Harvard University, the nation’s oldest college, is recognized worldwide as one of the most prestigious institutions of higher learning, with centuries of history and an extensive alumni network ranging from Conan O’Brien to Sheryl Sandberg and beyond. With faculty who are leading experts in their fields and a diverse and motivated student body, Harvard is the worthy dream school of many college applicants.
Admissions officers at Harvard receive tens of thousands of applications each year, and the College boasted a record low acceptance rate of 3.41% for the 2022-2023 admissions cycle. Many applicants display academic excellence and extracurricular involvement across the board, so the supplemental essays provide applicants with a valuable opportunity to stand out among their peers.
Approaching these essays can seem like a daunting task, but with a methodical approach and careful execution, they can elevate an application to the next level. In this article, we will provide you with a number of strategies and tips for how to write the Harvard supplemental essays.
In addition to your Common or Coalition Application essay, Harvard College has five supplemental essay prompts, all short responses of 200 words. Unlike previous years, all five supplemental essays are required. Don’t let this intimidate you! More essays mean more opportunities to tell admissions officials about yourself, and the short word limits won’t stack up to too much writing overall. On the flipside, you’ll need to be prepared to make good use of those short word limits—so get ready to brainstorm and plan out each response carefully!
As with any application, remember to think of your supplemental essays and your Common or Coalition Application materials as a portfolio designed to represent you as wholly as possible. In practice, this means using each of your essays to their fullest advantage by discussing different aspects of yourself in each one. It is important to avoid redundancy in your essays and in your application overall. Instead, think of each essay as a new opportunity to present a unique side of yourself!
Also, as you compose these essays, be true to yourself. If the prompt asks for a discussion of an activity or experience that was important to you, then really dig into the effects it had on your goals, your mindset, your everyday life. If you decide to respond with a description of something that brings you joy, choose a topic that truly inspires you, instead of trying to conform to what you believe the admissions officers want to see. Genuine and honest writing is compelling, and, on the flip side, forced or unenthusiastic writing appears as just that. Allow yourself to come shining through in your words!
And with that, let’s get into a more detailed look at each prompt.
Harvard’s 2023-2024 Prompts
Short Response (200 words)
- 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?
- Briefly describe an intellectual experience that was important to you.
- Briefly describe any of your extracurricular activities, employment experience, travel, or family responsibilities that have shaped who you are.
- How do you hope to use your Harvard education in the future?
- Top 3 things your roommates might like to know about you.
Harvard’s Short Responses
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 gives you an opportunity to discuss something important about your background outside your school experiences. Admissions officials are specifically looking for unique perspectives that you’re willing to bring to the table as a prospective student. As you brainstorm your response, try writing out a list of words that describe you—whether your identity, your aspirations, or your place in your community. Do any of these descriptors point to important experiences that shape who you are? If so, think about why they shaped you, and how you would use those life-shaping qualities to impact the Harvard community.
Some examples of experiences that might make a good response to this prompt follow here:
- You’re an older sibling who looked after the baby in the family, fortifying your compassion and work ethic
- You’re an aspiring musician who learned teamwork and conflict-solving after joining a band
- You were the only girl on your school’s math team, inspiring you to encourage others
Once you know which experience to write about, don’t forget to answer the second part of the prompt: how will these experiences help you contribute to Harvard’s community? If you’re the older sibling we mentioned above, maybe you’ll use that compassion and work ethic to organize study groups in each of your classes. Maybe you’ll use the teamwork and conflict-solving you learned from your band to mediate disagreements that come up in intellectual conversations—or maybe you’re looking to draw on your math team experiences by mentoring through Harvard’s Women in STEM Mentorship program.
Whatever you choose, keep your short word limit in mind. Consider jumping straight into an anecdote that explains your experiences so you can answer the second part of the prompt in your essay’s back half. On the line level, don’t forget to use colons, semicolons, and em dashes to connect sentences as concisely as possible.
Briefly describe an intellectual experience that was important to you. (200 words)
This second short-answer response is a modification on last year’s Prompt 1, which asked applicants to describe an intellectual activity beyond their listed extracurriculars. While this prompt is more open-ended, the spirit behind the question still applies. Try to discuss an experience outside the extracurriculars you’ve already listed, or, if you can’t think of one, go into anecdotal depth on an activity elsewhere in your application. Above all, admissions officials want to see how you grow intellectually, carry an open mind, and seek out challenges in your academic life.
Specificity is vital for this short response. If you stay vague—by, for example, stating that you learned conversation skills through your internship in a newsroom—your reader won’t learn anything new that they couldn’t have gleaned from your extracurricular list. Pick an anecdote, and try to put your reader in your shoes. Going with the example above, you might launch into your essay by describing the question you prepared for your first journalistic interview, only for your interviewee to blow your mind with an answer you didn’t expect. By the end of your essay, admissions officials should understand why this experience was so important to you, and know a little more about your personality to boot.
Cast your net wide when considering responses to this prompt, and don’t confine yourself to the classroom. Anything that changed your perspective, challenged your thinking, or deepened your understanding of a topic might qualify as a valid answer here.
Briefly describe any of your extracurricular activities, employment experience, travel, or family responsibilities that have shaped who you are. (200 words)
Like Prompt 2, this prompt strongly resembles Harvard’s extracurricular question from last year—but this time, you have a wider scope to work with. Again, you’re free to go into detail on an activity you’ve already listed elsewhere. And again, we recommend instead picking an experience you haven’t already described, because this gives you more opportunities to show off your strengths and well-roundedness.
Use the categories the prompt lists as a jumping-off point to decide on your essay topic. Are there any extracurricular experiences you didn’t list with your other activities? Where have you worked, and how did your work affect you? Have you traveled anywhere that changed your perspective? Is your role in your family an essential part of who you are?
Again, be as specific as you can. For example:
- Instead of stating how passionate you were about writing your fiction book, explain how facing your fifth rejection email taught you to persevere until you landed the publication
- Instead of saying your retail job taught you to keep a level head in a fast-paced environment, describe how defusing a conflict with an angry customer opened your eyes to new conflict-resolution strategies
- Instead of expressing that you loved your trip to Los Angeles, go into detail about your visit to the California Science Museum’s space exhibits
- Instead of saying that your family’s business gave you a unique work ethic, explain how learning a difficult secret recipe from the family restaurant gave you a sense of pride in your background
Pay attention to the prompt’s wording—this shouldn’t be a superficial experience, but something that shaped who you are. Think carefully about the anecdote you choose to avoid coming across as shallow or generic.
How do you hope to use your Harvard education in the future? (200 words)
With this prompt, we’re switching gears from your past experiences into the future. Here, admissions officials want to know what drives you. What are your aspirations, and why do you think a Harvard education in particular would best suit your vision? What impact will you have on your community after you graduate? Try to give a sense of your long-term plans, and don’t just blandly describe your intended career field. If you plan to go into data science, for example, explain how you hope to improve the process of peer review by analyzing its availability in past research.
Consider two aspects to your response: how you envision your Harvard education, and how you plan to use it. Connect your intended major—and minors—to your aspirations post-graduation. If you’re dead-set on any specific student organizations or programs, consider focusing on those only if they’re essential to your plans. Remember, you’ve only got 200 words to describe your entire future!
You might also still be undecided about your post-graduation plans, or even your intended major. Be honest about this. Many students switch majors or career choices halfway through college, but even so, you still have a reason you want to go to Harvard. Maybe you know you want to help your community through some kind of leadership role, and you want to decide between a couple of majors provided at Harvard to determine what that leadership role will be. Whatever your reason is, you wouldn’t be applying if you didn’t have one—so think deeply about that reason, and express it genuinely through your essay!
Top 3 things your roommates might like to know about you. (200 words)
This last prompt is a classic “roommate” college essay prompt—it’s a chance to adopt a more casual voice, and show admissions officials a side of yourself they haven’t gotten with your other responses. Consider describing things like your hobbies, music taste, decoration sensibilities, or interesting facts about your living habits. Maybe it’s not your first time living in a dorm, or maybe you’re used to sharing your room with a sibling.
Whatever you choose, try to list three things that give some insight into who you are as a person, and give the list some variety. Instead of listing three hobbies, you might mention one hobby, one tidbit about your background that will play into your living habits, and one hope you have for activities you can do with your future roommate.
You might also consider playing around with your essay’s format to make it stand out. While 200 words is a bit long for a simple bullet-point format, you can still separate your essay out into numbered items—or maybe you’d like to try out a letter format addressed directly to your roommate. If a format along these lines helps you get into the casual headspace the prompt is asking for, then go for it!
If you need help polishing up your Harvard supplemental essays, check out our College Essay Review service. You can receive detailed feedback from Ivy League consultants in as little as 24 hours.