for your college education, but it does mean that you should have some idea of what life for you looks like after Harvard.

If you haven’t yet discussed “why Harvard University?” in your application, this could be a good prompt for you. What does Harvard have specifically that will help you get to where you want to go? How is being a Harvard student imperative to how you plan to use your college education? Using specifics in this prompt is going to be very important, because vague statements about future hopes and dreams won’t hit a home run with admissions committees here.

Optional Prompt #6

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

Don’t read too much into this prompt, as Harvard truly is looking to learn more about what you love to read. Keep in mind, this is not your prompt if the only reading you have done is your required reading for school!

If you do choose to tackle this list of books, use the space to elaborate just a little bit on each of the titles. Harvard doesn’t want to read a book report, but they’d be interested to know your takeaways from the literature you’ve read.

Optional Prompt #7

The Harvard College Honor code declares that we “hold honesty as the foundation of our community.” As you consider entering this community that is committed to honesty, please reflect on a time when you or someone you observed had to make a choice about whether to act with integrity and honesty. 

With nine other great options for this essay, it’s hard for us to find a scenario when this would be our suggested prompt for a student. If not answered carefully, this could lead to some murky waters. This is not to say that integrity and honesty aren’t important, the prompt just leads students to share stories or decision-making that may not be content best suited for a competitive college application.

What not to do with this essay: bring up illegal behavior, recount dangerous activities, tell a tattle-taling or “holier than thou” story. If you do happen to have a great example of making a choice about whether to act with integrity and honesty, we’d suggest focusing on how you or the other person has grown from those experiences. What did you learn? How will you take these experiences with you through college? Has it helped develop stronger personality traits for you? These are important factors to consider if you choose to respond to this prompt.

Optional Prompt #8

The mission of Harvard University 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? 

It’s a no-brainer that every student admitted to Harvard is going to be stellar in their own way. Not everyone is going to walk on campus with the same accomplishments, but everyone will be accomplished. In a sea of compelling students, what will you bring to the table? You likely have already considered this if you are applying to Harvard. Every student will fill a role or bring an imperative perspective to the incoming freshman class, so what will yours be?

To brainstorm your contributions, think about your strengths, passions and accomplishments. While we wouldn’t necessarily recommend bragging about your personal wins here, there are ways to view your strengths in greater context. If you have taught yourself to play 9 instruments, would you consider teaching your roommates or classmates an instrument? If you’ve been fully committed to community involvement, would you start a new club at Harvard focused on your specific interests? Bring in speakers that share your same lens of the world? In the end, the job of the admissions team is to admit a well-rounded freshman class that will go on to be successful alumni. The more you can demonstrate how you will be actively involved in your campus community, the more they will be able to picture you as an integral part of the Harvard University community.

Prompt #9

Each year a substantial number of students admitted to Harvard defer their admission for one year or take time off during college. If you decided in the future to choose either option, what would you like to do? 

If you’re opting to take a gap year, especially with Covid-19 still in play, this would be a great prompt to respond to! Gap Years aren’t for relaxation and trips to the beach, they’re used to pursue something you wouldn’t be able to pursue at Harvard. If you can be specific about programs or experiences you would focus on in your Gap Year, that would make the biggest impact in this essay. Whatever you choose to do, be sure you explain why it is important to you, and what it would help you accomplish as a young adult.

Prompt #10

Harvard has long recognized the importance of student body diversity of all kinds. We welcome you to write about distinctive aspects of your background, personal development or the intellectual interests you might bring to your Harvard classmates. 

Harvard is finishing off the list of 10 optional essay prompts with the most broad option! For many students, you may be able to think of quite a few examples of your background, personal development and intellectual interests that will bring diversity of Harvard. But, steer clear of making this essay sound like a list. We’d encourage you to find two to three important aspects of your identity that you think will truly bring diversity of culture and thought to the Harvard community. And, you guessed it, explain why. What new perspectives will you bring to your Harvard community? How will your experiences help you make the most of a Harvard education? How will your peers benefit from learning alongside you? These are questions to consider as you tackle a response to this prompt!

We hope our insights are helpful as you tackle your application to Harvard for the 2020/2021 application season! If you are interested in personalized feedback on how to tackle these responses, feel free to schedule a consultation or email laura@opuscollegeprep.com. We can’t wait to help!

Interested in getting personalized insight on your Harvard University supplemental essays? Schedule a free consultation with us below!

Subscribe to our newsletter!

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Launching October 26th!

Full Application Review Service!

Have your completed application reviewed by an admission expert before you submit to your dream schools.