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How to Respond to the 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 5%, 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 two 150 word supplemental Harvard essay questions. In addition, applicants have the opportunity to complete an optional essay of personal choice or one chosen from a list of prompts. 

The first two Harvard supplemental essay questions have a 150 word limit. Remember, 150 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. 

The optional essay does not have an explicit word count. Therefore, write until your point is made! You do not want to make your response too short or too long–most people do not want to read a 10-page essay!

Essay question #1 

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

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.

Some 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? 

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. 

Essay question #2

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

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.

Remember, this prompt is specifically asking applicants to list activities that have not been detailed elsewhere in their application. So make sure not to repeat yourself. It may be helpful to write an outline of what activities you will use for what Harvard supplemental essay prompt. 

Optional essay #3

Consider including 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: (2000 word max) 

1. Unusual circumstances in your life

2. Travel, living, or working experiences in your own or other communities

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

4. An intellectual experience (course, project, book, discussion, paper, poetry, or research topic in engineering, mathematics, science or other modes of inquiry) that has meant the most to you

5. How you hope to use your college education

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

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

8. The mission of Harvard College is to educate our students to be citizens and citizen-leaders for society. What would you do to contribute to the lives of your classmates in advancing this mission?

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

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

Although this essay response is optional, you should always respond to an optional essay question for a college application. If offered the opportunity to reveal new personality traits and information about yourself you should jump on it! 

There is a long list of potential prompts and freedom with this prompt. Therefore, take some time to brainstorm and figure out what you have not mentioned on your application yet. 

In your response, allow your personality to stand out on the page! Again, this is your chance to mention something that was not included in your application thus far. Be authentic!

For International students

What specific plan do you have, if any, for using the education you hope to receive? (0-50 words) 

With only 50 words to work with, your response needs to be concise.  Harvard wants to know why you chose Harvard above all schools in the world.  You should describe what your intended major will be and how you will use this degree to reach your future goals. Try to be as specific to Harvard as possible by naming particular programs, professors, or clubs that Harvard offers that other schools do not. 

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 demonstrated interest in Harvard so they know you are committed and prioritizing their school. 

This can be done by:

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 free scholarship search tool to help fund your education!