How to Write Harvard's Optional Essay


Kate Sliunkova

AdmitYogi, Stanford MBA & MA in Education



5 min read

How to Write Harvard's Optional Essay

Is this Essay Really Optional?

First, it's important to recognize that, although Harvard labels this essay as "optional," this doesn't mean that writing this essay is actually non-compulsory. In fact, if you want to increase your chances of getting into a top school like Harvard, you should take the time to write a thoughtful and well-crafted response to this "optional" essay. It's a great opportunity to showcase your unique interests and talents!

This all leads to a natural follow-up question: what qualifies as an additional intellectual activity?

How to Approach This Essay Topic

Student Writing

While the Common Application's activities section provides a convenient place for you to describe your extracurricular activities, it leaves very little room to describe some of the "softer" impacts of those activities. Indeed, with only 150 characters allotted per activity in the Common Application, your focus is often times on concrete numbers and a tangible impact — you often don't have the ability to tell a story that highlights a positive impact you made through an EC.

That's where this supplemental essay prompt comes into place. Examples of additional intellectual activities include:

  1. Online courses, or even courses that you take during the summer.

  2. A research or academic program that you participated in over the summer.

  3. An event you organized that's meaningful to you.

One potential example of an intellectual activity that you may not mention elsewhere on your college application is participating in a college course that is not run by your high school. This could be an online course, or even a course that you take during the summer. Alternatively, you could list a research or academic program that you participated in over the summer, rather than writing about it in the "additional information" section of your application. Finally, you could describe your experience training for or participating in an intellectual activity such as debate club, Model UN, or science fair. Whatever route you choose, make sure to highlight how your experiences have developed your intellect and furthered your interests in academics.

You only have a limited number of words, so don't try to talk about everything. Instead, focus on a few key points that will highlight your qualities, such as leadership, problem-solving or teamwork. Above all, show action and results. Use persuasive language and numbers to tell a short story of how you motivated your team or community and what outcomes you accomplished. Results can be many things:

  • Winning a debate competition
  • Boosting team enrollment by 70%
  • Organizing a community drive to raise $2000

Examples of Successful Harvard "Optional" Essays

The activity you select should be something of value to you and that exemplifies key parts of your personality. Try to be creative when writing this essay too. Below are two effective examples.

Example 1:

I’m assembling a packet for a new baby when a woman in labor is pushed in on a wheelchair. “Oh god,” the charge nurse mumbles. All the delivery rooms are occupied.

“We have to put her in the triage room,” she announces to the doctor. While I run to get the door for a visitor, another nurse hurriedly hands me a lab sample to deliver as she rushes to her next patient. Smiling, I walk down the hall with plastic bag in hand. I like the stress on busy days like this as much as I enjoy the relaxed days where nurses can finally sit down. The physical and mental strength of a labor and delivery nurse will always be something I respect after working as a family birth center volunteer at the Methodist Hospital. It would be an honor to work as a doctor alongside these professionals one day.

Example 2:

At my internship, I got my first taste of machine learning. I was initially hesitant about the field’s practicality — considering my Chromebook would take almost 20 minutes to load one Google Doc, teaching a computer to think seemed like a drastic step. However, after training neural networks to detect carcinoma or sarcoma on a meager set of 400 images and generating fake X-rays realistic enough to trick a radiologist, my skepticism has transformed into awe. During each epoch, while considering the inner workings of dense and convolution layers, I often find myself wondering about machine learning’s future ramifications on the world at large. Will it replace humans? To what extent can it be used in humanitarian applications? Maybe the ways in which we see this technology driving the world are a bit too crazy; at the same time, maybe they’re not crazy enough.

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Yale (+6 colleges)

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Yale (+20 colleges)

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